For the seven weeks of Lent, we have been preparing ourselves for the events that we commemorate over the next few days.
Tonight, we remember Jesus’ last night as a free man. At the end of the service, we will solemnly strip the altar, and then we will exit in silence.
Our service this evening has no dismissal because it is only the first chapter in the story. Our service tonight continues into Good Friday.
Tomorrow we will pick up the story by hearing again the account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Tomorrow we will again exit in silence, without a final blessing or dismissal, because tomorrow’s service also looks ahead, to the grand finale of the story.
Finally, on Sunday morning, we get there. After eight long weeks, we get to Easter and the victory of Jesus Christ over the forces of evil and death, the victory that gives meaning to our services tonight and tomorrow night. Thanks be to God!
Everything about our service this evening points forward to crucifixion and to resurrection. But this night is important. This night sets the stage. This night helps to make sense of everything else that happens this weekend. Perhaps most importantly, this night tells us something about who we are called to be as followers of Jesus.
The first thing to notice about that last night before Jesus’ arrest is the most obvious. Jesus gathered with his friends for a meal. This is a story not just about Jesus, but also about the community of people who follow him and who take their identity from him.
At that meal, Jesus showed his disciples what a community of friends can and should be. Jesus taught them to serve one another in the most humble way possible, by washing their feet. Jesus taught them to love one another just as Jesus has loved them.
From that night to this, Christians have done our best to be the kind of community Jesus calls us to be, to be united to each other in service and love, and to experience that union by eating together.
Tonight, the families of the children who have been going through communion class continued that tradition. Thanks to their loving service, we gathered as a community of friends, and we broke bread together, just like Jesus and his disciples did two thousand years ago.
One thing we do this night is renew our commitment to being the kind of loving and serving community of friends, the kind of Church, that Jesus calls us to be at his Last Supper.
But Jesus and his friends did not gather for just any meal. On that night nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus and his disciples gathered specifically to celebrate the Passover, the feast commemorating the exodus of the Hebrew children from Egypt.
Centuries before Jesus, the Hebrews were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt. They cried out to God. And God answered. Nine times, God put a plague on Egypt to force Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go. Each time, Pharaoh promised to let the Hebrews go if only God would lift the plague. Each time, Pharaoh reneged on his promise.
Finally, in a tenth plague, God sent the angel of death to Egypt.
But God warned the Hebrews about what was coming. God told the Hebrews to sacrifice a lamb and to put some of the lamb’s blood over their doors. Then the angel of death would pass over their house. They would be safe.
That night, God did just what God had threatened to do. The next morning, Pharaoh finally did let the Hebrews go.
Every year at Passover, Jews heard this story. And every year, Jews meditated on the sacrificial lamb that protected them from the angel of death and on the liberation from bondage that resulted.
By the time of Jesus’ Last Supper, Jews had been celebrating Passover for over a thousand years. But on that night, Jesus gave a new layer of meaning to the ancient service.
On that night, Jesus himself became the Passover lamb whose sacrifice protects us from the angel of death and liberates us from the bondage of sin.
And so, from that night to this, Christians have gathered not simply as friends united in love, but as disciples of our Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And a second thing we do this night is renew our commitment to celebrating, and to teaching, and to sharing the good news of our liberation in Christ.
Finally, on that last night before his arrest, Jesus tells us how to celebrate, and to teach, and to share that good news. On that night, Jesus instituted the Eucharist.
As Paul describes it in First Corinthians, Jesus took bread, and, when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
The blessed and broken bread becomes the body of Christ, the true bread of life, which is broken for us and for our salvation. The cup of wine becomes the blood of Christ, which takes the place of the Passover lamb protecting us from the angel of death and liberating us from the bondage of sin.
The next day, that dreadful metaphor will become a dreadful reality. Jesus will be crucified. And we will be set free.
And so, from that night to this, Christians have gathered as disciples of the Lamb to share the body and blood of our Lord, to proclaim his death until he comes, to remember his victory over death, and to anticipate our own final victory in his name.
And so, on this night, I give thanks to God for our community of friends united to one another in service and love. I give thanks to God for Christ, our Passover Lamb who is sacrificed for us. Most of all, I give thanks to God for the gift of the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, the first fruits of the kingdom of God inaugurated by his death and resurrection.
In the name of the Lamb of God. Amen.
1 Corinthians 11:23-32