Candles in the cake: Communion and the story of God

I have two different short stories for you.  They differ only by the length of a single sentence.  Don’t blink, or you’ll miss them.  Ready?  Here’s the first one:

Last night I went to my friend’s house.  They served cake.

Easy enough?  Here’s the second:

Last night I went to my friend’s house.  They served cake.  There were candles in the cake.

Chances are, you read the first story without your mind supplying a tremendous amount of detail.  You might have imagined a dinner party or something as simple as coffee and dessert (or tea, for those of us sophisticated enough to avoid coffee).

But the second story was probably quite different.  The inclusion of “candles in the cake” changed the whole story.  Now you’re picturing balloons, streamers, colorfully-wrapped presents. If you’re a parent, you might also be picturing pointy hats, noisemakers, and a stream of bratty kids that you’re thankful aren’t yours.

The stories above illustrate the simple yet fundamental relationships between symbols and rituals.  The “candles in the cake” are a symbol that instantly connects us to a larger cultural narrative: a birthday party.  And so our minds instantly fill in the gaps.  We can even visualize the types of rituals that accompany the symbols: singing to the guest of honor, watching him or her blow out the candles, and so on.

We’re talking now about communion.  It’s something of a “dinner party,” I guess—or at least Jesus began it as one.  But what kind of dinner party?  When Jesus inaugurated the ritual of the Lord’s Table, it was at one of the most famous of Jewish celebrations known as Passover:

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” (Luke 22:7-8)

Here’s what we need to understand: “unleavened bread” meant as much to them as “candles in the cake mean to us.”  By that I mean that those words evoke the images of a whole series of symbols and rituals deeply embedded in Jewish culture.  It’s likely that even Luke’s non-Jewish readers would have understood at least the basics of Passover.

So when we talk about Communion, we need to make sure we recognize this ritual as embedded in a much larger story.

THE FIRST EXODUS

Even if you’ve never been to church, you might know the story of the exodus from the old Charlton Heston film. On the night that Israel would be released from captivity, each family was to mark their doorways with the blood of a goat or lamb.  The idea, of course, was that God would “pass over” that house in his plague against Egypt’s firstborn.  The meal the family shared that evening would be Passover meal.jpgrepeated in the years after as a reminder of what the Lord had done for his people.  Passover therefore became “a memorial day,” and the nation of Israel was commanded to “keep it as a feast to the Lord…as a statute forever” (Exodus 12:14).

The point, of course, was that every element of the Passover meal was meant to testify to what they had endured and the price paid for their freedom.  We can name a few:

  • Lamb: to represent the blood shed at their release
  • Unleavened bread: containing no yeast, because their deliverance would happen so quickly they had no time to wait for the bread to rise.
  • Bitter herbs: the flavor meant to remind them of the bitterness of their former slavery.
  • Eating while reclining: because in that time, this was the posture of freed peoples.

So while this is certainly removed from the traditions of our modern birthday parties, we can see how Jesus’ last meal with his disciples was saturated in symbolic meaning and historic tradition.

THE NEW EXODUS

But Communion, as we said, is part of our act of “playing make-believe.”  New Testament scholar Scot McKnight suggests that Jesus’ last meal was “a Passover-like meal the night before the Passover meal.”

14 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”  17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  19 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.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:14-20)

McKnight writes that Jesus is indeed re-telling the story of the exodus here with his disciples:

“During the meal, Jesus interprets the bread…and wine as his body and his blood….Jesus is asking his followers to participate in his death.  But rather than dying with them on the cross, he asks that they merely ingest bread and wine to identify themselves in the story of Jesus and so learn to participate in his death by faith.”[1]

Jesus is therefore announcing a new exodus, a new release not from the captivity of a tyrannical power, but from the enslaving powers of sin, Satan, and death.

Communion meal.jpgWe are commanded, quite plainly, to celebrate this meal together, as a sort of re-telling of this great story.  Communion is therefore analogous to Passover, only this time we are heading steadily for the time when all of human history is consummated at Christ’s return, and Christ’s followers celebrate the “wedding supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:6).

This ritual therefore tells us something about who we are and where we’ve been as well as where we’re going:

Passover Communion
Who we are God’s chosen nation God’s adopted sons
Where we’ve been Egyptian slavery In the bondage of sin
Where we’re going God’s promised land Resurrected into God’s restored creation

So we gather as a church to remember what’s behind us, as well as to celebrate the glorious future ahead of us.

The bread reminds us that Jesus was broken that we might be made whole.  The cup (grape juice, in our case, just to avoid issues with alcohol) reminds us that when God’s holiness rightly demanded our blood, God offers his own.

The Communion meal is therefore not something we take casually, but something we take joyously as we recognize our own place in God’s story.

 

[1] Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, p. 84.

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God REALLY Likes Remembrances – Exodus 12, Luke 22

<I am sorry to have apparently dated this wrong when writing and scheduling it. It was supposed to have come out to you a day earlier — on Good Friday, not Saturday morning.>

I always say that I am not much of a sentimentalist. Fortunately for me, neither is my wife to a large extent. We did make a big deal of kid birthdays, and with five boys growing up, realize that it adds up to over three months’ worth of celebrations … lots of ice cream cakes! But we’ve never been much for anniversaries, Valentine’s Day or that sort of thing.

At the same time, I am very quick to remember dates of big things in our lives: loved ones who died, or anniversaries of relocation events, life crises and job changes, etc.

I wouldn’t call God a sentimentalist, but he was interested in remembrances of big events in the history of the nation of Israel. God understands the human capacity to forget important things and events, especially those of great significance where the Lord was involved in a big way to demonstrate His love and His plan.

The children of Israel (meaning the family of Jacob) went to Egypt at the time of Joseph serving the Pharoah, numbering about 75 people. Over the next roughly 400 years, the work of Joseph was forgotten in Egypt and the Israelites had become a slave people of perhaps up to two million.

The miraculous events through the ministry of Moses served to make their escape from bondage possible, marking their birth as a nation. All of this happened with the event of the Passover, with the blood of the sacrificial lamb applied to the doorframes of their homes … all of this with significance not just for that day, but for every day from that day forward … and not just for Israel, but stretching 3500 years later and all of the way to us today on this Good Friday of 2016 …

Exodus 12:1 – The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb[a] for his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.

12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

14 “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance.

The principle of innocent blood being shed to cover for the sin of another dated all of the way back to the first human sin and the animal sacrifice for coverings. Sacrifices were a part of the entire Old Testament history of the patriarchs and the Jewish people. But the perfect and final sacrifice for sin had to be of the same substance as humanity, yet perfect. Only one person qualified, and God orchestrated the events of that human sacrifice to take place on the observance of the Passover from 1500 years prior …

Luke 22:7 – Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”

9 “Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked.

10 He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.”

13 They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

There is nothing more important for us than to understand what God has done in great grace to save mankind. He has had a plan (it says in Scripture) since before the beginning of the world. That plan of redemption has been intricately and beautifully interwoven and worked out over all of time. The gospel message of which we have been speaking in this series is the exposition as to how we may be connected to God’s eternal grace in Christ.

So, a review as to how it all comes together …

God said through Moses: “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance.”

Jesus said to the disciples during the Passover dinner: “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Paul said to the Corinthians: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

And I say to you: “See you tonight at 7:00.”