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24 Hours That Changed the World
By Adam Hamilton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Last Supper
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed ... he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." (MARK 14:12, 22-25)
AN UPPER ROOM IN JERUSALEM
THE DISCIPLES WERE confused by his words. The Passover Seder was meant to be a time of joy and celebration, retelling the story of God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt. It hinted at the hope that God would send the Messiah. For this reason the meal had special meaning to the disciples; they were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and that they were in Jerusalem on this Passover so that he could claim his kingdom. Four days earlier the crowds in the city had welcomed him with shouts of "Hosanna!" Why then was he now speaking of his blood being shed? What did it all mean?
Seldom have the apparent fortunes of any historical figure changed as quickly and dramatically as did those of Jesus in the last week of his life. On Sunday he had entered Jerusalem to crowds strewing palm branches before him, convinced he was the promised Messiah. By Thursday evening he was essentially in hiding, as the city's religious leaders plotted his death with the help of one of the twelve disciples who had been closest to him during his public ministry.
Jesus, of course, knew what was coming. He had foretold all of it, although his disciples never understood. The events of the last twenty-four hours of Jesus' life would test those closest to him, and they would fail.
Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem after walking with his disciples the approximately seventy-five miles from the area around the Sea of Galilee, where he had spent much of his ministry. He had come to celebrate the Feast of Passover, and he had come to die. He entered the city from the Mount of Olives, riding a donkey on which some of his followers had laid their clothing. Throngs of people hailed him, shouting,
Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven! (Matthew 21:9)
In essence they were saying, "Save us now, Jesus. Deliver us."
Jesus looked around the city and then, as evening approached, went back to Bethany, on the Mount of Olives, to stay the night (Mark 11:11). The next day he made his way to the Temple. There, in the outer court of the Gentiles where all nations were invited to pray, he watched as people bought and sold goods in what amounted to an open marketplace; and he became visibly angry. "Is it not written," he said, "'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? / But you have made it a den of robbers" (Mark 11:17). He overturned the moneychangers' tables and drove out the merchants (Matthew 21:12), infuriating the religious leaders who controlled the Temple.
Jesus returned to the Temple courts each day that week; and as he taught, he pushed harder on his religious reforms, challenging those same religious leaders again and again. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" he said. "For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth" (Matthew 23:27). He chastised them for their spiritual pride, their hard hearts, and their religion of rules that served only to alienate further those who were lost. He told the people, in effect, "Do what the religious leaders tell you to do, but don't do as they do; for they are like the blind leading the blind."
With every charge and challenge, Jesus further angered the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. The tension grew each time he entered the Temple. By Thursday, it was clear the city's religious leaders were plotting to put him to death.
Preparing the Passover Seder
So at noon on Thursday he turned to two of his disciples (Luke tells us it was Peter and John [21:8].) and told them to go into town and prepare for the Passover feast, or Seder, which he and his disciples would eat in private.
Jesus said to his disciples, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you, follow him" (Mark 14:13). Carrying water was a woman's job, so such a man would stand out on Jerusalem's busy streets. Some believe Jesus was miraculously able to see what was about to happen, while others believe he had arranged for the meal in advance. In any case, Jesus told the disciples, "Wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, 'The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?'" (Mark 14:14).
A house like this, by the way, would have been owned by someone who was wealthy. The person was therefore risking wealth, status, perhaps life itself, in order to host Jesus and his disciples.
Everything went just as Jesus had said. Peter and John made the preparations in the upper room—probably the same room where, on the Day of Pentecost, one hundred twenty disciples would gather and find themselves filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking in other tongues. At three o'clock in the afternoon, Peter and John would have taken a lamb to the Temple for sacrifice, joining tens of thousands of people arriving for that purpose throughout the day. As people sang psalms, the lamb's throat would be slit; and a priest would catch the blood in a bowl, then pour it at the base of the altar table. Another priest would butcher the lamb. Peter and John would then take the meat and return to the kitchen at the upper room, where the lamb would be basted in oil or wine and roasted for three or four hours. By about seven o'clock that evening, Jesus and the other disciples would have joined Peter and John in the upper room for the meal.
The Passover Seder they shared is a meal commemorating God's central saving act toward Israel, an event described in Exodus 3–13. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years when God called Moses to deliver them. Moses demanded that Pharaoh release his people, but the Egyptian monarch refused. God then brought a series of plagues upon the Egyptians, but still Pharaoh would not relent. Finally, God said to Moses that he would perform one last terrible deed in the land; after this the pharaoh would have to let the people go. God would strike down the firstborn in every household and among every flock throughout the land of Egypt.
On that night the Israelites were to sacrifice a lamb to God. They were to mark their doorposts with its blood. As the Angel of Death was to pass through the land, it would pass over the homes marked by the blood of a lamb, thus sparing the firstborn in that home. The lamb was to be cooked and eaten, giving the Israelites one final meal, one last supper in Egypt, before they were delivered.
Death did indeed visit the land in the middle of the night, from the humblest dwelling to Pharaoh's palace. In the morning, Egypt was awash in mourning. Amid that devastation, Pharaoh finally relented. He ordered the Israelites to leave Egypt. They prepared to flee so quickly that there was no time to leaven their bread dough and allow it to rise. As a result, the bread they took with them was unleavened.
The Israelites' escape set in motion their epic journey through the wilderness, a forty-year trek that would transform the Israelites into a nation and lead them to the Promised Land. From that day forward, the Israelites annually celebrated the Passover that had accompanied their escape from bondage in Egypt; and the meal would be forever known as the "Feast of Unleavened Bread." Exodus 12 records how God commanded the Israelites to prepare this meal—to sacrifice and roast the lamb and to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs in memory of their deliverance from slavery to freedom.
"It is a meal filled with ritual," says Rabbi Amy Katz, a friend with whom my wife (LaVon) and I have shared the Passover Seder, "from the food you eat to how you eat it to how you sit." LaVon and I had the joy of joining Rabbi Katz for a wonderful Seder meal that included brisket, chicken, vegetables, and delicious desserts. Interspersed throughout the meal was a discussion of the foods that symbolically retell the story of Israel's deliverance. We ate bitter herbs—horseradish and parsley, reminders of the bitterness the Israelites had experienced when they were slaves in Egypt. The herbs were dipped in salt water, which represented their tears. We ate the charoset, a pureed apple mixture meant to look like the mortar out of which the Israelites made bricks for Pharaoh's building projects. An egg reminded us, as it reminds Christians at Easter, of new birth and new life, that Israel experienced a new beginning. The unleavened matzoh reminded us of the haste of the Israelites' escape. The lamb was a reminder of the lamb slain that original Passover, whose blood marked the doorposts of the Israelites' homes and ensured that death "passed over." Finally, we drank four small cups of wine as a reminder of God's promises that he would redeem the Israelites (See Exodus 6:6-7.).
We began at seven o'clock in the evening, and it was close to midnight before we finished. This was undoubtedly similar to the Seder that Jesus and his disciples ate together. These same items—the wine, the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs—were all placed on the table in that upper room. In that case, though, the good food, the deep friendships, and the story of God's deliverance of Israel from slavery would have been tempered by the heaviness of Jesus' heart. He knew, as his disciples did not, that this was the last time he would share this meal with them.
Reliving the meal with Rabbi Katz helped me understand, among other things, why the disciples, so full of food and wine at such a late hour, fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane as Jesus prayed and urged them to watch with him.
The meal also prompted me to look even more closely at the Gospel descriptions of the Last Supper. John goes into great detail, providing us with the most complete account of what Jesus said that night. Interestingly, John's account is unique among the Gospels in seeing the Last Supper as a kind of "pre-Passover" Seder. He has Jesus suffering on the cross at the very time when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed (John 19:14)—a powerful image that helps John make a theological point.
Various efforts have been made to harmonize the two differing timelines, and I will let you explore these on your own. John does not have Jesus telling his disciples to "do this in remembrance of me." He does not describe the bread and the wine. Instead, he devotes five chapters to describing what Jesus taught and what he prayed that evening during the meal. Chapters 13 through 17 of John contain some of the most loved verses in the Bible and describe Jesus teaching by example, as when he washed the disciples' feet, showing them that greatness in the kingdom of God is found in serving others. (For further reflection on John's account, see the book of reflections that is a companion to this volume.)
Betrayal and Repentance: Preparing Ourselves
The Passover is meant to be a festive and celebratory time, filled with joy as participants remember that those who were slaves were now set free, at last becoming one people, the people of God. If indeed the Last Supper began with such a tone, it changed during the course of the evening. Even beyond Jesus' foreknowledge of events, there was great apprehension in the room. Everyone was conscious of the heightened tension between Jesus and the religious leaders. They all wondered what was going to happen to Jesus— and to them. Would there be repercussions from his actions in the Temple? Might he finally proclaim himself as Messiah?
Jesus cut through the uncertainty with a statement so electric it still echoes across the centuries. "One of you," he said, looking at them in the sudden stillness of the Seder celebration, "will betray me" (Mark 14:18).
He knew which one it was, but he did not say. "Surely, not I?" the disciples asked (Mark 14:19). "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me" (Mark 14:20), Jesus said, probably referring to the bowl of charoset before them.
The story of the betrayal winds its way through the rest of the Gospel accounts of the final twenty-four hours of Jesus' life. Before the night was through, Judas would betray Jesus; Peter would deny him; and the disciples would desert him, leaving Jesus utterly alone as he faced trial at the hands of his enemies.
The echoes of Jesus' prediction and of the acts of betrayal by those closest to him are still discomfiting. In our own age, when church leaders have abused children, embezzled funds, and more, we realize that such betrayals are commonplace. Jesus might well have said, "All of you will betray me"; and with that realization, we must look finally at ourselves.
When have you been Judas? When have you been Peter or the other disciples? When have you betrayed Jesus or denied or deserted him? The reality is that all of us will at some time betray him—every one of us.
Several weeks ago I was greeting worshipers in the narthex of our church building, and I saw a couple who had not been in attendance for quite a while. I went up to greet them and said, "It's so good to see you." The man said to me, "I haven't been here for some time because I did something that I knew disappointed God, and I just couldn't bring myself to come back." That man could be any one of us. All of us will disappoint God. All of us will betray him.
When we commemorate the Last Supper in the act of receiving Communion, we would do well to recall this part of the meal: Jesus' acknowledgement of the betrayal, the denial, the desertions that would follow. I suspect this is why the church has traditionally called for confession and repentance before we receive the bread and wine. In the Communion liturgies of many churches, there is a confession that speaks of having sinned against the Lord "by thought, word and deed ... by what we have done, and what we have left undone."
An entire season of the Christian liturgical year is devoted to the idea of repentance for our acts of betrayal and desertion. Lent, in the early church, was a time when those who had publicly denied Christ in order to avoid persecution repented and were restored, were brought back into fellowship and allowed to receive Holy Communion again.
It is worth considering, as we look at repentance and restoration, that although Jesus knew Judas would betray him, Peter would deny him, and the others would desert him, he still washed their feet (John 13:3-5), then shared the bread and wine with them—bread that represented his body and wine that represented his blood. Despite knowing what they would do, he said to them, "I do not call you servants any longer ... but I have called you friends" (John 15:15). He did that for all of them, including Judas. Jesus looked past their betrayal, their sins, and their failures and called them his friends. We take comfort in the knowledge that he will do that for us as well.
"This Is My Body ..." (Mark 14:12): From Seder to Eucharist
After announcing his betrayal, Jesus took the matzoh and said a blessing over it. But what he said next left his disciples perplexed. As he broke the matzoh and handed it to his disciples, he said, "Take, eat; this is my body" (Matthew 26:26). That was not part of the Haggadah, the text that sets out the order of the Passover Seder. It was, rather, a startling and striking object lesson. Jesus regularly spoke in parables, using analogy, simile, and metaphor. In this case, the bread he held stood for his body, which only a few hours later would be lashed with the stripes of a scourge, then pierced with nails as he hung on a Roman cross. As had happened so often, the disciples did not understand the analogy or what was about to happen. Nonetheless, they ate.
Then Jesus took the cup—likely the third of the four cups of wine the disciples would have drunk at the Seder—and again he left them puzzled when he said, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28). This reference to the cup of redemption was again not part of the Passover Seder, although the disciples would have recognized the phrase "blood of the covenant." We find it in Exodus 24:8, when, as God enters into a formal relationship with Israel, Moses takes the blood of bulls and sprinkles it on the people, saying, "See the blood of the covenant." Perhaps the disciples remembered that God had spoken again through Jeremiah:
Excerpted from 24 Hours That Changed the World by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2009 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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