Text: Luke 22:7-20
I wonder how many meals you have eaten in your life? Assuming a rate of 3 meals a day, then by the age of 16 you will already have eaten over 17,000 meals, and by the age of 60 over 65,000.
I wonder how many of these meals you can remember? Some are more memorable than others – a wedding reception, a birthday party, a family picnic, your first communion.
We come this morning to the last in a short series from Luke’s Gospel exploring notable meals that Jesus attended. There have been parties, picnics, dinners, feasts and suppers.
But there is one meal that stands out from all the others. It was a meal that Jesus was especially eager to share with his disciples, and for which he made careful arrangements to share it undisturbed. There was an air of finality about this particular meal – talk of betrayal and suffering and of death. But there was also an atmosphere of expectation; a sense that this meal marked the beginning of a new chapter in the story of God’s dealings with the human race. At this meal Jesus was not a guest, but the host. And it was at this meal that Jesus instituted what Christians variously call the Breaking of Bread, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, or the Mass. (All of these names are derived from Scripture, apart from the last-mentioned).
We are speaking of the Last Supper. I want to try to explain something of its meaning and significance using three words, referring in turn to the past, present and future aspects of this solemn occasion that clearly meant so much to Jesus himself, and means so much to us as we recall it every time we receive Holy Communion.
First, then. Looking back, the Last Supper speaks of
Verses 8,11,13 and 15 all indicate that the Last Supper was a celebration of the Jewish Passover. Now the Passover was itself a commemorative meal. During that meal, the story of the Exodus was always told, no matter how familiar. That story told of the sacrifice of a lamb, whose blood was daubed around the door of the house. And when the Angel of Death came by, he would pass over these houses, so that the Israelites were unharmed and able to make their escape from slavery in Egypt across the Red Sea, into the wilderness, and on towards the promised land.
When the head of the house came to the point in the Passover meal when he broke the loaves of unleavened bread, he would say, ‘this is the bread of affliction, which our fathers ate in the wilderness.’ But when Jesus came to that point in the Last Supper, he said something different. His words are recorded in v19: “This is my body, given for you.”
Bear in mind that the Last Supper took place on the night before Jesus died. I think there can be no doubt that when Jesus says, “this is my body, given for you,” he is referring to events of Good Friday, to the giving of his body in death on the cross of Calvary.
V15 tells us that he already had his own imminent sufferings very much on his mind: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”
And then, v20, he speaks of “my blood, which is poured out for you”. Blood poured out speaks unmistakeably of death, of sacrificial death, of atoning death.
The Apostle Peter was, of course, present at the Last Supper. Later, he would write to fellow-Christians, (1 Peter 1:19) that they were redeemed ‘with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.’
The death of Jesus on the cross was no ordinary death. From the human point of view it was indeed the triumph of evil over good. But from God’s perspective it was precisely the opposite: the triumph of good over evil. It was not merely the death of a well-meaning martyr, but the means by which God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself.
And so the Last Supper teaches us to look back and commemorate Christ’s death and all that it means. It prompts us to remember Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice of himself for our sins on the cross of Calvary. It prompts us to reflect on our own deliverance from bondage – our bondage to sin. Let us make sure that we never lose sight of the place called Calvary; that we never forget how much we owe to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.
But the Last Supper doesn’t only prompt us to look back. It also has something for us in the here and now. For it speaks not only of commemoration, but also of
The Passover meal was itself more than a simple remembrance; it was a virtual re-living of the experience of the Exodus. One Jewish writing says, ‘in every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt.’
And so it is with the Last Supper. We are to see in the bread and the wine, not only symbols of Christ’s atoning death but also tokens of his nourishing, sustaining presence.
Of course, Christ is present with his people at other times and in other places. “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Mt 18:20). When his followers “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them, and teaching them to obey everything he have commanded them,” they go with his promise: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
But Jesus is especially present when his people gather to break bread.
Your Christian life is a relationship between you and your Saviour which is nourished and strengthened by your participation in the Communion Service. When you take communion, you are re-living your personal experience of Christ. When you put out your hands to receive the bread and the wine, you are saying, in effect, ‘I receive the benefits of Christ’s death: I am ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven; I am adopted into God’s family; I am “in Christ”.’ Jesus spoke vividly of this relationship in Jn 6:35, 54 when he said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty…Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Now, it is an absurd misunderstanding to suppose that the bread and the wine change physically and literally into the body and blood of Christ. But still the Lord’s Table is a real meeting place between Christ and his people. Our Saviour pledges to meet with us there in a special way. It is a place where we ‘feed on Christ in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving’. And, just as our bodies need food and drink regularly in order to keep them strong and healthy, we need to come regularly to Lord’s Supper in order to be nourished and strengthened by communion with our living Lord and Saviour.
Looking back, there is commemoration of our Saviour’s death. In the present time there is celebration of our fellowship with the living Christ. But there is also a forward-looking aspect to the Last Supper. For it speaks of
The Passover, became, over time, a focus for Messianic expectation. As they celebrated the annual Passover meal, Jewish people looked forward hopefully to the coming of God’s anointed One and to the redemption of Israel. Indeed, it was thought that the Messiah would come on the night of the Passover. An extra place would be laid at the table for Elijah, who was seen as the forerunner of the Messiah.
And the Last Supper, too, prompts us to look to the future. Jesus expressed this forward-looking aspect when he spoke of not eating the Passover again “until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God”, v16. And in v18 he says, “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Jesus is looking forward to the great festivities which will take place at the end of the age, when he returns and is reunited with his people perfectly and forever. The church is the bride, he is the groom, and that great homecoming will be celebrated in the ‘marriage supper of the Lamb’, Rev 19:9. In the meantime, Jesus has instructed his people to gather for an anticipatory meal ‘until he comes’. When we therefore come to the Lord’s Table, we do so hopefully and expectantly. Through all life’s changing scenes, its troubles and its joys, the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper encourages us to see that everything we have now as Christians is the first instalment, and guarantee, of the glory which is yet to come.
The early Christians would shout out an old Aramaic word at their communion services: ‘Maranatha!’ – ‘O Lord, Come!’ It is the cry of those who love the Lord now, and long to be with him forever. And when meet again for our service of Holy Communion, it is at the invitation of Christ himself, who bids us enjoy a foretaste of the great banquet to come.
Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift.