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A liberating Last Supper (April 10, 2022)

Uniform Lesson for April 10, 2022
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Matthew 26:17-30

Just as Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem indicated he was a peculiar kind of king, come to initiate a strange type of reign, so the Passover that Jesus celebrates with his disciples proves to be a peculiar kind of meal, initiating a strange type of liberation. Yes, this too will be a “liberating Passover” (like those we studied in Ezra and Deuteronomy), but its liberation will also entail betrayal and a new kind of bread and cup. Let’s listen to the themes of the Passover as set to the music of Holy Week. What kinds of liberating songs and service should this new meal inspire?

The seder meal

Scholars have long argued over whether Jesus’ final meal with his disciples was a true Passover seder or some different kind of ritual. Regardless, Matthew clearly designates this meal as the Passover meal, served in the house of an unnamed volunteer, attended by all 12 of Jesus’ disciples, including Judas, the one who would betray him.

This emphasis on betrayal is the first change that Jesus brings to the traditional seder meal. There is no theme of betrayal or dissension in the ranks in the story of the Exodus and the meal by which it is remembered (these themes will come later in the wilderness). But Jesus, in Matthew, is linking this meal with what will happen to him and disciples next. Earlier in the chapter (v. 2), Jesus cites the Passover as the cue for him to “be handed over to be crucified.” So this particular seder becomes an occasion to talk about the opposite of liberation: being willing to walk forward into bondage at the hands of those whose loyalty should be beyond doubt. All the disciples, following Jesus’ declaration regarding impending disloyalty, cry out, “Surely not I, Lord?” Yet, by the end of this Holy Week, not just one, but all 12 of these disciples will find themselves on the side of the forces opposing Jesus’ promised kingdom, either by sins of commission or omission. These events cast this seder in a decidedly minor key.

The bread and the cup

It is the theme of betrayal, then, that leads to a second shift in Jesus’ performance of this seder. The traditional seder meal includes bread and several cups of wine. The unleavened bread helps the participants to remember the haste with which they left Egypt. The cups of wine inspire memories of past suffering and liberation and hopes of redemption yet to come. Jesus, in this setting, identifies the bread with his body, about to be broken on the cross. He then offers up a cup, which he associates with the blood of the new covenant, which he is about to shed. He further designates the purpose of this pouring out of his life for many for “the forgiveness of sins.”

These themes run so deep in Christian tradition and practice (especially in congregations that celebrate communion on Maundy Thursday evening) that the shifts in the mood and the purpose of this meal as recorded by Matthew are easy to miss. There is little to no talk about sin in the Exodus story, especially on the part of the Israelites. The slaves in Egypt aren’t seeking forgiveness of sins but freedom from Pharaoh. There is a joy and a hope for future freedom in the traditional seder meal that Christians, following Jesus’ example, may all too easily miss. Maybe reading about what Christians call the Last Supper in this series on the liberating power of God will help us regain some of this assumed perspective. If not, there are some other cues in the text.

In my Father’s kingdom

While the disciples are “greatly distressed” in this passage, this may not be the mood of Jesus. The authorities have worried about arresting Jesus during the Passover due to fears of riots on the part of the people (v. 5). The themes of liberation, if not revolution, are in the air. Jesus blesses the bread and gives thanks over the wine. This is a celebration at its core. Jesus ends his toast by declaring that he will refrain from drinking further until the he can drink it “new” with his disciples “in my Father’s kingdom.” Yes, Jesus marks this meal as a meal of betrayal and forgiveness. But he also remembers and reclaims this meal as pointing forward toward something much bigger — an act of liberation, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

For discussion:

How does the theme of liberation change our hearing of this passage this Palm/Passion Sunday?

 

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