Communion is a new-covenant feast. How does the body and blood of the Christ create a covenant between heaven and earth?
If your church celebrates the Lord’s Supper, you’ll be familiar with this:
1 Corinthians 11:23–26 (NIV)
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
We hear this so often we may not see how counter-cultural it is. When we celebrate our Lord, we’re proclaiming the king who gave his life to re-establish the covenant relationship between heaven and earth.
Those verses begin and end by proclaiming Jesus as kyrios — Lord. A kyrios in Greek culture was a master or a ruler. The head of a business was the kyrios: the master, the lord of the business. The head of the Empire was a kyrios: Caesar expected you to call him your lord.
But if you saw a convicted criminal hanging on a cross beside the road, you would not normally call him kyrios. The crowd would be more likely to call him Loser than Lord.
In what sense is Jesus our kyrios, the Lord?
Caesar was “the lord” of Palestine because he’d earned the right to the title. He sent General Pompey to conquer the land in 63 BC. It didn’t go well for those who resisted him, refusing to recognize Caesar as Lord. If you said, “Over my dead body,” well, let’s just say that Pompey had the power to arrange that for you. That’s how power worked. It still does.
But Christians proclaim a king who became Lord in a very different way. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowds proclaimed him, “Hail the son of David arriving in the name of the Lord!” He wasn’t riding a warhorse. He wasn’t leading an army. He came in peace to be proclaimed as the Christ — the God-appointed leader of the world.
Jesus did not pile up the body-count of those who resisted his leadership. The body count was one: the king giving his life for his people. That’s who we proclaim each time we take communion: the king declaring, This is my body, which is for you (plural). (11:24)
At the end of the meal, he took the cup and declared, This cup is the new covenant in my blood (11:25). To appreciate his meaning, we need to know something of how covenants worked in the ancient near east.
After a war, the winner would sit down with the people he had conquered to draw up a covenant with them. The covenant defined the responsibilities of both sides. The king agreed to look after his people: providing for and protecting them. The people agreed to live under their king: turning from their previous leaders, trusting his leadership, giving undivided allegiance to comply with all he required of them.
For Israel, that all happened at Sinai. God released his people from Pharaoh, so they became the people of the Lord. He led them to Sinai and asked them to accept the covenant that defined them as his people. Moses read the terms of the covenant, and they agreed:
Exodus 24:7–8 (NIV)
7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.”
8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Sprinkling blood on people sounds very strange to us, but they understood it as a marker that they now belonged to YHWH. The heavenly sovereign then invited them into his mountain palace to commemorate the covenant relationship with a meal that showed they had a place at his table (Exodus 24:9-11).
This was around 1200 BC. The nation defined by this covenant lasted until 600 BC. That’s when they were swallowed by the Babylonian Empire, that was later defeated by the Persians, and then by Alexander the Great. By Jesus’ time, Rome had conquered them. They were no longer ruled by the Lord. They were ruled by emperors who came to power through war. Like Pharaoh, these emperors had no intention of letting the Lord’s people go so they could serve him.
So, how was Jesus to become their ruler? Should he fight like Gideon or David, slaughtering the bodies of his enemies? Would the blood of his enemies establish his kingship?
Jesus said no. That’s not how he would become king. If the world was going to fight him for the kingship, the body-count would be just one. He would offer his body for the peace of the world (11:24).
That’s why Jesus offered no resistance on the night he was handed over to his enemies by one of his own. He sat down for a meal with his closest friends. He took some bread and used it to explain what he was about to do (11:23). He offered thanks, in recognition of his Father’s providence — something he had wrestled to accept (Matthew 26:42). As he broke the bread apart, he told them, “This is what’s about to happen to me. In the same way I’m giving you this bread, I’m about to give my body for you. I will die tomorrow. So, each time you share a meal, it will be a memorial to me. I’d like you to remember how I gave myself — my body — for you.” (11:24).
At the end of the meal, he took the wine cup and said, “This cup forms a new covenant relationship between God and people. This is how God’s kingship is restored to the world. This covenant — this peace agreement between God and the world — was not established through the death of God’s enemies, but through the death of his Son. The blood that is sprinkled on the people to establish this covenant is not theirs. It’s mine.” (11:25)
“So, each time you share a meal, make it a memorial to your king. Remember, it was my blood that restored the covenant. So, whenever you eat a meal and share a drink, make the meal a proclamation of your king — the king who gave his life as the way to receive his kingship” (11:26).
What a way to make peace — absorbing the alienation in his own body! A king worth proclaiming, as we anticipate the day his kingship will be fully here?
Open 1 Corinthians 11:23–26.
Used with permission of the author, Allen Browne.