The Sum of the Covenant
Text: Luke 22:7-10
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “Tell all the congregation of Israel that …every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household…Your lamb shall be without blemish…You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it… And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.”
The Passover feast, which our Lord celebrated this night with His disciples in the large upper room of a stranger’s house, was observed by Israel from time immemorial. It was repeated again and again, each year. It recalled for them the ancient covenant, a testament to what the Lord did for His people as they were set free from their bondage in Egypt, millennia before. The shedding of the sacrificial lamb’s blood, the eating of the sacrifice, the deliverance from death, and entering the promise of a new and better home was all called to mind for them every time they ate of that meal. It looked back to their time in Egypt. It looked back even further, the first time the Lord promised deliverance, when animals were sacrificed in the Garden of Eden after the tragic fall into sin, when the shame of Adam and Eve were covered with the skins the Lord provided from that first sacrifice, performed by God Himself, to save His creations.
So we come to tonight, Holy Thursday, when Jesus, perfectly keeping the Law, fulfilled His obligations required by that covenant. He sends His disciples to find the place destined to be the location of this sacred feast. And when the hour came, He reclined at table with His Apostles and told them how He had earnestly desired to have this particular Passover with them. They ate the lamb and dipped their bread into the dish of bitter herbs. They sang the ancient hymns of Israel. They remembered God’s salvation in the Exodus, seeing their place in the long continuation of that story of redemption, their place in the story of God saving His people.
It would be Jesus’ last Passover. That made it especially poignant for Him. Indeed, it would be the last Passover, as it was about to be transformed, superseded by something new, something stronger, something even more mysterious and timeless. After the Passover supper ended, Jesus took bread—something additional, beyond what the ancient protocols called for—and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them. After that He took a cup of wine and gave it to them to share. It was surprising enough to see their Rabbi and Master changing the unchangeable feast, adding something new after it, since it was kept throughout generations, as a statute forever. He was pulling forward the ancient promises of God and combining them with something new, something different, as only He could do.
But what was even more shocking was what Jesus said about these new elements. “This is my body, which is given for you…This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Bread, wine, body, blood. How could He say such a shocking thing? And yet, because He said it, it must be so. He had never lied to them. What He had said always came to pass; it was always true. He who had told the lame man, “Rise, take your mat, and go,” now told them this bread is His body. It must be so. He who had said to a dead man, “Lazarus, come out,” and raised His friend from the dead, had said that this wine was His blood of the covenant. It must be so. Things were as He said. It was a mystery that they would ponder and discuss and meditate on for years—indeed, the Church still does—but it would be as the One who is the Way and the Truth and the Life had said: both bread and body, both wine and blood.
For thus it had to be. If the old covenant of the Passover, the old covenant of Sinai, of Abraham, of Eden—if that ancient covenant was to be superseded and transfigured into something new and stronger, it would need to be the body and blood of the Son of God backing it up. The Passover lambs had the power of God’s command behind them to be the sacrifice that established and reminded His people of the old covenant. The eternal Lamb of God would be needed to establish something greater. And this is what the Son of God calls it: “the new covenant in my blood.” Covenants could only be established by sacrifice—real flesh and blood sacrifice. In fact, for the Hebrews, a covenant was not made or written. In their language, they spoke instead of “cutting a covenant”. Blood had to be shed to establish it, to make it real, to make it binding. Symbols alone won’t do. Words and names signed on contracts won’t save. Only blood. Only the death of a sacrifice in the place of those who are to benefit from the covenant. This is how God had done it before, with the Passover, with Abraham, in the Garden of Eden.
But this covenant would be different. Jeremiah had foreseen how it would be. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant I will make with [them] in those days: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people…For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
All the prophets had testified of this. But something this powerful, something this eternal, would require more than the blood of bulls or lambs, repeated year after year. It would require the blood of God Himself, the eternal Son of the Father. That would be enough to grant forgiveness for more than a single sin or a day or a month or a year. Because of the value of this sacrifice, God Himself, there would be forgiveness forever.
Because of this, because this covenant lasts forever, the meal that binds us to it is to be repeated forever; a feast to the Lord, throughout generations, as a statute forever. It’s handed down from one generation of Christians to another. So tonight we welcome a new guest of her generation to our table to eat and drink this sacrifice. She’s been instructed and examined and has been found trusting in her Lord’s saving work here. So we repeat this with her every Lord’s Day. It’s done in remembrance of Jesus, the Sacrifice, seeing all of places in the overarching story of the Lord’s salvation, from Eden to Abraham to Sinai to today.
This remembrance is more than just recollection or a mental exercise. This type of remembrance sees our place in the story, this remembrance grasps and holds on to something bigger than us. It grasps and holds on to what He has done for us. We might even say that this type of remembrance is participation in the body and blood of Christ. That’s what St. Paul calls it. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” So we bind ourselves to one another and to our Lord, who gives Himself to us here in this Lord’s Supper, binding ourselves to the covenant—the promise of forgiveness and life—the covenant that Jesus is cutting in the cross, the covenant cut with nails and spear and thorns.
We approach this covenant with wonder. For in this meal we hold all eternity in our hands. Every promise God has given is contained in Christ, who gives His body to us here. Every sacrifice that cleansed, that reconciled sinners to God, is contained in the blood of Christ, shared with us here. In Jesus’ body is the sum of all that God did for our forefathers in the faith. In His blood eternal life is stretched out before us, flowing from His hands, His feet, His side. We marvel at what our Lord has done as we bodily take hold of the physical, tangible, real ways that He brings us mercy and grace here and now; as we taste and see that the Lord is good. And as we hold that promise received in the Supper, we turn toward the cross, drawing near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, hoping without wavering that He who has promised is faithful—faithful even unto death, even death on a cross. In the name of Jesus, our Sacrificial Lamb, Amen.