The New Covenant: A Meditation for Holy Thursday

Luke 22:1-27

We are now reaching the climax of Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem and on this night, in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem, Jesus will reveal to his disciples the real reason for the journey. It’s interesting that he does so not through another long exposition or systematic teaching, but he does so at a meal—indeed, a meal that has multiple layers of meaning in itself.

Luke tells us that the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Passover, was near. This was what brought Jesus and the disciples to the city along with thousands of others. It was the great festival celebrating the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt under Moses in the past; but its celebration was also a sign pointing to an even greater Exodus they hoped would come. They were still enslaved politically, chafing under the rule of Rome—the latest in a series of foreign rulers. Passover was thus a time for both the revolutionaries and the religious to hope that God’s ultimate liberation of his people was at hand.

Some thought Jesus might be the Messiah to kick off this great revolution. The disciples certainly seemed to think so, hence their excitement about going to Jerusalem despite Jesus’ warnings of what would happen there. And indeed, Jesus was about to initiative a new Exodus—but in a way none of them had anticipated. It would take a new Passover to launch it.

But like the first Exodus, when Pharaoh held the people in slavery despite Moses’ pleas to let them go and the plagues that covered Egypt, similar forces conspired against Jesus to keep the things in status quo—to keep God’s people in bondage. Luke tells us, however, that in this Exodus it is not merely a human ruler doing the dirty work, but the cosmic forces of evil under a shadowy figure called “The Satan” (meaning “The Accuser”). Back in Luke 4 we saw the Satan confronting Jesus directly, tempting him to be the kind of Messiah the people were looking for. It was the Satan who told Jesus that “all the kingdoms of this world” would be his if he would give his “worship” to Satan.

It’s a very old temptation, really. The first humans were similarly tempted by a snake, who invited them to consider what it was like to be like God, knowing good and evil on their own terms. That was a temptation to worship that which was not God—a form of idolatry that led them to disobedience to God’s command. They gave their worship over to a non-divine force and humans have been enslaved to it ever since.

Jesus resists this temptation, but that does not mean Satan won’t look for a back door. At the end of the temptations in the wilderness, Luke tells us that Satan departed from Jesus “until a more opportune time.” Now was that time. Satan “entered into” Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples, who conspired with the chief priests and temple officials to arrest Jesus. It was fairly easy for Satan to do so, given that Judas was already a slave to money and power—two of humanity’s greatest non-divine idols. Satan would attempt to use Judas to quash any sort of Exodus Jesus had in mind—to have Jesus imprisoned and, worse, to have him die the death of a slave himself.

The next day, Thursday, was the traditional day when the lambs were slaughtered in preparation for the Passover. Remember the reason for the lambs to be slaughtered in the original Exodus story—the blood of the lambs was to be sprinkled on the doorposts in order to be sign for the angel of death to “‘pass over” the Israelites. The first Passover was both a sign of judgment and rescue—judgment upon the firstborn of Egypt and Pharaoh it’s “divine” ruler, and the rescue of the Israelites from death and slavery.

Judgment and rescue are the themes of the new Passover Jesus will initiate. Jesus had warned that judgment was coming on Jerusalem and the Temple—he had proclaimed it in his actions in the Temple, turning over the tables, and in his weeping over the city. But Jesus would deliver his people by taking that judgment upon himself; his blood would be the sign that would cause death to pass over his people and enable them to escape to freedom.

But the enemy from which they would be set free was greater than Pharaoh and Egypt. It was the very power of Satan and evil, the power of Sin and Death. In 22:53, Jesus speaks of the dark powers having their moment of “power and glory.” They have already coopted one of his disciples. The dark forces that enslave humanity were arrayed against Jesus, and he would take them head on so that his people could escape.

All that is in the background of the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. Like in the story of the triumphal entry, Jesus seems to know in advance the preparations that need to be made. Verses 8-13 read like a spy story: “Find a man with a jar of water and follow him into the house he enters and ask the owner to use the guest room.” Seems like a needle in a haystack, but it wouldn’t have been hard to spot a man carrying a jar of water—that was woman’s work, after all. Such a man would have stood out like a sore thumb.

The hour came—the time had finally come, and Jesus took his place as the host of the meal. “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover meal with you before I suffer; I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in God’s kingdom.” He took a cup of wine and divided it among them, saying, “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” He is instituting a new meal, a new Passover for his followers in anticipation of his coming kingdom—a sign of the new covenant.

It was then that he took the bread and the cup—This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. Another cup was poured and he said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Note that Luke doesn’t say it was for “the forgiveness of sins” as Matthew and our liturgy do. It’s more than just forgiveness for my individual sin that Jesus is offering, he is offering a new covenant that will result in people set free from slavery to the forces of Evil, Sin, and Death. This is a meal that takes the original Passover and applies a broader meaning—a real Exodus offered to all who have been oppressed and bound by evil—and Exodus made possible by his own blood shed for the life of his people; his blood shed for us.

Luke reminds us that there are those at the table who will betray him, and yet Jesus doesn’t refuse to serve them. All through Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been eating with nefarious characters—people of ill repute. He was constantly criticized for it. Judas, we know, will betray him openly; but Peter will deny him and the other disciples will scatter and disappear when Jesus is arrested. It’s no wonder they all asked which one of them it could be. They were all potentially guilty—and yet Jesus chose to eat with them anyway.

They argued about greatness. Jesus reminds them that real greatness is the result of servanthood and humility. He has come as one who serves—he has come as a slave, to die the death of a slave, to set his people free.

The Passover is celebrated every year by the Jewish people, but always with a sense of “remembrance.” For them, “remembering” isn’t just about commemorating something in the past—it’s also a present and future hope. “We were slaves in Egypt,” says the liturgy. Eating the meal is participating in the act of liberation in the past with a hope for liberation in the future.

Jesus told his disciples to “do this” meal in “remembrance” of him. It is not merely symbol or sacrament, it is participating in his death and resurrection in the past while also enacting it as our hope for the present and future. This is the meal of freedom, a declaration of liberation.

The bread and the cup are the signs that in Christ God has taken on the dark forces of Satan, Evil, Sin, and Death in person. He has confronted them and defeated them. He has marked his people with the blood of the lamb—the blood he poured out on the cross on Good Friday. He has given his life for our freedom, declaring a new Exodus to a new promised land, a new creation where Sin and Death are no more. The empty tomb we will celebrate on Sunday morning is the sign and seal that all this has been accomplished—God has defeated death and sin along with it.

Why do we come on this night, and why do we come to this table weekly? Because we need to be reminded, to embody again and again the fact that Christ has set us free! It is here that we can lay down our sin and proclaim it no longer enslaves us. It is here that we can receive the assurance that no matter what we have done, no matter how we have betrayed Jesus with our words and actions, we can still be renewed and redeemed and have a place at the table. And it is here that we are given the hope of resurrection and the great banquet to come—that we will eat and drink with Christ in his kingdom as resurrected and renewed people in a renewed Creation.

So let us share in this new Passover—it is the meal that reminds us that we have been set free!

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