Body and Blood of Christ • Ex 24:3-8, Heb 9:11-15, Mk 14:12-16, 22-26 • 6/3/18
You are not alone.
That, I think, is the deepest meaning of today’s feast.
You are not alone. You are held in the safety of the strongest possible bond with God and with one another. God has skin in the game, and God has your back. And we are meant to be the same way with one another.
In ancient times, covenants were serious business. If two of you were making a covenant, you each cut your arm and dripped blood into a cup. You might rub charcoal into the cut to make the scar more visible, because a covenant scar showed people they would have more than just you to deal with if they mistreated you.
In the old rituals, you also walked a path between the halves of sacrificed animals, splashed their blood on yourselves as Moses did with the people of Israel and the altar of God, ate those animals… and shared bread and wine. The bread you broke into halves, each giving “your” half to the other, much as we do in our communion ritual here. The wine that you drank together—you guessed it—had blood from your cuts mixed into it.
Drinking each other’s blood was a sign of union. You became blood relatives and took on the attendant responsibilities. You were now bound to take care of each other and each other’s families. The complete sharing and mutual care that the book of Acts attributes to the early church is how parties to this type of covenant would treat each other.
According to the 1906 Jewish Encylopedia, “the conception of religion as a covenant concluded by God with [hu]man[ity] is peculiarly Jewish. The idea of the covenant of God is therefore coeval with the beginning of Israel as the people of God.” The people’s part in this covenant is spelled out in religious law.
Some of that law prescribes ritual purification of the body after certain actions and events. That purification involves, of all things, blood. Blood has ritual power to cleanse before God because it represents life, and hence the power to create, which is God’s alone. This is the backstory of the saying in Hebrews that “the blood of goats and bulls… sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified.”
The letter to the Hebrews is known not to have been written by Paul. It is also the only place in scripture where Jesus’s actions are interpreted as priestly. Priests were not the same as rabbis; rabbis were teachers who supported themselves with regular jobs, whereas priests were professional clergy and a special, hereditary caste.
The letter to the Hebrews (which Paul didn’t write) places the Crucifixion in the tradition of priestly blood sacrifice, with Jesus mediating a new covenant that supersedes the original one. It’s an ingenious piece of legal and symbolic footwork. But its message fails to respect the ancient covenant between God and the people of Israel—a covenant Jesus himself expressed strong commitment to, as in Matthew 5:17, “I came not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it.”
Since Vatican II, theologians have emphasized that any new covenant Jesus brought would be a renewal of the existing one, not a replacement. Here I’m greatly indebted to our own theologian Paul Knitter, who promptly answered my email from halfway around the world, at considerable inconvenience. I’d suspected my first draft was on thin ice and sent it to a few people with deeper knowledge of theology.
Dear Steve Zwettler in his response asked if I had a story to back up my message, because stories speak to the heart and “give flesh and blood to our thoughts.” I think he was divinely inspired. Flesh and blood! Body and blood! No, Steve, I don’t have a story, but does God ever have a story! The story of the body and blood of Christ gives flesh and blood to the message of God’s covenantal love for us.
How does this work, exactly? Today’s gospel is set in the context of Passover. At the original Passover, the blood of a lamb was daubed on doorposts as a marker of belonging to God’s covenanted family. In that story, God passes over the family members when visiting their oppressors with plagues. Passover then became a memorial feast, a time to celebrate and renew one’s covenant with the Holy One by sharing a meal that, in good covenant tradition, included bread (unleavened) and wine.
Remember the ancient ritual in which parties to a covenant exchanged bread and wine infused with blood as tokens of their newly forged union. Think of this union as you hear Jesus say, in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (“for the forgiveness of sins” is added in Matthew). Think of this union as you hear Jesus say in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that the bread “is my body”; in Luke “which is given for you.” Jesus is declaring himself to be in covenant union with his friends, with the many.
I don’t believe Jesus accepts his execution in order to enact the mother of all blood sacrifices, as the author of Hebrews suggests. I believe he accepts it in order to keep faith with the people he had taught and healed and with the God whose commandments of love he had followed in doing so. To save his skin, he would have to recant: I was wrong about the poor and the meek. I should have healed on weekdays only. I was wrong to take outcasts in, cast merchants out, and generally ignore worldly rank in service of inner truth. I abjure every bit of good I ever did, and all the healing and hope it brought to your hearts. Take that, everybody—but I get to live.
Seeing where that road goes, Jesus chooses its spectacular opposite. He declares himself to be in covenant with the people and then honors that covenant with his life, just as the old bloody ritual signified that one was undertaking to do if necessary. By invoking the tradition of covenant, Jesus gives meaning in advance to the disciples’ imminent bereavement. For story not only gives flesh and blood to a thought, as Father Steve said; it also gives meaning to an experience. Through Jesus’ foresight and integrity, the story told by his life and death, by his body and blood, becomes a living symbol of the ancient covenant between God and the people… the very definition of sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace. A story that gives flesh and blood, body and blood, to God’s message of love and steadfastness.
An additional dimension is revealed in Luke’s version with the words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and in John’s gospel, where Jesus teaches the disciples to wash each other’s feet and then, from the cross, gives his mother and the beloved disciple to each other. This dimension takes the covenant beyond “me and Jesus” into how we relate to one another here on earth. The foremost commandment is an inseparable pair: love God, and love each other. This is how we come to know ourselves as parties to and signs of the covenant.
Today, WE are the body and blood of Christ. The aisles of our sanctuary are capillaries along which we flow as we go to share and offer the blessed cup of love and commitment to each other. WE are the blood circulating in the Body of Christ. WE are the cells of that Body itself, offering ourselves to each other in love.
You are not alone. I am not alone. God has skin in the game, and God has our back. How do we know this? We know it best when we keep the blood flowing by giving and receiving love; when we too have skin in the game. As we offer the bread and cup to one another, may we be re-centered in our own true nature, our belonging to the One Body that we eternally are.