“In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread…” These familiar words of institution come from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Mark changes how the timing is marked: “On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed…”
The passover lamb refers to the night of ancient Israel’s salvation – their escape from slavery in Egypt. They were to slaughter a lamb without blemish, take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they ate. “This is how you shall eat it:” the Lord tells them. “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, … when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. Throughout your generations you shall observe this day as a perpetual ordinance. It shall be a day of remembrance for you, a festival to the LORD.”
The passover lamb provides a sign to God to spare those protected by its blood.
“Then Jesus took a cup of wine, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. Then he said to them, “This cup is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
We can’t hear that as his Jewish disciples would have heard it. It might sound a little icky to us – an allusion to drinking blood, but to the disciples who have just drunk from that cup, condemnation and confusion would mingle with the wine.
Hear the prohibition from Leviticus:
Thus says the Lord your God: “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the body is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel: No person among you shall eat blood. For the life of every creature — its blood is its life.”
The very reason for the original prohibition is now the reason Jesus offers the cup as his blood. It is a new covenant for life, for new life in relationship to God. The Passover meal with its many cups – the Passover event when the spirit of death swept over those protected by the sacrificial lamb’s blood – a cup of salvation that saves those who drink of it – but the cup of wine is convicting, it is blood. A new covenant forms within an old.
In Mark, it is not the act of betrayal of innocence, or Jesus’ willing, sacrificial death and martyrdom that sets the conditions of salvation. It’s not atonement in that way. In Mark, God enters anew into an ancient act of salvation. God resurrects the old covenant – to new life for a new rule.
This time God is not passing over, but entering into, becoming salvation within us, through the human life of Jesus, through his human/holy blood. God’s life is in God’s blood. And that life – through Jesus – is offered for you, given for you, for many, for all.
These are called the Words of Institution – they are not the words of an institution, of the church, of the building, or the creeds and laws and traditions. They are the words instituting, inaugurating, a new covenant, the new life of relationship with Christ and our neighbor. They are words of sacrificial love.
The incredible power of this meal is shown to us by the presence of Judas. “When it was evening, Jesus came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me now.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one among you who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.” While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.”
There is no mention of Judas by name here, no indication that he was called out in any way, that the other disciples knew what he has been up to, or that he suddenly stood up and burst from the room. He was one of the 12. He was there and was given the bread to dip. He received the cup of salvation along with all the rest, though heaven only knows what he was thinking or feeling at the time.
The significance of this detail is that betrayal, resistance to God, denial, rejection – is not out there among some other group of people. There’s no scapegoat. It was within the 12 who ate the meal. It is within each of us.
“When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters…” And they did.
But betrayal is not the last word and judgment. And we are not quite done with the cup. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
In Gethsemane, on the mount of Olives, Jesus prays to be delivered from the symbolic cup that he will drink in his death. And, as if to act out this image, Jesus refuses the last cup, the pain-deadening wine mixed with myrrh that the soldiers offer him before they crucify him. But as he dies, as he cries out the first line of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” he drinks the sour wine that’s offered him from a sponge on a stick.
This sour wine, from the vineyard managed by the wicked tenants of his parable, is the new wine of the kingdom. Sour wine offered in mockery at a place of torture and death, the sour wine of wild grapes – this is the cup of salvation – the glorious wine of new life received still in this world, in suffering. This is the kingdom of God? A cry, tortured sip of sour wine. This is salvation in the making?
We’ve read all along, that the kingdom of God is hidden. And we hear – though we cannot see – that it is revealed in Jesus’ death. We who hear the story are invited to live in the company of God’s life-giving, death-defeating, fear-ending-mercy-come-among-us resurrected Christ. And, like the disciples, we, too, are invited to drink this cup, the cup of his death which becomes the cup of the arriving kingdom, sour wine turned sweet. For it is the sweet blood of God. And life is in it.
Henceforth, there is no place of sorrow or death where God in Jesus has not gone on ahead. In Jesus, God has come to where God cannot be, to the places where our experience says God is not. Places that are not holy, not powerful, not transcendent. But it is in these exact places, those of deepest abandonment and pain, where the Spirit of God has set a cup of sweet wine, furnished a banquet in the presence of our enemy, and invites us to feast.