Christ, Our Meal With God
April 13, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
The Temple in Jerusalem was a bustling place, especially during the high feast days like Passover. The priests who worked there filled their day by offering sacrifices on behalf of Israelite worshippers from sunrise to sunset. Every animal sacrifice had two significant parts: the flesh and the blood. The priests did different things with the flesh and the blood, depending on what kind of sacrifice was being offered. But the flesh and the blood were the key elements.
Each day began with a priest on duty offering a whole burnt offering, a sacrifice of an entire lamb. Since only one of these was offered each morning, a priest might only get to perform this sacrifice once in his life. The offering was called the whole burnt offering because the entire animal was sacrificed. The blood of the lamb was splashed against the base of the altar and flesh of the lamb was placed on the altar to be consumed by flame. None of it was eaten by the priest. None of it was eaten by the Israelite worshippers. None of it was used for anything. The whole offering was burnt on the altar.
This daily sacrifice was the divinely instituted means of grace that covered the sins of the people so that the holy God could dwell among them in the Temple. The burning of the meat on the altar would produce a pillar of smoke to remind the Israelites of the pillar of cloud that led them out of Egypt and across the Red Sea in the days of Moses. It served as a visual reminder that just as the Lord dwelt among his people in the pillar of cloud and fire during the Exodus, he was now dwelling among them in the Temple. It was the sacrifice of the whole burnt offering that allowed the people to live in the presence of God.
Once God was present among his people by virtue of this whole burnt offering, the priests would then offer the other sin offerings of the day. If a new mother needed purification after giving birth or if a soldier was returning from war with blood on his hands, their offerings would be offered at this point. Again, none of the flesh and blood would be eaten in these offerings. They were sacrifices that made atonement. They were sacrifices that covered the sins of the people. They were whole burnt offerings to the Lord. Day after day, year after year, lamb after lamb was sacrificed to cover the sins of the people, to reconcile God and man, to bring peace where there was division and hostility on account of sin.
Once all the whole offerings for sin had been made each day, once the entire congregation present had their sins covered in order that they could stand in the presence of the holy God, that’s when the peace offerings would happen. They were called peace offerings not because they established peace, but because they reflected the peace that had been brought about by that day’s sin offering. That’s when things really picked up at the Temple. That’s why there would be several priests on duty on any given day. While there may have been only one whole burnt offering each day, there were sometimes hundreds of peace offerings. Peace offerings were celebratory meals. They were required for each family at the high feasts like Passover or Pentecost, but that’s like saying it is required that you have turkey and pie on Thanksgiving. Peace offerings could also be given throughout the year in thanksgiving for just about anything, like the safe return of a family member from war or the birth of a child. Just like we celebrate significant events with a meal, the Israelites celebrated significant events with a peace offering.
As with the other sacrifices, the key elements to a peace offering were the flesh and the blood. The Lord’s institution of the peace offerings required that the blood of the animal be splashed against the altar, but the flesh would be consumed by the worshippers. Israelites rarely ate meat – it was expensive to buy an animal and if you killed an animal from your own flock you no longer had that animal for breeding, wool, or milk. Typically, the only time Israelites ate meat was as part of a peace offering. There, they ate the flesh of an animal, but they didn’t eat the whole thing. No, the priest got a small portion, and a small portion was left on the altar for God. God and the Israelite would consume the same animal. Just like your entire family eats one bird on Thanksgiving, God and his people would eat one lamb together. It was a holy meal, one that took place after a whole burnt offering had covered the sin of the people.
This holy meal at the Temple was foreshadowed by the holy meal described in today’s reading from Exodus. At Mount Sinai, God ate with his people. We are told that the there was pavement as sapphire stone under his feet, for Moses and the elders were truly in the presence of God. Yet even though they were in the presence of God, the elders of Israel were not struck down, for God covered their sin. They beheld God, and they ate and drank with him and with each other. In this meal with God on Sinai, like the meals with God in the Temple, the Lord first covered the sin of his guests. In the Temple, this was done through the daily whole burnt offering. At Sinai, we are told that Moses ordered burnt offerings to cover the sins of the people. Then he took half of the blood and threw it against the base of the altar, sprinkling the other half on the people, covering their sins with the blood of the lamb and bringing them into the covenant of God. Once God was present among them, they ate and drank with God.
All of this paved the way for the events we remember today. On the night when he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus instituted a new covenant. And the disciples ate with God. Like the sacrifices of the first covenant, flesh and blood are the key ingredients in this new covenant. Our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is the flesh of the new covenant. It is my flesh. I give it for you to cover your sins. I give it to you as your meal with God.” This flesh was sacrificed on the cross as the whole burnt offering to cover the sins of the world. In that one offering, sin was covered once for all. The Temple curtain was torn in two. The earth shook. Graves were opened. God and man were reconciled.
And then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink of it all of you – this is the blood of the New Covenant. My blood. I give it for you to cover your sins. I give it to you as your meal with God.” This blood was poured out on the cross. It dripped down our Savior’s back as he was whipped within an inch of his life, down our Savior’s brow as thorns cut into his scalp, down our Savior’s arms as nails were driven into his wrists. The blood was shed once for all. The Temple curtain was torn in two. The earth shook. Graves were opened. God and man were reconciled.
At the Temple, once the whole burnt offering had been made for sin, it was time for the peace offering. Now that God and man are reconciled by the sacrifice of the cross, we enjoy a meal with God. It is a meal of thanksgiving, which is why we call it a Eucharist. It is a meal hosted by God himself, which is why we call it the Lord’s Supper. It is a meal shared with God and with each other, which is why we call it a Holy Communion. It has gone by many names through the history of the church, but the dynamic remains the same: once God and man are reconciled, they share a meal. The did it at Sinai. They did it at the Temple. We do it tonight.
And it’s all because of Jesus. He is the fulfillment of the sacrifices of the old covenant. He is the true sin offering, the one who gave himself entirely, the whole burnt offering that covers our sin. On the cross, he offered himself as the sacrifice to forgive all your sin. The lying and lust and anger and bitterness that would separate you from God have been covered by the blood of Jesus. There is no longer any need for sin offerings or whole burnt offerings. God made him who knew no sin to be the sin offering for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God. The suffering and death of Jesus in our place put us right with God. There is no longer any sacrifice for sin. Jesus has done it. It is finished.
But not only is Jesus the true sin offering, he is the true peace offering, the Lamb of God who gives himself as the feast which we eat with God. The Israelites celebrated being reconciled to God by eating with him. So also, in this meal, because we have been reconciled to God by the blood of Christ, we now eat with him. We gather at the Lord’s table as if we were gathered around Easter dinner. The blood of Jesus and water of baptism has brought us into God’s family, and families eat together. We eat with God as part of his family. And as the family of God, we eat with each other.
So let us repent of our bitterness. Let us repent of our grudge holding. Let us repent of our gossip. Let us repent of the ways we drive wedges into the family of God. Let us repent of the ways we bring selfish division. And let us rejoice in Christ, the whole burnt offering, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Let us rejoice in Christ, the peace offering, the Lamb of God, who is the main course in this our meal with God. The sin offering is done. The peace offering in prepared. The feast is ready. Come to the feast.