As we read from Luke 22 this evening, listen carefully to what Jesus says as he shares the second cup, the one that comes after supper.
14When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him.15He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer;16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves;18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”19Then he took a loaf of 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.”20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
Jesus and his disciples were already covenant-keepers, but now on his own authority, which is God’s authority, a new covenant has been established. Jesus and the disciples were covenant people.
Are we covenant people? We know about contracts. If you have purchased home, you had to sign papers until your hand cramped up. A contract is a legally binding agreement. Try getting out of your cell-phone plan if you don’t think this is so. We have contractors come and agree to do specific work for a specific price.
Covenants seem to be more binding at a spiritual level. A contract is signed. A covenant is entered. Marriage is often referred to as a covenant. We say ‘til death do us part.’More than half the people who say those words part from each other long before death. Breaking covenant is accepted in our culture. If I try to violate the terms of the contract, a judge will rule against me. But, in divorce court, the judge rarely takes into account that the husband and wife pledged to stay together for a lifetime. Who is at fault? We don’t worry about reconciliation, but about blame. Or, if there are “irreconcilable differences,” the gavel is wacked, the divorce is declared, the covenant is broken, and our society shrugs indifferent shoulders.
“This cup that is poured out,” Jesus said, “Is the new covenant in my blood.” What did he mean? Are we covenant people?
His blood? The disciples did not know he was about to be arrested. What was he talking about? They understood covenant. They lived in the heritages of God’s greatest covenants made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. They considered themselves in covenant with God. What was this new covenant Jesus mentioned?
We see it described in Hebrews chapters 7-8.
18There is, on the one hand, the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual19(for the law made nothing perfect); there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God.20This was confirmed with an oath; for others who became priests took their office without an oath,21but this one became a priest with an oath, because of the one who said to him, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind,‘You are a priest forever’”—22accordingly Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant."
The disciples did not understand until after the resurrection. The night they gathered for the meal we call the Last Supper, they did not know. The new covenant accomplished what the covenant of Moses could not – complete forgiveness of sins and uninterrupted relationship with God. The simplest way to explain the failure of the old covenant is sin. God was perfect and kept his end and repeatedly forgave, but his people repeatedly walked away from him and sinned as wantonly and frequently as the gentiles around them and as we do today. Death was theirs until Jesus came to conquer sin and bury death.
In Hebrews 8:7, the covenant between humans and God instituted by Jesus is again called a “better covenant.” Later in the same chapter, it says “In speaking of a ‘new covenant,’ he made the first one obsolete” (8:13).
We as New Testament people are not cut and wholly separate from the Old Law, the Old Testament, and the Old Covenant. Remember that was an agreement established by God and God would not abandon it because God is faithful.Rather, in Jesus, God completes the Old Covenant; it comes to fruition. We are not removed from the Old Covenant. We live in the continuation of it. At Jesus’invitation, we enter covenant with God. The Old Covenant introduces God and God’s ways. The New Covenant brings to fullness the first covenant so that in entering the New Covenant, we enter life in Jesus’ name, at Jesus’ beckoning, and on His power.
By following Jesus, we declare ourselves to be covenant people. I did not say by going to church, though Jesus followers typically do attend church. Reading the Bible does not make us covenant people, though those people who follow Jesus do in fact read it and when they read, they seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in order to understand. Good works do not make us covenant people, though being covenant people it is natural that we would love as Jesus loved, in acts of mercy, welcome, and compassion. We are covenant people because of Jesus’ work on the cross and His work in us.
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah was given a vision of the new covenant and the way Christ would rearrange the world. Listen to Jeremiah 31, as quoted in Hebrews 8:
8God finds fault with them when he says: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah;9not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors, on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant, and so I had no concern for them, says the Lord.10This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.11And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.12For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
This is the new covenant Jesus spoke of with his disciples at the last supper. First, God’s ways are written in our hearts – the change comes inside us. It is seen in how we love, in mission works we do, in our efforts at hospitality and compassion and evangelism. It dictates our life practice and our priorities. But it is a change from inside out. The worker bringing the change, is the Holy Spirit, sent by God.
Second, we’re made clean. God remembers our sins no more. It’s not that God forgets. God knows all the things I have done. But because we are in Christ, the sins have no bearing on the relationship. God loves us and sees us His children. Covenant people live as new creations who are invited into relationship with God. We do not fear of death and are not threatened by sin. Jesus has us covered.
There is a tension there with Jesus and the disciples around the table, even as he speaks of bread and cup, New Kingdom and New Covenant. These 12, so close to Jesus, would betray him, deny knowing him, abandon him completely, and even after the resurrection doubt the truth about him. But each who returns to Jesus from their fear, their denial and doubt, each is redeemed. So are we.
Our call is to live in the Spirit bringing glory to the one who is the author of the New Covenant, the covenant of eternal life and eternal relationship between humans and God. We began Lent praying in certain pathways – some prayed for God to open to them the way of evangelism or in the way of Sabbath. Many prayed for God to make clear the way of compassion and others the way of purity. Sabbath, Evangelism, Purity, Compassion; some prayed along other lines, seeking God’s leadership.
Some gave something up for Lent, as a spiritual discipline. But the discipline failed. It was good for a week. He went without, but then caved. “Jesus doesn’t need me to go without meat.” It’s true, he doesn’t. But, do I benefit from fasting by being drawn to Him. Or did I not benefit because I cheated on my fast? Or, I have succumbed to legalism. I have kept my fast and not cheated once, but the hasn’t made me feel closer to God. I’m just grumpy without coffee or chocolate or whatever.
Our spiritual disciplines are similar to the Old Covenant in that they will not cleanse us, and keeping the disciplines will not make us more moral or more acceptable in God’s eyes. Old Covenant and spiritual disciplines are good and I encourage a love of Torah and the practice of disciplines. But what absolutely need for covenant with God is His grace and that is given freely and seen most clearly in Jesus.
“I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Later, Luke records the risen Jesus saying, “Repentance and forgiveness of sin is to be proclaimed in [my] name to all nations.” We know the Kingdom has come. Now in spirit and in the future in body, Jesus gladly drinks with us. The covenant is unbreakable. Because he gives himself and gives grace and we receive in faith, we are and forever will be covenant people.