It was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, preparation day for the Passover meal. As room is prepared in the house of a certain man. Everything was set in place long before the disciples arrived. Remember that the next time you think God hasn’t been at work until you showed up. Jesus’ appointed time is near. The Passover lamb is slain. The blood painted on the doorpost. This is the night Israel walked from slavery into freedom through the blood of the lamb. This is the night that death passed over the place marked by blood. Remember the blood. Freedom always comes at the price of blood.
The Passover was a sacramental meal, a sign by which the Israelites were joined in fellowship with the Exodus event. It was a somber yet joyous meal of bitter herbs, unleavened bead, roasted lamb, four cups of wine. The little child would ask during the meal, “Papa, why do we do this? Was does this mean?” And the father would catechize the family, “It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.”
Ordinarily, you ate the Passover with your family. Jesus is with His Twelve, His inner core of disciples, His Israel. You’d have expected Him to be with Mary and His brothers and sisters. But He sits here as the head of the family, and His Twelve are all there with Him. One will betray Him. The deal has already been cut. Thirty silver pieces is the price. They all denied it, including betrayer himself, like little children caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Or like all of us when we’re confronted by the harsh truth of our sin. We deny it. “Is it I, Lord. Surely not.” We’ve said it too, pointing to others, deflecting the truth from ourselves.
They eat the bitter herbs of the Passover out of a common bowl. Bits of bread serve as a spoon. To dip your hand in a common bowl is to establish your friendship and trust. It said, “I am your friend, I will not hurt you.” One of the Twelve, a hand picked disciple, would betray him. Long ago, David, who knew betrayal by his own son, wrote Psalm 41: “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” To be betrayed by a friend, a trusteed companion, is the harshest rejection. Far easier to absorb the hatred of an enemy that the betrayal of a friend. The act it so despicable, so heinous, it becomes the identifying tag of this night – “the night in which He was betrayed.”
Jesus pronounces a deep woe over His betrayer. It is divine sorrow, piercing His heart. “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.” Such sadness! Jesus could have been angry, as we get angry when betrayed by friends.
Yet Jesus is ever merciful, ever the Savior of sinners, ever the compassionate, prodigal Giver of gifts. He takes the bread of the Passover – that hard, unleavened bread of affliction – prays the thanksgiving prayer over it, breaks it into pieces, and hands a piece to each of His disciples. Was Judas among them? Neither Matthew, Mark, nor Luke indicate that he wasn’t. Did Judas take the bread and eat it? Such audacity on the part of Judas! Such mercy on the part of Jesus, who would commune even His own betrayer. And yet Jesus had said, “Every blasphemy against the Son of Man would be forgiven.” And He prayed for those who crucified Him, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” The other eleven were no more worthy to be there than Judas. Nor are any of us. The Passover is a meal of mercy, not of merit. You don’t earn your place at the table, you are granted it as a gift.
With the bread Jesus says something never heard at a Passover before. “Take, eat, this is my body.” The disciples must have been amazed, shocked, perplexed. What on earth was He talking about? How can this be? His body, which later that day, in the darkness between noon and three, would be given in sacrifice for the world, here in this room, at this table, He gives as bread to eat. “Take this, and eat it.” Live off my death like vultures off a road kill. “Where the carcass is, there the vultures will gather,” Jesus said. Is this what He had in mind?
They ate the Passover lamb in silence, or at least without recorded words. And then again, Jesus says something that was never said in a Passover before. He took the third cup of wine, the cup of blessing, spoke the blessing over it, and then gave the cup to each of the disciples. “This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for the many, for the forgiveness of sins.” Never before had these words been spoken at a Passover. This cup of blessing held the ultimate blessing, the blood of the new covenant. And here Jesus bids His disciples to do what was forbidden them by the Law – to drink blood. The blood of the old covenant was sprinkled. The blood of the new covenant is drunk as wine.
This blood would be poured out later that day, mixed with water, released by the thrust of a spear. But this night, in this room, at this table, He gives His sacred blood as wine, poured out for the many. Not just for the Twelve, but for “the many,” which in Hebrew is another way of saying “for all.” Many without exception, many more that you are able to count, or dare to number. “For He bore the sin of the many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” How many, you ask, wondering, or perhaps trying to put a limit on the mercy of His blood. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes way the sin of the world.” That many.
There is a note of anticipation, of something more. “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” The next time Jesus drinks, He drinks alone the sour wine raised to His lips by the soldiers. But there’s coming another day, when He will once again drink with His disciples at the feast Isaiah saw, the feast of fat things and fine wines on God’s holy mountain, where death is swallowed up in life. It’s the feast St. John saw in the final act of the Revelation, the marriage supper of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end. This supper is a foretaste of that Supper. Everything and then more to come.
Some say, “I don’t need the Lord’s Supper in order to be saved.” That’s both true and faithless. It’s true, in the sense that nothing needs to be done for your salvation that hasn’t already been done in the death of Jesus. And it’s also faithless, in the sense that faith in Jesus never refuses the gifts of Jesus. Rejection of salvation in Jesus is the only thing that can land you in hell, damned by your own refusal to be saved. Refusal of the body and blood of Jesus sets on the threshold. It is a refusal of His body and His blood, a refusal to live off of His death and for Him to be your life.
He gives His own body and blood for the life of the world. He gives His body as bread to eat, His blood as wine to drink, sacramentalizing the Death which is our death, the Life that is our life.
This is a sacrament, a mystery, the revealing of a hidden thing, something for faith to cling to. It’s neither ritual magic nor religious symbolism. The body and blood of Jesus do not make us immune from temptation and sin. As they got up from the table, Jesus told them , “You will all fall away from me.” Not only Judas, but James and John, Andrew and Peter. Peter, the bold confessor, says, “I’d rather die than betray you.” Jesus knew better. Years later, Peter would die confessing Jesus. But not this night. Before the rooster crows, Peter would deny Him three times.
Peter said a half truth that night. Peter also had to die with Jesus, as we all must die with Jesus. That part is more true that Peter realized. To die with Jesus, in His death, is to live with Jesus in His life. Peter died that day, in the darkness between noon and three, in the body of Jesus. Judas died too, though he tried to engineer his own death by suicide earlier in the day. How sad and needless a death that was! It would have been better had he not been born. All of us died in Jesus. “Christ died for all, and therefore, all died.”
In that singular death of the Son of God is the life of the world. Life for betrayers and deniers, for those of great faith and those of little faith, Life for you, in depth of your sin,
in your death. There is life abundant in Jesus, and His cross is the tree of life from which fallen, sinful sons and daughters of Adam can eat and live forever. And lest you doubt that for a moment, He gives you His Body and Blood in His Supper, a sacramental sign of the death that is your life, so that you may receive His body given into death, His blood poured out for the many and for you, and so believe.
This is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover.
Where the blood of the Lamb, there death Passover.
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
In the Name of Jesus,