Thursday, March 24, 2016
Sermon for Maundy Thursday: 1 Cor 11:23-32
1 Cor 11:23-32
I think most observers would agree that Jimmy Carter did not have a particularly successful presidency. He was unable to address the economic situation as the nation continued to suffer from “stagflation” – high inflation, high unemployment and slow economic growth. His attempt to deal with the Soviet Union in a less confrontational manner was rewarded by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And of course the Iranian hostage crisis virtually paralyzed the last year of his presidency.
However President Carter did have one remarkable success. In 1978 Carter brought together Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel at Camp David in Maryland for twelve days of negotiations that resulted in a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. By all accounts, it was Carter’s relentless effort to work out compromises that produced this success.
Israel and Egypt entered into a peace treaty – one that has lasted until today. This is a remarkable achievement because between 1948 and 1978 the two nations had fought in five wars. When the nations entered into the treaty, Israel was in the stronger position because – simply stated – it had won all of the wars. Israel had the better military. It controlled the Sinai peninsula after capturing it in the 1967 Six Day war.
But while Israel was in a stronger position, this was a treaty that it needed too. Surrounded by enemies it had been on the verge of annihilation in the 1973 Yom Kippur war when it turned disaster into victory. Israel needed to reduce the pressure, and peace with Egypt would allow it to focus on other threats.
In the epistle lesson for Maundy Thursday, Jesus institutes the Sacrament of the Altar as he refers to the new covenant in his blood. A covenant in the Old Testament was the same thing as treaty. It was a legal agreement that established a relationship. God had entered into a covenant with Israel. As a result of their sin, he promised the day when he would make a new covenant. Like the modern treaty between Israel and Egypt, God had been the stronger party in both covenants. However unlike the treaty that Israel made, God didn’t need anything. Instead the first covenant with Israel and the new covenant have been matters of pure grace. In the Sacrament of the Altar Jesus provides the guarantee that we have we received this grace and that we are included in the new covenant as God’s people.
The apostle Paul begins our text by saying, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.” Paul is not claiming some direct revelation by the Lord for the words he handed on to them. Instead the language used indicates that he is doing the same thing that he again does in chapter 15 when he talks about the appearances of the risen Lord. Paul is reminding the Corinthians about the tradition of the Church that he had handed on to them. What Paul had received, he had passed on to them.
Paul, of course, was not present at the Last Supper with Jesus when our Lord instituted the Sacrament of the Altar. He wasn’t a believer who was present to see the resurrection appearances of Christ prior to his ascension. While the ascended Lord had appeared to him on the road to Damascus and called him directly as an apostle, these were the kinds of things that he had to learn from others in the Church. And then as he did his missionary work and proclaimed Christ, he handed them on to the new believers.
In our text Paul calls the Corinthians back to the words he had delivered to them. He does this because of problems that had arisen in the meal that accompanied the celebration of the Sacrament. Because of the way that rich members were treating poor members, divisions were present. Paul answers this by calling them back to the Sacrament itself. He calls them back to fact that it is the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Paul refers to, “the night when he was betrayed.” Tonight we remember that Jesus instituted the Sacrament at the Last Supper with his disciples. Later that evening Judas betrayed him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Yet the Greek word used here reminds us that this betrayal was part of something larger. Paul uses the same verb when he says that Jesus was, “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, was delivered up by God that Father as the sacrifice for our sins. The Sacrament that Jesus instituted that night can never be separated from this saving death.
As part of the Passover meal, Jesus took bread, 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.” Then we are told that later, “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.’”
Jesus declares that when he gives you this bread and this wine, he is giving you his true body and blood. If anyone else said this, you would work to figure out some other meaning that makes sense. But Jesus can do things with words that no else can. With him all things are possible. Is it bread and wine? Yes. But in, with and under – that is in a miraculous way – Jesus Christ is using that bread and wine to give you his true body and blood. It is his true body. It is his true blood. As Paul said in the previous chapter, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
Literally, Jesus says it is his body “on behalf of you.” Jesus offered himself on the cross as the sacrifice for you – as the sacrifice in your place. And now in the Sacrament he gives to you of his body that hung on the cross. He does so in order give you the forgiveness that he won through the cross. He applies it to you as his body is placed in your mouth. He does this in the declaration that it was given for you.
Our Lord says that he gives you his blood to drink. The Old Testament forbid Israel from drinking blood. Yet with these shocking words Jesus alerts us to the fact that he is doing something new - something not seen before. He is using wine to give us his blood – the blood of the new covenant.
When Yahweh had rescued Israel from slavery in the Exodus, he entered into a covenant with the people. He took them to be his own. Though called to live faithfully according to the Torah as God’s people, there was nothing in it for God. They were simply the object of his love. His covenant and love were purely a matter of God’s grace.
You know what happened. In spite of this blessing, Israel soon turned after other gods – the gods of the people around them. And so through his prophets God promised that he would do something new. Jeremiah said, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.”
The first covenant was established as Moses sacrificed oxen. He took a portion of the blood and threw it on the people saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” This action meant that they were included in God’s covenant.
In a similar way, Jesus now takes his blood and gives it to us. He gives us the new covenant that has been established by the shedding of his blood on the cross. Just as Israel was completely unworthy of the rescue in the exodus, so were we. Just as Israel had nothing to offer God in the covenant, so we do not either. Yet in his grace God has given his Son to die on the cross for your sins. And now in the Sacrament Jesus gives the blood shed for you. He gives it to you and thereby he forgives your sins and asserts that you are included in this new covenant – that you are God’s people.
You don’t always live like God’s people. In this way we have more in common with ancient Israel than we would like to admit. And that is why we need this Sacrament. We need it because here Jesus gives us the forgiveness he won on the cross.
We come to the Sacrament with nothing to offer God. We come to a God who needs nothing. And yet, in spite of this, he has chosen in his grace to send his Son to die on the cross in order to give us forgiveness. He has established the new covenant and has graciously included us. We come to the Sacrament to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And in this body and blood our God gives us forgiveness and the assurance that we are his people – that we are included in the new covenant that will have no end.