Living with God: It is a bloody business
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:11-22 ESV)
The first successful blood transfusion, I believe, was in 1666 and between dogs and for the next 234 years any transfusion between people had variable results – sometimes health and life but also there was illness and death. The truth is that as much as I might want to save you, my blood could kill you – or a good number of you. If you all needed my blood to get better and you all got some of it and some of you lived and some of you died, then you might conceive of the thought that I liked the ones who lived more than the ones who died or perhaps they had served me better over the years and I was ‘rewarding’ them with life. That’s the world of cause and effect – meaning from data until better data comes along. Of course the whole thing about blood was better understood in 1900 with the discovery of blood groups and blood transfusions became and are very safe for donors and recipients today.
The Blood Services and those who have received blood and blood products know the truth that the life is in the blood – as God told the people of Israel in Leviticus (17:11). In the Old Testament the sacrificial system with all its blood – and very precise instructions regarding its collection, use, and disposal – was build on the words of God about the covenant relationship he established – and kept establishing with his people. Everything came with price – or maybe a consequence – because humanity is in rebellion with God – even those who know and love God, know of the rebellious self still within – and because the holy God still loves his rebellious creation but being close to them – physically close meant their destruction – there needed to be a shield, a force field even, a cleansing, a means by which people can be in the presence of the holy God and live. And so God declared and explained that blood – that life – was the consequence for our wanting to be god and still being in the presence of the true God. We didn’t just damage ourselves with our rebellion but subjected all of creation to the misery of a world in our image. And so blood was very precisely regulated – animal blood to sprinkle (rarely), cleanse, to pour – and never to consume. And by it and the forgiveness it established and maintained the people lived.
But sin is devious, insidious, rebellious, sneaky and slimy and swarmy and there is nothing more horrifying than betrayal, than discovering the wolf in sheep’s clothing is next to us. When laws and punishments are evident, sin goes underground, behind a façade of obedience. We can do it with business, with governments, and we can definitely do this with religions. And so God came into this world himself to do what we couldn’t do – be obedient and live in a covenant relationship with God – we can’t stick to our word even if we meant it at the time. The story of Jesus is the story of God among us. And on the night before his death, he changed things – shocked us – scandalised us – but we at least have a tradition of doing the last thing people say before they die – and so Jesus took bread and wine – and declared them to be himself – his body and blood – and then told us to eat and drink it. Scandalous. And it is for many people today but I wonder whether Jesus didn’t hint or gently tap his heart as if to say ‘how else am I going to get in there?’.
There is simply no scientific cause and effect that can be replicated about Holy Communion that can tell us what is happening that first Passover and at Holy Communion ever since. Yes, in faith we believe that those who commune with unbelief or rebellious hearts refusing to forgive others – the very effect the communicant receives – in other words metaphorically spitting Jesus out – results in judgement, illness and death. And conversely those struggling sinners who receive Jesus at his table, trying so hard some days to follow him and at other times rejoicing in his goodness, are strengthened and healed – even if not instantly. This table is one of the most powerful places on Earth but we just don’t see it. We often don’t know what to look for – we concentrate on the wrong things – and so we need to hear the last will and testament of Jesus and trust his words. Take and eat this is my body. Take and drink this is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. On another occasion Jesus described faith and life in him very graphically … “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:53-56 ESV)
We are not macabre sinister beings – perverse and lost – but those who follow Jesus – the living one – who on this night before he died established a new way for us to know God’s presence and love. We are here because tonight leads to tomorrow and the cross and then Friday leads to Sunday. God has forgiven us because the blood of Jesus is for all sinners – no matter what type we are – and life with him is now one of living in that forgiveness and struggling each day to follow Jesus. But it’s the only way to live!
On the inside on our side
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him. (Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 ESV)
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ because there’s an unavoidable truth in it. Whether it is also an expression of elitism or class stratification or parental aspirations I’ll leave for another time but for now to have an advocate and insider – someone we know personally who can help us – is regarded as one of the best helps with getting through life. What is the best for us is if we know someone ‘on the inside’ – someone who has the skill, product, service we need and who is on ‘our side’ – someone we can rely on and trust.
And that’s the issue – at some point we face it – that we want more than just getting through life – we don’t want it to end. We hate the end coming ‘early’. We philosophically accept its existence if we’ve lived a long and full life but if not, then it is resented – and I think would still be resented if we didn’t age and become infirm. The dystopian future worlds in literature and film where death is mandatory at certain ages is viewed as ‘not for me’ and in fact the story will be about someone ‘breaking the rules’, ‘challenging society’. Our interests in diets, lifestyle choices, even philosophy and psychology have goals of pushing back or deferring death. There are so many options available. If only we had someone ‘on the inside’ and on ‘our side’.
We gather here today because in the person of Jesus, the crucified man, his followers for nearly 2,000 years have been saying ‘We have’.
To the world we are just another hawker of religious wares, proponents of another unsubstantiated theory, and increasingly at the moment in the UK and other similar countries, a target for what is wrong in the
world. Our language is no longer socially acceptable. To talk about sin and death as cause and effect is challenging. To promote the cross – a grisy method of execution – as both the power and wisdom of God is laughable to many.
If Jesus’ followers lived in ways that death bounced off them and were radically healthy, long living, suffering no aging, frailty, or disease then the world might take notice but Christians are not overly represented in any surveys of such topics. We age, bleed, and die it seems like everyone else.
And yet Christianity is still around – and is still growing – because it offers hope for life as it is rather than life as we might want it to be. The followers of Jesus proclaim that they have peace with God – not necessarily an inner peace – it can be turmoil to follow Jesus at times – but a confidence that the relationship with God is secure, that we are loved and cherished as we are (not that God wants us to stay that way depending on what we’re doing to hurt ourselves and others) and that death doesn’t have the final say at all. The world sneers and says that just means that Christians don’t care about it when in truth it means that freed from fear and dread of the future, Christians are now able to care for those around us each day – live life to the full – not trying to grab life for ourselves and using others along the way – but living well and looking to serve others.
This is God’s gift to us because of today. The writer to the Hebrews picks up the role of the priest – the intermediary who represents the people to God and God to the people and in whom sin and God meet. The priest himself is not ‘on the inside’ but he is the authorised representative who doesn’t do his will – or shouldn’t – but rather that of the One who sends him – who also prepares him, dresses him, equips him – think of all the Old Testament rules and regulations regarding the priesthood – and I’m not thinking about all the human additions that were added. Taking this role, the writer to the Hebrews calls Jesus not our ‘priest’ or our ‘high priest’ but our ‘great high priest’ – in other words gives him a status above all priests, above all intermediaries for in him sin and God meet personally.
Jesus’ followers confess him to function in this way as they see him suspended, as it were, between Earth and Heaven, dealing with sin, paying the sacrifice for sin in the mystery of being both priest and Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This confession – this faith in Jesus – is also a gift to people for God doesn’t want us to live in trapped darkness, fear, and death. That is why we’re here – because in Jesus the paradox is that his death is our life.
In the mystery that is Jesus – truly human and truly God – we discover not just a concept – abstract and distant – but a person who knows what being us is all about. Christianity isn’t about esoteric knowledge, ethics, rules or regulations. It isn’t a programme for social change – though that might happen. Christianity is about being known and thus knowing, being loved and thus loving – God and me, me and God. That’s what Christianity offers and proclaims.
But today as we ponder the cross, consider it in detail, and Jesus on it, we hear the message that Jesus knows us – understands weaknesses and the limitations and temptations of the flesh – he was tempted as we are (and we can’t understand how he didn’t sin) but in his human nature, God knows the temptation that comes with the fear of death, the loss of faith. Jesus didn’t just face temptations for 40 days only but each day – one day at a time – with God’s Word and prayer as his support – and so he struggled – daily – not to sin, not to go the glory road, not to use his divine nature for himself and this is nowhere more intensive than in the last 18 hours or so of his life before he died – in the Garden, before the Sanhedrin, before Pilate, before the soldiers, hanging on a cross – the whole way trusting the Father’s will – not calling out for the 12 legions of angels, not using his power to remove the nails or secretly give himself an analgesic.
We are here because Jesus is here – this isn’t the end of the story though we’ll leave the big announcement for Sunday – but we all know it already! The empty grave and the meal the night before he died, testifies to the truth that Jesus is our man ‘on the inside’ and ‘on our side’. The story of Jesus is the story of God among us.
We move through this world going from birth to death – life to death – but with Jesus, it is the reverse – with him, it is death to life – each day. No matter what we go through, what we face, we are no longer trapped for with Jesus we have freedom – to live with him, each day – following him through his Word and applying it
to our situations each day. The days will change. We will change – hopefully grow in wisdom and love and joy and security. Problems don’t vanish. Death still lurks. But really does that matter when you’re with Jesus? Not really – though I don’t wish to be glib about how tough things can be but under the cross we are assured ‘that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. (Romans 8:38,39 ESV)
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Corinthians 15:1-11 ESV)
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!
And with this message the world is irrevocably changed. This is more than just a happy ending. The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not an insurance policy matter ‘I’ve got you covered when you die’ but is a revolution in living, in life, starting with now.
What marked the main difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was the resurrection – the Pharisees believed that there was life in God’s presence again after death while the Sadducees did not and probably had the view that people remained in Sheol, the place of the dead. The Apostle Paul was formerly a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5) and he expected that at the end of time God would bring about life again after death. Martha when her brother Lazraus died believed in the resurrection on the last day but still didn’t want the tomb opened because of the smell. And yet both discovered that with Jesus death no longer has a grip that holds on and can separate us for ever. It was the raising of Lazarus that tipped the authorities into elimination mode to get rid of Jesus. Execution and the fear of death is a good way to control people. What happens if you take that way? Then people are not docile but independent and very hard to control. What changed scared, timid, frightened disciples of a dead religious leader to be standing in the city of his execution 50 days later proclaiming that his death – remember it’s crucifixion with all the scandal that goes with it? – had been raised to life and life with him is possible now before you die? This is the point – the resurrection is not an after death event – in Jesus it is a now event – it changes life now – Jesus changes life forever.
It was the persecuting of Christians that got Saul on the Damascus road. Jesus was crucified and therefore cursed by God. The followers of Jesus were spreading his poison and must be stopped. Only Saul was stopped in his tracks – blinded by the risen Jesus. His Pharisee mind processed the Old Testament he would have known by heart and with a living Jesus in front of him – the resurrection and the life in front of him – he saw through the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms that Jesus is Lord. At his baptism the scales fall from his eyes and his life is irrevocably changed.
In 1 Corinthians 15 we have Paul talking about the resurrection of Jesus in a lot of detail – that death has lost its sting – and that Christians are to be most pitied if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead. He deals with the arguments and tensions of his day and makes it clear that Christianity is nothing without the resurrection. If you poured all the doctrines and teachings of Christianity into a sink then the resurrection is the plug; pull it or destroy it and everything else goes down the drain. And our text makes it clear that what Paul passes on to the Corinthians and to us is the message of the Scriptures – that Christianity is a religion that is transmitted, passed down , passed on – a proclamation, a teaching, a sharing, an introduction. I’d like you to meet Jesus. And now comes the mystery – faith comes through a creed before it is experienced.
Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament – he died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. The New Testament as a fulfilment of the Old Testament, because it centres on Jesus, serves the same purpose. We receive this message about Jesus – dead and alive – from someone – usually our parents if we’ve grown up a Christian – but everyone receives the message from someone and then experiences make sense – answers to prayers, feelings of faith or certainty, even spiritual experiences or visions should they come – they all serve the creed – the confession of faith remains constant when our experiences go up and down. That’s what Jesus’ appearing to Thomas was all about – you didn’t have to see me to believe, you had the message, and you were being stubborn and rebellious.
So when Paul lists Jesus’ appearances what he’s doing is listing those who confirm for the first generation – for the shocked generation – the truth that the words of Scripture are fulfilled – to Peter and the others, to over 500 in the forty days, and then even to Paul himself. Here were the first witnesses – who testified to an empty grave, who wouldn’t shut up, who spoke about Jesus and instead of highlighting their experiences in detail kept returning to Scripture – Jesus is God’s fulfilment of his plan to save us from our sins, to forgive us, to give us life with him – as in the first garden we can walk and talk with God again – and it happens now.
This is the Christian faith. Our eternity is secure. In Jesus the verdict of the final judgement is already known. All the talk of Christian hope and the resurrection might get us to look up and beyond over the horizon for a moment but that’s not really where God wants us to look. No, God wants us to look around us – at the people around us – at the circumstances we’re in – and live the resurrected life now. Forgiven, we forgive. Loved, we love. Served by God through words, water, bread and wine, we serve. The world can’t control us anymore. And when death comes we know his grip is broken, we will slip through his fingers, for we live with Jesus and the resurrection life is always now.
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!