The following reflections are based on Mark 14:12-25.
Many of us celebrated Thanksgiving nearly two weeks ago. We gathered around tables with family and loved ones, we gave thanks, we broke bread, we sliced and ate turkey, and we celebrated the good life that God has so bountifully provided for us all. There’s something deeply satisfying about holidays and special occasions. Whether it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, anniversaries, or birthdays, nothing marks these occasions quite as well as food, family, and fellowship. For thousands of years of human history, feasts have been the way we recognize significant events in our lives. We probably don’t do it as much as we should.
Sharing any meal in the ancient world carried with it a great significance. To share food with another meant that you were sharing life and sharing relationship. It’s why Jesus’ willingness to eat with tax collectors and sinners was so scandalous. By sitting down at the table with these outcasts and outsiders, Jesus was proclaiming that though they were on the margins of respectable society, they were to be offered a seat of honor within the broader borders of God’s Kingdom.
So it makes sense that as Jesus approached the climax of his mission that he would choose to mark the occasion with his disciples through a meal – and not just any meal, the Passover meal.
The Passover was the most significant of all Jewish festivals and more than any other ritual or action, it defined and marked out those who were the people of God. As important as the giving of the Law was, God’s deliverance and rescue of his people from Egyptian slavery is what formed the nation of Israel to begin with. The Law did not make Israel God’s people; the Law was given to Israel as a gift because they had already been redeemed as his people through the sacrifice of the Passover lamb and the miracle at the sea.
Each year when the people would gather to celebrate this foundational meal, they were reminded that YHWH, the God who had acted in the Exodus, who had provided for them in the wilderness, who had given them the Promised Land, who had established the Davidic Kingdom, who had chosen to dwell in the Temple in Jerusalem, and who had brought his people back from exile would one day act again in a dramatic way to free his people from their current bondage under pagan rulers. The God who had acted in the past, would act again in the future. When that great day occurred, then the glory of this one true God, YHWH would extend from Jerusalem to the very ends of the earth. Isaiah 66 looked forward to that time and described it in the following way. “I will send survivors to the nations…to the coastlands far away that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations. They shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord…to my holy mountain, Jerusalem…For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the Lord; so shall your descendants and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord.”
Many Jews of the first century believed that God’s deliverance would come to them through a descendant of David who would establish God’s Kingdom on earth in ways that it had previously not been realized. The pagans would be defeated and kicked out of the land. True worship would once again be established in the temple. The heathen nations around the world would either be destroyed or would submit to the one true God, YHWH, and his representative on earth, the Messiah, the Davidic King. Those who acknowledged God and his Messiah would stream to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice and worship. Then the world itself would be transformed and God’s will would finally be done on earth as it was already being done in heaven. For Jews of the first century, when they celebrated Passover, they not only looked back at YHWH’s past deliverance, they also looked forward to such a time as this.
Of course, the chief priests and many of the other religious and civil leaders in Jerusalem were quite happy with the status quo. They had a sweet deal in place with the Romans and any “kingdom of God” talk that threatened Rome’s control inevitably threatened their own position and status. So, they, like the Romans, were on high alert each year at the time of Passover. This is why Jesus had to so stealthily make arrangements to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. He was already public enemy number one in the eyes of the Jerusalem establishment, so if they became aware of his whereabouts during the Passover meal, his arrest might have occured before the appointed time.
So, how ironic it was that as Jesus sat down to feast with his closest companions, he was surrounded by a betrayer, a denier, and 10 deserters. But despite the fact that these flawed and fallen followers were to soon abandon him in his darkest hour, Jesus unreservedly extended grace and understanding to these mostly well-meaning, though naïve and fearful friends.
It is with this Passover that Jesus inaugurated the first celebration of what we call communion, or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. The recollection of God’s past deliverance bled into the imminent expectation of God’s present and future redemption of his people. The hopes, dreams, and expectations of a Messiah, a King, a deliverer would finally be accomplished, but in ways that no one, not even his own disciples could imagine. A new exodus and a new covenant would be established through his death and resurrection. It would only be in hindsight that his disciples could look back on this moment and understand its full significance.
As would be done just a few hours later with his own physical body, Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take; this is my body.” And knowing that his own blood would be violently spilled the following day, Jesus took a cup and shared it with his friends, saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” Actions speak louder than words and Jesus’ actions here would have continued to speak loudly to his followers after the dark hours of this moment cleared and the light of the resurrection shone brightly in their hearts.
And his actions were not just for the 12 in that upper room; his actions on that night continue to resonate some 2,000 years later. Like his first disciples, our participation in the Lord’s meal continues to be a rehearsal of all God has done for us, in and through Jesus Christ. As we share this feast each week, it’s an expression of our relationship with Jesus and with each other. When we share communion, the Lord’s Supper, we are sharing in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – his life and his mission. Jesus is spiritually present with us in the meal and so we not only remember what he accomplished in his death and resurrection, we also celebrate his continued presence among us.
But Mark’s account of the Last Supper serves as a warning for us too. Like Judas, we can sit down to eat with Jesus and turn around and betray him. Like Peter, we might find ourselves moving from fellowship with the Master to outright denial. Or like the other 10, rather than conquering our fears through faith, we may simply run away. If we find ourselves failing Jesus in any of these or other ways, we can be sure that the Savior is still willing to extend us grace and understanding despite our many flaws – he’s faithful, even when we’re not. But the meal ultimately anticipates victory, not defeat. There’s a reason that the early Christians celebrated the Supper in a special way on Sundays and not on the Sabbath. The tomb is empty, and though, as disciples, we’re to live lives under the shadow of the cross, we are always moving towards the light of the resurrection.
The new creation has broken in on this present age through Jesus’ resurrection, but the fullness of the age to come is still to come. God’s will has not fully and completely been done on earth as it is done in heaven. Christ’s already reigning as King at the right hand of the Father, but the final consummation of God’s Kingdom is still in the future. As we break the bread and sip from the cup as citizens in Christ’s Kingdom, we look forward to that day when God will come and make his home among us again. He will dwell with us and we will be his people. He’ll wipe every tear from our eyes, because death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more. He’ll make all things new and Jesus will drink new wine with us in the Kingdom of God. We anticipate this Messianic banquet every time we commune with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus invites us to this meal and to eternal life in the age to come with these simple words: “Take; this is my body…take; this is my blood.” - Shay