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Gottesblog

A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Beware the Unleaven of the Pharisees

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14 Nisan approaches and Suburban Lutheran Church is undoubtedly preparing for its "Christian Seder" again. I'll make the (safe?) assumption that you, reader, have either conducted, attended, or at least heard described some form of "Christian Seder"—a hybrid Passover/Lord's Supper ceremony. Is it also safe to assume that it looks nothing like Exodus 12, where the Passover ceremonies are described? Does every family at Suburban Lutheran Church get a live lamb? Do they keep it like a pet for four days and clean up after it? Then on the proper day, do they all gather to watch the men butcher those live lambs with their own hands? It's easy butchering, thankfully, because then they roast the lambs whole with the head, legs, and innards still intact.

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Right. None of that happens. Livestock aren't welcome in middle class homes. Conveniently for Suburban Lutheran, none of the gross parts have much spiritual significance to the Lord's Supper. (And I think we can all agree that rosemary and mint jelly count as bitter...) I can't blame them for some revising, I suppose. Even true Jews don't do it Exodus-style anymore. (They're the Passover experts!).

Then again, Jews have a much better reason for revising Passover beyond "that's gross." Their temple was destroyed. When the center of your religion goes away, when your national identity is lost and your people are scattered across the globe, you might expect some adjustments. Indeed, if it weren't for the observant Jews, meticulously caring for traditions and answering hard questions through a previous exile in Babylon, Judaism might not have survived the destruction of the temple this last time. Thank you, Pharisees.

There's the rub for Lutherans. The Gospels (i.e., Jesus) lead us to healthy skepticism regarding the Pharisees' interpretations of the Torah. Their "solutions" have the tendency to teach the traditions of men as doctrine from God (Mark 7:7–8). When we consider Judaism after 70 AD, we are talking essentially about Pharisaic Judaism. And when we consider the Haggadahs (the Jewish liturgical rites for the Seder) available to us, we are talking post-temple documents. This isn't metaphorical or spiritual, but literal Pharisaism.

What can be said, then, about a "Christian Seder"? We have historical doubts about how much of our Haggadahs were actually observed by Jesus. (Certainly He did not substitute an egg for a lamb.) We have theological doubts too—cast by Christ Himself—on the traditions of practice and understanding passed on by the rabbis, for which the Haggadahs are our only source. It's more than a little liturgical anachronism to try and reenact Jesus' "Christian Seder" he conducted at the Last Supper. (Here's a Jewish perspective, for what it's worth.) But the anachronism of the Haggadahs is where all of the "best" parts of the Christian Seder come from—all of the "spiritual meaning" that we can glean from multiple cups, reserved bread, and whatever else doesn't gross us out.

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"Beautiful, if true!"

That's not good enough for faith. Doubt doesn't inspire; our Lord's sure Word does. The Lord's Supper is not made better by throwing it into a Seder; it is mingled with "fake news," maybe even "fake religion." For what else could we call Pharisaism, from our Lutheran perspective? Jerusalem's temple is destroyed with no sweat off Jesus' back (Mark 13:1–2; 31). It is not an adjustment that is required, but an abrogation—and every Christian knows it, as surely as you've never seen an animal butchered in church. To continue something preparatory after it has been fulfilled is as foolish as trying to shake the hand of my shadow (Colossians 2:17). To continue to be a Jew, in contradistinction to Christ's coming, is to miss both Christianity and Judaism, truly speaking. The Christian great-great-...-great grandchild of Abraham might experience some hankering for the good old days, I suppose; but the Gentile Lutheran? One only need read Galatians to see the foolishness of that thinking.

Christ is our Passover Lamb, this is true. He has fulfilled the Passover ceremonies that pointed to Him—especially the gross parts (I'd suggest that the crucifix in the chancel walks the appropriate line between comfortable and accurate). His bones were not broken; He was "roasted" in the wrath of the Father; He was among His people, though they knew Him not; His blood causes the wrath of God to pass over. He has been sacrificed to deliver us from bondage to sin, death, and hell to serve the living God. Moreover, He has instituted a distinctive remembrance of this singular, people-defining event: the Holy Communion. We might only hasten to add that, unlike the Passover which was a meaningful but symbolic meal, our Lord Jesus has brought substance (Col 2:17) to the ceremonies He instituted. The simple Divine Service of the Lutheran Church is not less but more "meaningful" than any "Christian Seder," even if the actors grow out their beards or substitute exotic-sounding Hebrew words for Greek, Latin, or English. We have the real deal. We have the true bodily presence of Christ in the Supper. And it is the Word "is," not the narrative about "what makes this night different than all the rest" that convinces us to believe and confess this (Small Catechism: Christian Questions with their Answers, 14).

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It's precisely at the point of confession that matters cease to be adiaphora. This leads to an interesting question: is the "Christian Seder" unionistic or syncretistic? In the best cases, I am optimistic that the intention is unionism (to share in the rites and fellowship of a heterodox Christian group). That group would be the remnant in the Old Testament. We do not hesitate to call them Christians, even though historians might call that an anachronism. If so it's an anachronism I love—and it shows the real problem with the Christian Seder: either we are already in fellowship with the Old Testament remnant through the Christ we hold in common (whose day Abraham saw and was glad, John 8:56–58) or we are not.

In fact, we are. They were not heterodox then for observing pre-incarnation rites; we are not heterodox now for observing post-incarnation rites. Yet, we would certainly become so by adopting the rites that are not proper to our positions, i.e., before and after Christ. The Lord has indeed instituted a New Testament, one enacted by His own blood, and not the blood of goats or lambs (Hebrews 9:12).

The intention may be unionistic, so to speak; the reality, however, proves to be syncretism (sharing rites with non-Christians). Armed with an adaptation of some Haggadah, we mingle Pharisaic rites (falsely called "Hebrew Roots") with the Gospels and fail to be either Jewish or Christian. We gain no better understanding of Christ's New Testament by pretending to be part of the Old. How can we expect to gain wisdom about the Old from those cut off from it? That is an utterly different religion with a different g–d.

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The center of our religion has not gone away, nor will He. As a result, the Divine Service He instituted needs no Hebrew-Roots embellishment. Christians—certainly Lutherans—want to participate only in such worship as is substantially—and without any doubt—filled with Jesus Christ. We already have a complete connection to our Hebrew-born fellow saints of old by gathering around the Lamb who was slain, but who lives. Let us be unashamed to keep our Feast in Christian sincerity and truth.