This Ash Wednesday sermon is from 1958. To learn a little about the history behind it, click here.
And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” – Luke 22:14-20 (RSV)
Dear Friends in Christ. Today we begin another Lenten season. Once again we look toward the passion and resurrection of our Savior, and pray that each of us may receive a lasting blessing. In years gone by I have chosen a general theme for these Lenten devotions, because I believe a theme helps focus the mind. This year I have chosen the theme “Were you there?” inspired by the well-known gospel hymn, Were you there when they crucified my Lord? The meditation for today asks, Where you there at the Last Supper?
The Passion story starts with the passage above from Luke’s Gospel. It is evening. Twelve men and their Teacher are in an upper room to observe a Passover meal. The same meal is being observed in countless Jewish homes at the same time. Most of you are familiar with the festival of Passover. It was instituted by God at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, after 400 years of slavery. On the day of their departure the people of God were asked to kill a lamb without spot or blemish and use its blood to stain their doorways. That night an angel of the Lord swept through the land of Egypt, taking the life of the firstborn in every Egyptian household, but passing over the houses of Israelites whose doors had been marked with the blood of the lamb. Pharaoh finally granted them permission to leave Egypt, and a company of millions began their march to freedom. God appointed the festival of Passover as a memorial for them. The killing of the Passover lamb every year was a reminder of God’s mighty deliverance.
Our Lord was celebrating such a Passover meal on the night of the Last Supper. During the meal he instituted the new covenant sealed in his blood – one of the most solemn moments in all of history. Who was there? Peter, James, John, and the others. But let us imagine this group as our Lord saw it, not just with the Twelve but with all those who have joined at His table over the centuries.
Jesus had you in mind in the upper room. His deeds there, just like his suffering and death, were for you. This is a mystery. We accept the words He spoke that night by faith. During that Passover meal, Jesus took bread and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me.” He also took the cup, saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood; do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.” Here I say we encounter a mystery. Our Lord’s words assure us that he gave his body and shed his blood for the remission of our sins; that in this holy sacrament we receive his body and his blood.
When he spoke these words the Lord did not only have the Twelve in mind. He was thinking of all his disciples through the ages, and also you – “Do this in remembrance of me.” In other words, “you do not stand alone. I am with you. Although I go back to my Father and leave you in a world full of wickedness, know that I am with you. I bought you with the price of my body and blood. I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Why did He say, “This cup is the new covenant of my blood?” Because here He did something new, something not included in the old covenant. The covenant which God made in Egypt with the Israelites was based on the blood of a lamb. But the blood of that lamb only protected them on the night when the angel of death passed through Egypt. Although the glory of that covenant was great, it was but a shadow of the new covenant, a covenant signed and sealed not with the blood of an animal, but with the blood of the Son of God.
If the Lord had said, “Take this bread and eat it; take this wine and drink it, and when you do so, remember me;” that would have been a wonderful memorial. Any ceremony that helps us remember the Lord is wonderful. But Christ said something more, something very important, in connection with giving the bread and wine. His words give the new covenant, the new passover, its true meaning and glory: this is my body; this is my blood; shed for you.
This is what the Bible teaches us about Holy Communion. The Apostle Paul put it in these simple words: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not participation in the blood of Christ. The bread which we break, is it not participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). It is the Lord’s sacrament, not ours. It is the passover of the new covenant, by which the lamb of the new covenant feeds our souls.
Our Lord’s message was always that the Son of Man had come to seek and save the lost. And that the Son of Man must be killed and after three days rise again. Jesus explained this many times to his disciples. Now once more at this Passover meal he tells them His body will be given and His blood shed for them. The message of the gospel and the message of the Lord’s Supper are one and the same. But now the Lord adds one more thing to the sacrament. To His spoken promise He adds a special guarantee of His forgiving love; nothing less than his body and blood. We are all familiar with pledges. The wedding ring is a pledge and token of wedded love and faithfulness. So too, Holy Communion is his unfailing token and pledge of saving love to you. His body is given and His blood is shed for you.
Many years have passed since the disciples shared in that heavenly supper with the Lord. Since that time Christians throughout the ages have received comfort and strength by partaking of His body and blood. The upper room is still there for believers. When we eat and drink the bread and wine, this church is transformed into the upper room. The Lord is here; his disciples are here, and his promise is here: My blood is shed for the forgiveness of your sins.
Let us be grateful for these words of promise. Let us not be afraid to acknowledge our sins and shortcomings to Him. You know what your sins are – as a parent, a son or daughter, a neighbor, and employer or employee. When you come to the Lord with your sins, He will not cast you out.
One of the bitterest experiences in life is to be rejected. One can take all kinds of blows, but to be rejected by one’s fellow men is truly staggering. It is something for which no amount of money or influence or education can compensate. To be accepted by others is essential to our happiness. How much more important, then, is your acceptance by God.
Jesus our Lord experienced rejection. He was despised and rejected by men. He was even forsaken by God. But because He was rejected, we are accepted. By giving His life he opened the path to salvation for all who come to Him. He stands ready to forgive. All you need to do is come to Him with a repentant heart, and He will say to you, “I gave my body for you. This cup is the new covenant of my blood, which is shed for the remission of your sins.”
Ash Wednesday, 1958