Many years ago, a relative asked me if I was going to attend the community Communion Service his congregation was hosting during Holy Week. I said, “No, our congregation is having its own service because we also wash one another’s feet.” He laughed and said, “Well, I’ve never heard of that.” Later I told our senior pastor about this conversation. He listened intently and then responded, “I guess he doesn’t read his Bible.”My pastor had a point. John 13 explains why we wash on another’s feet. I began to wonder about something as I reflected on this conversation. Do we Brethren really understand why we wash one another’s feet? Or, thinking about the bigger picture, do we understand why we have Communion in the first place?
Mark 4:12-26 tells us “12 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”
13 So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. 14 Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”
16 The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.
17 When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18 While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.”
19 They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely you don’t mean me?”
20 “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. 21 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”
22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”
23 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.
24 “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. 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.”
26 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
In order for us to understand the importance of what’s happening in this scripture passage, we need to know the historical significance of two major events in Israel’s history. The first one is Passover, which is found in the book of Exodus. Beginning in Exodus 1, we read the descendants of Abraham have grown into a large group of people which is enslaved in Egypt and being treated harshly. God hears their prayers for deliverance so he sends Moses to lead them to freedom. When Moses tells Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to free his people, Pharaoh ignores him. God then sends plaques upon the Egyptians as judgment and as a way to try and persuade Pharaoh to change his mind. Pharaoh still doesn’t free the Israelites.
In Exodus 12, God unleashes his most devastating judgment. He kills every firstborn male in Egypt. However, God wants to spare the children of the Israelites so he tells them to slaughter a lamb and sprinkle its blood on the doorframes of their houses. When the death angel comes, he will see the blood of the lamb and “pass over” that house. Once they kill the lamb and put its blood on the doorframe, they are to roast and eat the lamb along with bitter herbs and unleavened bread.
We see lots of symbolism in this meal. The lamb represents God’s supply for the journey and the promise of freedom. The bitter herbs symbolize the bitter years of slavery they had endured. Unleavened bread, which is bread made without yeast, represents how fast they will leave Egypt once the judgment occurs since they won’t have time to wait for the bread to rise.
After these events occurred, the Lord told them to celebrate this for generations to come with a Feast of Unleavened Bread and a Passover meal as a way to remember their God had delivered them. This is what Jesus and his disciples are celebrating in Mark 14:12-26. By this time in history, the Jews had added some other items to their meal. Wine had been added as an image of celebration and also because it was associated with God’s covenant blessings in exchange for Israel’s obedience. They also added a paste of fruit and nuts which represented the mortar between the bricks their ancestors were forced to make when they were slaves in Egypt. It’s possible this mixture is what was in the bowl into which Jesus and Judas dipped their bread.
While they’re eating this meal, Jesus takes two very important parts of this meal, the bread and the wine, and he gives them a new meaning. 22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” The bread no longer represents the quick exit the Hebrews made from Egypt. It now represents Jesus’ body which was broken when he was beaten and crucified for our sins. 23 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. What covenant is Jesus talking about?
After the death angel killed the firstborn of all the Egyptians, Pharaoh freed the Israelites. God brought them to Mount Sinai where he made a covenant with them. If they would obey and follow him, they, in turn, would be God’s treasured possession, a kingdom priests and a holy nation. God then gave them laws to live by as a way show the nations around them what it meant to serve God.
When a covenant was made in the Old Testament, it was consecrated to make it official. Exodus 24:1-8 explains how this happened. “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance, 2 but Moses alone is to approach the Lord; the others must not come near. And the people may not come up with him.”
3 When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the Lord has said we will do.” 4 Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said.
He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he splashed against the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.”
8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
The covenant between God and the Israelites was consecrated in blood. Throughout the Old Testament, blood continued to be used in rituals and sacrifices as a reminder of the special bond between God and his people. In Mark 14:23-24, Jesus says the blood of sacrifices will no longer be the covenantal seal between God and humanity. The blood of animals will be replaced by his blood, which he sheds on the cross. In Luke 22:14-22 and 1 Cor. 11:23-26, we’re told to eat the body and drink the blood as a way to remember what he did for us. This is why Christians have communion.
We see some interesting dynamics taking place when we look closely at Mark 14:12-26. Verse 18 says “they were reclining at the table eating.” In 1st Century Palestine, free people were typically the only ones who reclined when they ate. Slaves usually didn’t do this. When Jesus and his disciples ate this meal, they were under the oppressive thumb of the Roman Empire. They faced overwhelming taxation and they were treated like slaves. Yet, despite appearances, they were God’s free people. Their circumstances didn’t define who they were.
We aren’t so different in some ways. No, we aren’t slaves to an occupying army but we all have difficult issues in our lives. If we’re not careful, we’ll let these problems define who we are. We should not do this because in Jesus Christ we’re free. Our God has redeemed and freed us from the punishment of judgement day if we’ve accepted Jesus as our Savior and if we’re doing our best to live a Godly life.
Another interesting dynamic is the fact Jesus was having a meal with these people In the Jewish culture, sharing a meal together was a very intimate experience. It implied acceptance and friendship. It was a sign you wouldn’t intentionally harm the people you ate with. Who did Jesus allow to dip bread into a bowl with him? Judas, the man who was ready to betray his friendship by reporting his location to the Jewish authorities. Jesus also ate with the other disciples, who in a few hours would flee and leave Jesus all alone when soldiers came to arrest him. Jesus knew these things were going to soon happen yet he chose to eat with them anyway.
We’re not so different from the disciples in many ways. We’ve all betrayed the teachings of Jesus at one time or another for money, power and/or pride. Yet, Jesus loves us and invites us to dine with him by eating the bread and drinking the cup at our Love Feast and Communion.
This Thursday evening, we’re going to meet with Jesus at our Love Feast and Communion. Are you planning on eating with him? If you aren’t planning on attending, why not? Is it because you don’t feel worthy? Judas and the rest of the disciples weren’t worthy either based on their own merit. They were worthy because of Jesus. So are we. Perhaps you aren’t planning on attending because it seems strange to you and you’re nervous about it. It’s OK – we don’t bite. We invite you to recline around the table with us and be our friend. Perhaps you aren’t planning on attending because you’re like my relative. I don’t think he ever read John 13 because he wasn’t that interested in being a close disciple to Jesus. If this describes you, do you really want to have to explain your stubborn pride to God on judgment day?
Love Feast and Communion isn’t some ritual we place on the church calendar because it’s what we’ve always done. It’s an experience with the Son of God. It’s a reminder of what he did on the cross for us.
Please join us this Thursday evening at the communion table as a friend and as a disciple of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.