As we walk together throughout the season of Lent, our focus is going to be on the last 24 hours or so of Jesus’ life, walking from the Last Supper all the way through to his crucifixion and burial. Debbie's and my understanding of just what Jesus went through was greatly enhanced by all the time we spent in Jerusalem and I want to share that with you. These few hours are incredibly important for us to understand because much occurred during this time. For they truly were 24 hours that changed the world.
What Would You Do with 24 Hours?
What would you do if you knew that you only had 24 hours left to live? How would you want to spend that time? Who would you want to spend that time with? My family would be first on that list and then probably a few special friends who have helped encourage and support me over the years. It’s interesting when we look at how Jesus spent his last 24 hours. He knew what was coming and yet He went on with His ministry and teaching. Rather than flee Jerusalem where the religious leaders were becoming increasingly upset with His teachings and influence, Jesus chose to stay in the city and as a good Jew observe one of the holiest of occasions with His disciples – The Passover Seder. He invested a lot of time and energy that night in talking with the disciples, trying to prepare them for the days ahead.
The Significance of the Passover
Jesus had entered the city just a few days before on Sunday. He would have come from the east near Bethany as He descended down the Mount of Olives just outside the temple complex. The crowds were then shouting in His favor as they waved palm branches in the air – “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Each day that week He spends time teaching on the steps of the temple courts, pushing harder on His challenges to the religious leaders. However, by Thursday Jesus was no longer showing His face publicly because it was clear that the leaders had a plot afoot to catch Him and most likely kill Him.
So Jesus asks the disciples to go into town and prepare a secret place for them to celebrate the Passover. The sign for them would be a man carrying a water jug, since this was typically woman’s work, the man would certainly stand out. Peter and John went and found the man just as Jesus said, and they were given permission to prepare for the meal in what we now call the Upper Room. Certainly the man who owned the space was also putting himself at risk by allowing them to meet there. Debbie and I visited the Upper Room while we were in Jerusalem – a large cavernous space that would have been perfect for sharing a meal and some fellowship time together.
The disciples would have taken the Passover lamb that morning to be sacrificed at the temple and blessed. Then it would have been given back to them to take and roast for several hours for the evening Passover meal. To me it’s no coincidence that this was the feast Jesus celebrated right before His death. The roots of the Passover Seder go all the way back to the time when the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt. Moses was going before Pharaoh and pleading for the release of God’s people. Plagues of darkness, locusts, frogs, boils were sent upon the Egyptian people in an effort to get Pharaoh to let the people go, but Pharaoh hardened his heart against God and would not listen. And so the last plague involved the death of every firstborn in the land – animals and people alike. And God told Moses that the only way a house would be spared the death of its firstborn would be for the people to make a sacrifice and to paint the blood of the animal over the doorposts of their home. The blood would cover them and death would “pass over” that house. Pharaoh’s own son died in this plague and he was finally convinced to let the Jewish people go and have their freedom. He released them so abruptly that their bread did not have time to rise and so they took unleavened bread with them out on their journey. Later God commanded the Israelites to celebrate the Passover annually, remembering how God spared their lives and provided a way for their freedom.
When we were in Israel I picked up a book called “Enter His Gates To Your Jewish Roots” which details all of the important rituals of the Jewish faith which are in some ways part of our heritage. And it speaks about the significance of the Passover meal. The word “seder” means order and there is a special order to the meal with prayer and food and drink. Each person is to tell the story of Passover as if he himself had been redeemed out of Egypt. The actual telling of the story is from a book called the Hagaddah and many symbols are used to help make the re-telling a vivid story. The food on the Seder plate is all symbolic as well, the lamb shank bone representing the lamb slain for the blood on the doorposts, bitter herbs symbolizing the bitterness of slavery, salt water to represent the tears of the people, charoset, which is an apple paste, symbolizing the mortar the Israelites used to make bricks in Egypt, and a roasted egg symbolizing the new life that was theirs after the Exodus. Also there is always on the table 4 cups of wine representing the four promises that God made to the Israelites about their deliverance. The meal starts about sunset and usually lasts 4-5 hours.
The Transformation of Passover into Communion
The Gospels don’t detail for us the manner in which the disciples celebrated the Passover Seder. Most of them were writing to Jewish audiences anyway, so there would have been an assumed understanding about what took place that night. But what the Gospels do record for us, including our lesson from Mark today, is the unusual thing that Jesus did during the context of their Passover meal that night. For He takes some of the bread and one of the cups of wine from the table and instead of using the ritual words from the Haggadah, He gave it to them with new words. In breaking the bread, Jesus gave thanks and gave it to them saying: “Take and eat, for this is my body.” And in giving the cup, He gave thanks and gave it to them saying: “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.”
Jesus was transforming the normal ritual of the Passover meal into something that foretold what was about to happen to Him. Certainly His words about a new covenant should call to mind those of our lesson from the prophet Jeremiah: “"The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jer. 31:31-33). Jesus was instituting the new covenant, not by the law, but one of the heart. Passover celebrated a rescue from death and a freedom from slavery. And what we celebrate in communion through the eating of bread and drinking from the cup is how Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice and how His blood provided a way to conquer spiritual death and a freedom from slavery to our sins.
He was inviting all people to come and be followers of God. And just as the Israelites were called to remember Passover, those who follow Jesus are called to repeat His practice that night, and through this meal remember our story. The celebration of communion defines who we are, whose we are, and who we are following. What memories define you? What things in your past have happened that you continue to play those mental tapes over and over again in your mind…. Abuse, abandonment, betrayal, loss and grief? But there is one memory that is meant to define you more than any other – and you hear the words every time we gather to celebrate: “Take and eat, for this is my body, which is broken for you. Drink from this all of you for this is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in remembrance of me.” These are the words – this is the meal – this is the memory that is meant to define you.
This is our story as the people of God. We remember our salvation and that it came at the cost of a life, as God himself came down to earth in human form. This is a big deal and we have to get it. And this is what we remember every time that we take the cup and the bread; the memory should shape our life and be our defining story. Because we come into communion remembering that in the last hours of Jesus’ life we were on his mind. We come into communion knowing that we were once slaves to sin and death and we leave this altar rail knowing that we are free – choosing to follow Jesus and accept his grace and peace in our lives.