Maundy Thursday (April 2, 2015)
WORDS AT THE TABLE (Mark 14:12-26)
Our Lenten theme this year has been based on the seven last words of Jesus from the cross.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he prays while earning the forgiveness of sins for all people.
“Today you will be with me in Paradise,” he says to the dying criminal who asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom.
Concerned about the earthly care for his mother, who was at the foot of the cross, he says to her “Woman, behold, your son!” And to his friend John, who was also there, he says, “Behold, your mother.”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries out in anguish, as he feels the full weight of the world’s sin upon him.
“I thirst,” come the poignant words from the one who promised to quench the thirst of our souls with living waters.
Having suffered in full for the sins of the world, he says, “It is finished.” And there is one more word to hear tomorrow as, with his final breath, he calls out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
But before these words from the cross, Jesus had words at the table. The night before he was crucified, he celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples. This was the annual remembrance of God’s deliverance of Israel from their bondage in Egypt. This meal is often called “The Last Supper” and at which Jesus instituted what we call “The Lord’s Supper.”
There were many more words spoken at the table than what you heard in tonight’s Gospel reading. Matthew’s account of the Last Supper is very similar to Mark’s. Luke’s account is similar and adds some other details. John’s is much longer. His goes on for several chapters. It includes the account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus’ Farewell discourse, and what is known as his High Priestly Prayer. That’s too many words to consider all together in one sermon … so, I think I may have a theme for a future midweek sermon series … focusing each week on Jesus’ words at the table. Tonight, we will simply use Mark’s account for our meditation since that’s the one assigned to us in the lectionary.
The room was prepared. The meal was set before them. They reclined at the table, as was the custom in those days, in spite of what you may have learned from Leonardo da Vinci’s famous and familiar painting … or the way Albrecht Durer has them seated like the Knights of the Round Table on the cover of our service folder.
In the middle of supper, Jesus says, “One of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” Talk about a conversation stopper. You’ve been there before. You’re having a nice time at a holiday dinner with extended family gathered around the table. All of a sudden, someone blurts out something shocking, embarrassing, or hurtful. The light banter and laughter stops cold in its tracks. Silence. All eyes turn to the one who made the comment. Finally someone responds, “Why would you say such a thing?” Others join in and express their indignation.
You can imagine this happening that night in the upper room. After the initial sorrow and shock of the disciples, they proceed to question Jesus, “Is it I?” Their questioning reveals their fear. They already knew much of what Jesus could do. They knew that he could look into hearts. They recognized their own weaknesses and flaws which were evidenced on so many occasions during their time spent with Jesus. And although they probably would admit this to no one, they each knew their own individual potential to be the one to fall away and betray Jesus. And more tragic words have never been spoken than the next words from our Lord’s mouth about the one who became the betrayer: “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” What was going through Judas’ mind at that point? He must have already been in the depths of unbelief. His heart must have already been irretrievably hardened. Jesus’ words about his coming betrayal fell on thorny soil, and the deceitfulness of 30 pieces of silver choked the word of Jesus in the life and heart of the betrayer.
You and I recognize our own weaknesses and flaws, too, which are evidenced on so many occasions in our time spent with Jesus. We are so weak, and we all know our own potential to fall away … especially when we are relying on our own strength, our own abilities, or when we rely on our emotions as a measure of our relationship with God. We become fearful when we hear words in Scripture such as this in Hebrews 3: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12) … or this frightening section in chapter 6: “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Heb. 6:4-7). And we ask the Lord, “Is it I?”
But this is the very reason why Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper … to forgive our sins, to soothe our fears and our guilt, to assure us of his ongoing presence among us, and to confirm and strengthen our faith in him. When we are weak, then he is strong for us. When our emotions betray the uncertainty in our relationship with God, his sure and certain Word tells us that we are baptized and beloved in Christ Jesus and belong to him.
“This is my body … this is my blood,” Jesus says. We receive his body and blood truly given us to eat and to drink. We take Jesus’ words at face value. This is his last will and testament before he dies, and we dare not attempt to change or reinterpret his words. St. Paul helps us to understand them further when he says that the bread we eat is a participation in the Lord’s body and the cup we drink is a participation in the Lord’s blood. Some may say that means a participation in the benefits of the Lord’s body and blood. Well, yes, we do get the benefits of life and salvation. But there’s more to it. When you eat the bread and drink the wine, you are eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood. When your pastor displays the bread before your eyes, what does he say? “The true Body of Christ, given for you” … because that’s what it is. When the cup nears your mouth, what words do you hear? “The true Blood of Christ, shed for you” … because that’s what it is.
Jesus added, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” A covenant is a solemn promise. Sometimes it’s two-sided, an agreement between two people. Sometimes it’s one-sided, a promise given from a greater party to the lesser. In Bible times, a covenant was sealed with blood and then celebrated with a meal.
Jesus says “my blood of the covenant”? But which covenant is he referring to? In Luke’s account, Jesus calls it the “New Covenant.” The Old Covenant was given to Moses and the people of Israel and ratified at Mt. Sinai as we heard earlier in the reading from Exodus 24. It was a two-sided covenant where God promised to care for the people of Israel as long as they remained obedient. Sacrifices were offered and the blood was thrown on the altar and on the people to seal the covenant. Then, the covenant was celebrated with a meal in the presence of God. Moses and the leaders of Israel went up the mountain, “they beheld God, and ate and drank.”
I find it interesting that Matthew and Mark both simply say “THE covenant,” as if to say there really is only one covenant. God made a one-sided covenant first with Adam and Eve and further promised to Abraham. He promised that the Seed of the Woman would come to crush the serpent’s head. He promised that a great descendent of Abraham would be a blessing to all nations. That Seed, that great descendent, is Jesus. As he gave the disciples his blood of THE Covenant, he was soon to be the perfect sacrifice for sins. His blood would be poured out at the cross to cover over the sins of all people of all nations. He gives his Church a meal to celebrate his covenant. In the Holy Supper, his blood is sprinkled on us and our sins are covered. Here, in this Holy Communion of bread and wine and body and blood, we behold God, and we eat and drink.
Finally, Jesus tells the disciples, “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” This was the last time Jesus feasted with his disciples before the cross. He was offered wine there … wine mixed with myrrh (Mark 15:23). But that was meant to serve as an anesthetic, to dull the senses. It was offered to those who were being crucified as one last act of pity. Jesus refused to drink it. It was his intent to feel the full force of the pain of the cross, to be in full control. But through that pain and through that suffering, Jesus also could see beyond the cross and know that the great wedding banquet in eternity was sure to come when Christ the Bridegroom will feast with his Bride, the Church, in the kingdom of God.
The Holy Supper now is a foretaste of that great banquet. It is the assurance of the covenant he has made with us. His body was given for us. His blood was shed for us. And “as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The Lord’s Supper is all Gospel, pure and simple. The free gift of forgiveness and salvation. Celebrated at a meal where we eat and drink the very means by which our sins were forgiven. The forgiveness of sins placed right into our mouths and received by faith in our hearts.