The church — as the fellowship of the meal
On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 13 So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. 14 Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” 16 The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover. 17 When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18 While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.” 19 They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely not I?” 20 “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. 21 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” 22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” 23 Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. 25 “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.” 26 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (NIV)
Easter is a good time to reassess ourselves and the life of our churches in the light of the central events of Jesus’ life in the crucifixion and resurrection.
In the past few months, we in this benefice have particularly been thinking about the nature of the Church. And so it is good to begin our meditations today at the Last Supper.
This is in any case vital to our understanding of the events of Good Friday. The crucifixion has been understood in many and various ways in the past, but in the present day the focus tends to be on Jesus’ motivation of love for his followers.
As a result, the crucifixion tends to become what we might call a ‘manward’ act. Indeed, one of the modern eucharistic prayers in Common Worship says Jesus “opened his arms of love on the cross” — a gesture clearly understood to be towards us.
And of course the cross is an act of love, but we have to ask why God’s love had to be shown this way, and the answer is indicated in the Last Supper.
Here, as we saw in our Lent Course, Jesus took the common elements of the Passover meal and, through his words, gave them a unique interpretation.
Thus the focus shifts from the Passover lamb, which was unique to the occasion, to the bread, which although in this case was special in being unleavened, was much nearer to the day-to-day staple diet.
Indeed, the Hebrew word for ‘bread’ can simply mean food in general. So our reliance on Jesus as the ‘bread of life’ is a day-to-day reliance.
The words regarding the cup, however, remind us that there is more than love involved — there is sacrifice. “This,” says Jesus, “is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
But as we saw in the Lent Course material, this hearkens back not so much to the Passover meal eaten in Egypt as to the gathering at Mt Sinai, following the escape from the Egyptian captivity.
We read in Exodus 24 that after coming down from the mountain, where he had first received the Ten Words from God, Moses conducted a covenant ceremony with the whole assembly of the people. In vv 4-8 we read that Moses,
... got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” 8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
When Jesus declares that the wine is “my blood of the covenant” he takes the dsiciples back to that definitive moment. But he also takes them on from there, for this is his blood, and therefore a new covenant.
And therefore the relationship with God it establishes is very different.
When the covenant ceremony at Sinai was over, we read that Moses took Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel up the mountain where, we’re told, they saw the God of Israel, but
God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
In the same way, at the Last Supper, the disciples ate and drank in fellowship with God. But they also drank in fellowship with one another. And so we bear in mind that Jesus’ words about the bread have another implication when we eat the Lord’s Supper today.
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul reminds us that the bread that we break is a participation in the body of Christ (v16). But this is not just a participation in him but in one another. “Because there is one loaf,” he writes, “we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor 10:17).
To eat the bread is not just to join with Christ, it is to join with Mrs Smith and Mr Jones, and everyone who is in fellowship with him.
Our so our first reminder today is that in his death Jesus did not just obtain the forgiveness of our sins individually. He created the Church. His body was given for us and as we feed on him, so we are made part of his body and members of Christ with one another.
The church — under the guidance of the Apostles
“Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. 7 But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; 10 in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. 12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you. 16 “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.” (NIV)
The first thing we considered today is that the Church is a direct consequence of the crucifixion. Just as God’s promise under the Old Covenant to ‘Abraham and his seed’ was expressed through the people of Israel, so under the New it is expressed through Christ, the one true seed of Abraham. Thus, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:27,
... you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
But for that very reason we must beware of the idea that we have a personal hotline to God — or even that the Church today has such a hotline.
Again, the Last Supper is our guide in these matters, and on that occasion Jesus promised the coming of the Holy Spirit who would lead the Church into “all truth”, including truths that the disciples were not then able to bear.
Yet some are now interpreting this to advocate something of a doctrinal ‘free for all’ — old understandings are being challenged and new positions advocated as examples of ‘the Spirit guiding us into all truth’.
But was this what Jesus meant?
After he had spoken at length to his disciples, John tells us, Jesus turned to prayer — what is often known as the ‘high priestly prayer’ of John 17, because of its elevated and intimate content. In it, Jesus prayed for his disciples and then, as he brought the prayer to an end, his concern turned to the world:
My prayer is not for them alone [he said]. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message ... (John 17:20).
In other words, the disciples are uniquely privileged. We are not all equally recipients of a Spirit guiding us into truth. We are not Quakers. Rather, it is these who will form the core group of the Apostles who will first understand and then declare the truth through which the Spirit will do his work.
For the Spirit does not “convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” as a free agent acting independently. Rather, as Jesus said he would, the Spirit guides the Apostles into truth which they declare to the world through the word of the gospel.
And there is therefore no getting away from the Apostles. As Paul himself writes in the letter to the Ephesians:
In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. (Ephesians 3:4-5, NIV)
The Church which Christ created does not reinvent itself in every generation. Nor is it at liberty to overturn earlier understandings laid down by the Apostles, for as Paul says in Ephesians 2:20, the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”
In the book of Revelation, we read of the new Jerusalem that on the gates are the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and on the foundations are the names of the twelve Apostles. The city is open to those who belong to God’s people, but it is built on those who, under the guidance of the Spirit, have bequeathed to us the mysteries of Christ.
And this, too, is a legacy of the events we commemorate at Easter.
And this, too, is a legacy of the events we commemorate at Easter.
The church — as the body of Christ
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (NIV)
When the Apostle Paul talks about the ‘mystery of Christ’, he is referring to the way in which both Jew and Gentile are reconciled to God apart from the Law.
Outside of this understanding, the Law is itself something of a mystery, or even a stumbling block. Its regulations often seem strange to us. Its effect is divisive and it seems to offer a whole different way of approaching God, based on merit, not grace alone.
In recent years a movement known as the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ has denied that this was the case, suggesting instead that the Jews regarded the Law only as a guide, not as a means to putting themselves right with God. And indeed if we understand the Old Testament correctly, that is in fact much nearer the truth.
But Jesus himself warned in his teaching about those who trusted in their own righteousness, based on their precise observance of the Law — not least, for example, in the parable of the pharisee and the tax-collector:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. (Luke 18:10-14, NIV)
The effect of such thinking, and of the Law generally, was to drive wedges between people — between Jew and Gentile on the one hand, and between the upright law-keepers in Israel and the sinful rabble on the other.
Yet if it is not those who belong to tribe of Abraham and who keep the Law who are truly reconciled to God, then who is?
The question is raised by Jesus’ attitude to sinners. It was the role of the prophet to denounce sin and call people back to the Laws of God, to walk in his paths and keep his ways. But Jesus was known as the ‘friend of tax-collectors and sinners’.
Not that he was any friend of sin, but he described these people, whom the righteous condemned and avoided, as sick people in need of a doctor. And in the same way, he demonstrated that God sees sinners as those in need of a Saviour.
The upright of his day, however, thought the way of salvation was already there — repentance, adherence to the Law and even membership of the people of Israel, were open to anyone who inclined their hearts in the right direction.
So what did the cross bring to this situation? The answer is not just the forgiveness of sins, though it is certainly that. But as Paul notes in v 15, Christ abolished in his flesh “the law with its commandments and regulations”, which created hostility on the one hand between Jew and Gentile (because it divided the circumcised from the uncircumcised), and on the other between God and humankind (because it divided sinful human beings from a holy God).
Instead, in its place, we have Christ himself who, as vv 15-16 say, has created in himself one new man out of the two, and in this one body has reconciled both of them to God through the cross.
Thus we come to God not trusting in our own righteousness, but partaking in his. He is the lamb without spot or blemish offered for the sins of the whole world. And through our participation in him we are crucified with him and raised with him.
This is the mystery of which Paul speaks, and it is indeed a mystery. But it is foreshadowed in events described in the opening chapters of Genesis which will find their fulfilment in the closing chapters of Revelation. To that we will turn in our final section.
The church — as the Bride of Christ
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.” (NIV)
That the Bible ends with a marriage is no mere literary flourish, as if the writer of Revelation had been hunting for a nice note to finish on, and decided a wedding would do the trick.
Rather, it is the logical outcome of a narrative that began with a marriage in the Bible’s opening chapters.
Indeed, it is a theological necessity for the crucifixion itself.
In Eden, we have but one man. As a human being, he is complete in himself, but for God’s plans and purposes, we are told “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18) — not that he is lonely, but something is missing: a “helper suitable for him”.
And then the animals are paraded for his consideration, and each receives a name from him. Each has a particular character or quality, and in many ways they exceed his own capabilities — some can fly, others are fast, many are strong. “But for Adam, no suitable helper was found” (Gen 2:20).
So, we are told, God did a remarkable thing. He turned not to the inanimate order — the ground from which the animals had been taken, but to the man himself. He takes from the living substance of the man, and from this he makes a woman.
Thus when he presents her to the man, she is greeted with a cry, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh ...”(Ge 2:23). She is the helper suitable for him. But this help is found not in her exceptional qualities, as if she were one of the animals. Rather, it consists in their special relationship, for the text then jumps forward to consider every similar couple:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Gen 2:24)
The significance of this, however, goes far beyond the human family.
Throughout the Old Testament, the relationship between God and Israel is depicted in marital terms. Idolatry is therefore likened to sexual unfaithfulness. Early on in Exodus the Israelites are warned not to join in with the other nations when they “prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them” (Ex 34:15).
Israel, by contrast, must remain faithful to Yahweh, her husband.
The Covenant between God and Israel, therefore, is likened to a covenant of marriage. In extraordinarily frank language, Ezekiel 16 describes Israel as a foundling child, whom God first rescued and then wed:
I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew up and developed and became the most beautiful of jewels. Your breasts were formed and your hair grew, you who were naked and bare. 8 Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became mine. (Ezek 16:7-8)
Of course the Bible abounds in metaphors about God, but this language goes beyond the metaphorical. Rather, we have reached the realm of what theologians call ‘analogy’. When the Bible says that the name of the Lord is a strong tower (Prov 18:10), it means it is not only like such a tower but functions as a strong tower does, protecting those who call on him.
But as we consider the reality of the Lord, all the qualities of a tower disappear. In himself, God is nothing like a strong tower. That is the limitation of a metaphor.
When it comes to being a husband, however, that quality does not disappear when we encounter the reality of God.
How can we be so sure? Because the New Testament, when it talks about Christ as ‘husband’, uses the biblical understanding of marriage to explain the outcome of the crucifixion and resurrection.
In Ephesians 5:25, Paul writes that,
... Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
But how has he been able to do this? Christ is holy and blameless, but the Church is unwashed, stained, wrinkled and blemished by sin. Christ died on the cross — and we say that he took our place — but then that leaves me standing as an onlooker, and if I am just an onlooker, am I not still lost and sinful?
The answer lies in the connection Paul draws between Christ and Genesis. In v 29 he continues,
After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body.
And then he appeals directly to Genesis 2:24: “For this reason,” he writes, “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” (Eph 5:29-30)
Then he adds, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
And there is our answer. In the Book of Common Prayer, the introduction to the marriage service says that “holy Matrimony ... is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church”.
What this reminds us is that we must read Genesis ‘Christologically’. Marriage is the sign, and Adam and Eve are the first married couple, but the thing signified is Christ and the Church — and this is how you and I are saved by Christ on the cross and raised with Christ raised from the dead, for in marriage “the two become one flesh”.
He died, and we died in union with him. Our sins were laid on him, because he, the friend of sinners, is in union with us. Christ, who gives us his body to eat, makes us bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. And so on that great day when he is raised, we rise with him to newness of life. Amen.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: