We are shocked by Jesus’ words about the bread, “This is my body” (Matthew 26:26, author’s emphasis). We are shocked by the is. Much like the crowds who went away sad in John 6, we get lost in parsing verbs and miss the truly shocking nature of this sentence. The disciples were not shocked by the word is. The disciples understood stark metaphors. They were shocked by his use of the word my.
This is because this meal already had meaning. The bread had meaning. The wine had meaning. The herbs had meaning. This meal was a meal of remembrance of the great work of God’s Passover. God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt through great and terrible miracles. This great saving work laid the foundation for their understanding of God and their relationship to God. For thousands of years this work of salvation had been remembered through the feast of the Passover.
So it was no surprise that Jesus began to explain the meaning of the meal. When Jesus made this meal about more than just food, there was no shock. The shock was when Jesus made it about himself. It was as if he said, “You know this meal which for more than a thousand years has remembered what God did in the Exodus—this meal that is about God’s great saving work to redeem and rescue a people? This meal is now about me.”
We have heard these words so many times and lived in a faith context that is so Jesus-centric, we could easily miss the outrageous nature of what is happening. Jesus is moving the center of the salvation story for his followers. God’s work in the exodus had always been the central salvation story of the Jewish people. Jesus claims to fulfill and replace even this great story.
John the Baptist prefigures this claim when he says of Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). But this would not be enough to prepare the disciples for the shocking day when Jesus claimed to be the very salvation of God. A salvation so great that it redefined the Passover, overshadowed the Exodus, completed the work of the temple, and fulfilled the promise to Abraham that by his family all nations would be blessed.
That is what Jesus is claiming when he signifies the bread as his body and the cup as his blood. This is what we remember and proclaim. In Christ a new exodus is here, a new people have been released from slavery, a new covenant has been made. To God be the glory, Amen.
Ethan Magness is pastor of spiritual formation with Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland.