Read the passage here.
Most of you are probably aware that we are in the season of Lent. It actually started several weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, which this year was on February 26. Likewise, most of us probably know that, traditionally, Lent is observed through the giving up of meat, especially in liturgical traditions like the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. In some other traditions, we don’t give up meat per se, but rather something else. The idea is that Lent is a period of preparation for Easter. The giving up of something is meant to be a preparation by intentionally paying attention to our own need for the sacrifice of Jesus. So, according to some, fasting is kind of a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality – that is, our need for Christ.
Therefore, we want to spend some time in preparation. Over the next few weeks leading up to Easter, we’re going to take a break from our series on Matthew to take a look at Jesus’ final days before His crucifixion. To put it in a more contemporary context, how are we thinking about things, preparing ourselves, in the days and weeks leading up to Easter?
If you pay attention to the gospels, Jesus’ crucifixion was not a surprise to Him. He very much knew that his mission from God the Father and His ministry on earth would lead precisely to that place. And He was quite concerned to prepare His disciples, the twelve, for that eventuality. In all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we get the account of the Last Supper, which culminates in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. In the gospel of John, that Last Supper culminates in Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet. Today, we’ll take a look at some thoughts and reflections on communion. And we’ll look at this through the lens of Mark’s gospel.
So firstly, how can we reflect on this account in Mark’s gospel – what was Jesus doing and communicating to the twelve? One of things that we notice is that, in his account, Mark makes sure to point out that this is a Passover meal that Jesus is sharing with his disciples. This may have been obvious to the early readers of the gospel, but it’s a point that’s worth remembering for us today.
We walked through the book of Exodus quite awhile ago now, so it’s worth remembering where the Passover meal comes from. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years when Moses entered the story, charged by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses confronts Pharaoh, who refuses to let the Israelites go. And so God sends ten plagues or signs over the land to demonstrate His power over Pharaoh (the self-proclaimed god in Egypt) and to convince him to let the Israelites go. The tenth and final plague is the death of all the firstborn in Egypt.
In preparation for this, in order to save the Israelites, God tells them to select a lamb, kill it and paint the doorframes of the Israelites with its blood. The angel of the Lord would then Passover that household, sparing the firstborn in that home. This is the relevant passage from Exodus:
12 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.
12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.
14 “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance.Exodus 12:1-14
Later, we see that this Passover meal becomes an integral part of the Israelite feast cycle – feasts which are celebrated throughout the year as a reminder – an anchor – of the grace of God and the identity of the people. God led them out of Egypt, out of slavery, so that they could become a holy nation, a people belonging to God – that they would be blessed so they could be a blessing to the whole world.
Mark is making the point (along with the other gospel writers), that this is a Passover meal. In the traditional Passover meal, the lamb that the family shares together, eats together, is the same lamb whose blood is painted over the doorframe – it’s the lamb’s blood that saves the lives of those covered.
So when Jesus breaks and shares the bread, saying, “Take it; this is my body,” and shares the wine, saying “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many,” He’s very much connecting Himself, His body and blood, with the Passover lamb.
So the main point, for our purposes, is that in communion Jesus is the Passover lamb. Whereas in Egypt, it is the Passover lamb that saves the Israelites (so to speak), in communion (or represented or communicated by communion), it is the body and blood of Jesus that saves us or gives us life.
Now, sitting on the wrong side of the resurrection (so to speak) the disciples don’t know what all of this means. Jesus has been preparing them for his inevitable death (especially notable in John’s gospel), but they still don’t have any concept of a Messiah who dies. They can’t conceive of victory for Israel, victory over their oppressors, that is achieved by death. In fact, in every other case of a supposed Messiah, the death of that Messiah would be conclusive proof that he wasn’t, in fact, the Messiah.
But Jesus, like the Passover lamb, accomplishes His purposes, accomplishes God’s purposes, precisely through His death. Because it is the death of Jesus Christ that achieves the true victory, it is the death of Jesus Christ that solves the real problem that we’ve been reading about through the entire story of the Bible – that over sin.
This is why Paul is able to say, in his discussion of communion in 1 Corinthians:
26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.1 Corinthians 11:26
This leads us to the other point I want to consider, and that is the extent to which communion also communicates an eschatological component. In Mark’s account, this eschatological component is communicated this way:
25 “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”Mark 14:25
Luke spells this out a little differently:
15 And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”
17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”Luke 22:15-18
And in Matthew:
29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”Matthew 26:29
What the disciples don’t know at this point, but what we now do (and Paul does when he writes 1 Corinthians), is that Jesus’ death is not the end of the story. Three days after Jesus’ death, He will rise again, signalling His victory over death, and thus over sin.
So, and again we could (and probably should) talk a lot more about this, communion (especially as Jesus frames it) is not just pointing to Jesus’ death, but also to His victory, which we see in the resurrection. The eschatological hope, then, is that this victory (though we don’t see the fullness of it now, in the in-between time) will be fully realized (we will take hold of it fully) when we share the meal again with Jesus when He comes again.
In other words, though we share the meal in remembrance now, we will share the meal with Jesus again because the meal contains a promise.
Now there’s a lot more that I wanted to say about all of this. Throughout the history of the Church, Christians have disagreed on how exactly all this is worked out in the lives of believers. Some of these are (in my own, and only my, opinion) relatively trivial. For example, churches sometimes disagree on how often communion should be done – some churches require communion every week or gathering as it’s seen to be the central act of worship; other churches do it far less often for fear of making it less special (or whatever other reasons). There are also considerations of who’s allowed to serve communion (i.e. only ordained priests or pastors – and in these cases, often only male). As well, we sometimes disagree who’s allowed to take communion (only baptized believers).
One of the more interesting and divisive issues in the theology of communion has been on how Christ is present in and through communion (that’s where we get discussions of transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and memorial interpretations) and related, how is grace imparted through communion. Here I want to pause, not to give you an answer but just to give us something to reflect on. There are some more technical issues around the presence of Christ in communion (and specifically, the presence of Christ in the communion elements) – we won’t concern ourselves with these.
For most of us, this is merely an obscure theological debate (it is to me, also). However, I like what the Orthodox tend to say about such things. With respect to the complexities of Orthodox theology, they typically tend to be more comfortable with, and even encourage us to embrace, the mystery of Christ.
Is Christ physically or otherwise present in the elements or ceremony of communion? Is it purely a memorial? Is grace, spirit, or power imparted in some way either through the elements or the act? These are not things about which I have answers for you. What I do think is that communion is actually important.
It should be noted then, that the Evangelical Free Church of Canada recognizes these diversity of opinions and allows latitude to individual congregations to decide both how to interpret it and how to administer it.
In our church community, we observe communion once a month (or more). We have also had a variety of people serve communion. And we welcome anyone who confesses faith in Jesus Christ to participate in communion, recognizing that none of us are in a position to judge any others as to their relationship with God.
But for us, communion is not casual. It’s not ritual for the sake of ritual. And communion doesn’t save you. But communion is important.
As we approach Easter, we try to remember the sacrifice of Jesus. And we reflect on the fallenness of the world that Jesus died to redeem. We reflect on our own sin, our own brokenness – that need that is fulfilled through Jesus. And though we know full well that, in this in-between time, we still wrestle with that sin, we can look forward to the final resurrection.
Communion reminds us, among those things that we’ve been talking about, that in the in-between time, we live out of the sacrifice, towards the hope, as we take hold of the life that Christ makes possible for us.