The Symbol of Life: A sermon based on Matthew 26:17-30
Last Sunday at Youth, they read the story of the Last Supper in Matthew and the story of the Passover in Exodus. I then asked them to find out what these two stories had in common and why it matters. The goal was for them to basically research this Sunday’s sermon for me so I could take it easy this week. (Slide 1) The results were amazing. I’ll share one of their insights now, and one later towards the end of the service. I’m thinking of doing this every Sunday. One thing that the youth picked up on that’s really important is the role that symbol plays in these two stories. One group said, “the first passover was a symbol of what was to come,” Another group said something very similar — “the Passover lamb is symbolized by Jesus. Jesus is the perfect lamb.” There there you could unpack, but the first thing I want to pick up on what they said might seem simple. Their insight about the role of symbol is so important for us to understand the story of the Last Supper, how it relates to Passover. The nature of what a symbol also helps us understand what we’re doing when we are celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
It’s easy to forget just how powerful symbols are. We are surrounded by symbols, we see theme every day, but I don’t often consider how I’m impacted by them (Slide 2). Let’s think for a moment about some of our most common symbols. I bet 95% of people you interviewed around Smithers could tell you what these symbols represent. These are all status symbols. We let these symbols represent us. By wearing them, we allow these symbols to tell others about who we are, the groups we belong to, what we like to do, how affluent we are, etc.. We don’t wear these symbols because we want to give the company free advertising. We pay, sometimes a lot of money, because we want to be identified with that symbol. It changes us and the way people see us. This is because symbols take on the life of what they’re symbolic of. In fact, the symbol tells you the value of what the symbol is on. When you walk into the parking lot after the service, notice if the symbol on a truck influences your opinion. Have you ever not known whether you liked something until you saw the logo? I’ll confess to that. “Oh, I didn’t know that was a Patagonia. Nice hoody.” Have you ever glanced at various logos and made silent judgements? I’ll confess to that too. All this is because symbol tell us a story of what they’re attached to, like “that symbol is for quality athletic gear, made for flexible people. That person must be athletic and flexible.” Whatever the story is, you hear it simply by seeing the symbol. A symbol changes us when we take the symbol on us. If a brand’s symbol can change the way we think and feel about ourselves. If a brand’s symbol changes the way others see us, how much more the greatest symbol backed by the Son of God.
Last week we spent a lot of time talking about the religious symbols of ancient Israel. (Slide 3) Remember how we talked about the temple being one of the most significant symbols for ancient Israel? The temple is like any other symbol, empty in itself. If you only saw a logo, it wouldn’t mean anything. Similarly, on its own the temple was just a stone building. Impressive to be sure, but nothing more. Yet because of what backed the symbol, the temple became the most powerful symbol of Israel. The people of Israel would look at the temple and see the place where God lived, the place where they’d go to have their sins forgiven, the place to hear Torah read. They would see the temple and know that God lived among them, and they were God’s chosen people. They would remember all this simply by seeing the symbol. (Slide 4)
Now let’s think of the big symbol in that first Passover Story. You can read the full account in Exodus 12. A few hundred years earlier, the family of Israel came down to Egypt to find relief from a famine. Eventually they became too numerous to count. The problem was that they were enslaved under Pharaoh. They cried out to God for liberation. So began a showdown between God and Pharaoh. God sent one plague after another in response to Pharaoh’s refusal to let Israel leave to worship God in the wilderness. The tenth plague was the worst. (Slide 5) The Lord promised to send the Destroyer throughout the land of Egypt. Every firstborn Egyptian would be struck down. The Israelites were to slaughter a passover lamb and put the blood on the doorposts. When the Lord sees the blood on the two doorposts, the Lord would pass over that door and not allow the destroyer to enter the house to strike down those inside. Let me ask you a question. How was the blood working in this story? Was the blood acting as a symbol or something else. If the blood wasn’t acting as a symbol, that means there was something about the blood itself that prevented the Destroying Angel from entering those houses. Maybe it was the smell, maybe it was the colour red, maybe the Destroying Angel had Hemophobia, the extreme, irrational fear of blood. But if the blood worked symbolically, that means the Destroying Angel passed over those houses simply because the blood showed who was part of God’s covenant people. The blood symbolically showed who was under God’s protection. The blood symbolically marked out the people that God was leading out of slavery and into freedom. This is another picture of the enormous power that symbols have.
(Slide 6) As the youth noted, Jesus introduces a similar but new symbol. He first breaks the bread and says, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Then he takes a cup, and after giving thanks he gives the cup to his disciples, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus is celebrating Passover, but when he says blood of the covenant, he’s intending to remind us of when God said to Jeremiah, “The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband says the Lord.” God says that he’s doing something infinitely greater than what started that first Passover. God says, (Slide 7) “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time — I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. (Slide 8) No longer shall they teach their neighbour, or say to each other, “know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; (Slide 9) for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more.” (Slide 10) That is what the Wine of the New Covenant symbolizes. The wine is the symbol of God's promise to forgive sins once and for all. The wine is the symbol of God’s promise that we will truly know Him. The Wine is the Symbol of God’s promise to write His will on our hearts. Then, knowing and doing the will of God will be as natural as eating and drinking. Eating drinking.
What a strange way Jesus introduces us to this New Covenant — eating and drinking. We are not asked to dip a branch in blood and spread it on a doorframe like they did in that first passover. That’s slightly more sanitary. Instead Jesus welcomes us into the covenant by eating and drinking. We take the cup and put it to your lips, because Jesus commands — “Drink.” How simple. How challenging. What does the act of eating and drinking symbolize but taking the symbol of the New Covenant completely within ourselves. Digesting it. Allowing the symbol become a part of us. By eating and drinking, the New Covenant becomes incorporated into your body, your mind, your heart, forever. That’s how deep God wants this symbol to go. That’s why in John 6, Jesus forces us to look square in the face at what we’re doing. Jesus says — “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;” for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” The Passover Blood preserved their life for the night. The Passover blood allowed the Israelites to survive that night so they could enter the land God was giving them. Jesus’ blood preserves his followers for eternity, promising to bring His people into His presence.
Jesus is taking the symbol of blood to a new level, but let us not belittle the word symbol. Remember, the temple was a symbol, but the high priests wore bells to tell others they were still alive when they were in the most sacred part of that symbol. The Passover blood was a symbol, that symbol spelled the difference of life and death. The blood of Jesus is a symbol that goes so far beyond all other symbols we’ve ever encountered. Throughout Scripture, blood always symbolized life. Jesus offers us his life in the symbol of the cup. In taking the cup we are taking within us the life of Jesus. As Jesus said in John 6, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
Christians throughout the ages have gotten this, so the Lord’s Supper has always been one of the most powerful actions of our faith. That’s why this sacrament has always been handled with care, reverence, and holy awe. In the Reformed Tradition, we don’t suspect that the bread and wine change materially. Yet that doesn’t empty the symbol of its power. We believe that when we participate in the Lord’s Supper with faith, the Holy Spirit make Jesus truly present through the bread and wine. Remember, it was the presence of God that made the symbol of the temple so powerful. In the same way, when we come to the Lord’s Supper with faith, the Holy Spirit genuinely brings us into the presence of Jesus. For this reason, when we eat the bread and drink the wine, Jesus is pouring His life into our body and bringing us into the life of God. Jesus is incorporating us into the New covenant.
Let me tell you why this is important to me. I’m not perfect. I sin. I screw up. I say stupid things. I can feel insecure about the stupid things I say and I beat myself up. I can feel insecure around others. I can say hurtful things. I make poor decisions. I sometimes am controlled by my anxiety. There’s a lot of things I could do… I could try harder. I could reach out more to the people I think I annoy. I could read more so I’m smarter. Workout more so I’m stronger. Try to be funnier. Drink more coffee so I’m more charismatic. Or I could just avoid people. Or I could try to intimidate the people I’m intimidated by. Or I could deny the ways I screw up and pretend like I’m normal. There’s healthier stuff I can do too, and I try to do those things. But I come to the Lord’s Supper because I’m imperfect, and I need God’s medicine.
It couldn’t be easier. The Lord’s Supper cuts through all my sin, insecurities, and attempts at self-improvement with grace. All you do is eat and drink. Jesus tells me that as I do this small little act He’s pouring Himself into me. I don’t want to be perfect. I don’t want to live defensively. I don’t want to forever try harder. I want to be like Jesus. I want the life of Jesus to be the fabric of my life. That’s what’s on offer when Jesus invites us to the table. Jesus says, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me.” There is peace in that. We can rest in that. We don’t need to be a super hero of the faith. We just eat and drink and know that the life of God is becoming part of the fabric of my body life. The Lord’s Supper reminds us of how easy life with Jesus can be. Just eat and drink. Jesus will meet you there. We . He will fill You. He will heal you.
And we don’t do this alone. We eat and drink with each other. Augustine, and so many others, say that the whole church is present with Jesus in the bread. We also are part of Christ’s body. So we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, because we are not alone on this journey. We are shaped together. And as we do this together, we know the whole great big church around the world is doing this with us. And they are present in our bread, and we in theirs. We are all part of Christ’s body, from Alaska to Capetown. And together we are being filled with Jesus as we eat the bread and take the cup. And it couldn’t be more simple. Eat. Drink. Receive the New Covenant Jesus says. So together we become more and more like Jesus until He comes again. That’s why we call this symbol a sacrament.