Exodus 12.1-4, 11-14 and Mark 14.12-71
What’s redemption look like?
It’s a big question… a basic question… central since Christian faith is about God’s love for us in sending us a Savior… to free, redeem, liberate, save us.
The next question logically then is how’s that salvation work?
I always hope people see that God’s salvation in Jesus isn’t just about his death. I pray we can recognize the salvific aspects of the ministry Jesus performed: his teachings, healings, feedings, his interactions with individuals and groups… the care, concern and love he showed. All those were also God’s ways of working our salvation out too.
But our tradition does suggest that some grand movement of God’s salvation takes place at, or in the end of Jesus earthly life.
I imagine, most people, if asked about what redemption looks like, the image they’d come up with is the cross —
… either the Roman church’s crucifix with Jesus’ body bound to it,
… or the Protestant’s bare cross (its emptiness pointing toward the tomb and resurrection beyond the crucifixion).
It’s not surprising that people turn to the cross.
The most common understanding people have of the God’s redemptive act in Christ
is substitutionary atonement, understood in its various forms as:
a sacrifice ransoming us, or
satisfaction of our debt, or
as punishment for our sins.
All those understandings come of theological reasoning and development long after Mark’s writing his Gospel that we’re focusing on in this Lenten sermon. And let’s save the meaning of the cross in Mark for next week’s Palm Sunday’s sermon. We will be celebrating Palm and Passion Sunday.
Instead, today, in the 5th sermon in this series, as we focus on Thursday in Holy Week,
I want to suggest that the Table of the Last Supper is
an important image of salvation,
a picture of what Jesus understood redemption to be.
Like the set up for Palm Sunday,
in Mark’s version of the Last Supper, Jesus sends 2 disciples ahead,
where they meet someone who mysteriously understands
the Master has sent them to make preparations for the Passover.
If Palm Sunday’s organizational duo are about pre-planning a public demonstration against the violence and injustice of the Roman Empire,
Maundy Thursday’s planning pair are about secrecy.
The overture to Thursday follows Mark’s verse announcing that
“Judas began to look for an opportunity to betray (Jesus)” [14:11].
Mark’s reporting has Jesus making clandestine arrangements for the Passover meal,
withholding from Judas the precise location, so authorities cannot find Jesus in the Upper Room. This meal — this new Passover — matters, and Judas and his plans must not be allowed to interfere with its completion.
There are 3 main elements in Mark’s story of the Last Supper:
First, they eat the Passover meal together — the great remembrance of God’s action to liberate their ancestors that was relived each year in the ritual meal.
Second, Jesus speaks of his imminent betrayal — indeed before the night is done, Jesus will not only have been betrayed by Judas, but denied by Peter, and abandoned by the rest. Mark’s theme of failing discipleship continues through the end of Jesus’ earthly life.
Finally, third, Jesus invests the bread and the wine with meanings to be associated with his impending death — Jesus speaks what are usually referred to as “the words of institution,” the core of the ritual of communion…
“…Take, this is my body…
…This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
Jesus’ Last Supper is the first supper of the future. It connects backwards to the public ministry of Jesus. But it is also, before his death, the practice that becomes the heart of his followers post-Easter faith.
This Last Supper is a continuation of the meal practice Jesus created in his ministry. According to the Gospels, meals were one of the distinctive features of Jesus’ public ministry. He taught at meals. Banquets were topics of his parables. And with whom he ate was often a complaint of his critics. Jesus sat at table with “undesirables,” the marginalized and the outcast, in a society where the people with whom you shared meals mattered deeply.
Jesus isn’t living according to the customs or mores of his time. Instead, he is realizing the Kingdom he preaches. In chairs around a table and food enough for everyone gathered. And His Table was about inclusion in a society defined by social boundaries based on divisions. For Jesus, meals are deeply religious and dangerously political.
For an analogy, remember the young black men and women who risked safety — actually risked their own lives — to sit at lunch counters that had not been desegregated. But more than joining white people for a meal, they would have to be proclaiming, actually saying out loud:
“Black and white people sharing a meal is the Kingdom of God. The segregation we see in the world around us is against the will of God.”
For Jesus, meals are not just rituals and re-enactments. No cube of bread and drop of grape juice, as in our observance of communion. Jesus’ table was about the provision of food to hungry people.
Have you ever realized, in the Lord’s Prayer, what comes immediately after the petition, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” What comes next? “Give us this day our daily bread.” Sufficient food for all is the Kingdom, God’s will, how earth should be like heaven.
In Jesus’ teaching, bread symbolized the material basis of existence. And for Jesus’ peasant audience, bread or “enough food for the day” was a central survival issue of life.
The Last Supper is also an echo of Jesus Feeding of the 5000. You’ve probably heard this before… I think I’ve preached it from this pulpit. But as Mark narrates what Jesus did at the Table on Maundy Thursday, he uses four verbs:
Took, blessed, broke and gave.
These words echo and take us back to an earlier story, another scene, where:
“Taking the 5 loaves and 2 fishes, Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people…
It’s that same dark chord of failed discipleship again: the day is ending, the crowd, having listened to Jesus teach all day, is hungry. The disciples want to dismiss them to go to the surrounding villages to find their own food. Jesus tells them instead something quite impossible, “You give them something to eat.”
As the story unfolds, Jesus leads the disciples to participate in his alternative. I like that, Jesus leads us to participate in his alternatives.
Rather than mana from heaven, Jesus takes the food that is already there, and as it passes through his hands, there is more than enough.
I heard a preacher say once: “The story’s not really about multiplication, it’s about distribution.” The emphasis becomes “just distribution.” Shared meals are the mandate of divine justice in a world not our own.
So likewise, with the loaf of bread and the cup of wine at the Last Supper. They are shared with all at the new Passover meal. Holy food is given to all… Judas, Peter, those who are soon to abandon him, and women who not family with these men should by social custom not be at the Table with them.
As a Passover meal, the Last Supper hearkens back to the Jewish people’s primordial narrative. Mark never even needs to make any explicit references. It’s the most important story they knew. Their witness to God’s great saving acts.
The first Passover was celebrated in Egypt before the Exodus. Before the the tenth plague to strike Pharoah and Egypt. The death of the first born in every house of Egypt. The suffering that hammered and finally broke Pharoah’s will, so that he freed the Hebrew slaves. And the blood from the Passover lamb on the doorposts of the Jewish homes, it spared the first-born of the Jews.
But the Bible’s passover instructions are clear: we heard Adam read them this morning,
“Eat the Lamb; gird your loins, put on your sandals; be ready to leave.” The lamb was also real food for the exodus journey ahead. The last meal in Egypt was the first meal of their future. Substitute for the Empire of Pharoah, the Empire of Rome and the subversive spirit and promise of this story, rehearsed to bring it into the present, is not difficult to recognize. No one at the Last Supper could have missed it.
But, as I said, the connections to the Passover story are implicit — no Jew of Jesus’ time needed any prompt to make them. But Mark’s story makes explicit the connection between this new meal Jesus is establishing and his impending death. Jesus is the new paschal lamb; his final meal is the new Passover. This meal of Jesus body and blood are about participation with God through the offering of a sacrifice and the meal that results from it.
Do you see then how the Table is not just a foretaste, but instead participation in the Kingdom? Jesus isn’t telling them how to be saved in some life to come, or what redemption looks like in heaven.
Instead, he’s showing them the way to participate with Him, in Him, how to pass through all the death and deadness of living in an unjust world, how to free themselves from any and all constraints Empire imposes on their lives, and, instead, begin Kingdom living, in as much as they take up their crosses and undertake servant lives through which they can transcend all the bondages and oppressions of the world’s false kingdoms.
As nervous as it might make us Protestants, Jesus doesn’t just speak of the bread and the cup as symbols. He has the disciples partake. Eat his body. Drink his blood. For they must really participate, in the here and now, no matter how clueless and failing they often are.
They too taste the bread as body. And feel the wine wash across their palettes and into them. Beloved, Jesus isn’t taking their place. It’s not substitution. Rather he’s leading them. Going ahead that they might follow. Participate. That they might also participate in this redemption of the here and now.
Beloved, we like they are invited to follow Jesus, to face the worst the world can throw at us, to face the worst in ourselves, and experience that God is still present.
And we will survive to see another day, even though we may die. The Last Supper is a this-wordly image, a lived experience of redemption before death. It’s about bread for the whole world until no one is hungry. About God’s justice ultimately vanquishing human injustice. A new Passover from bondage to a strange, new freedom and responsibility …walking together a path that leads us out the long shadows cast by Empire and injustice and into the light of really living.
I guess the question is, Do we have the courage to follow. Will we participate? Or will we fall back and hope instead that he substitutes for us?