Online Worship, April 5, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
Almighty God, who was and is and is to come,
Holy God, our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end.
We pray for the Church, the bride of the Lamb,
We pray for her joy,
Her delight in the Lamb,
Her faithfulness to him,
Her purity and spotlessness in the world,
We pray for the Christian Church throughout the land,
That it be true and faithful.
Almighty God, our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end,
Who brought Israel out of Egypt,
And sent your infant Son with Mary and Joseph
Down into Egypt, and gave them refuge
In the days of King Herod.
We pray for the leaders of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church,
Support them in their ministries of encouragement
In this nation and throughout the world,
Particularly those who are supporting Christians
Under persecution in the world.
Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come,
Who has promised us a new heaven and a new earth,
We pray for our own land, faced with a pandemic.
Grant to us as a people comfort in our loneliness,
A heart at peace with separations that have arisen,
A heart of generosity for those who are suffering,
In so many ways.
Almighty God, who was and is and is to come,
King of Kings and Lord of Lords,
To whom in the end all authority belongs,
We pray for the kings of this earth,
The leaders of our nation
The leaders of many other nations,
Who this day face enormous challenges
And fateful decisions.
Grant that the rulers of the lands
Might provide justice among their people.
Lord God, Almighty, Everlasting, Eternal,
Who was and is and is to come,
In whose presence every tear will be wiped away,
Death will be no more,
And there will be no more mourning,
No crying, nor pain,
For all things will have passed away.
We pray your blessing on those who mourn,
On those who are alone,
On those who live in hope,
On those who wander,
On those who are homeless.
To you we make our prayers, Holy, Holy, Holy God,
Who was and is and is to come,
Claiming the intercession of him
Who is at your right hand,
Jesus Christ, the righteous,
Good morning, people of God, gathered together in our homes. Isn’t it just wonderful the spiritual unity that we can all have even though we aren’t physically together? Being physically together is of course much more preferred, but we live in an age where technology allows us to all be praying and singing to our common Lord and Savior, and meditating on the same message that he has for us, all at the same time. Again, actually being together would be far better, but thank God for the times we live in.
Before we get to the message today, by way of announcement, the Session met this past week and we decided it was prudent to continue this format for worship through the month of April, and I believe that is where most churches are at the moment. We know, and we are saddened that this extension will include Good Friday and Easter. I will post a Good Friday message this coming week. This certainly will be an Easter that we don’t forget, because it will be so out of our normal rhythm. But take heart, Jesus is the Lord of every day as much as every other day, and though we love to celebrate the resurrection specifically on a specific Sunday each year, we can celebrate the resurrection every day, and every Lord’s Day, we do not need to wait around for one that we call Easter each year. We’ll just keep the main thing the main thing, and praise God for being sovereign over all of it.
On to worship for today. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for blessing us with this day. We praise you for all that you are and all that you’ve done for us. As we come nearer and nearer to the cross in our study of your Word, we pray that you would guide our hearts and minds in the understanding of it, that the meditations of my heart would reflect the message for this body of believers, and we pray that by your Spirit you open our hearts and our minds to receive it, that we would learn more about you and draw nearer to our Savior. In Jesus’s name, amen.
We continue this morning with our brief series of scenes from Holy Week. We began by looking at and drawing a lesson from Jesus’s cursing of the fig tree, something that happened on Monday morning of Holy Week, and the lessons that had for us about making sure that our faith was not just for show, but that we live our lives not covering ourselves with “leaves” of works but instead really producing fruit that comes from the work of Christ in us. Last week we learned from the episode of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. We looked at the love Christ had for his friends, the real human toll that he was suffering knowing that he was betrayed, saw how the episode illustrates the doctrine of justification, and also learned of how we should be serving one another.
This week we are going to move one step closer to the cross as we consider Christ instituting the Lord’s Supper, on Maundy Thursday, during the Feast of Passover, the evening before his betrayal, trial, and execution the next morning. We will see how this episode, and the institution of the supper looks both backward to the Exodus and forward to the second coming, and how Jesus left us this memorial, this meal, this sacrament to observe until he comes again, all for our benefit.
Now, when I originally chose this for the sermon this week, this was going to be a Sunday where we would have immediately proceeded from the sermon to our celebrating the Lord’s Supper, which is why I put it here. Perhaps as we learn through it will just make us all yearn for the blessings of the table even more, and we’ll come with even greater thanksgiving when we can again return to it!
So let’s read our text for today. We have two, and the first one comes to us from Exodus, chapter 24, we’ll read verses 3-8. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
3 Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” 4 And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. 6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” 8 And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
And then, from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 26, verses 26-29:
26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
It’s true for me, and I know it is for many of us, that we’ve heard these words many, many times. We’ve come to the table in worship dozens, hundreds of times and heard the words of institution before each time. But I don’t know if we always have in view the entire situation, so it’s worth pondering a bit.
This is Christ’s last night before his death. He knows what’s coming. We say the words “last supper” and it rolls off our tongues so quickly, but do we think about it? This is the last meal. We mentioned it briefly last week when we were talking about the washing of the disciples’ feet. Did that take place at this meal? We’re not sure, it was possibly earlier in the week, but either way, these are the final instructions, the last time that he was going to spend with his closest friends in the world before he dies.
We’ve all been in situations like this that give us a window into the emotions of this scene. Whenever I was about to leave for another semester of college, since I went to college 3000 miles from home, it was always going to be months before I would return. And the final few hours before departing I can remember so clearly, because I was nervous and trying to take it all in. And my younger sister would always disappear, retreat to her room, because she just couldn’t handle those last few hours. And what Christ is experiencing here, at what is his last supper is far beyond that. And he has so much to teach them before he goes!
And when we take all of the different accounts—Matthew, Mark, and Luke (John does not record the last supper, but does give some context)—it really is a striking picture of what this evening was like, certainly unlike any Passover these men had ever had before.
The Feast of Passover was of course the most important celebration of the year, commemorating the miraculous events surrounding the exodus of the Jews from being enslaved by the Egyptians centuries before. And over the centuries a beautiful tradition had emerged, a strict process to the meal and how it was celebrated, and this was that meal. We don’t have too many meals like this in our Western culture, but the Jews have been doing this for centuries. Maybe the closest would be Thanksgiving, where there are in many families a certain procedure to the meal, like reciting things we’re thankful for, followed by a carving of the turkey. But those simple traditional acts are nothing compared to the symbolism and complexity of the Jewish Passover meal.
We don’t need to go over the entire meal, but it already included a symbolic breaking of bread, and the drinking of a cup of wine at four different points in the meal. And there are certain prayers and phrases recited at these points in the meal, representing different aspects of the exodus. For instance, one matzah (the unleavened bread) is broken before the main meal, representing among other things the parting of the Red Sea. Even when Luke introduces the scene in Luke 22, he says “And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him.” We may gloss over that, but even the act of reclining, that specific posture which Luke takes time to mention—reclining, leaning to one side—the Jews adopt a posture of reclining at the Passover meal specifically because it is a pose that is reserved for a free person, not a slave. So this is the meal they were celebrating, specifically when this happened. It was something they each would have done once a year for their entire lives, so they would understand the process well.
What else happened before and after the institution, at this meal? In the accounts in Matthew and Mark, both of them relay the story of how Jesus told them to approach a specific person, who was a stranger to them, and he would open his upper room to them for the feast. And then both Matthew and Mark include, presumably during this very structured meal, that Jesus announced that one of them had betrayed him. Can you imagine how it must have felt the air had been sucked out of the room at that point? During a very structured, celebratory meal?
And then after the main meal portion of the Passover meal, there is a bread that is saved for dessert, one that is broken and that is meant to represent the lamb that is sacrificed at Passover, followed by the third drink of wine. There are certain prayers and statements that go along with that commemoration as well. So imagine this scene: you’re celebrating the Passover, at a stranger’s house but in a private room. Jesus just told everyone that he’s about to be betrayed by someone in the room. Then you come to the point in the meal where you are taking bread and wine specifically to remember the lamb that was slaughtered to paint the doorposts with blood in Egypt, and instead of the prayers and phrases you expect, Luke tells us:
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
Christ is telling them, directly, unequivocally that he is the new paschal lamb. That bread that was meant to represent the lamb, he breaks it and says “This is my body.” The lamb was slain to rescue you from Egypt, I am the lamb that will be slain to rescue you from the clutches of sin. And likewise the wine, Jesus takes it and says this is the new covenant in my blood, quoting Moses from Exodus, in the passage that we just read, confirming the covenant of God with the people immediately after Moses had delivered the law. Moses said as he sprinkled the blood on the people: “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you.” So Christ has taken the sign of the blood as well, and says that this is a new covenant in my blood! What an incredible scene!
And the disciples knew that this was a pivotal moment, this institution of a new ceremony, this sacrament, was a big deal, which is why it is specifically recorded in three of the gospel accounts. Christ just took the Passover and pointed it to himself—God provided a sacrifice for you in the past when he brought you out of Egypt, a lamb that would be sacrificed for you so that you could paint the doorposts and that blood would deliver you. Now he’s given you in me, the sacrifice that will be made once and for all.
And here, Christ is telling them you have a new celebration. You have a new meal to eat, and it’s a spiritual meal. You will eat bread, and you will drink wine, and as you do you will do it in remembrance of me, not the exodus of long ago.
A brief digression here, and that is about the arguments that have persisted for centuries about how we are supposed to view the elements of the last supper, communion, the bread and wine. And of course it all arises out of the fact that Christ breaks bread and say that it “is” his body. And then he says that the wine “is” his blood. That error is the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, that after they are blessed, the elements of the table are actually transformed into the real human body and blood of Christ, even though they don’t look like they change, their essence is changed. We just spent a few minutes talking about how Christ was taking a deeply symbolic ceremony, the Passover meal, and in a way appropriating all of that symbolism, all of that metaphor. The matzah that was broken to represent the paschal lamb, did the Jews think that became in substance somehow the lamb when they broke it? Of course not. Everything about this was metaphorical, so it makes much more logical sense to assume that when Christ says, this is my body, this is my blood, he is speaking in metaphorical terms, he is giving them a new ceremony to celebrate, a new remembrance marked by physical things that represent spiritual realities.
There are many other logical reasons to reject transubstantiation, one of them being that Christ’s human nature is a real human body, and thus can’t be all over the world omnipresent in communion observations at the same time, because human bodies are limited to specific places at any given time—we won’t dive into all of those now—Calvin does an awfully good job addressing it in his Institutes. But there are also clear scriptural reasons to reject it as well. One of those is how this isn’t the first time that Christ has referred to himself as bread. He goes to great lengths in John 6 to describe himself as true bread from heaven, drawing a distinction between the physical bread that the Israelites ate in the wilderness. Here, from John 6, starting in verse 30:
So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
This is right after an account of Jesus feeding the 5000. People are coming after him looking for bread, for nourishment, physical bread. They are looking for a sign like the manna in the wilderness. And Jesus says “forget looking for physical bread, I am the bread that gives life to the world!” He goes on in verse 35 and following:
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
And then in verses 48 and following he makes it abundantly clear:
I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
Jesus is speaking of himself being spiritual food, food that leads to everlasting life, food and drink that satisfies the soul, not the body. He draws a clear distinction between physical and spiritual food. So there is no reason, when we look at the elements of communion, for us to twist ourselves around trying to find a way to understand the bread and wine of communion as physically body and blood. When we do that, we are missing the point! The point is that Christ left us with a sacrament that is a constant reminder of his saving work, of his sacrifice for us, and that it is by that we have eternal life. That is what we are remembering here. Calvin says it this way:
The main point of the sacrament, therefore, is not simply to present to us the body of Jesus Christ, but rather to seal and confirm the promise in which Christ tells us that his flesh is truly food, and his blood drink, by which we are nourished to eternal life…. To accomplish this—that is, to seal the promise mentioned above—the sacrament (that is communion) sends us to the cross of Jesus Christ, where the promise was fully ratified and completely fulfilled.
So when we come to the table, we are coming for spiritual food, food that leads to everlasting life. Is it the act of coming to the table that actually saves us? No. But it is given for our real spiritual nourishment. It brings us back to the cross, but it also points us ever forward. The Passover meal looks back to the deliverance from Egypt, but this meal looks forward, to the new, the complete deliverance that Christ purchased for us on the cross, and will deliver to us when he returns in the fullness of time. The words of institution that we know the best from the communion service when we celebrate it come from first Corinthians, where Paul summarizes the accounts from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and then teaches us with the last phrase what we’re doing when we eat it, it goes like this, I Cor. 11:23:
23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (and here’s the teaching, what we’re doing.) 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
We have two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And, as our confession reminds us, they are both signs and seals of spiritual realities. The Westminster confession, in chapter 29 says it beautifully, saying that the Lord’s Supper is for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death, and the sealing of all of its benefits to true believers.
This sacrament is something holy, something over which we need to exercise great care and thought about how it is done, and how we observe it. In fact, we should always think carefully about observing the sacrifice as Christ intended. As an example, we started using real wine a few years ago, because Christ did. And we started coming forward to the table rather than remaining in our seats—those were both efforts to administer the sacrament ever more closely to how Christ intended it. But there is no need for us to superstitiously spend time focusing more on the sign (that is communion) than the thing that it actually signifies (the cross and our future glory). We don’t worship the sign, we worship the one the sign points to, ever and always Jesus Christ.
Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face;
here would I touch and handle things unseen,
here grasp with firmer hand th'eternal grace,
and all my weariness upon thee lean.
Here at the table, we do see him face to face and we, the church, are to do this until he comes again, in glory, and we will truly see him face to face. I look forward to celebrating this meal with you again very soon, but know that we already have all the benefits it points to. Praise Jesus Christ for that. Amen.
Heavenly Father, thank you for giving us the only real spiritual food that leads us to eternal life, and through this meal reminding us of the benefits we’ve already obtained through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Help us to always take care of this sacrament and treat it with the reverence that it demands, but also, even more so, focus us always on the sacrifice of your Son and our future glory. Bless us as we are apart from each other and bring us together again very soon. In Jesus’s precious name, amen.