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Proper 18, Yr A, Tr 1 (11 Trinity, 4.09.2011)
Exodus 12.1-14: instructions for observance of Pesach
Ps 149: 1st five vv. joyful; last 5 vv. vengeful
Rom 13.8-14: love of neighbour sums it up, so put on the Lord Jesus Christ

Matt 18.15-20: stages of reconciliation: private, with 2or 3, public –whole community

God of glory, the end of our searching, help us to lay aside all that prevents us from seeking your kingdom, and to give all that we have to gain the pearl beyond all price,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ. (1048)

(As those called to be reconcilers we may at times need to be reconciled.)

          Our reading from Exodus has been the instructions for the observance of the one-day feast of Passover. These instructions are woven into the story of the bringing of Israel out of bondage in Egypt.  Now, on Maundy Thursday for several years we have had elements of the Jewish Passover meal as observed in Jesus’ day.  And one of those elements has been unleavened bread, what the Jews call mazoth. You may have noticed that the passage we have read this morning has no mention of any kind of bread.  This is covered in the six verses that immediately follow today’s reading, and they provide for a seven day feast, the feast of unleavened bread.

          Long before the Book of Exodus was written the two feasts had been joined together. The first is the one-day feast of pesach, Passover, and the second is the week-long feast of unleavened bread, which is specifically mentioned in Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts. 

          In the case of Pesach, to the best of my knowledge, no one has come up with a convincing explanation of its origin. It is, however, very likely that it originated among a group of nomads.  And its sacrificial animal may have possibly been connected with an annual moving of the herds of sheep and goats from one pasture land to another.  If this was the case, then the sacrifice may have been to ensure a successful year.

          If Pesach originally concerned nomads, then the Feast of Unleavened Bread could only arise with a settled agricultural setting, for it marks the beginning of the barley harvest.

          Well before Jesus’ day there were three major harvest festivals which were known as the pilgrimage festivals, because they were times of the year when, if possible, one would be expected to go to Jerusalem .  The first of these was Pesach combined with Unleavened Bread, in the early spring.  On the fiftieth day from Passover was Shabuoth, called Pentecost in Greek, meaning 50 Days.  This marked the end of the wheat harvest.  Then in the autumn came  Sukkoth, that is, Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths, when Jews lived outdoors in temporary garden booths to celebrate the fruit harvest.  All three of these feasts came to be associated with events of the Exodus: Passover with the escape from Egypt , Pentecost with the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, and Tabernacles with God’s care for Israel during the wanderings in the Wilderness.

          When you stop to think about it, the Christians did something rather similar when they placed the birth of Jesus at the time of the Roman festival of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, and thus proclaimed Jesus as the true light of the world.

          From the very beginning of the Israelite tradition Passover was connected with God’s deliverance from Egypt , and there are over 200 references and allusions to it in the rest of the OT.  Jewish expectation of any future deliverance was all focussed on Passover, so it comes as no surprise when Paul speaks of ‘Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast: not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness,  but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.’

          It is on this basis that Paul has just been reminding us in our reading from Romans that it is the call to active loving of our neighbour for which we have been empowered.

          And now to our Gospel.  The Gospel of Matthew is the most clearly organised of all four of our gospels, with Matthew having in mind the pastoral needs of a rather settled congregation and setting.  Thus the first flush of adding many converts is long since past, and it is striking that in Matthew all the imperatives or commands addressed to potential converts on Jesus’ lips are addressed to the individual, ‘Thou’, not ‘you-plural’.  By now the response to the call of the gospel is expected to be from individuals, not from groups.  At the end of the interpretation of the parable of the sower Mark strikes an optimistic note of the seed bearing fruit 30-fold, sixty-fold or a 100-fold, whereas Matthew reverses the order: 100, 60, 30-fold, a tapering off. 

          One of the problems being faced by Matthew was the pressure to move in the direction of a judgemental, puritan community which would exclude those who were not up to the mark.  This is what we are experiencing in the Anglican Communion at present.  We had part of Matthew’s answer to this several weeks ago when we had the parable of the wheat and the tares, with its saying that there will indeed be a sorting out in the end, but in the meantime we must remain a mixed community or we shall hurt good members and those who might otherwise have become such.

          It is Matthew who says when you bring your gift to the altar and remember that your brother has anything against you, lay down your gift, go ask your brother’s forgiveness, and only then come and offer your gift. 

          Today’s gospel is the other side of the same coin when it comes to someone who has sinned against you.  First, quietly speak to the person one-to-one, privately.  If that does not work, then try again with two or three witnesses.  And only if that fails bring the person up before the whole congregation.  And then and them only if that fails is the person to be expelled.

          Of course, Matthew does not mention it here, but it may be possible that you have misunderstood the other person, and that no hurt was intended, or it may even turn out that you yourself were the one at fault, and if you get to the stage of the two or three witnesses, they may point it out.  It has certainly been my experience that when I have imputed bad motives to other people’s words and actions that have impinged on me, I have all too often been wrong.

          In any case, we are called in Christ to a ministry of reconciliation, in which at times we may be made aware of the need to heed the words, ‘Physician, heal thyself’.

          Perhaps that is something we might well take away from considering today’s readings.