Signpost for Sunday 24 March 2013, Palm Sunday. Isaiah 50:4-9a; Phil 2:5-11; LUKE 22:14 – 23:56

I’m not writing about Jesus trotting into Jerusalem on his trusty colt today because that’s not what the lectionary has chosen for us. Instead we have three of the most memorable pieces from the Bible.

Isaiah 50:4 could be my prayer before I write every Signpost. It leads on to what is usually thought of as the third servant song because it seems to parallel Jesus’ Good Friday fate (50:6).

Whether Isaiah really predicted Jesus and his fate is highly debatable, though. He was writing about 500 years before to encourage the Jews to make the arduous trek home after 46 years of exile in Babylon: a thousand mile slog to a ruined temple and a rolling up of sleeves when they got there. My guess is that the one clear parallel between this passage and the gospel is that they’re both urging people to return to a closer relationship with the God who won’t abandon them, no matter how hard things have been or seem at the time.

Just as our first reading was not written by the original Isaiah, but by whoever took up that pen name after chapter 39, so the verses from Philippians probably aren’t Paul’s own words. He’s giving us a version of an early Christian hymn. Apart from enjoying the phrases that have become almost slogans (2:9) have a look at 2:8. This isn’t a reminder of how excruciatingly painful crucifixion was, rather it’s pointing out how Jesus’ death involved something that had been thought of as God’s curse (Deut 21:23) and turned it into a sign of God’s mercy. Most first century Jews simply couldn’t get their heads around that. It didn’t help that the early Christians were very fond of v11, where “Lord” refers to YHWH, the OT name for God, which the Jews were terrified of saying out loud in case they broke the third commandment (Exodus 20:7).

And so we come to the Last Supper, beautifully told in all three versions (Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:14-23), but absolute dynamite. It exploded in 1517. Luke 22:19 is one of the four verses that lit the touch paper of the Reformation (together with Mark 14:22 and 24; Matt 26:26). I don’t know what you think is happening when you take communion but, even today, the Catholic church contends that the wafer and the wine literally become the body and the blood of Jesus. Martin Luther poo-poohed that, saying there’s no magic, but the bread and wine serve to communicate the heavenly substance of the body and blood of Christ. Huldrych Zwingli, the one we all forget about, denied Christ’s bodily presence too, but said he’s spiritually present in the bread. John Calvin’s version is the most poetic: as the mouth receives the bread and wine, the soul receives by faith what they signify. I wonder if the new Pope will have anything to say about all that?

Paul

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