Sunday, January 1, 1994

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Exodus 24:1-11
Mark 24:12-25

And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank

of it. And he said to them, This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many.

Mark 14:23f.

It is sometimes called the Holy Supper, sometimes Communion, sometimes the Eucharist,

sometimes the Mass, It seems to have been the primary form of worship of the earliest

Christianity, of the apostolic church, before hymns and sermons. It is so distinctively

Christian that it can be easy to forget how deeply rooted it is in Judaism.

It is of course our observance of the Last Supper, and the Gospels, which do not always

agree with each other in matters of detail, are unanimous in placing this in the setting

of the Passover. To this day, Passover--now linked with the Day of Atonement and the New

Year--is the holiest event of the Jewish liturgical year. In Biblical times especially, it

was a kind of combination of the Fourth of July and Easter. That is, it celebrated the

event that gave the Israelites independence and that demonstrated the Lord's sovereign

power over the oppressive forces of this world.

Yet that was not all. The Passover evoked the era of Moses, and Moses had done more than

lead them out of Egypt. He was above all the lawgiver, the agent of the social order that

made them a special nation. He was God's earthly voice, the archetypal prophet, the

visible authority. Just before the story of the Last Supper, Matthew records Jesus as

saying, "The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: so whatever they command you to

observe, observe and do it."

The Passover, then, takes us not only to the dwellings in Egypt and the shores of the Reed

Sea. It takes us also to Sinai. It involves both the gift of liberty and the gift of law,

and we might digress for a moment to note that these are ultimately inseparable. Without

liberty, law is meaningless. One obeys the tyrant, who stands above the law. Without law,

liberty degenerates into license, and the civil state disintegrates.

When we think of Sinai, what comes first and foremost to mind is the giving of the Ten

Commandments. The more Biblically literate may also remember the building of the

tabernacle, and will be aware that the Commandments were followed by other laws. Some may

remember the incident of the golden calf, with Moses breaking the first set of stone

tablets and having to return to the mountain for a second set. Few will remember the

events of our Old Testament reading, and yet it is essential to the story.

After the giving of the Ten Commandments, we are told, the people were terrified and did

not want to hear God's voice again. They delegated Moses to relay God's laws to them.

This was the basis of the authority of "the seat of Moses" to which Jesus referred. There

follow laws concerning the treatment of servants, murder and manslaughter, theft, sexual

misconduct, witchcraft, idolatry, and the treatment of aliens and the poor, then laws

concerning false witness, justice, charity, the liturgical year, and the sabbath. In brief

compass, the basic structure of a legal system is given.

What follows this is the critical event of Israel's formal acceptance of this system.

They are assembled, oxen are sacrificed, the law is read, and in this solemn setting the

people promise obedience. Moses then sprinkles on them some of the blood of the sacrificed

animals, and their promise becomes a blood oath. Their lives are now pledged, which means

that their lives will be forfeit if they break their vows.

Without this step, the deliverance from Egypt and the giving of the laws would not

constitute Israel as a nation. Nationhood cannot be handed them on a platter or forced

upon them. It involves responsibilities which they must accept. In brief, we are dealing

with a covenant between the Lord and the people, and a covenant has two sides. In spite of

the radical imbalance of power in this instance, the covenant cannot go into effect

without Israel's signature, so to speak.

What does all this have to do with the Holy Supper? Very simply, Jesus' words at the Last

Supper make a direct and unmistakable reference to this moment in Israel's past. Moses

said, "Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you concerning all

these words," and at that moment, the covenant was sealed. Jesus said "This is my blood of

the new covenant, which is shed for many." Some manuscripts, incidentally, make the

parallelism even closer by leaving out the adjective "new" and having Jesus say simply,

"This is my blood of the covenant."

It was a huge claim, but not an unprecedented one. There had been new covenants before.

As was touched on last week, Joshua presided over a covenant ceremony at Shechem toward

the close of his life. Later, when David was forbidden to build a temple, God made a

covenant with him that his dynasty would last forever. The prophet Jeremiah looked forward

to a new covenant in which the law would be written on people's hearts.

Jesus' reference surely implied that this was a turning point in Israel's history, as

momentous an event as that ceremony at Sinai. More specifically, it implied both a new

deliverance and a new law. The deliverance had long been promised, and was essential to

the role of the Messiah, the Christ. The son of David was to be the fulfillment of the

promise to David that there would always be one of his descendants on the throne.

The new law had its ancient basis, as well. The eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomy had

Moses himself saying that at some time in the future there will be a second Moses. The

Lord says, "I will raise up for them a prophet from among their brothers, a prophet like

you, and will put my words in his mouth." It is hard to escape the conclusion that in

citing the words Moses had spoken at the Sinai ceremony, Jesus was stepping forth as that

new Moses, the giver of a new law to go with a new freedom.

The Judea of Jesus' time was subject to the Romans, and there was a passionate desire for

liberation from this yoke. We have noted during the past Advent season, though, that the

naming of Jesus was accompanied by the promise that he would save his people from their

sins. This moved the action of liberation to a whole new arena. It involves the same shift

we find in the opening proclamations of both John the Baptist and Jesus that "the kingdom

of heaven is at hand," a shift from the earthly kingdom of Israel to the heavenly kingdom

of God.

It is our abiding belief that this shift was accompanied by a parallel shift in the focus

of the laws, and there is ample evidence for this in the Sermon on the Mount. There, the

old law and the new are contrasted in a way that makes a pattern stand forth clearly.

"You have heard that it was said by those of old, You shall not commit adultery. But I say

to you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust has committed adultery with her in his

heart." The new law does not abolish the old, but takes it to a new and deeper level. It

applies to the non-material realm of thoughts and intentions, not just to the level of

physical behavior. These laws, clearly, are to be written on the heart. This is where the

new liberation is taking place with the deliverance from the bondage of sin, and this is

where the kingdom of heaven must be founded.

All this I would offer as the foundation in the literal sense of one of the most

fundamental correspondences of the Biblical story. A covenant, Swedenborg tells us,

signifies "conjunction." Covenant is what the Biblical story is all about. The titles "Old

Testament" and "New Testament" are better translated as "Old Covenant" and "New Covenant."

"Conjunction" is what our lives are all about--our relationships with each other, and

supremely our relationship to our Lord. The Gospel of John puts it most clearly when it

has Jesus say that the purpose of his teaching is that the disciples may be one as he and

the father are one, he in the disciples and the father in him.

The spiritual story underlying the literal is then the story of our journey from the

thoughtless oneness of infancy in which we cannot even distinguish self from other through

all the pains and struggles of growing self-consciousness toward the goal of thoughtful

union, union by choice. It is also, necessarily, a journey from more external concerns to

more internal ones.

This is put quite forcefully in a passage from Swedenborg's Arcana Coelestia:

Our deeds are only gestures, and seen apart from their intent are only motions variously

shaped and coordinated, rather like the movements of a machine, and therefore soulless.

But deeds seen together with their intent are not motions like this. Instead, they are

forms of intent presented to the eye, since deeds are nothing but witnesses to the kinds

of thing that are happening in our intentions. They actually get their soul or life from

our intentions. So we can say of deeds much the same thing that we say of motions--that in

deeds nothing is living but intent, as in motions nothing is living but energy [conatus].

People do recognize this, because intelligent folk do not pay attention to deeds but

simply to the intent from which, through which, and for which the deeds occur. In fact, a

wise person scarcely sees the deeds, but sees the quality and intensity of the intent

within them.

Arcana Coelestia 9293

This, then, is the locus of the new covenant--the human heart and mind. In the sacrament

of communion, we act out physically what is happening and what is to happen spiritually.

That is, we take in nourishment that will become part of our own physical flesh and blood.

This symbolizes the fact that our spiritual life is itself a constant gift from the

Lord--that is what is happening--and that our fulfillment, individually and collectively,

depends in our acknowledgement of this fact--that is what is to happen.

That inflowing life is not just blind energy, like the energy of the machine Swedenborg

talks about. It is qualitative energy, with the specific qualities of love and wisdom.

The discourse about oneness, about Jesus being in the disciples and the father being in

him, closes with his statement, "I have declared your name to them and will declare it, so

that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." Our faith

closes with the statement, "This is his commandment, that we love one another as he hath

loved us."

Communion, the Holy Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass--this is intended to be a love-feast

and a truth-feast. The God who liberated Israel by plague and overwhelming sea, who gave

the law in thunder and earthquake at Sinai, now comes quietly, intimately, to liberate our

hearts from their hardness and our minds from their darkness. He brings a new law, law on

a new level. In liberating us from what we might think of as behavioral control, though,

it leads us into a discipline that is in fact more rather than less strict. it calls us to

be honest not only with each other but with ourselves. It forbids verbal and even mental

abuse of others.

But once we grasp what it is saying, this new covenant bridges the gap between liberty and

law, between promise and obligation. It forbids nothing but what enslaves us, and the

presence it offers, the food that it gives to our souls, is the love and truth that

fulfill the law, the love and truth that we can become.


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