Tonight, on this first of the three holy nights, we are gathered to recall our Lord’s institution of the Sacrament of His Body and His Blood. This is the night of our Lord’s Passover, His exodus through death to life, His liberating our humanity from its bondage to the Egypt of the sin, death and the grave.
On the 14th day of the first month, all of Israel slaughtered a year old lamb, painted the blood upon the doorposts of their houses and ate the roasted flesh with bitter herbs and unleavened bread to commemorate their walk into freedom and life as the people of God. The lamb stood in place of their first born. Where the blood of the lamb was smeared upon the wood, there death passed over and the first-born of the house was spared.
It was Israel’s independence day, it’s memorial day. In eating the Passover, you were joined together with all of Israel, the present and the past, and you remembered the blood by which you and your forefathers walked into freedom. Freedom comes at a cost, the life of the lamb for your life, His blood shed for your life.
The Passover was also a meal of communion, of fellowship, of unity with the sons of Jacob. To eat of the lamb is to be one with God and with Israel, bodied and bloodied together as a nation, a people, a priesthood, a treasured possession.
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John announced it at Jesus’ Baptism. Here was the ultimate Passover Lamb, whose blood did not simply buy national freedom and a reprieve from death, but forgiveness of sin, eternal life and salvation. He lays down His life as a ransom, purchasing humanity from its bondage with His suffering and death. His blood alone can cleanse from sin. His blood alone atones for our life. His blood alone reconciles to the Father. HIs blood alone pays the redemption price. His blood alone, painted on the doorpost of the cross, means freedom, life, salvation.
Jesus gives His Body to eat as Bread. He does something with the Passover never done that way before. He takes the hard, dry bread of affliction, the unleavened bread, and He gives it as His Body, unleavened by the sin of the Adam. He tells HIs disciples to eat this Bread as His Body, given for them, for you. His death is theirs and their death is His. He is one body with them, as they are one body with each other. As the Israelites ate of the passover lamb, so the Church feeds on her Savior’s sacrificial body – this body conceived and born of Mary, this body nailed to a cross, this body raised from the tomb. The Lamb who was slain but lives.
He gives His Blood to drink as wine. The wine of celebration and gladness. The fruit of the vine that brings joy to men’s hearts. In OT Israel, blood was forbidden. It was poured out, sprinkled, painted on doorposts, poured over the ark of the covenant. But it was never eaten. Even the meat had to be cooked to well done to ensure no blood was eaten. The blood was for atonement. Life for life. His life for yours. For your sins. For every commandment you’ve broken. Every hateful thought. Every faithless word.
Now it is permitted to drink this Blood from this Lamb. Jesus says so. He’s the Lord. It’s His passover to do with as He pleases. And it pleases Him to give you His Body and Blood, the fruits of the tree of His cross. The cross is your tree of life, eat of it and you eat the food of immortality, the drink that gives eternal life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Do we believe this? This Holy Thursday causes us to consider it anew. Do we believe this? Do we believe that this wafer hard bit of bread is the body of Jesus, His very death given to us as a gift of His immeasurable kindness toward sinners. Do we believe that this is true and eternal food unlike any other food? All other bread we eat to our death. This bread which is His body we eat to our life.
Do we believe that this cup of wine is His blood? His life poured out for you. Do we believe that this is true and eternal drink, a vintage unlike any other, a “medicine of immortality” as the ancient fathers called it? Do we hunger and thirst of this Supper as for Christ HImself? Well we should, for this is how Jesus dwells in us, this is how He abides in us, this is how the Vine feeds the branches that we might be fruitful. There is power in this food and drink to forgive sin, to impart life, to raise us from the dead.
The ancients had an interesting symbol, the pelican. It was said that in times of scarcity, the pelican injured itself and fed her young on her own blood. This turns out not to be true, but the picture remains in ancient Christian art and in the hymn “Thee We Adore” by Thomas Aquinas.
Thou, like the pelican to feed her brood,
Didst pierce Thyself to give us living food.
Thy blood, O Lord, one drop has pow’r to win
Forgiveness for our world and all its sin.
(Lutheran Service Book #640)
Whether this in fact is true of pelicans or not, doesn’t matter. It is true of Jesus. He took the nails and the wood and the sword to provide a meal for us by which we could feed off His vicarious death and live forever. This is the theme of the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, from the lamb that provided clothing for Adam and Eve and all the sacrificial lambs and goats and bulls and pigeons, to the Lamb who was slain but lives seen in His victory and glory at the right hand of the Father. We live off the death on another. And nowhere in our temporal lives is this more evident than in the Supper of Jesus’ body and blood. Yes, it sounds grotesque, I know. It did the night Jesus first said it, and I’m sure HIs disciples were just as shocked as anyone hearing it for the first time. “How can this man give us His flesh to eat and His blood to drink” they cried out in Capernaum. This is how – He gives HIs Body and living Bread, His sacred Blood for wine. A new and fulfilled Passover; all of the old and more.
Food and drink bring vitality and energy. So also this food and drink. It is no idle body and blood, but as a Vine nourishes its branches to become fruitful, so Christ our Vine nourishes us with His Body and Blood to be fruitful. That fruit is, in a word, love. Agape. Self-sacrifice, epitomized by Jesus’ bending down at that same table where He instituted His Supper and washing the feet of His disciples. It was the lowliest of work, ordinarily done by the lowest order of slave. Jesus does it. The Lord of all is the Servant of all, who came not to be served but to serve and to lay down His life. And those who are His disciples, those who dine with Him at His table, those who eat the Bread that is His Body and the drink from the cup that is His Blood, are made servants together with Him.
This is not service to please Him. The Reformation made that abundantly clear. Our service, our “foot washing” does not earn us a place at the table, nor does it commend us to God. Only the Body and the Blood of Christ do that. But being bodied and bloodied we are drawn into service, especially to one another. Communion is never my little private time with Jesus. It is never simply me and Jesus to the exclusion of my brother and my sister. But communion has peripheral vision, it is mindful of the neighbor, the one for whom Christ died, my fellow believer. The same Body and Blood of Christ that goes into me also goes into you. We are bound together, we are “in communion” in a unity that transcends our petty divisions and extends beyond death and the grave to eternal life. That’s why we can sing “with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.”
This last aspect seems all but forgotten these days, when the individual experience of God is the main thing. It’s a curious observation that in the new testament, as in the old testament, worship is a corporate event, not an individualized experience. The church is a body of many and diverse members; it is precisely not an individual experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Lord’s Supper, which is a common meal of the whole church of which there is no private version. Whereas Baptism may occur in a private place, in a wilderness puddle as with Philip and the Ethiopian, there is no such thing as an ad hoc Lord’s Supper. It happens when the church gathers and marks that gathering as the Church.
“You are all one body for you partake of the one loaf.” Our unity is in Jesus Christ, and that unity is manifested and worked in the Lord’s Supper. This is the gift of this first holy night – the Body and the Blood, for your forgiveness, life, and salvation, and for the church’s unity in Jesus.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.