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Sermons

The Blood of the Covenant

April 13, 2003

Bible Reading

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship at a distance. Moses alone shall come near the Lord; but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him."

Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, "All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do." 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 set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. 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 obey."

Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, "This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in respect to all these commandments."

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank. (Exodus 24:1-11)


On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?"

He said, "Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, 'The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.'" So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal. When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me."

And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, "Surely not I, Lord?"

He answered, "The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born."

Judas, who betrayed him, said, "Surely not I, Rabbi?"

He replied, "You have said so."

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the remission of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Matthew 26:17-30)

Reading from Swedenborg

"Blood" means heavenly things, and in the highest sense, the Lord's Human Essence, and so Love itself, which is his mercy towards the human race. This becomes clear from the sacredness that the Jewish representative church was required to attach to blood. For this reason blood was called "the blood of the covenant." It was sprinkled over the people, and also, together with the anointing oil, over Aaron and his sons. And the blood of every burnt offering and sacrifice was sprinkled over and around the altar. (Arcana Coelestia #1001.3)

Sermon

Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, "This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in respect to all these commandments." (Exodus 24:8)

It would be hard to exaggerate the extent to which the Gospels are rooted in the Old Testament. Of the four, Matthew pays the most explicit attention to the theme of the fulfillment of prophecy; but the unspecified references and passing allusions are legion. Oddly, while my own Teachers' Bible identifies many of them in its cross-references, it misses completely the connection between our text and the Lord's words at the Last Supper. When Jesus identified the Passover wine as his own "blood of the covenant," no devout Jew could have missed the reference. After all, the Passover celebrated the exodus, and the highlight of the exodus was the covenant at Sinai, which transformed an extended clan into an embryonic nation.

The point is obscured, of course, by the King James translation of the Greek diathekes as "testament" instead of "covenant." Matthew is clearly addressed to Jews who were at ease with Greek, and his actual text bears a striking resemblance to the Greek version of Exodus that would have been familiar to his readers.

When we look at the Last Supper in this light, it explodes with meaning. The themes of liberation from bondage, entrance into a covenant relationship with the Lord, and founding of a nation are immense. For the disciples, this must have been a signal that a whole new era in the history of Israel was beginning. Especially after the euphoria of Palm Sunday, it must have seemed as though Jesus was proclaiming liberation from bondage to Rome. In the light of all his previous teaching, it must have sounded like the charter of a new Israel. Specifically, it must have called to at least some minds Jeremiah's promise of a "new covenant"--a covenant written on the heart.

It strikes me now for the first time that there is a very real sense in which the promise of Palm Sunday was fulfilled. There was a liberation from the Roman yoke. It was not, though, that the province of Judea won its political independence. It was that the community of the new covenant was independent of the political entity known as Judea. To the extent that it was a kingdom "not of this world," the infant Christian church was not subject to Rome. In that sense, the Last Supper translated the Passover from a celebration of a past physical deliverance to the proclamation of a present spiritual deliverance.

Quite specifically, Matthew states that the purpose of this covenant is "the remission of sins." Here the primary meaning of the word translated "remission" is "letting go." We are reminded not only of Moses's message to Pharaoh to "let my people go" (Exodus 5:1, for example), but also of the command to Mary to name her child Jesus because he would "save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). The liberation from Rome is not a military or political achievement, but a liberation from all the material values to which Rome itself is enslaved. It is moving the whole focus of life to a different level--a higher level.

As for the second element, the entrance into a covenant relationship, this is only slightly more obvious in the Last Supper. A covenant between two parties involves promises and obligations. The covenant with Abram recorded in Genesis 12 was mainly promise: that his descendants would become a great nation. The covenant at Sinai was heavy on obligation. The covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7 is again mainly promise: the promise of an eternal dynasty. All focused on the founding of an earthly nation.

Now, in the upper room, with the radical shift in focus from the kingdom of Israel to the kingdom of God, something quite wonderful happens to this issue of promise and obligation. The commands the Lord issues are to take, to eat, and to drink. There is really no need to put the promise into words, for it is by eating and drinking that we are sustained in life. It is the very nature of divine love, our theology tells us, to want to give us what is its own. The Lord "commands" us to do what will make us whole, radiant, individuals--and then leaves us free to refuse. The only "punishment" for not eating and drinking is hunger and thirst.

The third element is perhaps the one we usually miss most completely. It is the function of the Holy Supper not only as the sign of an individual, personal acceptance of the Lord into our hearts and minds, but as the announcement of the formation of a new community. At the beginning of the Lord's ministry, both he and John the Baptist made the same proclamation, namely, that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). We are taught to pray, "Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven."

In his recent book The Epic of the Afterlife, Olof Lagercrantz, the eminent Swedish non-Swedenborgian, puts it this way:

Happiness in heaven has community as its prerequisite. The sluggishness of new arrivals in the spiritual world is not just a matter of their being in an unfamiliar environment, but also because they have not sought out that community where they can exchange life-giving thoughts with like-minded souls (Spiritual Diary #400). Swedenborg's writings are a handbook on the art of living together. Sharing thoughts with kindred spirits is a constantly coveted delight that is rarely experienced. His work abounds with spirits who are looking for community. They come from the same thinly populated land as he; from the same scarcity of people to talk to.

For all its roots in Christian tradition, the view of heaven as the beatific vision, as the individual lost in the contemplation of the glory of God, is really profoundly unchristian. The Christian message is that there are two great commandments, not one--that love of God and love of the neighbor are inseparable. Any view of communion as a purely private sacrament misses fully half of its point. Matthew records Jesus as saying, "I will keep the Passover with my disciples." Luke ascribes to him the opening words, "I have deeply longed to eat this passover with you before I suffer" (Luke 22:15). The Holy Supper is a gathering together.

There is a profound need in all human beings for "that community where they can exchange life-giving thoughts with like-minded souls." It is the obligation of the church, under the new covenant, to be such a community; and it is the pledge of the Holy Supper that having been granted our freedom, we will do our best to make it so.

Liberation, covenant, and community are inseparable. They are imaged for us in the dramatic events of the Exodus and Sinai. They are intensely personalized and moved to a new level in the upper room--brought to the highest level of intimacy. In our participation in the Sacrament today, may we be conscious of these three essentials: of liberation in the Lord's forgiveness of our sins, of covenant in our resolve to do his will, and of community in a grateful awareness of each other's presence. Amen.

Prayer

Dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, as we celebrate together the covenant of communion, we thank you for freeing us from the guilt and shame of the sins against you and the offenses against others that we have committed since we last shared in the Holy Supper. We renew our covenant with you by resolving to act according to your will, not ours, as we move forward on our journey. And we rejoice in this community of fellow travelers, each of us individually, and all of us together, in a covenant with you to share in the building of your eternal kingdom. Amen.

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole