The Fellowship of
Exodus 24:1-8 The blood of the covenant
Then Moses took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient." Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, "See, the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words." (Exodus 24:7, 8)
To our modern sensibilities, this scene from the book of Exodus seems a bit barbaric. Some would even call it grotesque. In celebrating a new covenant with the Lord, the Israelites slaughtered animals, drained the blood into basins, and offered the animals as burnt sacrifices to the Lord. Moses then took half the blood and threw it against the altar, while the other half he sprinkled on the people. I don't know about you, but I would feel a bit queasy if I came to church one day only to have the minister sprinkle the blood of cows and sheep on me. At any rate, I certainly wouldn't wear my Sunday suit!
Scenes like this are one reason many Christians do not know what to make of the Old Testament. It all seems so ancient, and sometimes barbaric, that there seems to be no connection to anything we would now consider religious or spiritual. How could these things be any part of the Word of God?
It may be helpful to look at these practices in the context of ancient Jewish culture. This culture was similar in many ways to the cultures of the surrounding peoples, while in other ways it represented distinct advances over some of them--such as worshiping one God instead of many. In their religious ritual, the ancient Jews were similar to their neighbors in practicing animal sacrifice. (They had made the advance of abolishing human sacrifice as part of their religious ritual.)
To understand why animal sacrifice became such an integral part of that culture's worship, we need to recognize that these people were largely herdsmen. Their livelihood depended on their sheep and cattle. In fact, a person's wealth was often counted in cattle. In effect, when the Israelites offered their cattle and sheep to the Lord, they were offering the most basic element of their livelihood.
Our culture and livelihood is not based on cows and sheep. We have such a great variety of occupations that our economy is not centered around any particular type of work. Rather, it is based around money--a medium of exchange. We would not think of bringing cows and sheep to church--that is not the way we pay our bills. Instead, we bring what we use to pay our bills: money.
There is more similarity in these two seemingly very different practices than may at first appear. When a cow or sheep was brought to the Jewish temple as a sacrifice, only certain parts of it were burned on the altar. Other parts were set aside as food for the priests, their families, and the other temple workers. The same was true when bread or oil or wine was brought as a sacrifice: symbolic portions were burned on the altar, while the rest was for those who did the work of the temple. In other words, the people's gifts of animals and food items supported the temple just as our gifts of money support the church and those who do its work.
At the time of Jesus, animal sacrifice was still an integral part of Jewish religious practice. The Lord's Last Supper with his disciples--from which we get our sacrament of the Holy Supper--was an observance of the Jewish Passover. In this ritual, an animal was slaughtered, the blood devoted to the Lord, and the meat eaten as a sacred observance. To someone versed in the Judaism of the Old Testament, it might be surprising that Jesus did not use the blood of the Passover lamb as the basis for the ritual which he instituted at the Last Supper. Rather, he chose bread and wine as the central elements of the ritual that we continue to celebrate in Holy Communion.
I suspect this had something to do with the changing nature of Jewish society. At the time of our Old Testament reading, the Israelites were a newly nomadic people--a people of the desert. Having no settled place in which to live, they could not develop any plant-based agriculture, nor could they develop the variety of occupations that comes with settling down and forming towns and cities. By New Testament times, the Jews were (re)settled into their land, complete with towns and cities. Cattle and sheep herding was still a common livelihood, but it was no longer the dominant occupation--especially in the larger towns and cities. A religion centered around animal sacrifice was no longer the natural outgrowth of the culture that it used to be.
However, the bread and wine that Jesus put in place of animal flesh were basic food items in the culture. There was something about the representation of things that we eat and drink that was central to the meaning of the ritual. This is where we can begin to get at the deeper, spiritual meaning of the Holy Supper. Physically, we sustain our bodies through food and drink. These provide us with the nourishment we need to live.
What sustains and nourishes our spirits? Jesus said, "One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Matt. 4:4, Deut. 8:3) This is another way of expressing what Swedenborg said many centuries later: that the bread and wine of the Holy Supper are not meant to be taken literally; rather, they are intended to call to our mind what sustains our spirits: the understanding of truth and the mutual love that come to us from the Lord. These are what sustain and nourish our spirits.
When I use the phrase "mutual love," I have to make an admission: when I translated the passage from Swedenborg for this service, I may have stretched Swedenborg's meaning a little. I said that the Lord's body and blood mean "his divine love, and mutual love with people." What Swedenborg probably intended was the Lord's love for us and our love for the Lord in return. However, I have good authority for presuming that this includes what we think of as mutual love--love for each other. After Jesus had mentioned various acts of kindness and mercy toward others, he said, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matt. 25:40)
Any good word we say; any act of kindness we do for another person is an act of love for the Lord also. When we do genuine good for someone, we are caring for the good that is in that person. This means we are loving and strengthening the Lord in that person--for the good in every person is from the Lord and is the Lord. So Jesus' words are not just a figure of speech; they are true in a very literal sense.
Let's look back for a moment on the ground we have covered. We started with the ancient Jewish practice of offering the best of their livelihood--of their cattle and sheep--as a sacrifice to the Lord and an offering to the temple. Then we moved to the Lord's renewal and reinterpretation of that practice when he instituted the Holy Supper. Finally, we considered the spirit behind both of these practices: that of showing love for the Lord, both by being attentive to the Lord and by showing our love for all the Lord's brothers and sisters through acts of love and kindness.
Keeping the Lord's commandments of love and kindness was also central to the original covenant with the Lord. Moses did not just sprinkle the blood of the sacrifices on the people; he also read the book of the covenant--the laws that the Lord had given to the people. When they responded, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient," he then sprinkled the blood on them with the words, "See, the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words." The original covenant was not based on the sprinkling of blood, but on the keeping of the Lord's commandments. The sprinkling of the blood from animals given to the Lord by the people represented the deeper life commitment of love for the Lord's commandments.
The fellowship of our communion, then, is not based simply on coming together and sharing this sacred meal together. It is not based only on a ritual observance. It is based on our mutual commitment to love each other as the Lord has loved us. And it is based on our willingness to extend that love, not just to the people we are sharing communion with, but to all the people we come into contact with every day. The Lord said, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." Whatever we do, even for those we may think least of, we are doing for the Lord.
If our sharing of communion today strengthens in our hearts and minds these loving truths that the Lord is offering us, then we will truly be sharing the fellowship of holy communion with the Lord, with each other, and with the good that is in all people.