|Eating With Jesus
March 19, 2000 / Mark 14:12-26
McDonald’s is the world’s largest fast-food company. But they don’t sell food. They sell fun, good times, enticing experiences. Tell me, parents, do your kids ask to go there to get burgers or to get Happy Meal toys? Tell me, grandparents, do your grandchildren squeal “McNuggets!” or “I want to go inside and play!” when you offer to take them to McDonald’s on days you are babysitting?
The most memorable meals in my life are not memorable because of the entree or dessert but because of the company. We ate either Thanksgiving or Christmas Dinner at my Dad and Mom’s table for years. Since I left home for college, those meal settings were the only time I ever spent meaningful time in my hometown or with my two brothers. Other days of the year, we had our separate families, separate careers, separate lives. But the table let us be a family again.
McDonald’s isn’t food; it is a fun experience. Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas ham are not memorable for their juiciness or mouth-watering flavor; they are meaningful because of the people with whom we share them. And our life in the family of God is no different.
The church has a sacred meal that has been provided by the Lord. It doesn’t involve enough food or drink to keep a starving person from dying. Much less would it be enough to fill a hungry man’s stomach. It is an experience — an experience of joy in the presence of God. It is also a family gathering time. The meal is not only an experience of God’s joy but of his other children. People with separate houses, separate careers, separate temperaments come to the table of our Father, and his table lets us affirm that we are a family — brothers and sisters together in Christ.
Without getting lost in either the ancient or modern cultural settings for the defining meal of the family of God, we must learn to discern and experience its true nature.
What to Call This Meal
We call the sharing of bread and wine by different names: Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. Each name is taken from the Word of God and stresses a different facet of this multipurpose event. Calling it Holy Communion suggests that it is an act of intimacy in which we share both the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his spiritual body, the church. Referring to it as the Lord’s Supper affirms that it is hosted by the Lord Jesus Christ himself; he instituted it, assigned its meaning, and grants us the right to participate in it by his grace. Identifying it as the Eucharist, a term taken from a verse in our text today (14:23, Greek, eucharistesas = he gave thanks), reminds us that giving thanks to God for pursuing and saving us is an essential part of the meal. By these different names applied to it, we confess that no single term or line of sight can capture everything involved in this sacred event.
Some traditions also use the term Sacrament of it. If the word were understood simply in its basic meaning (Latin, sacramentum = a pledge of allegiance to one’s master, an oath), one could hardly object to using it of this meal. Participation in it is a renewing of one’s covenantal allegiance to God. But the word “Sacrament” has come by centuries of use to signify an event whose performance mediates grace. I believe meaningful personal faith is what makes events such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper effective as spiritual symbols. Since I neither believe in baptismal regeneration nor any automatic conferring of grace in Holy Communion, I typically do not describe either as a Sacrament.
Because I do not believe the bread and wine become the literal flesh and blood of Jesus, I do not use the term Mass of the communion. Neither do I believe that Christ’s sacrifice has needed to be repeated over and over, but that it is a once-for-all event on behalf of those called to Christ through the gospel (cf. Heb. 10:11-14). To share in the body and blood of Jesus under the symbols of bread and wine affirms our participation in his spiritual life rather than a direct link to his physical life.
Mark’s account of the institution of this thanksgiving (i.e., Eucharist) meal of the church is set in the cultural context of Jesus’ life as a Jew. The Jewish calendar is lunar, and the Jewish year begins with the new moon in spring (i.e., the new moon nearest the equinox), not in midwinter. On the tenth day of the first month (i.e., Abib 10 or Nisan 10), lambs deemed appropriate as unblemished sacrifices were to be selected. According to the directions found in Exodus 12, those lambs were kept until the fourteenth day of the month and killed at twilight.
It was on Thursday — April 6, A.D. 30, by our reckoning — that the final drama began to unfold. Jesus sent two of his disciples into Jerusalem to set up a room, secure the unleavened bread and wine necessary for Passover, and secure a lamb for the meal. Jesus wanted a final uninterrupted event with his disciples before his death.
The original Passover marked the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Yahweh had sent Moses to Pharaoh with the demand that his people be set free. When the King of Egypt refused, a series of plagues was unleashed against his people. The final one was to be the death of the firstborn male in every Egyptian home. In order to be spared in their homes, Moses had been instructed to tell the Jews to take a lamb, kill it at sundown, and “take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses” where they lived (Ex. 12:7). The lamb’s carcass was to be roasted and eaten in haste — dressed, sandals on, staff in hand — that same night. At midnight, the Lord passed through Egypt and struck dead all the firstborn sons. Even Pharaoh’s house was not exempted. But this promise was made to the Sons of Abraham: “When I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Ex. 12:13). It was the blood that saved them. The death of a lamb had exempted their houses and their children from death that night.
Year after year and generation after generation, the Jews continued to keep the Passover. Under the symbol of the lamb’s slain body and shed blood, they were being prepared to see God’s love demonstrated in Jesus. After the fact, Paul would write: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7b-8).
As an observant Jew, Jesus ate the Passover on Thursday night — or on Friday by Jewish reckoning, since Friday began at sundown — before his death at 9 a.m. the next morning.
When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. . . . While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”
Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it.
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:17, 22-25).
Contrary to Michelangelo’s painting of the Last Supper, the table at which Jesus and the Twelve were eating was not our western high table with chairs that put our feet and legs underneath. It was a Roman triclinium — a low, three-sided table with cushions on the floor. People reclined, leaned on their left arms, and ate with their right hands.
In this diagram, the host typically occupied Position 2. The guest of honor was ordinarily put at Position 3. From John 12:21-25, it seems that on this night, Jesus was at Position 2, Judas at Position 3, John at Position 1, and Peter at one of the positions directly opposite. Since it appears that Peter was the last apostle to have his feet washed by Jesus, he was most likely at Position 13 — the place where, ironically enough, the servant would ordinarily sit.
In the context of a meal that commemorated the great deliverance event in history to that point, the Lord’s Supper that would commemorate a monumentally greater deliverance event was instituted.
Our Observance of Holy Communion
The bread we eat is one loaf or one bread — though received in separate, tiny fragments. When the church eats this one bread, we are affirming that “in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5). Christ has only one body, one church. No one redeemed individual, no single congregation of God’s people, no one denomination is sufficient to claim Jesus for himself or it. So we eat the bread of Holy Communion (i.e., fellowship) and affirm in doing so that we are united not only with the Lord Jesus Christ but with all other believers who are one with him.
You know that the church Paul founded at Corinth was threatened by division when he wrote his first epistle to those believers. Some of the church’s members from the household of Chloe had brought him word of the factions that had developed (cf. 1 Cor. 1:11). Part of his challenge to that problem involved rebuking the self-centered behavior of those people. So he warned them against eating the bread or drinking the cup “in an unworthy manner” and said that anyone doing so would be “guilty of sinning against the body and blood of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:27). Here is his fuller statement: “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor. 11:29).
It was as if he told those Christians: “Look around while you are eating and drinking. See the sister you called a gossip last week. Look at the brother for whom you said you had no concern. Turn around and see the poor man you’ve never spoken to or the woman whose reputation is so bad you wish she’d just leave. Then realize that these people are the body of Christ. You belong to them, and they belong to you. If you can’t recognize those people as your spiritual family and learn to honor them, you don’t understand what the church is and are putting yourself under judgment.”
The bread also says something about purity. Whether the meal is eaten with leavened or unleavened bread, the words already cited from 1 Corinthians 5 about celebrating Christ as our Passover lamb and honoring him “not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth” should come to mind here. Individual believers must examine ourselves for unrepented sin when we come to this holy table. We must plead God’s enabling grace to keep our minds, speech, and conduct pure. Collectively, the charge to be “without yeast” is a plea for us to maintain our integrity as Christ’s presence in the world.
The cup we drink is “the blood of the (new) covenant” (cf. Luke 22:20). It represents his self-emptying death which initiated a new means to right-standing with God. We are not justified by keeping law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Neither rules nor our ability to keep them could gain us standing with the Father, but the advocacy of the Son of God puts us on solid footing before him. He honored the law, forfeited what he was entitled to on the basis of his personal holiness, and conferred it on us by grace — taking to himself the death penalty we deserved (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19-21).
Jeremiah had foreseen a new covenant that would somehow be superior to the one given to his forefathers at Sinai (Jer. 31:31-34). It would not be written on stone tablets but on the very hearts and minds of its recipients. The New Testament quotes the words of Jeremiah and affirms their fulfillment in Jesus. Sins are forgiven, and lawless acts are no longer remembered because of Jesus’ fully adequate sacrifice. “And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin” (Heb. 10:15-18).
We were cleansed by blood at baptism and included in Christ. We were made covenant people then. And now we rejoice in and renew our covenant commitment every time we drink “in remembrance” of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Go back where we started today, with thoughts of McDonald’s and Thanksgiving Dinner. Do you know now what I meant with that sort of introduction to this text? McDonald’s doesn’t sell food but fun. Thanksgiving Dinner is not about stuffing versus potatoes but family.
No matter whether you call it Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, this meal hosted for us by Jesus isn’t about grape juice versus wine or quarterly versus weekly observance. It is about the grace that has invited us into God’s house and to his table. It is about our ability to recognize the ongoing presence of our Savior in one another. It is about a finished redemptive work at Calvary and an unfinished work of maturing and gentling, reassuring and refining our lives. And it is about proclaiming him to the world through this meal we eat with our Lord Jesus until he comes back and brings that unfinished work to completion.
Until then, this meal nourishes our spirits and keeps us alive.
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