So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.”
Pure. Historical. Drama. In a nondescript upper story room. At the gathering which would soon take place, two thousand years of actions would be put in motion; what we call “communion” was instituted as a right of the fledgling Christian church, even before it was a church. At the same event, Jesus told Judas to leave and get about his business of betrayal, and off he went to the authorities… and to his ultimate ruin. And at the same time, the disciples heard that the One they had come to adore would become their Paschal Lamb, but even with his explanation, they still couldn’t take it all in. “This is my body” and “this is my blood” were still more symbolic language to the listeners and not the Symbolic Truth they were to become as they saw him sacrificed on the Altar of God.
While in Wheaton at grad school, it was my privilege to associate with many international students. These new friends were from all over the world, from Indonesia to Alaska and from Uganda to Uruguay. And, to a person, we were all united in loving this Jesus, this Near Asian construction worker become itinerant teacher. We all loved him without reserve, but these folks, these “global Christians,” brought something to the table that I find to be too absent from too many American Christians. These folks of all races and colors and accents and favorite cuisines all had a richer understanding of the Jewish roots of Christianity than most of us do. I wondered at that, was surprised at that, but was greatly impressed by that. And the Last Supper was Passover to them, it was the Angel of Death passing over the homes whose doors were drenched by the Blood of the Lamb.
Most of these friends were either first or second generation Christians. Many were coming out of tribal or cultural belief systems. When missionaries presented the gospel to them, they did so with a need to teach the antiquity of Christian faith and the context of the Old Testament; they needed to teach Judaism as the original “carriers of the revolution.” These friends embraced the Old Testament with so much fervor and respect and taught me to reconsider the depth and importance of this First Testament about God and man and the world. In so doing, I would find myself in the kinds of conversations which would have been common before the canon of the New Testament had been assembled. God has manifold witnesses and these folks embraced that.
I think about that as we enter the deepest dramas of Holy Week 2016. The celebration that we now call The Last Supper was an explicitly Jewish activity. It would become, by embrace and expression, an event of Christian import, but it was clearly Jesus leading his friends in Passover remembrance as he clarified his presence in the entire story. But, they didn’t really get that. It seems that each was most concerned about themselves and whether Jesus’ expressions of betrayal about to happen might reference them. I think this shows us something profound about the nature of mankind: there was only one Judas Iscariot in the mix, but the other guys had, no doubt, pondered what they would do if push came to shove.
And this is another reason we should be so grateful that Simon Peter was the man he was. His volatile manner would erupt in stated union with the mission of Messiah… just hours before his cowardice would cause him to deny Jesus. Three times. As prophesied. And we think of John virtually demanding absolution from this heinous crime so as to ease his own soul. These guys are not yet world beaters. They would become world beaters at a later date, when the Holy Spirit had come inside them.
I hope that you get the opportunity to share communion tonight with the brethren wherever you are. We will have a service at our church. It will be very straightforward, very simple. By faith, we will recall the Loving Sacrifice of Him Who Could Only Be That Perfect Lamb in our stead. For us, this should be the drama. Jesus, born of a virgin in Bethlehem, hastened to Egypt for safe keeping, raised in Nazareth (that city of ill repute), traveling preacher in Galilee and beyond; this Jesus leads us in this recognition of our utter need for Him. And he gives Himself to us, again and again and again. Because that’s what we must have.
Clive says: “ I do not know and can’t imagine what the disciples understood our Lord to mean when, His body still unbroken and His blood unshed, He handed them the bread and wine, saying they were His body and blood… I can find within the forms of my human understanding no connection between eating a man– and it is as man that the Lord has flesh– and entering into any spiritual oneness with Him… My effort to do so produces mere nursery thinking… (I can not agree) with those who tell me that the elements are mere bread and mere wine, used only symbolically to remind me of the death of Christ. They are, on the natural level, such a very odd symbol of that. But it would be profane to suppose that they are as arbitrary as they seem to me. I well believe there is in reality in appropriateness, even a necessity, in their selection. But it remains for me, hidden.
I am not saying to anyone in the world, “Your explanation is wrong.” I am saying, “Your explanation leaves the mystery for me still a mystery.” Yet I find no difficulty in believing that the veil between the worlds, nowhere else (for me) so impenetrable to the intellect, is nowhere else so thin and permeable to divine operation. Here a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul but my body. Here the prig, the don, the modern in me have no advantage over the savage or the child.
I hope I do not offend God by making my Communions in the frame of mind I have been describing. The command, after all, was ‘Take, eat’; not ‘Take, understand.’”
from Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer