And Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in respect to all these commandments. - Exodus 24:8
It would be hard to exaggerate the extent to which the Gospels are rooted in the Old Testament. Of the four, Matthew pays most explicit attention to the theme of the fulfillment of prophecy, but the unspecified references and passing allusions are legion. Oddly, while my own Teachers’ Bible identifies many of them in its cross-references, it misses completely the connection between our text and the Lord’s words at the Last Supper. When Jesus identified the Passover wine as his own “blood of the covenant,” no devout Jew could have missed the reference. After all, the Passover celebrated the exodus, and the highlight of the exodus was the covenant at Sinai that transformed an extended clan into an embryonic nation.
The point is obscured, of course, by the King James translation of the Greek diathêkês as “testament” instead of “covenant.” Matthew is clearly addressed to Jews who were at ease with Greek, and his actual text bears a striking resemblance to the Greek version of Exodus which would have been familiar to his readers.
When we look at the Last Supper in this light, it explodes with meaning. The themes of liberation from bondage, entrance into a covenant relationship with the Lord, and founding of a nation are immense. For the disciples, this must have been a signal that a whole new era in the history of Israel was beginning. Especially after the euphoria of Palm Sunday, it must have seemed as though Jesus was proclaiming liberation from bondage to Rome. In the light of all his previous teaching, it must have sounded like the charter of a new Israel. Specifically (and this is the reference my Teacher’s Bible does pick up), it must have called to some minds at least Jeremiah’s promise of a “new covenant,” a covenant written on the heart.
It strikes me now for the first time that there is a very real sense in which the promise of Palm Sunday was fulfilled. There was a liberation from the Roman yoke. It was not, though, that the province of Judea won its political independence. It was that the community of the new covenant was independent of the political entity known as Judea. To the extent that it was a kingdom “not of this world,” the infant Christian church was not subject to Rome. In that sense, the Last Supper translated the Passover from a celebration of a past physical deliverance to the proclamation of a present spiritual deliverance.
Quite specifically, Matthew states that the purpose of this covenant is “the remission of sins.” Here the primary meaning of the word translated “remission” is “letting go.” We are reminded not only of Moses’s message to Pharaoh to “Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1, et. al.), but also of the command to Mary to name her child Jesus because he would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The liberation from Rome is again not a military or political achievement, but a liberation from all the material values to which Rome itself is enslaved. It is moving the whole focus of life to a different level, a higher level.
As for the second element, the entrance into a covenant relationship, this is only slightly more obvious in the Last Supper. A covenant between two parties involves promises and obligations. The covenant with Abram recorded in Genesis 12 was mainly promise, that his descendants would become a great nation. The covenant at Sinai was heavy on obligation. The covenant with David in II Samuel 7 is again mainly promise, the promise of an eternal dynasty. All focused on the founding of an earthly nation.
Now, in the upper room, with the radical shift in focus from the kingdom of Israel to the kingdom of God, something quite wonderful happens to this issue of promise and obligation. The commands the Lord issues are to take, to eat, and to drink. There is really no need to put the promise into words, for it is by eating and drinking that we are sustained in life. It is the very nature of divine love, our theology tells us, to want to give us what is its own. The Lord “commands” us to do what will make us whole, radiant, individuals—and then leaves us free to refuse. The only “punishment” for not eating and drinking is hunger and thirst.
The third element is perhaps the one we usually miss most completely. It is the function of the Holy Supper not only as the sign of an individual, personal acceptance of the Lord into our hearts and minds, but as the announcement of the formation of a new community. At the beginning of the Lord’s ministry, both he and John the Baptist made the same proclamation, namely that “the kingdom of heaven was at hand.” We are taught to pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”
A recent book by an eminent Swedish non-Swedenborgian puts it this way.
Happiness in heaven has community as its prerequisite. The sluggishness of new arrivals in the spiritual world is not just a matter of their being in an unfamiliar environment, but also because they have not sought out that community where they can exchange life-giving thoughts with like minded souls (Diary 400). Swedenborg’s writings are a handbook on the art of living together. Sharing thoughts with kindred spirits is a constantly coveted delight which is rarely experienced. His work abounds with spirits who are looking for community. They come from the same thinly populated land as he, from the same scarcity of people to talk to.
(From Olof Lagerkranz, Dikten om livet på den andra siden: En bok om Emanuel Swedenborg [n.p., Wahlström & Widstrand, 1996], pp. 133f., tr. GFDole)
For all its roots in Christian tradition, the view of heaven as the beatific vision, as the individual lost in the contemplation of the glory of God, is really profoundly unchristian. The Christian message is that there are two great commandments, not one, that love of God and love of the neighbor are inseparable. Any view of communion as a purely private sacrament misses fully half of its point. Matthew records Jesus as saying, “I will keep the Passover with my disciples” (Matthew 26:18). Luke ascribes to him the opening words, “I have deeply longed to eat this passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). The Holy Supper is a gathering together.
There is a profound need in all human beings for “that community where they can exchange life-giving thoughts with like minded souls.” It is the obligation of the church, under the new covenant, to be such a community, and it is the pledge of the Holy Supper that having been granted our freedom, we will do our best to make it so.
Liberation, covenant, and community are inseparable. They are imaged for us in the dramatic events of the exodus and Sinai. They are intensely personalized and moved to a new level in the upper room, brought to the highest level of intimacy. In our participation in the Sacrament today, may we be conscious of these three essentials—of liberation in the Lord’s forgiveness of our sins, of covenant in our resolve to do his will, and of community in a grateful awareness of each other’s presence.