Summary: Drawing on the traditions surrounding the Seder, this sermon shows the Eucharist to be an unfinished feast which all believers participate in prior to Jesus’ conclusion of this Passover when he drinks the last cup of the Passover observance with his disci
Maundy Thursday that day in Holy Week when the Church remembers the inauguration of what is its principle act of worship – what we refer to as the Lord’s Table, the Communion, or the Holy Eucharist. It is referred to as “the breaking of bread” in Acts 2:42. And, from the earliest days of the Church, this communal meal, first instituted by the Lord Himself, has always been one of the three things which the Church did and continues to do when it gathers together – along with fellowship in the Apostles teaching and the prayers.
The Gospel lesson we heard read a moment ago is Mark’s account of the institution of the Eucharist in the context of the last Passover meal which Jesus celebrated with his disciples before he was betrayed, tried, condemned, and crucified.
Our understanding of this first Eucharist is clouded somewhat by our failure to see it in the context of the Passover celebration as it existed in the First Century. The Passover Seder, as it was called, in that day is substantially identical to the one observed by orthodox Jews even today. It begins with the question, propounded by the host of the table to the youngest male present. In that year, Jesus would have begun the Passover meal with this question:
Why is this night different from all other nights. The one who would have answered would have been John, the youngest disciple, who would have answered with an account of the Exodus from Egypt, when God smote the first born of Pharoah’s kingdom.
The question Jesus uttered – how is this night different from any other night – that question was intended to take the minds of those who heard it back in time to the first Passover. No doubt, it caused Jesus’ mind to move forward a few hours. For that night was, indeed, different from any other night that ever had been or ever would be.
As John told of the death angel killing all the first born of Egypt, no doubt Jesus’ mind reflected that before a day had passed, the first born of all creation would be executed outside the walls of Jerusalem. While John recited the ancient history, the Passover lamb lay on a platter on the table before them all. And, beholding it was Jesus whom John the Baptist hailed as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Tonight, as we remember this first Eucharist, I want to mention a couple of features of that Passover meal which have bearing on our understanding and participation in the Eucharist at this table tonight.
First of all, the sayings recorded in Mark’s gospel did not occur together. Mark records them together one after another, but that is because they were sayings of Jesus which had paramount importance for the disciples and for later Christians. In the way the Passover meal unfolded, the blessing and distribution of the bread occurred even before the meal was properly begun.
In accord with ancient custom, Jesus sat up from his reclining position, took the load of unleavened bread, and pronounced this blessing:
Blessed be Thou, O Lord, Sovereign of the world, who causes bread to come forth from the earth. And, his disciples responded, as is the custom, with “Amen.” The host would then break the bread into pieces, one for each one present, and passed it to them.
Normally, the passing of the bread is done in silence, but in this occasion, Jesus broke with custom and spoke to the significance of the bread. What is most significant in Jesus actions and words is the meaning of the word “body.” According to scholars of Aramaic, the word Jesus used refers not so much to his physical body as such, but rather to himself, to his own person. As the pieces of bread were being handed from one disciple to another down both sides of the table, until all have received a portion, Jesus is telling them, Take, eat, this is myself.”
The commentator William Lane explains it this way: “As certainly as the disciples eat the bread which Jesus hands to them, so certainly will he be present with them when they gather for table-fellowship. Jesus’ first give to the disciples was the pledge of his abiding presence with them in spite of his betrayal and death. The first word thus anticipates the resurrection and the real presence of the Lord at the celebration of the Eucharist.”
Between the distribution of the bread and the drinking of the cup which Mark mentions lies the entire Passover meal. There are, in fact, four cups of wine which are drunk during the Passover. They correspond to the four promises of salvation which God made to Israel on the occasion of the first Passover. These promises are recorded in Exodus 6 verses 6 and 7: