Today, the lectionary asks us to read a part of the story of the Exodus. For the people of Israel, this was the most important story in their history and it was one of which they reminded each other every year and in between too. It was bigger for them than Christmas is for us.
The story of the Exodus is such a powerful story for all sorts of reasons. But one of the most powerful things I’ve ever heard said about it comes from the former Chief Rabbi, jonathan Sacks. He said that it’s the first story in history of a God who is on the side of the slave rather than the King.
In the ancient world the Gods were generally there to back up the status quo, to keep everything in order, in its proper place -whether you think about the Babylonians or the Romans. But in this story – God works to set free the slaves and to create a revolution in Egypt. For this reason it’s been a story that’s echoed down the centuries as people oppressed by others have clung to the hope that God will come to their rescue once more.
We know from the Gospels that Jesus kept the Jewish festivals. His year was punctuated with pilgrimage festivals which told the story of faith of his people. While he lived, the Temple was still the centre of Jewish faith and he would have gone there regularly on pilgrimage. It was about 40 years after his death that the Temple was destroyed and the feasts and celebrations of the Jews had to be marked in the local synagogue and in the home – and in new ways. But in Jesus’ time it was still the Temple that was important. We also know that for Jesus hospitality was vitally important – he shared his faith around the table with friends or with anyone who would come.
So we must imagine him on that last night – with his very closest friends, gathered to remember the night so long ago when God has rescued the people from slavery in Egypt. In Jesus’ day the people of Palestine longed for rescue from Rome. In later centuries the Pilgrim Fathers’ – in whose tradition we are here and some former members of this congregation maybe even among them – saw their story of escape from religious persecution in England to a new world in America as a new reading of the Exodus story. And later again the African American slaves sang songs of Moses and the slaves finding their freedom at last when God acted. In apartheid South Africa, in the favellas of Latin America, in the gulags of Eastern Europe, in the concentration camps of Hitler’s Germany –people still remember this story and hope for God to come. And of course there are also inner, hidden slaveries which cry out for liberation – in lonely apartments, in suburban discomfort, in mental anguish, in addictions of many kinds, in poverty and anxiety and fear, people everywhere long to be set free. And this story speaks still. People still cry out, ‘Let my people go’.
And all of us who have a measure of freedom – to vote, to love, to have faith as we are led – we are all people who have tasted the land of promise – and we have cause to be thankful this night for all that has been given – and to treasure it.
As Jesus and the disciples shared the Passover meal that night and told the story in the familiar way – it seems that he added some new words to the familiar ones – and that he broke the sequence with actions and thoughts of his own. When they drank the wine – which was for celebration and to remember the covenant with Moses – he said that a new covenant would be made, but it would cost him his life. And as they ate the bread, the unleavened bread, which reminded them of the time of slavery in Egypt and the time when they didn’t have time for the bread to rise befire making their escape, he told them that the bread was his body – and that it would be given for them. There was more bitterness to come, but from it would come the gift of life – just as before.
When we tell the story of Jesus – through the church’s year or in the way we talk with our friends – do we tell it as a story to bring freedom? So many people seem to think that Jesus came to reinforce a religion of rules, of purity or of a fearful judgement. But the truth is very different. He came to tell the Passover story in a new way. He came to tell those enslaved that they are set free.
It’s no co-incidence at all that the Christian faith spread fast among the slave classes of the Roman Empire. If the oldPassover story speaks of a God who sets slaves free, the new Passover story of Jesus speaks of a God who becomes a slave and dies a slave’s death – crucifixion. And Jesus revealed the God who loves not only the slaves of the Hebrews, not only those of chosen people. In Jesus we learn of a God who has no favourites, or perhaps better to say – who favours everyone. Jesus is the new Moses, as he is the new Adam; foretaste of a new creation, and bringer of a new freedom.
There has been some fuss lately about a song that sings of slavery. Rule Brittania. It’s a song that began its life in the mid 18th century when Britain was expanding an empire and using slave labour to undergird it. I’ve been working on a project on the legacy of slavery for the World Council of Churches. A few weeks ago I thought I would do just a little research to see whether there were ever any slave owners in Taunton. There’s a very good website from University College London, which records the names and homes of all those who claimed compensation for the loss of their slaves when slavery was abolised in the UK in 1833. I discovered that one family came up in Bishops Hull and that I know the house where they once lived. The family are also memorialised in the parish church and described as ‘property owners’. The property they owned once included 2,000 slaves on two plantations on St Nevis. While the writer of Rule Brittania was declaring that Britons never will be slaves, some of them, even as close as Bishops Hull in Taunton, were making slaves of other people. Of course, we don’t want British people to be slaves – and where modern slavery exists in the UK we need to wipe it out – but the message of the Gospel is that God is always on the side of slaves, and acts to set them free.
The Lord’s Supper, the meal we celebrate (and are thankfully able to celebrate with some of us together now) has so many layers of meaning and memory. But one of the most powerful must be that story of the Passover, that story that was the first to reveal a God who was on the side of slaves. We follow Jesus, who said that he had come to serve (like a slave) and who died a slave’s death. And who left us, his followers, the memory of a liberation story, to remind us of the God who was made visible in him.
Whatever it is in your life that binds you; addiction, anxiety, poverty, dependence on fossil fuels, loneliness, sickness, resentment… whatever it is, know that the God we see in Jesus Christ is one who comes to set you free. So, like the slaves of old in Egypt, get ready for freedom day… Amen.