Sermon from Maundy Thursday: Supper with the Lord and the Lord’s Supper

Supper with the Lord and the Lord’s Supper
Maundy Thursday; April 1, 2021
Psalm 37:5-18

The Worship Committee asked me to talk to you this evening about the Lord’s Supper and the Passover. There is nothing quite like this evening to emphasize that the Christian Faith started out as a sect of Jewish faith and continues to rely on our Jewish roots. We read just now a part of a psalm – the assigned reading for today from the Year of the Bible – knowing that the psalms are the traditional Jewish song book. When Jesus quotes Scripture, he quotes Jewish Scripture. The Lord’s Supper began as part of a Jewish celebration. So I’m happy to respond to the Committee’s request.

Last year I preached about the Exodus from Egypt and we read about it earlier this year; I hope you know the story. The Lord rescued the people from slavery with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm, as the saying goes, and Jewish people continue to celebrate that year after year at Passover. In English it is called “Passover” because the angel of death “passed over” the homes of Hebrew people when the final plague struck Egypt; the Hebrew word Pesach comes from the verb “to skip” or “to pass over.”

We don’t know exactly what Jewish people did to celebrate Passover in the first century, but since the celebration has changed very little in the centuries for which we do have history, it is likely it was similar to what families do today. And that is the first thing to say about Pesach: it is traditionally a family celebration. These days many Jewish congregations celebrate together at their places of worship, because it is rather a lot of work to prepare for, but traditionally a family gathers at home and has the ritual foods and says the ritual words. I was privileged once to be a guest in a Jewish home for a Passover meal, which is called a Seder.

So when Jesus had the Passover supper with his disciples, they were acting as a family. That was not unusual in ancient times; often a teacher and students would be thought of as a family. When Socrates took the hemlock, he received a visit from his wife and children before he died. Then he sent them away. As he was dying, he was surrounded by his students. They were his true family. Jesus has said elsewhere that his real family consists of those who serve God (Mark 3:35); and so he had Passover with his disciples.

During the Seder, the story of the Exodus is told. They remember what the Lord did to rescue them from slavery. But there are two other elements that you will usually find, as well. One of those is an expression of sorrow for what was done to the Egyptians in order to secure their freedom. And another is an expression of hope for the freedom of all peoples. You have heard Jewish people referred to as a “chosen people.” Their philosophy makes clear that being chosen means that they have a calling: to bring blessing to the world. “Chosen” does not mean “better than everyone else.” “Chosen” means “selected for the sake of everyone.” I hope that we people of Jesus have inherited that way of thinking.

Also during the Seder, there are ritual foods. Usually dinner is part of it, frequently a lamb dinner, symbolically representing the Paschal Lamb. Oh, “Paschal” is the adjective form of “Pesach,” and that is why most Christians in the world call this coming Sunday “Pascha.” In English we have named it after Easter, a pagan fertility goddess, but most Christians call it Pascha. Anyway, the family I had Pesach with had a turkey dinner, because they didn’t like lamb. They’re not strict about these things.

But there are some foods that are necessary. One of them is unleavened bread, matzah. The bread is made without yeast to remember that they fled Egypt in haste; they didn’t have time to let the bread rise. Also, in Jewish tradition, yeast often symbolizes sin. So all during the seven days of Passover the bread they eat must be unleavened. Another is charoseth, a sweet made with apples and wine. A third is a spring herb, such as parsley, dipped in salt water to represent the tears of enslavement and also dipped in charoseth to remember the sweetness of God’s redemption. Also a bitter herb, such as horseradish, to remember the bitterness of slavery. And wine: four glasses of wine, each drunk at the prescribed place in the celebration, and accompanied by a blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai, Elohaynoo melech ha’olom, Boray p’ree hagofen.
(Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.)

So Jesus and his family in faith came together for this ritual, and in light of its celebration of freedom and redemption, he created within it a new ritual, which we will share this evening. We do not know for certain when in the Passover ritual Jesus instituted our Holy Supper, just as we cannot be certain that the Passover supper of the time followed the structure we know now. But there is a general belief that the bread Jesus passed to the disciples with the words “This is my body” was the piece of matzah called the afikomen, which is hidden under a napkin. As the afikomen is revealed late in the meal, so salvation is revealed in the body of Christ. And the wine Jesus shared with the words “This is my blood” may have been the fourth cup of wine. When the fourth cup is poured, an extra one is poured for Elijah, who announces the coming of Messiah.

The main takeaway, I suggest to you, is that the Eucharist is our Passover supper. We celebrate our redemption from slavery to sin. We rejoice that God has rescued us from the power of death. We give thanks for God’s torah, God’s teaching, and in particular the new commandment for which this evening is named: Love one another as I have loved you. When we eat and drink the Lord’s Supper then we have supper with the Lord.

And it helps us to remember our Jewish roots. Many years ago, I participated in a symposium with the Jewish Philosophical Association. On Friday evening, we had the weekly Sabbath observance. As it concluded, we passed around a loaf of bread, sharing it with one another with the wish for a good Sabbath – Shabbat shalom. It wasn’t Passover and it wasn’t Eucharist, but it reminded me of both. Blessed is our God, ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

Baruch atah Adonai, Elohaynoo melech ha’olom, Boray p’ree hagofen.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska