Imagine with me for a few minutes. Imagine you are at this party, this “family” get-together that you and your “family” have each year. Not only that but every 365 days your “family” gets together at the same time of year to celebrate your “family” situation. Every evening of the fourteenth day of the first full moon your “family” comes together as no “family” had ever before come together.
Now imagine with me that it’s a little bit more than even that. In fact, your “family” has been getting together not just in your lifetime or in the lifetime of your parents or, for that matter, in the lifetime of your grandparents and great-grandparents, but they’ve been doing this same celebration in your family for centuries, for many centuries. In fact, they’ve been coming together for this celebration, every year with your “family”, for over a thousand years. Imagine that when you “do the math” and look back over your heritage to when this “family” celebration first began, you find out that by the time you come together for this particular year’s celebration, your “family’s” ancestors have actually been coming together for as many as one thousand, three hundred years. One thousand, three hundred years! Wow! That’s impressive!
Imagine for a moment that this celebration must be as special as it seems to be, given that your “family” has been coming together for as long as it has in order to celebrate this occasion. Imagine what must be so important that you, your siblings, your parents, your aunts, uncles and cousins, your grandparents and great-grandparents and every distant cousin you can think of – family members going back centuries who you never knew in person – imagine your family coming together yet one more time again this year, at this time of year. Imagine what it must be that could bring you together year after year after year like this. Imagine what could be so important that your “family” members have been doing this for well-over a thousand years. Imagine what it must be that would cause so many people over so many centuries to remain so faithful to the “family” tradition that they would continue coming together for this celebration, this party, so faithfully and for so long.
Imagine also for a moment how your “family” could have even pulled off such a feat in the first place. Just think of the teaching, the education of the “family” that would have been required and dutifully accomplished over all those centuries so that all of your “family” would keep the celebration – so they could keep the party going. Celebrations like this just don’t happen year after year after year by accident. A celebration like this takes planning. A celebration like this takes understanding. A celebration like this takes teaching. A celebration like this takes faith. A celebration like this must have phenomenal meaning for your “family” to have so faithfully accomplished it for so many centuries. For a celebration like this to have come off year after year after year would say to everybody that there was a very serious meaning to this celebration. So we have to ask ourselves the question, “What could possibly be so important that your ‘family’ would have come together like this for so many years? What on earth could that be?”
We’ve now come to the point in Luther’s Small Catechism that addresses the Lord’s Supper, the same Lord’s Supper that Jesus instituted on Maundy Thursday, that first Maundy Thursday of our Holy Week that happened one thousand nine hundred and seventy-nine years ago. That’s almost two thousand years ago! Of course, that was a long time ago. In fact it’s even more time than the one thousand, three hundred year celebration we just discussed above. One has to wonder if there just might be some connection between these two events, between that celebration that has been going on for one thousand, three hundred years and this Lord’s Supper that has now been going on for almost two thousand years. Well, of course, there is a connection so let’s talk about that for a few minutes.
Remember first that we’ve previously discussed how our Lutheran Christianity grew out of our Roman Catholic heritage which itself grew out of gentile Christianity which, in turn, grew out of the early Jewish-Christian church, a Christianity itself whose heritage was the very Judaism that Jesus and his followers believed and lived during their earthly lives.
But first, imagine again for a moment, that at your “family” celebration you did the same things during the course of that celebration that your “family” had been doing for all those one thousand, three hundred years. Imagine at that celebration that you performed the same rituals, you ate the same foods, you read the same scriptural texts, you asked the same questions and you told the same story – year after year after year. What on earth could possess a “family” to so diligently keep the “family” tradition going. What on earth could be so important? And why on earth had there never been a time when this celebration never took place that same time every year? What on earth could be so important that your “family” would never ever consider not coming together for this celebration?
Now, to be complete, from the beginning of time as we know it, all human societies and groups have developed ways of saying and doing things, ways which were, of course, shared with the others in their group. For time immemorial people of any given group have found themselves “on the same page” as the others in their group. That’s just what various “people groups” do. They do and say certain things that tie them together with the others in their group. Another way to look at this phenomenon is to say that all groups mean certain, specific things by what they say and do. For example, a military salute honors our national flag, the uniform. A handshake sealing a business deal carries with it a trust as well as a certain amount of integrity and honesty. All these are symbolic actions that have a message. All of these things mean what they mean within a particular world view.
In fact, some of the most meaningful things these people groups do are the special meals that they share together. For example, we think here of a wedding reception or the family supper when the soldier comes home after several months on the other side of the world. We think of the surprise party to celebrate someone’s birthday. In fact, the birthday party says two things in particular. First, the party joins together the past event and the present moment. Think, for example, of the many “remember when” moments that come up in the course of the party. Second, the party also looks into the future. For example, we sing happy birthday and many more. In this one birthday party somehow past, present and future are held together.
So we make these events special and meaningful. It’s the way we’re hard-wired; it’s what we learned to do from growing up in our particular “family” system. This is just how we celebrate things with our “family.” In fact, we see examples of celebration all throughout our Hebrew scriptures, as well as in our NT, but we see one celebration in particular in the OT that applies directly to when and where Jesus found himself during Holy Week of the year 33. When we read through our OT we see that there was one, particularly unique celebration that the people of Israel did every year.
But first let’s step back into the time before Jesus came. Imagine, if you will, that you’re living outside of Palestine in the time before Jesus. You’re a Jew, a faithful Jew. You love YHWH and you know your story as the chosen people of God. You know your traditions as a Jew, and you know what it means to be a Jew. You know what it means to be part of God’s chosen people, the people of Israel. You know all about circumcision, purity laws and Sabbath-keeping. You know all about the centrality of the Temple and the Torah in your faith life as a Jew. You were born into that “family” and you’ve lived your whole life as a devout Jew, a lover of God, a lover of YHWH. Imagine now that you’ve come to that most particular of days – Pesach (meaning passing over) – that you and your fellow Jews have been celebrating for as long as you can remember in your life. You’ve celebrated Passover every year at the same time each year. That is you as a Jew.
Imagine next that you have together there with “family” in this room of your house and that you and your “family” are now celebrating the Passover, just like you do every year. You are reclining at the low table, laying on your left side (they called it reclining) and the older man at the head of the table starts to read in a slightly sing-song voice the story of the Jewish people. He tells a very old story of your “family”. He tells of the time when they were slaves in Egypt. As the old man reads the story everyone listening seems to know the story. They nod and smile as the tale unfolds. The old man reads aloud these words, “We, the people of Abraham, the people called by God to be the light of the world … we went down into Egypt, and were slaves there. And our God brought us up from Egypt with a mighty hand and stretchedout arm. He condemned the Egyptians, but he passed over us, and brought us through the Red Sea and into the wilderness; and he gave us his law, and brought us into our promised land.”
The story the old man tells goes on, and on, and on, through all the plagues in Egypt, all the dramatic details. At one point, right on cue, a little boy asks the old man a question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
“Because,” says the old man as he continues reading from his text, “this is the night when our God, the Holy One, blessed be he, came down to Egypt and rescued us from the Egyptians …” As a devout Jew you know, of course, that all of this happened a long time before but still, it happened on this very night a long time ago. You know this happened to your people – your Jewish ancestors – all those years ago. You know that all of this happened to the people of Israel, the people God loved and “chose as his people” and whom he promised to rescue.
As you continue listening to the old man you remember being taught about your heritage as a child of YHWH. You remember being taught that you were part of the whole of God’s chosen people, God’s “family.” You remember being taught that you were part of that same “family” that came out of Egypt. You were taught that this same “family” was, this very evening, hearing this same story and sharing this same meal in every Jewish home everywhere in the world that night. You remember learning that this meal made you all one “family” of God, God’s chosen people.
Imagine the old man continuing to retell the story, the same story you’ve heard at the same time each year since you were a child. Sure, everything happened centuries before but your story still has meaning to you. It was the story about how God loved your “family” and about how God rescued your “family” from Egypt. Things had never been easy for the Jews. In fact, it wasn’t just the Egyptians who had oppressed your Jewish ancestors. Following the Egyptians it was the Assyrians and the Babylonians and then the Persians and the Greeks. And now you are living in a time of extreme worry because there’s a new emperor in the next country where you have Jewish relatives, and this emperor wants to conquer everything and make everyone his slaves. Everybody knows this emperor specially hates us Jews. So when you celebrate Pesach Passover you remind yourself that you are God’s freedompeople. God made you and your people free, and he wants you to be free. As you listen to the old man you know that what really matters is that everyone is here, that we all belong, that we know God loves us, that we know God rescued us long ago [in the Exodus] and that God will rescue us again [in the new Exodus].
Imagine that as the old man continues, he raises his voice, chanting now with strange, haunting music. He is singing in a language like the one you are talking, only older, stronger, sweeter. You continue eating. The odd, flat bread that is on the menu for this occasion has no leaven in it because the people of Israel had to make their bread without leaven on the night they fled Egypt. The bitter herbs you were eating reminded you of the sorrow your “family” had in Egypt. Reclining at the table was supposed to say that all of you were God’s free people. Slaves stand; free people recline. The whole meal seemed to say, in a hundred different ways: this is who we are; this is who we were; and this is who we will be. And, coming through all of the story the old man was retelling was like the strange music of the story: this is who God was, and is, and will be. It’s very telling that this meal did and said all of these things for your “family” around the table. Of course, you needed to hear the old man’s words but once you began to understand it all, you better understood how this meal somehow said it all. And the whole while you were listening to the old man tell the story, you were sharing in the story – your story, God’s story, Israel’s story. It’s no wonder that Jewish “family” life was so special. It’s no wonder their meals meant so much.
Imagine we now move forward in time, to the time of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was a Jew. This same celebration was a part of his life from his birth on. Jesus was a Jew and he celebrated Passover every year with his “family” just like every other devout Jew did. And this year it was no different. Jesus had begun his ministry with his baptism in the Jordan, and it was now almost three and a half years later. When Jesus’ public career reached its height, he had set his face to go to Jerusalem. In fact, Jesus had planned a last great pilgrim journey so that he would arrive at the holy city at Passover time. Lk 9 51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
So now we are now ready to look at a particular Passover meal which came to mean, for some Jews and then for lots of other people as well, more than any other meal in the whole world EVER! Jesus had come into Jerusalem, and everyone had come along, thinking that this was The Time It Was Going To Happen. Jesus seemed to think so too. He seemed excited yet strangely troubled as well. He had gone into the Temple and done something you would have never expected. He had attacked the animalsellers and the moneychangers. For a few minutes anyway, Jesus had shut down the whole system at work in the temple. It was as if Jesus was saying this whole thing is out of line. What had been happening in the temple was not what God intended and now God was going to get rid of it. But how could Jesus have meant that and what on earth could he be thinking that God would put in the place of the temple?
Imagine now you have come to the time of the actual Passover meal itself, the same Passover meal you’d been celebrating for all of your life just as had all of your “family” for now one thousand, three hundred years. Everyone knew the words. Everyone knew what was said, how it was said, what it meant, and everyone knew what they ate at this Passover meal and what those foods represented. Everyone knew these things. You said certain things and only these certain things, and you ate certain things and only these certain things! What you said and what you ate had not varied for one thousand, three hundred years.
No one at the meal knew what was going on except, of course, Jesus, the host of the meal, and, as we will see, Jesus was the host of the meal in more ways than just the one. Because the authorities might have tried to stop him, or even arrest him, Jesus had arranged to celebrate this Passover meal in secret. Still, Jesus would eventually be arrested that very evening but he still had things to do with his disciples. In his person as the Messiah and as the now-having-finally-come YHWH in the flesh, Jesus yet had things to do for his “family” – and for us, for all believers of all times and places. The evening was yet young.
Imagine you were there with Jesus. After your arrival in Jerusalem you had been camping out in the cold spring air at Bethany. Every day on awakening you had returned to Jerusalem where Jesus taught the people. More and more people filled the city because it was Passover. Your “family” was flocking to the holy city for Passover, for the feast. Your “family” was the freedomparty, the kingdomparty – God’s chosen people. God had set your “family” free from Egypt, and now was the time for God to set your “family” free from the oppression of Rome. By this time Jesus’ followers thought Jesus was going to be the messianic king who would overthrow Rome. They thought that Jesus would suddenly give the signal, and everyone – the thousands of people assembled there – would be ready to act. Given all of your “family” who were going to be in the city at Passover, this would be the best of times to overthrow the oppressive Romans. And now you even had this man of God, Jesus, to lead the way. Or so they thought.
Still Passover was almost here, and yet nothing had happened. You and the others were wondering what he would do. There had been the secret preparations a day early! You could only imagine what Jesus had in mind. You were worried this would lead to no good. You’d always had a few doubts as to whether his plan would work out. The authorities had eyes and ears everywhere. But then, on that Thursday evening of Passover … there you all were around the table, reclining in the timehonored fashion as God’s free people. And the meal began. The disciples talked amongst themselves, wondering what was going to happen this evening. They knew what should happen backwards and forwards but in their bones they knew Jesus was acting differently this particular evening. Something big, very big and different was going to happen that evening, but what?! Was he going to bring the kingdom? What was going to happen?
And then Jesus began speaking. He was going to say the words which the head of the family always said at the Passover meal. You knew them by heart; your father had said them year after year. Everyone there knew them by heart. The bread was the bread that our fathers ate when they came out of the land of Egypt. The cup was the same cup to life, the cup to freedom. But then Jesus said, “Take this bread and eat it it is my body. It’s given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” What had he said?! What on earth was Jesus doing?! Everybody was staring, stunned by Jesus’ words. You were convinced that Jesus had gone over the top this time. This was the Pesachmeal, the meal that told your “family’s” story. It was about the Egypt stuff, the freedom stuff. How could it now be about Jesus’ body as his words were clearly saying? How? And why should we do this in remembrance of him? What could Jesus possibly mean by that?
You were still buzzing about this when the cup came round. There are so many cups at a Pesach that none of you could remember afterwards which cup it was; but you never forgot what Jesus had said and done. Again, the familiar words. Again, Jesus had turned the normal words of the Passover meal inside out when he said, “Drink this, all of you: this is my blood of the new covenant. It is shed for you, and for many, so that sins may be forgiven.” What on earth was Jesus saying now?! This was too much. His blood!? Everybody knew that Jews didn’t drink blood and yet Jesus had said to do so. And this new covenant talk. What was this all about? Sins forgiven? What was going on? Why was Jesus changing the Passover meal?
Of course, everybody knew that the prophets had promised that God would eventually make a new covenant with Israel, his people, just like God had done when he had brought them out of Egypt in the Exodus. Everybody knew that with this new covenant, this final covenant yet to come, that would be when God finally forgave Israel’s sins once and for all, redeeming Israel from all their troubles, giving them their final, everlasting freedom. Every Jew assembled there knew what their scriptures said in this regard.
In fact, that’s what Passover had always pointed forward to. But somehow the future redemption of Israel seemed to have somehow arrived in the present with Jesus’ words. That’s what Jesus seemed to be talking about, that the new covenant his “family” had been awaiting for centuries was now somehow here!
Imagine how caught off guard you had been with Jesus’ words, with Jesus’ proclamation. How on earth could all this have anything to do with Jesus’ body and with his blood? Imagine how stunning all of this had been, centuries of tradition suddenly voiced by Jesus so differently than you had ever heard it said before. Imagine how all of this would have been so absolutely mind-boggling. Heads would have been spinning. What in the world was going on?
The Story, of course, goes on. There is much more to this Story. We’ve just been looking into something very important that happened in our Jewish religious heritage. We’ve been looking into the background of our Lord’s Supper celebration. This is how matters unfolded over the course of centuries for our Jewish ancestors, a long time in human terms but a mere blip in God’s “time.”
In this discussion we’ve seen how the Lord’s Supper came to us. The Lord’s Supper came to us in and out of this long-established Passover meal (what the Church calls the Last Supper), a meal the Jewish people had been celebrating as an expression of their understanding of the Exodus from Egypt for then one thousand, three hundred years. The Lord’s Supper came to us as this meal, a meal which the Church would eventually call a sacrament (the Lord’s Supper), this meal which Jesus began with us on that first Maundy Thursday. The Lord’s Supper came to us with this inextricable yet central connection to the long-awaited covenant which the people had known of and had been longingly awaiting for literally centuries. This covenant, this new covenant that only God could make, this covenant long-promised by God, this covenant which was yet to come had now come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, YHWH come in the flesh. At long last, God had again kept God’s promise just as scripture repeatedly has shown us that God always does … but it all had happened in God’s way and in God’s time.
So the Jews had this Passover meal. On the evening when Jesus was about to be arrested and handed over to the Romans, he held a Passover meal with his followers. But he changed the meal. He changed not only the menu for that long-established meal – what was to be served, but also what the meal was to now mean. With the changes Jesus instituted in that Passover meal the meal became all about God doing what God had been promising all along – but God was now going to be doing things in that new way. Somehow Jesus was going to die he seems to have known that. Jesus told them to repeat this meal in memory of him. He took the bread and said, ‘This is my body.’ And he took the wine and said, ‘This is my blood.’ It’s rather clear he knew he was going to die.
Still, Jesus told us to celebrate this meal regularly until he would again return at the time of his final judgment, at the time when he would resurrect all the dead and renew and restore all of creation. On his return the Lord’s Supper would then be celebrated in the great wedding banquet of the kingdom of God that we have already seen foretold in Is 25 6-9. That’s what Jesus would be about when he at long last came back to earth from his heavenly throne at the right hand of the Father where he now sits enthroned as king in his heavenly kingdom. Marana tha!
Thus it is that here in the meantime, in this time of the inaugurated kingdom of God in which we all live, Jesus left us with this Meal, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Altar. And at the core of this Lord’s Supper which Jesus instituted on Maundy Thursday was this new covenant – the same new covenant long-promised and foretold in our Hebrew scriptures. The new covenant was at long last here. This covenant promised in the whole of our Old Testament scriptures, and which all devout Jews awaited, had now been made by Jesus in this Passover meal, a meal he was using to institute what we now call the Sacrament of the Altar. Jesus had thus inaugurated the new covenant in this meal. Further, Jesus made the covenant, and everybody knew that it was only God who made covenants like this. Jesus was, therefore, God in the flesh – YHWH come in the flesh. Although, to be sure, it would take another three days and then some for the disciples to finally “get it,” for them to finally begin to understand what had really happened in this Passover meal there in the year 33. In the end his disciples would finally understand as they had never understood before, and in short order the rest would be history, and the course of history for the world would have been changed forever.
Unfortunately, in the larger sense, most Christians have neither the first clue from where comes the Lord’s Supper nor do they know how it comes to them. As such, most Christians fail to understand and truly appreciate the historical basis for the Supper. Neither do they understand its connection to the Passover meal, or the new covenant, that’s been reenacted for so many of the faithful through the centuries. Taking everything a step further, neither do most Christians really understand what is going on in the mystery of the Supper and what it was, and is, that Jesus intended for them to receive when taking the bread and the wine – when taking his body and his blood. The Passover heritage of the Jews is our heritage as well. And, in part because of these things, I dare say most Christians fail to understand and fully appreciate just what it is that comes to us in the Supper. That’s what we’ll address next in this catechism study of the Eucharist.
In closing out this section of our Lord’s Supper study, I only ask that the next time your approach the Table that, among the many other things, you reflect on the continuity we share with the Passover meal from antiquity, on not only what that Passover meal represented then but how that Passover meal came to fruition in Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus, the Christ, the incarnate Son of God, and how Jesus then changed it for his purposes. I ask that you be mindful of how this meal is to – among other things – cause us to reflect on the whole of Hebrew scriptures and in particular on the Abrahamic covenant, this covenant that later resulted one day in the Exodus and from which later the new Exodus was initiated. I ask that you remember your OT heritage, your “people of God” status and everything that means and includes as you kneel at the rail to receive the true body and the true blood of Jesus, the Christ, and thereby experience his real presence there – no only spiritually and supernaturally but in this way also sacramentally, along with all the community of saints, both now and always.