In his latest book, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement, Michael Gorman argues that the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ atonement was to “create a transformed people, a (new) people living out a (new) covenant relationship with God together. Moreover, this people will not simply believe in the atonement and the one who died, they will eat and drink it, they will be baptized into it/ him, they will be drawn to him and into it. That is, they will so identify with the crucified savior that words like “embrace” and “participation,” more than “belief” or even “acceptance,” best describe the proper response to this death.”
Certainly the Last Supper is of great import when we reflect upon the Lord’s death and its significance for his disciples. For many, Maundy Thursday might be one of the few times that they will partake in the Lord’s Supper. So it might be worth more reflection, before we “do this in remembrance” of Jesus.
Intriguingly, it is only in this scene where we find the word “covenant” coming from the mouth of Jesus. While most of us are eager to gravitate towards high-volume words, this is an instance where less is more, and it deserves much more attention.
While this word “covenant” tends to grab our attention, especially with the idea of it being a (re)new(ed) covenant (Luke 22:20; see Jeremiah 31:34), I was recently made aware of something extremely significant preceding it, for which the word covenant is describing, namely, the “blood” of the covenant (Mark 14:24 and parallels).
We may suppose that this has something to do with the Passover meal, since, after all, the Evangelists introduce us to this meal by mentioning that it took place during Passover. But as Paul Penley states, “[t]he Bible never calls the blood of the Passover lambs in Egypt the “blood of the covenant.” The “blood of the covenant” first comes from the oxen sacrificed in Sinai mentioned in Exodus 24. The only other reference to “blood of the covenant” in the Bible refers to the sacrificed body of Jesus. That connection must not be missed” (Reenacting the Way (of Jesus), p. 196). After doing this, they have a meal (Exodus 24:11).
What is the significance? Well, before Moses sprinkles the blood of the covenant on the people, the people commit themselves (twice!) to do something: “all that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:3, 7). So if this happens to be the background, what sort of implications would this entail for those of us who partake of the Lord’s Supper today? Penley explains,
The “blood of the covenant” doesn’t just signify God’s willingness to accept a sacrifice as payment for human sin. It signifies a two-way commitment. God will reach out and over the sins of many, but those whom he reaches have a major responsibility. The responsibility is obedience. God’s ways become your way of life if you want God’s sacrifice to become your forgiveness (197).
Newsflash: that’s how covenants work! A covenant between parties is a two-way street. We aren’t mere recipients of Jesus’ salvific act. We aren’t coming to the table just to “remember,” and proclaim a big hearty “thank you.” We are called to obedience, to be faithful to the covenant in which we have been inaugurated. We are eating and drinking the atonement. We are being baptized into it. We are committing ourselves to the baptismal life, the-dying-and-rising-to-Christ life.
Some may feel suspicious towards this “background” info. Check out the discussion of the old and new covenant in Hebrews 9 where we find the author arguing “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works in order to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). Paul, likewise, states that “[Christ] died on behalf of all in order that those who continue living might no longer live for themselves, but for the one who died on their behalf and was raised (2 Corinthians 5:15).” He died for us, we die daily for Him.
Do we realize that when we take the bread and wine we are committing ourselves to faithfulness to God?
Penley suggests we help set the stage for the seriousness of the Lord’s Supper by responding in unison to the biblical reading: “all the words which we have spoken, we will do.” Another practical suggestion is:
reading out loud a portion of Jesus’ teaching each time communion is taken. Take a section of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and read it out loud. Or take a section of Jesus’ teaching on the topic being discussed or taught that day. This way participants can specifically consider the commands in the covenant to which they are committing— to which they are declaring in action, “all the words which you have spoken we will do” (210).
This also should make us consider the Commission the Lord gave us, especially the “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” We are making disciples who are agreeing to enter into the new covenant. We are inviting them to partake and commune with the Lord of the new covenant. Thus, we must ask ourselves: if we are making disciples of the new covenant, then ought it be best to know and do all that he commanded us to do?
Thank God for the mercy of this Lord, and the forgiveness he has offered, and the prayer that he has taught us to pray. Nevertheless, when we approach his Table, let us remember and do all that he has taught us, and enabled us to do through the power of his Spirit.