What makes a meal more than food? We all have important meals in our lives; birthday meals; anniversary meals; traditional holiday meals. But, what makes sharing a meal with someone (or someones) significant? The type of food? How it’s eaten? Where it’s eaten? Or, is it why you’re sharing a meal and who you’re sharing it with that make a meal more than food?
The meal the church remembers on Maundy Thursday differs from all other important meals. Its significance comes from the why and the who of the meal. It’s more than food. It puts God’s Word in our mouths.
The book of Exodus contains the origin story of the Maundy Thursday meal. God was about to free the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. He sent nine plagues against Pharaoh and the Egyptians; still Pharaoh kept them from leaving. So, God would send one more plague. One that would personally and deeply affect every Egyptian family, including Pharaoh’s. One that would put words of sorrow on their lips and cause “a great cry throughout all the land…such as there has never been, nor will be again” (Exodus 11:16). A plague after which, God said, Pharaoh would say the word and release the people of Israel.
God would pass through the land of Egypt and strike down every firstborn, both human and animal. But, God provided a means of protection, preparation, and remembrance for the Israelites. They were to take an unblemished, male lamb, kill it, and spread its blood on the doorposts and lintel of their homes. The blood of the sacrificed lamb on their homes would be a sign of God's promise to them, that He would pass over them and not destroy them. This blood would shield them from the wrath of God.
Along with this sacrifice, He established a meal. A celebration to repeat for generations to come. He gave them specific instructions on preparing it, what to eat, how to cook it, and how to eat it. God commanded the Israelites to consume the means of their salvation; to eat the price that was paid to protect them from wrath and judgment: the lamb, whose blood they spread on their doorposts.
In the Passover meal, we see God anchor His gift of redemption to the things of creation. It was more than just a meal for the Israelites. Every Passover meal after this was not a mere memorial to an event of the past. It was a participation in the original meal. When God told the Israelites to teach their children He put these words in their mouths, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses” (Exodus 12:27). The one time Passover of God continued to give the people the benefits of God's salvation both spiritually and physically.
On that first Maundy Thursday, during participation in the Passover, Jesus made this meal more than a link to a past salvation event. The hour of Jesus passion had come and His suffering and death were right around the corner. Hosting the Passover meal, He gave His last word, His last will and testament. Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it the disciples, and with these words changed everything:
“This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me… This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19–20)
Jesus didn’t speak in parable or metaphor. When He said “is” He meant “is” literally. By these words of institution Jesus transformed the Passover into a meal of the new covenant. One in which He gives us His body and blood, together with the bread and the wine, for the forgiveness of our sins. During this meal Jesus puts the Word in our mouths, that is Himself. At communion, He is present with us and present for us.
Like the Israelites in Exodus, we consume the means of our salvation in communion. The body and blood of Jesus given in this meal are the same body and blood, given to death on the cross, buried in the tomb, and raised on the third day.
Most importantly, Jesus’ body and blood are given for you.
These two words “for you” are my favorite words in all of Scripture. Without them Scripture would be meaningless. Christ’s work is not for an imaginary “worthy” person. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are for you. His body is given for you. His blood is poured out for you.
The words “for you” mean this meal is not something we do in mere memory of Jesus. It is something Jesus does for us. United to the Word-made-flesh’s death, this meal reminds us that, on account of Christ (Propter Christum), God remembers our sins no more. Just as Jesus ate with Peter the denier, and with Judas the betrayer, and with the rest of His disciples who would desert him, Jesus continues to eat with sinners, with you and me.
God anchored His gifts of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in the tangible things of creation. In communion, God not only links us to His gifts, He unites us with Himself. At every communion meal God puts His capital W, Word, in our mouths, as we consume the body and blood of the Word made flesh.