PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
Grant us refreshment, O Lord, as we hear your Word and receive your sacrament, that we might know deep within that we are forgiven and loved through your compassion.
OLD TESTAMENT LESSON Exodus 12:21-28, GNT
21 Moses called for all the leaders of Israel and said to them, “Each of you is to choose a lamb or a young goat and kill it, so that your families can celebrate Passover. 22 Take a sprig of hyssop, dip it in the bowl containing the animal's blood, and wipe the blood on the doorposts and the beam above the door of your house. Not one of you is to leave the house until morning. 23 When the Lord goes through Egypt to kill the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the beams and the doorposts and will not let the Angel of Death enter your houses and kill you. 24 You and your children must obey these rules forever. 25 When you enter the land that the Lord has promised to give you, you must perform this ritual. 26 When your children ask you, ‘What does this ritual mean?’ 27 you will answer, ‘It is the sacrifice of Passover to honor the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt. He killed the Egyptians but spared us.’”
The Israelites knelt down and worshiped. 28 Then they went and did what the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron.
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 22:14-27, NET
14 Now when the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table and the apostles joined him. 15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 Then he took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And in the same way he took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
21 “But look, the hand of the one who betrays me is with me on the table. 22 For the Son of Man is to go just as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” 23 So they began to question one another as to which of them it could possibly be who would do this.
24 A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ 26 Not so with you; instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
SERMON Jesus Risked Sharing a Last Meal with his Disciples
What’s your favorite meal with family or friends? I love Thanksgiving Dinner, because that’s a family tradition we’ve managed to keep. Seems like New Year’s at mom and dad’s is becoming a new tradition for us. We don’t really get together for Christmas or Easter.
When Jesus gathered in the Upper Room with the disciples, they were there to celebrate a very old tradition of their faith, tracing all the way back to the Exodus. In fact, the Passover meal itself told the story of the Exodus. Jews still celebrate Passover, but the meal and traditions have changed over the years. Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD there is no longer the sacrifice of a lamb as was done in Jesus’ day. Other elements have been added to the meal since Jesus’ time.
For Christians, the meaning changed when Jesus added a new interpretation at that special meal he shared with his friends, when he equated the bread with his body and the wine with his blood. There are still parallels to the old story, but new meanings are added to it. We share this traditional meal from our Lord’s Table in a variety of ways, just as every family has its own specialties for Thanksgiving, but the bread and the cup still remind us that Jesus gave his body and shed his blood to make a new covenant with us through God’s great love.
Even the Gospels don’t tell the story in the same way. The Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) emphasize the bread and the cup and the words Jesus spoke over them. When Paul talks about this tradition in 1 Corinthians 11, he also shares this point. Our traditional liturgy consecrating the bread and cup comes from Paul’s letter rather than directly from the Gospels. “Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, 24 and after he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:24-26)
John on the other hand emphasized the teachings of Jesus at the Last Supper, in particular the lesson of foot washing, of serving one another, and loving others as a sign of being Christ’s disciples. Foot washing is an important tradition in some denominations. At Bethany, a Church of the Brethren seminary, it was what my fellow Brethren students looked forward to most in Holy Week, the Love Feast which included a meal, communion and foot washing. On Mennonite/Brethren Way of Christ retreats it is the highlight worship service at the Sunday morning breakfast table.
Levine points out that foot washing can mean different things depending on who is involved, but it usually relates to humble service. As she speculates on Jesus choosing to incorporate this action into his teaching at that important last meal, I like this idea. Levine writes, “I do wonder if Jesus took his cue from those anointing women, who provided a service to him. He does not always have to be original in order to be profound.” (Levine, p. 123) Since we recently explored all the stories of “those anointing women” her comment made great sense to me. Perhaps Jesus thought of the woman who washed his feet with her tears when he took up the basin and towel for his disciples.
After washing the disciple’s feet, the job usually of a servant or slave provided by the host, Jesus explains with this teaching, “14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them.” (John 13:14-16)
Luke also includes a teaching on servanthood as we read in today’s Gospel lesson. When the disciples are arguing like children about who’s the greatest among them, Jesus turns the conversation around by telling them they are not to lord it over one another, that the leader should be one who serves, that he, Jesus, is among them to serve.
In Matthew this debate came up as the mother of James and John asked Jesus to grant her sons a special place in his kingdom. It set off an outcry from the rest of the disciples. This is where Matthew places the saying not to lord it over each other as Jesus tells them, “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)
In John’s version of the Last Supper in chapter 13, the bread and wine are never even mentioned. That comes much earlier in Chapter 6 which was also around the time of Passover. This scene is not in the Upper Room; it’s outdoors in the countryside, one of the versions of Jesus feeding thousands with loaves and fish. That night, Jesus comes to their boat and calms the storm. The next day the crowd found him again on the other side of the lake and ask for more miracles. Jesus talked about the bread from heaven in the wilderness in the time of Moses, then Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35) The people didn’t understand, so Jesus went on to say, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. 54 But anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person at the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” (John 6:53-56) This is NOT the language we are used to hearing when we celebrate Holy Communion, especially among the Protestant denominations that view the bread and cup as symbolic or representing Jesus’ body and blood. We would agree with the disciples, this is a hard teaching!
Luke, along with Mark and Matthew, place the Last Supper on the first day of Passover. So, in our reading today Jesus declared to his disciples, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (Luke 22:15) That is the night Jews share the Seder, remembering and retelling the story of the escape from Egypt in Exodus, a bit of which was our Old Testament reading today. We have had many opportunities here to experience or explore the Seder and the meaning of each component, but we have seen it in the way Jews celebrate it in our own time, not the way it was in Jesus’ day. Using unleavened bread, wine, and bitter herbs has remained, but Jews no longer have a sacrificed lamb, not since 70 AD. In one way it is strange if Christians share a lamb for Maundy Thursday, since Jesus has become for us “The lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.” (traditional liturgy based on John 1:29) For Christians especially, a sacrificial lamb is no longer needed!
In John’s Gospel, the Last Supper takes place the night before the lambs are sacrificed at the Temple, so the meal would not have included lamb even then. Jesus’ crucifixion, however, would then be the day the paschal lambs are sacrificed. Jesus becomes the lamb, but John subtly shifts the meaning from the Passover lamb to a lamb sacrificed as a sin offering.
According to the laws in Leviticus, when an animal was brought for a sin offering, its blood was smeared on the altar. Once a year, in the original instructions in Exodus, Aaron the priest was to smear blood from the sin offering on the altar to purify it. So, to those who were part of this tradition, Jesus’ shed blood was for purification from sin, but as the letter to the Hebrews tells us in the New Testament, Jesus did this, “once for all.” (Hebrews 7:27) We no longer need to repeat that sin offering.
Another layer of symbolism in John is the meaning of Passover itself. When the blood was smeared on the door posts, the angel of death passed over the Hebrew households while taking the firstborn of the Egyptians. Professor Levine points out that Passover marked passing from slavery to freedom. (p. 115) In the same way, Jesus leads us out of “the slavery of sin and death” (traditional language of the Great Thanksgiving prayer for Holy Communion) to freedom and new life.
In her book, Entering the Passion of Jesus, Levine has a great section on the betrayal by Judas. I won’t elaborate here, but I can share more if you come to the adult class. Today I want to focus on the Supper, since we are celebrating Holy Communion. I will point out that while our liturgy traditionally says, “on the night he was betrayed” coming from a line of translations for that passage in 1 Corinthians 11, Levine’s book corrects this. The Greek word, paradidomi, literally means handed over. Jesus was “handed over” to death. I think the betrayal language infiltrated our liturgy, because we see that handing over as a betrayal. But here’s the thing, in Paul’s letters, Judas is not the subject related to that verb. It is God who hands Jesus over to death for our sake. In Paul’s theology, this is God allowing his ultimate plan for our salvation to unfold even though it means sacrificing God’s own Son. Judas identified Jesus with a kiss, but the arrest and crucifixion, horrible as they are to us, were within God’s plan. Paul put it this way his letter to the Romans, “32 God didn’t spare his own Son but handed him over to death for all of us. (Romans 8:32a)
Levine expresses what many of us wrestle with, that when Jesus talks about his body and blood, “he is using sacrificial imagery …[that] does not resonate well with most of us, because we do not live in a culture where ‘sacrifice’ in the sense of spilling blood on an altar and then eating part of the sacrificial offering is practiced.” But what we need to understand is that “at the time of Jesus, everyone, whether Jewish or Samaritan or Gentile, understood the practice of, and the efficacy of, sacrifice.” (Levine, pp. 119-120)
I know I’ve tried to explain it from that standpoint of historical meaning many times, but here’s the piece I was missing. Levine writes, “Sacrifice was a way of sharing a meal with God.” (p. 120) Okay, that is part of how I understand the Lord’s Supper. We come to Jesus’ table to share Jesus’ meal. Jesus has extended the invitation to us to join the disciples of old at that meaningful table. There were many kinds of sacrifice in Old Testament times and on into Jesus’ day. Offerings for thanksgiving, freewill offerings, dedications, festal offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, peace offerings and so forth. They may have been oil, grain, bread, or an animal depending on the occasion, the type of offering, or the person bringing it. In many cases, the priest blessed and butchered the animal sacrifice, drained the blood, and took the fat parts for the altar. Most of the meat was returned to the worshippers for a meal that was shared among the family or with friends and symbolically shared with God. Eating a meal with God is an aspect of sacrifice I never considered before, but I see the significance remembering Jesus’ sacrifice as we share Holy Communion with God.
Breaking bread together, is still a symbol of sharing and hospitality in many cultures. Sharing a meal together still has the effect of binding family, a group of friends, or a congregation together in that shared meal. When we offer a blessing before we eat, it may have the language of inviting God to share in that meal with us. I think in particular of the “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blest.” (traditional children’s mealtime prayer) For Presbyterians in particular, this is not an altar where sacrifices are made, but a communion table where the community gathers to remember that sacrifice made once for all, and where we continue to find communion with Jesus Christ, our Lord. As we share this meal today, with one another and with God, let us remember Jesus’ gift of love and grace for us.