Holy Thursday Reflections:
Instituting a New Religious Practice, Not a New Religion
Holy Week 2016
When Jesus and his disciples, all Jews, sat down to the Passover meal on the night of his betrayal, was he starting a new religion? Were they Christians at the end of this meal and no longer Jews? Jesus says this meal represents a “new covenant in my blood.” Is it also a new religion?
Or is the institution of this meal a new religious practice remaining within the Jewish religion? There is no evidence in the New Testament that the Apostles began to see themselves no longer as Jews. And Paul argues forcefully in Galatians that Gentile practitioners need not convert to the Jewish religion. In fact, naming the other early rite of the church, Baptism, Paul proclaims that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
Following the Way of Jesus Christ clearly institutes some new religious practices that signal transformation of one’s religious identity. But does that mean: (1) conversion to a whole new religion? Or (2) transformation and redemption of one’s religion? Or do these two options work out to essentially be the same in practice? Historically, even if Jesus didn’t intend a new religion, his transformation of the Jewish religion eventually worked out to be a new religion called Christianity.
Yet, despite the history, I propose that it might be a good time to seek faithfulness to Jesus’ intentions in instituting the Lord’s Supper — namely, that he was offering a new religious practice to begin redeeming human religion, and not offering humanity a new religion to which we must convert. Another way to put the matter is this: Jesus was offering a new Way to be human, and fundamentally as religious beings that would mean redemption and transformation of our religious identities.
Why would it be important to maintain such a subtle difference? Galatians 3:28 points the way: religious practice is now, since the death and resurrection of Christ, meant to make us One. Ephesians 2 tells us that the entire point of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Eph. 2:15b-16). Religious practice up to that time had been fundamentally about marking differences, of maintaining the distinction between Us and Them.
Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea, “Go and learn what this means, “I desire compassion, not sacrifice’” (Matt. 9:13a; repeated at 12:7). Up to that time, the central religious practice across the entire globe was ritual blood sacrifice. The Mimetic Theory of René Girard is an anthropological proposal that homo sapiens is a species founded in sacrificial religion as a means of maintaining cultural boundaries that keeps the species a household of God divided. What if we came to see Jesus life, death, and resurrection as a refounding of human culture, a culture of God (“kingdom of God”), that unifies the household of God into one? One that doesn’t erase cultures and religions themselves but transforms their meaning into a Unity-in-Diversity instead of a Division-into-Many?
So Jesus begins by replacing sacrificial killing on altars with remembrance of a divine self-sacrifice to human sacrifice at a table — which is also a fundamental conversion from gods who command sacrifice to a God who sacrifices the divine self in compassion, in solidarity with all sacrificial victims. This is truly a fundamental conversion of theology and religious practice, but I think it is also important to not see it as about the creation of a new religion to which human beings need to convert, so much as it is a conversion of all our religions.
Why? Because the historical practice of Christianity as a new religion to which others must convert has become just another of the old sacrificial religions sorely in need of Christ’s redemption. We Christians have made it about ‘joining’ a new religion as a means of marking who’s in and who’s out — amplifying that separation over 20 centuries with the finality of an afterlife where our human division becomes cemented in eternity — the believing Christians eternally rewarded in heaven and the unbelieving Pagans eternally tortured in hell. It is time to recognize and reject such thinking once and for all as a lapse back into the sacrificial religion of old that Christ Jesus came precisely to redeem. The familiar believers-in-heaven-and-unbelievers-in-hell version of Christianity has tragically become the same old bloody sacrificial religion on steroids.
And, during this Holy Week 2016, it is a good time to also recognize and reject the version of the Cross which fosters that old-time sacrificial practice of Christianity as divisive. The substitutionary atonement thinking in all its forms is just another version of the old sacrificial logic that divides us. Learning that God desires compassion not sacrifice also means that we are converted once and for all from a god of Wrath to a God of compassion. God does not demand punishment for our sins as represented in a blood sacrifice. God seeks to heal and restore our very humanity through the compassionate self-sacrifice of the Messiah on the cross.
And Easter morning is the first day of a New Creation — most especially as the first day of the New Human Being, the re-evolution of the creature God made to bear God’s image of compassionate caretakers for the whole creation. (Mary mistakes Jesus to be the gardener, the caretaker of the garden — the right mistake to make!) Jesus, in offering us a new covenant in his blood, came to offer us not a new religion but a new Way to be human in which our religious identities are being transformed into a Unity-in-Diversity. Just as God took something intended for evil, the sacrifice of Joseph by his brothers, and turned it into something good, the salvation of their whole family (Gen. 50:20); God in Jesus Christ is taking something evil, the bloody divisiveness of our sacrificial religions, and turning them into something good, the salvation of the entire family of the earth.
I hope you won’t mind an early, anticipatory, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”