Mark 14:12-26. An unfinished meal.

“And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.

And when it was evening, he came with the twelve. And as they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be sorrowful and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”

 

When most of us eat meat, it is all fairly clinical- we pick up a shrink-wrapped joint from the chiller cabinet at the supermarket, take it home, unwrap it, and pop it in the oven- no mess, no fuss, no blood, no screaming animals, no slit throats. It is easy for us to forget that eating meat involves death.

At Passover time, the Israelites performed a ritual remembrance of how they were delivered from bondage in Egypt. You can read about the first Passover in Exodus 12. On each subsequent year, to mark the anniversary, Israelite families met around the table. They ate a lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread. They remembered how their fathers had been sustained for the journey ahead of them by eating. Especially, they remembered how they had been protected from the angel of death by the blood of the lamb, smeared on their door-posts.  When the Israelites ate the Passover lamb, it was far from clinical. This lamb was not just a joint from Tesco- it was a living creature sacrificed for their sakes.

Mark tells us about the last Passover Jesus ate in Jerusalem with his disciples. Jesus, we shall see, went to great lengths to ensure that he had this uninterrupted time to spend with his disciples, and he uses the time to give them a tradition of their own.

1. Mark again tells us that it is Passover time (he has already done this earlier in Ch 14- note that it important to the passage). With whom would an Israelite normally eat Passover? Why would Jesus go against custom here?

2. Why is there all the mysterious secrecy – the cloak and dagger bits where the disciples are to follow a man carrying a jar?

3. In the intimate cosy setting of the upper room, why does Jesus raise the issue of betrayal? What is he teaching the disciples here? Other than “Don’t betray Jesus”, what can we learn?

4. This is plainly meant to be a Passover meal. How was a Passover meal usually conducted?

5. Jesus changes or adds to the traditional Passover structure in at least three ways here.

  • What does he mean by his saying about the bread?
  • What does he mean by his saying about the wine?
  • Why does he say so emphatically that he will not drink wine again until the day when he drinks it new in the kingdom of God?

6. This meal is the foundation for our practise of communion. How does this account affect our understanding of what we are doing when we break bread and drink wine together in our churches?

 

  1. Mark again tells us that it is Passover time (he has already done this earlier in Ch 14). With whom would Joe Israelite normally eat Passover? Why would Jesus go against custom here?

The Passover in Israel was a big festive occasion, in the same way as is Christmas over here, or perhaps Thanksgiving in the US. People would get together and rejoice, feast, and share fellowship. The landmark events of our years tend to be the big shared holidays- Christmas, New Year, Easter, Guy Fawkes night (now, sadly, being swallowed up by Halloween)- mostly Christian festivals in origin, even in a land of people largely apathetic towards Christianity. The landmark events of the Jewish year were without doubt the religious festivals. The Torah laid down seven great festivals for Israel (Leviticus 23)- Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the first month, then First Fruits when the first of the crops were ready to harvest, then the Feast of Weeks seven Sabbaths later, and then – all coming hard on one another’s heels in the seventh month- the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Three times a year, for the pilgrim festivals of Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles, all Israel would gather in Jerusalem.  Moses had said that the Passover should be eaten in the place that God would choose to set his name (Deuteronomy 16:2-8). Jerusalem was the city where God had put his name, and so it was the proper place to eat Passover. Not everybody would be able to make it every year, but a lot of people would. Jerusalem would be heaving at Passover, packed with crowds. The priests at the Temple would be working overtime to slaughter lambs for a quarter of a million people.

But Passover would not actually be eaten in the Temple itself. For one thing, the logistics would be impossible. Even eating in shifts, there would be no chance that everybody would be able to fit in the Temple for a meal between twilight and sunrise on the same day (and the time constraints were important- the lamb had to be killed at twilight, and none of it was supposed to remain when the sun rose in the morning (Exodus 12:5-10).

More than mere practicality prevented people from eating in the Temple though. Passover was meant to be a family festival. The original Passover meal, eaten in captivity in Egypt as Israel sought protection from the final plague that would strike the Egyptians, was eaten in households. The plague itself was a family plague- death of the first-born son of each family.  One lamb per family was the rule. There was provision made for small families unable to eat a whole lamb- they could join with their nearest neighbours and form one large household for the evening and the night. But the meal was essentially a family meal, and was eaten in the family home (Exodus 12:3-4). The lamb’s blood was painted on the door-posts and lintels of each homestead, for the protection of each household sleeping there that night.

Think of Christmas, or the US tradition of Thanksgiving. It is normal in our culture for Christmas dinner to be a family meal- and emotions sometimes run high concerning who eats with whom for that reason. If a teenaged son goes to eat Christmas dinner with his girlfriend’s family, then his Mum might be upset- he has chosen to be with a new family, and she feels an implicit rejection of the home she has made for him. For Passover, Jewish folk would find space somewhere in Jerusalem to gather with their families and eat the meal together. But for this Passover, there were at least 13 families in Israel with a missing member. The disciples, asking Jesus, “Where shall we go and prepare Passover for you?” (v12), simply assume that they and Jesus will eat Passover together, as members of one household. The bonds which hold them together are stronger than any natural family ties. Jesus too (v15) has taken this as read and has planned for things to be this way. They, the disciples, won’t be eating with their wives and children. Jesus won’t be eating with his mother and brothers. Instead, they will eat together. Perhaps they have been eating Passover together for the last few years- it has been a while since Jesus made it plain that his disciples were closer to him than his natural family, saying that whoever did the will of God was his brother and sister and mother (Mark 3:35). And the Twelve have given up normal family life in order to follow Jesus wherever he goes.

Jesus and the Twelve are now family. These were the men closest to him- they had followed him for the last three years, sharing his hardships, his excitements, his fears, his joys, his disappointments. When he had nowhere to rest his head, neither did they. When he stayed up all night, so did they. When he was glad to see crowds hearing his teaching, so were they. He did signs to show that the kingdom was here, and so did they. They were his family. But on occasions like this, the allegiance of the disciples to Jesus above all others is particularly pointed. Lonely people feel especially alone at Christmas, and the disciples would be especially drawn to their parents, wives, and children at Passover.

The church today is a family, a household. When someone is converted and baptised and added to the church, he gains a new family. His allegiances must change. Natural families are certainly good gifts from God, and a great source of happiness and joy. On family life, I prefer Adrian Mitchell’s gentle parody to Larkin’s deliberately jaundiced original poem about family life -though in a fallen world, iniquity really is visited from generation to generation, and there’s a great deal of truth in both (For Mitchell see below. Larkin’s original is quite rude, so I’m not going to post it here; you’ll have to Google it). But even the strongest natural loyalties must bow before the Lord Jesus Christ. When the expectations of a believer’s family run contrary to the things Jesus asks- when a family expects a believer to join in drunkenness, to laugh with them at crude jokes, to agree that an unregenerate grandmother has “gone to a better place”, or to spend Sunday morning at the cinema and not in church- then the family must have their expectations disappointed. This can be shocking to the world, outrageous and offensive. But the disciples rightly assume it will be this way- they are Jesus’ family now.

“They tuck you up, your Mum and Dad
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.

They were tucked up when they were small,
(Pink perfume, blue tobacco-smoke),
By those whose kiss healed any fall,
Whose laughter doubled any joke.

Man hands on happiness to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
So love your parents all you can
And have some cheerful kids yourself.”

 

  1. Why is there all the mysterious secrecy – the cloak and dagger bits with the man carrying a jar?

When the disciples ask Jesus where they will all eat the Passover, Jesus gives some mysterious instructions. He tells two of them to go into Jerusalem, and follow a man carrying a water jar. They are to watch the jar-man until he goes into a house. Then they are to go to the house and knock on the door, and they are to ask a certain question of the householder. On hearing the question (a pre-arranged “password”?), the householder will show them to an upper room which would already have all the furniture and equipment that would be needed for the Passover meal. The two disciples could then prepare- they could get the bread, get the bitter herbs ready, make sure wine was available, get the lamb- do everything needed for the Passover. And the two disciples did as Jesus said, and found that everything happened just as he had said.

Jerusalem may be crowded, but a man carrying the jar would stick out even in a crowd. If men carried water at all, they would usually do so in skins. Women- not men- carried jars on their heads, and fetching the water from the well was usually a woman’s job anyway. A man with a jar on his head would be a <ahem> jarring sight to any careful observer, as conspicuous as a man carrying a bright pink handbag in our day and age. He would be noticeable, and yet not everybody would know what he was about. Others might point him out, but only the two disciples would know his true purpose. His job is to lead the disciples to the house where Jesus has arranged for a room to be made ready for him.

All this seems to be done in order to keep secret the location of the upper room. It will even be secret from the disciples- all of them except the two who will prepare the meal, and even they won’t know where the place is until they get there. So why did Jesus go to all this trouble? Why worry about who knows where he will be to eat Passover? Why can’t he just book a room like everybody else, and tell all the disciples where they’ll be?

Because Jesus is conscious that the chief priests are after him, and that they would love to catch him away from the crowds. But Jesus also wants to eat the Passover with his family- with the Twelve. He wants it to be an intimate occasion, which means he has to leave the protection of the crowds for the evening. This meal would be an ideal occasion for Jesus’ enemies to strike. If they could only find out where Jesus will be, they could wait until the meal had begun and then come in with the heavy mob to grab him. The John Le Carre stuff is a sad necessity.

This, of course, sets the scene for the betrayal that is to come. Jesus has to hide the location from his disciples until they are actually there because he knows well that he has a traitor among the Twelve. Judas can’t be allowed to know anything worth telling the chief priests until it’s too late. If Judas overhears what Jesus says to the two disciples, he still won’t have any idea where the house is. The secrecy tells us how important it was for Jesus to eat this family meal with the disciples, without a gang of soldiers bursting in half way through. Jesus wants to be with the twelve, and to teach them quietly and in peace, before he leaves them.

 

  1. In the intimate cosy setting of the upper room, why does Jesus raise the issue of betrayal? What is he teaching the disciples here? Other than, “Don’t betray Jesus”, what can we learn?

Having set the scene by showing us the closeness of Jesus and the disciples, and the lengths to which Jesus goes to ensure that they are uninterrupted, Mark then records the teaching Jesus gave on this occasion. It is hard teaching to hear. Jesus has gone to such lengths to spend time with these men as his family; yet now, when the food is prepared, and the twelve are all reclining at the table- as was the custom- Jesus tells them that somebody in the room will tear the family apart, betraying the one who gathered them together. Mark is really emphasising the violation of fellowship and intimacy. This shadow hangs over their family meal. Their fellowship would soon be broken.

The disciples can hardly believe it. They all ask, “Is it me?”, unable to suspect their brothers.  Judas too, puts on a great act, even though he has already taken the money to hand Jesus over and knows full well who it is that Jesus is talking about. Then Jesus warns Judas. Jesus knows that he is going to die, and knows that this is God’s purpose- that the Son of Man should go as it is written about him- but the one who betrays him is still doing a desperately evil thing. Judas knows so much about Jesus, knows Jesus so well, has seen Jesus’ power and Jesus’ kindness, but still loves money more, and is willing to sell him. And so Judas is blind and deaf to the warnings. Judas is the supreme example of the man who rejects the light and deliberately chooses darkness. The man who hears so much that is good, but who hardens himself and is hardened. In one sense, Judas couldn’t have been a “sinner” in the way the Pharisees would have defined the term. He was one of Jesus’ right hand men. He can’t have been a murderer or an adulterer; he can’t have indulged in filthy talk. The sins he did, he kept secret. And he was very good at keeping secrets. Nobody among the other eleven seems to have suspected him. When Jesus tells them that one of them will turn traitor, they don’t all turn to look at Judas, nodding slowly. Rather, they suspect themselves. Remember that they have spent three years on the road together. They think they know each other inside out. Judas must have been able to pray as convincingly and warmly as the others could. He had done miracles, as they all had. He had preached to crowds, as they all had. He must have seemed kind, caring to the poor, faithful to Jesus- at least as much as the other disciples did. But in his case, it was all a sham. He was a fake. He was in it for himself. And over the years, I should think that he became more hardened. After three years, he can hear Jesus telling him that the man who is the traitor will be held guilty, and it would be better for that man if he had never been born, and he doesn’t even blink. In the context of this intimate family meal, where all those present are supposed to love and trust one another like brothers, when they are sharing bread, Judas can be plotting against Jesus in his heart, wondering when he can slip away to tip off the Chief Priests about where they are.

Jesus alludes to Ps 41:9, and maybe Obadiah v7, in his warning-  “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” The allusion not only makes implicit claims to Davidic kingship, but underlines the seriousness of the warning. In Ps 41, the righteous sufferer will be raised up by God to repay those who have whispered against him. Judas should take heed.

Judas teaches us about sin. Sin both deceives and hardens. When you are faced with a choice, and you can either do what is right on one hand, or do what is wrong on the other hand, and you choose to do what is wrong, that decision actually changes you. It leaves you a slightly different person from the person you were before you chose. It makes the part of you that chooses, that little bit harder. And the next time you choose, it will be easier for you to ignore your conscience and do what is wrong anyway. Taking your life as a whole, with all the thousands of little choices you make everyday, you are either turning into a heavenly creature, in harmony with God, full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. Or you are turning into a hellish creature, hardened against God, at war with God, and so at war with everything, including yourself. Sin will master you, if you choose to sin. Do not be fooled. Do not kid yourself that you will be able to stop sinning and repent when you feel like it. Because if you keep sinning, you’ll never feel like it. And the longer you sin, the less you’ll feel like it.

Judas realised when it was too late. He descended into madness, horror, rage, self-hatred, and suicide. We should remember Judas if we are ever tempted to think that we can ignore what God says, put it aside for another day. We should remember him if we see that we are hardening ourselves against God, deliberately doing what we know is wrong. Sin is addictive. It will rule you like it ruled Judas, to the point where he couldn’t stop. He wasn’t in the driving seat any more. He had given up control, bit by bit, and now Satan had entered into him.

 

  1. This is plainly meant to be a Passover meal. How was a Passover meal usually conducted?

This is definitely a Passover meal, made clear by a number of points. It is held in Jerusalem (in accordance with Deut 16:2), not in Bethany where Jesus and the disciples seem to have been staying. It is held late at night, when most folk would eat earlier in the evening (Ex 12:8). Wine was drunk, which wouldn’t be the case at normal meals for a rabbi and his disciples. There is hymn-singing in v26, which was part of a normal Passover meal. And- of course- Mark says that this was a Passover meal (v12, 14, 16).

There is a complicated debate over how to (for some scholars, whether to) reconcile the statements of John’s gospel with those of the Synoptics at this point. The Last Supper in John takes place “before the Feast of the Passover” (Jn 13:1). When the chief priests deliver Jesus over to Pilate, they have not yet eaten the Passover (Jn 18:28). And Pilate tries Jesus on the  day of preparation of the Passover (Jn 19:14). Some of the solutions offered end up ignoring fairly clear statements in the Gospels. Some argue that John’s dates are so clear that the Last Supper in the Synoptics is not truly a Passover; others argue that the Last Supper in the Synoptics is so clearly a Passover that John’s dates must be a reinterpretation of strict reality in order to allow Jesus’ death to occur as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed in the Temple. We’re not going to attempt an exhaustive evaluation here, but there are at least two possible solutions with which I’d be happy.

a) Different Jewish groups held to different calendars, and for that reason and also the practicality of sacrificing thousands of lambs in a short period; the Passover was actually celebrated by different groups on different days.

b) Jesus deliberately and knowingly celebrated Passover a day early, perhaps aware that it will be too late when tomorrow comes.

In any case, Mark’s Last Supper is clearly a Passover meal, and a normal Passover meal was done according to a plan. There was an “order of service”- a series of events that happened according to plan and custom. At each point, most people round a Passover table would know what was going to happen next. While we can’t be sure of all the details of normal 1st century Jewish practise, the meal was divided by the drinking of four cups of wine. A possible reconstruction could go as follows:

  1. The head of the household pronounces a blessing on the table and on the 1st cup of wine.
  2. The 1st cup is drunk.
  3. The whole roast lamb (referred to as “the body”) is brought in, along with the rest of the food. There would be bitter herbs, unleavened bread, and stewed fruit. Each item is symbolic, used as a visual, taste-able, memory aid. The herbs and the unleavened bread hark back to the historical Exodus. The stewed fruit is a later addition, thought to represent the red clay of Egypt, evocative of the bricks made by the Israelite slaves.
  4. The “haggadah” is recited. The youngest son of the household asks what makes this night unique with its special food and customs, and the head of the household retells the story of the first Passover and God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and offers praise and thanks to God.
  5. The first part of the Hallel psalms are sung- the Hallel are the psalms from 113 to 118.
  6. The 2nd cup is drunk.
  7. Unleavened bread is taken by the head of the household, who says, “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let everyone who hungers come and eat; let everyone who is needy come and eat the Passover meal”, echoing Isa 55. He blesses the bread and breaks it, and the pieces are passed from hand to hand in silence until all have been served.
  8. The bread is eaten with fruit and herbs. The main meal is eaten, before midnight. HoH commands praise to God.
  9. Following the meal, the 3rd cup is drunk.
  10. The head of the household gives thanks, concluding with the words, “May the All-merciful One make us worthy of the days of the Messiah and of the life of the world to come. He brings the salvation of his king. He shows covenant-faithfulness to his Anointed, to David and to his seed forever. He makes peace in the heavenly places. May he secure peace for us and for all Israel. And say you all Amen”.
  11. The second part of the Hallel psalms are sung- perhaps Ps 116-118.
  12. The 4th cup is drunk, and the meal ended.

 

  1. Jesus changes or adds to the traditional Passover structure in at least three ways here.

When you have a religious ritual, a set pattern of events, alterations are not made without very good reason. Even in “low” churches, there tends to be an established pattern for Lord’s day services, varying very little from week to week. The same basic elements are always there- a Bible reading (or maybe two), the singing of 4 hymns, a short prayer, the notices, a longer prayer, the sermon, a closing prayer. And they are usually in the same order. Some changes might be acceptable on occasion- the pastor might want to sing an extra hymn, saying that it is especially appropriate. A visiting preacher might do things in a different order because he doesn’t know the “proper” order. But changing things around for no reason is a) pointless, and b) likely to disturb people, and c) rarely happens.

But here, Jesus very definitely disturbs the normal Passover liturgy. There are things about this Passover meal that are completely new. Either Jesus throws out some of the traditional elements, substituting  new ones (i.e., when the bread is broken at point 7 above, Jesus makes it refer not to the Exodus from Egypt, but to his own exodus- his death; and when the 3rd cup is drunk, Jesus calls it his blood of the covenant). Or perhaps the traditional liturgy is followed, but Jesus makes space in the middle of the meal for a new ritual, breaking bread a second time. Either way, he has important reasons for doing what he does.

  • What does he mean by saying, “Take, this is my body”?

What does he mean? Obviously, the bread does not actually become human flesh, and the wine does not become human blood, the drinking of which would be utterly repulsive even to a modern Briton, and would have been a thousand times more so to a Jew.

But the bread is Jesus’ body. By eating it, the disciples join themselves to Jesus. They are still unaware of what will happen to him, but recognise that sharing this bread denotes a sharing of close fellowship. Jesus says that the bread is his body, and then he gives it to the disciples. Having just said that one of them will betray him, this is a promise that he will be with them despite betrayal, despite all their failures, and (though they don’t yet understand this) despite his own death.

Why is it bread that is used, rather than the lamb? The lamb was full of meaning in the Passover meal. It was, of course, the sacrificial lamb; and at the Exodus, its blood had averted God’s wrath from falling on the houses which placed themselves under the blood. This Old Testament picture had an obvious fulfilment in Christ (1 Cor 5:7). The lamb would be right there, steaming on the table. Why doesn’t Jesus say, “This body is my body, I am the true Passover lamb, sacrificed for you”? The lamb was traditionally referred to as “the body”, which image Jesus evokes, but Jesus breaks bread rather than carving lamb, designating the bread as his body.

Jesus knew he was starting a church tradition, and he didn’t want his followers for the next so-many-thousand years to be observing a Passover meal with a sacrificed lamb. We don’t need another blood sacrifice. The whole sacrificial system would soon reach its zenith and completion on the cross. The sacrificial blood of the new covenant, the blood that really cleanses from sin, is not the blood of a lamb, but of the lamb of God.

So we don’t slaughter an animal. Instead, we eat bread for sustenance for the journey ahead. We live on Jesus, drawing sustenance from him for the journey ahead, as the Israelites did from their Passover lamb.

  • What does he mean by saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many”?

Covenant blood is again a feature of the Exodus, and particularly of the events at Sinai (Ex 24:8), where covenant blood ratifies and seals the covenant God makes with Israel. The Passover meal commemorated the covenant God made with Israel, based on his deliverance of the nation from Egypt, and ratified at Mount Sinai. But Jesus’ words at this Passover do not look back to the Exodus. Instead, they look forwards, to his own death.

Jesus’ words draw on a complex of Old Testament scriptures. The “pouring out” of blood of which Jesus speaks of in v24 should be understood as meaning a violent death (cf. Gen 4:10-11; 9:6; Deut 19:10; 2 Kgs 21:16; Ps 106:38; Jer 7:6; Matt 23:35). But more than that, Jesus is drawing on Zechariah and Isaiah’s language.

In the servant song of Isa 53, the servant pours out his soul to death, bearing the sin of many (Isa 53:12). In Zechariah 9, more explicitly, God makes reference to the “blood of my covenant”, a covenant he has made with the king. Following the entry of the King into Jerusalem (Zech 9:9, cf. Mk 11), God makes a covenant in blood with the King and with his people. He will set them free, and set the King to reign over them in peace and prosperity.

Jesus is speaking of this, great, unilateral, covenant, soon to be sealed and ratified in his blood. He offers the cup to his disciples, extending the benefits of this covenant to them.

  • Why does Jesus say so emphatically that “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God”?

Not only does Jesus say this, but he backs it up with a further departure from Passover tradition. If this cup was the third cup, the next verse tells us that they sung a hymn and then went out to the Mount of Olives. According to the traditional order, after the singing there ought to be a 4th cup to end the meal.  Jesus and the disciples seem to omit the fourth cup altogether, going out straight after they have sung.

Having given his disciples the 3rd cup, Jesus says that he won’t be drinking any more wine until the Kingdom of God comes. Jesus is extending the Passover meal, refusing to bring it to an end. The fulfilment of the Passover hasn’t yet happened. Jesus, the lamb of God, has not yet been crucified; his blood not yet poured out. He will drink the final cup when the Passover is over, but he has not yet paid the price for the sins of the many. He has not yet redeemed his people. So he puts off the drinking of the final cup.

Jesus’ promise to abstain from wine bears similarity to a Nazirite vow (Num 6:2-4). Jesus is consecrating himself for sacrifice, but also looking to the accomplishment of the period of his vow. He is looking forward to the kingdom of God, to the great banquet of Isa 25 when God feasts his people with rich food and well-aged wine. He will himself drink the cup of death, and then he will share with his people the cup of rejoicing in the Kingdom of God

In the Jerusalem Talmud, the four cups of the Passover are interpreted in terms of the four-fold promise of Ex 6:6-7: “I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians… and I will deliver you from slavery to them… and  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement… I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God”. On that reading, the third cup- the cup which Jesus designates as his covenant blood- is the cup linked to the promise of redemption. The 4th cup is the cup linked to the promise of God’s taking his people as his own. It was drunk after the singing of Psalm 118- about God’s king coming victorious to God’s city, to reign over a people rejoicing in God’s steadfast love. With Jesus’ death, the first three promises are fulfilled. The fourth waits for his second coming to be complete.

  1. This meal is the foundation for our practise of communion. How does this account affect our understanding of what we are doing when we break bread and drink wine together in our churches?

Sharing bread and wine is, for believers, a tangible sign of the inclusion into the body of people redeemed by Jesus, and called to follow him. In the Last Supper, it anticipated Jesus’ imminent death. For Mark’s readers, when they shared communion, they would have looked back on Jesus’ death. It would be a means of grace to them. They would again take to themselves forgiveness, and again take grace and strength to follow faithfully. Jesus himself would give them these things as they ate and drank. By eating and drinking, they would place themselves into the care of Jesus, under the protection of his blood. They would receive the blessings he gives.

By eating, we reaffirm, remember, the covenant Jesus has made with us. We feed on him and gain strength for the journey ahead.  We acknowledge that we need Jesus Christ for life and health and strength. He gave himself for us, and we need him as our saviour. By drinking, we include ourselves in the many for whom Jesus’ blood was poured out. We demonstrate our total reliance on the covenant made in Jesus’ blood. We take again his blood to forgive our sins and to bind us to God.

The Lord’s Supper also points forward to the consummation, to the great heavenly feast, to what John calls “the marriage supper of the lamb” (Rev 19:9). Paul tells us that by eating and drinking we, “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Cor 11:26).

The meal is symbolic, certainly, and a ritual, for sure; but not all rituals are empty. Think of a marriage. There is a ritual exchange of vows and of symbolic rings, but that ritual accomplishes something real. Two people go into it unmarried, and come out of it joined to one another for life. The Lord’s Supper is a real means of real grace. It is like a couple re-affirming their vows of betrothal, making them more sure that they belong to one another, and pointing them to their wedding day ahead.

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