March 28, 2013
“The New Covenant in My Blood” (Luke 22:7-20)
“This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” So said Jesus on this night, this night on which he was betrayed, this Holy Thursday when he instituted the Blessed Sacrament of his Body and Blood. “The New Covenant in My Blood”: What does Jesus mean by that? This is our theme for this evening.
The first thing we ought to clear up is this word “covenant.” It’s not a word we use every day. What is a covenant? Simply put, a covenant refers to a solemn relationship between two parties. In its broadest usage, it can mean something like a contract entered into by two parties, two equal parties. But in the ancient Near East, a covenant could also refer to a relationship between two unequal parties, like between a suzerain and a vassal, an emperor lord and a subject king. In the wording of the covenant agreement, the superior party would recount what he had done for the lesser party, like rescuing the people from danger, and would promise to do certain things in the future, like offering protection from enemies. In return, the lesser party would promise loyalty and obedience to the superior. The covenant would then be sealed with an oath, a solemn pledge, and there would also be a ceremony of some type, some sacred act, perhaps a covenant meal, to seal the deal. That was one certain kind of covenant in the ancient world.
But now when we move to the Bible, the concept of a covenant takes on some special, distinctive characteristics. It is certainly not a contract between two equal parties. God is God, and his people are not. And how his people have become his people–even that is not of their own doing. No, in a biblical covenant, the Lord God takes the initiative and calls to himself a people who otherwise would not know him. God takes a people for himself and enters into a special relationship with them, purely out of his grace and unmerited favor.
Think back to the covenant the Lord entered into with Abram, later to be called Abraham. Abram did not know God. And he did not have any children at that time from which to form a nation. But the Lord called Abram to himself, and established a covenant of blessing with him: “Go to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So the Lord made of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob a great nation. Jacob’s sons, the children of Israel, left the land of promise when a famine hit, and they went down to Egypt and there grew in numbers. But over time the Egyptians enslaved them, and there they were stuck, in bondage. But the Lord remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and acted to make good on his promise. He sent them a deliverer, in the person of Moses. Moses brought the people out of Egypt, on the night of the Passover. The angel of death was going throughout the land of Egypt and striking down the firstborn in every home. But by the sign of the blood of the sacrificed lamb, death passed over the homes of the Israelites, and they were spared. There was a special meal instituted that night to mark the occasion, the Passover meal, from then on to be observed every year on that day, so that Israel would always remember what the Lord had done for them that night. The Lord remembered his covenant and delivered them out of bitter bondage.
But there was still that Promised Land that was part of the covenant, and the Lord was going to bring them up into that land. But first, they made a stop at Mt. Sinai. There Moses went up on the mountain to receive from the Lord a way of life for God’s people–how they were to live as his chosen people out of all the world. The Ten Commandments and all the rest of the Book of the Covenant–God gave Israel this way of life at Sinai. Moses told the people all the words of the Lord. “All the words the LORD has spoken we will do,” responded the people. The covenant then was sealed with a solemn ceremony. Moses took the blood of sacrificed oxen and threw it on the people. “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” And there was a sacred meal. Moses and the elders of Israel went up on the mountain and ate and drank in the very presence of the Lord. This, then, was the covenant at Sinai.
“All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” That is what the people of Israel said. But that is not what they did. They were not obedient. They did not do all that the Lord had spoken. The Lord graciously brought them into the Promised Land and delivered them from all their foes. But the people were not obedient. They broke and did not keep God’s commandments. They worshiped other gods. They did not treat their neighbor with love and justice and dignity. Time after time the Lord sent Israel prophets to call the nation to repentance, but–people, priests, and kings alike–they resisted God’s word and his will and departed from the way of righteousness. Israel did not live as God’s distinctive people in the world, but became like all the other nations.
So it is in that context–the context of Israel breaking the covenant the Lord had established with her–that the prophet Jeremiah comes with this word from the Lord: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.”
The previous covenant, the covenant made at Sinai, in which the people pledged, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do”–that covenant the people had irretrievably broken. Their sins had made a sham of it. So it was time for a new covenant. The days were coming when a new sort of covenant would be initiated, in which the forgiveness of sins would be paramount, and the obedience of the people would flow from a new heart that the Lord would give them.
“Behold the days are coming.” And “Behold the days are now here,” declares Jesus, as he picks up on the prophecy of Jeremiah in the words that he speaks on this night, this Holy Thursday. “This is the new covenant that Jeremiah was foretelling. This is the new covenant that I now am fulfilling. This is the new covenant in my blood, which I am pouring out now, in this cup and on the cross.”
Jesus here is drawing on all the covenant history of Israel in this new covenant he is establishing this night. The covenant with Abraham–Jesus is the seed of Abraham in whom all the families of the earth are blessed. The covenant with Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai–Jesus seals the covenant with his blood and invites us to a sacred meal to eat and drink in his presence.
And don’t forget the Passover meal: Jesus is the Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God by whose blood death passes over us and we are spared and brought out of the bondage of sin. Remember, it is the Passover meal that Jesus is eating with his disciples on this night, when, at the conclusion of it, Jesus institutes this new meal, to be done in the church from that time on and which we share in once again tonight: “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.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”
Yes, this is the new covenant in Jesus’ blood. All the blood of bulls and oxen and goats could not redeem a single soul. But these were ways that God was pointing ahead to what would be fulfilled in Christ. For Christ’s blood, the blood he shed on the cross for you, the holy precious blood of the very Son of God–this blood cleanses you from all your sins and redeems you from the curse of sin and death. This is why Jesus came–to do this for you, to do this for the whole world. This is the new covenant, in which the forgiveness of sins is won and obtained by the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, and in which his very Body and Blood, with that forgiveness, are distributed now to you in this holy meal.
And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. You are cleansed by Christ’s blood. You are made new in him. You and I are God’s holy people now. He gives us the Holy Spirit, so that our obedience will proceed from a new and willing heart. Love and forgiveness will mark our way of life as God’s people. Drawn by the power of God’s grace toward us, worship and loyalty and faithfulness to God will mark our path. God’s promises, his covenant of blessing, will give us hope to carry on in the midst of struggle and adversity. This meal, this Blessed Sacrament, will refresh our souls as we journey on. And finally, on the day when Christ returns, we will enter into the fullness of the kingdom, and we will eat and drink in the heavenly banquet meal.
“This is the new covenant in my blood,” Jesus tells us once again tonight. Dear friends, come and enter in.