A Communion Meditation: The Poverty of the Passover Lamb

Passover-lambOne of the Bible’s most common images for Jesus is the “lamb of God.” Over and over he is pictured as a sacrificed lamb — a Passover sacrifice.

For example,

(John 1:29 ESV) he next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

(1 Cor 5:7 ESV) Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.

(Rev 6:1 ESV)  Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!”

And each year, the Jews celebrate the Passover with a meal, called a seder, in which they eat lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs and drink wine. It was at just such a meal that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, in which we remember his death.

We take the cup — the wine — as symbolic of his blood offered on the altar.

And because Jesus is the Passover Lamb, we take the lamb …

But we  don’t take the lamb. Even though the Passover was centered on the sacrificed lamb and even though Jesus is thought of as the Passover lamb sacrificed for us, not one of the New Testament’s descriptions of the Last Supper even mentions the lamb. How odd!

We take the bread to remember Jesus’s body — but the lamb would be an even more direct and obvious symbol of Jesus’ body. It was the lamb that was sacrificed. Not the bread. It was the lamb’s blood painted on the door frame that protected the house from the Death Angel. Not the bread.

So why did Jesus establish the bread as symbolic of his body — rather than the lamb?

It is true, of course, that Jesus is also spoken of as the Word, and the Old Testament often compares God’s word to bread. It’s a symbol rich with meaning and symbolism all on its own. It fits.

But why not even mention the lamb? Jesus is the Bread of Life, but he is also the Lamb of God — and of those two powerful symbols, Lamb of God is the only one taken from the Passover of the Jews.

So it’s a mystery — to modern people living in a modern world.

But imagine that you are part of the real First Century church. You meet together at least weekly — more often if possible — in private homes.  The church is illegal. It can’t own a building. It can’t rent a building. And except in Jerusalem, the temples are all dedicated to pagan gods. You can’t meet there!

In most cities, the Jews have thrown you out of the synagogues. And to enter a Roman amphitheater, you’d have to sacrifice to an idol.

So you meet in homes. Of the members. Who are mostly poor. At most 20 or 30 people could fit in a Mediterranean, First Century house — if the weather was nice and you could meet in the courtyard or some members could sit in the windows.

Therefore, the church was multi-site long before multi-site was cool. A single congregation under a single eldership met in as many houses as necessary to gather as the church. In Jerusalem, it was likely thousands of private homes.

And they met not only to sing and be instructed and to pray, but especially to take the Lord’s Supper as part of a common meal called the love feast or agape.

There wasn’t much in the way of a middle class in the Roman Empire. Most people were poor, and among the rich, only a few were Christians. And even the well to do did not eat meat at every meal. It was too expensive. Too precious. The Wikipedia says,

Butcher’s meat was an uncommon luxury, and seafood, game, and poultry were more common; on his triumph, Caesar gave a public feast to 260,000 humiliores which featured all three of these foods, but no butcher’s meat. John E. Stambaugh writes that meat “was scarce except at sacrifices and the dinner parties of the rich.” The most popular meat was pork. Beef was uncommon in ancient Rome, being more common in ancient Greece; it is not mentioned by Juvenal or Horace.

In fact, sheep had a value beyond meat. They produced wool. To slaughter a lamb to eat would have been considered a waste of a good source of wool — which is why the descriptions of meals eaten by the typical Roman resident doesn’t mention lamb chops. They’d far rather slaughter a pig or steer, which were useful only for meat.

Among the Jews, to “kill the fatted calf” was a rare moment for a special, once in a year celebration, such as a wedding or a visiting dignitary.

We know that the early church shared meat at some of their meals because they struggled with meat sacrificed to idols. It was certainly served often enough that the doctrinal issues were a major problem.

So I imagine that people then were like people now. When the church gathered in someone’s home for a common meal, the host likely provided the main course — sometimes meat and sometimes not. Many hosts would struggle to provide more than they could really afford for the sake of hospitality and to show their love for their brothers and sisters. Most church members were poor, and many would not have had meat the entire week — not until the love feast, and then only on occasion.

So why did Jesus choose to pass over the Passover lamb and offer the simple, plain unleavened bread as his body? Well, I don’t know, but I have some guesses —

First, because lamb was a luxury, and Jesus saw himself as a necessity. Bread is symbolic of the barest essential food. Even in our culture, if you barely get enough to survive, we speak of living on “bread and water.” Bread, like Jesus, is a necessity. Meat in those days was a luxury — and Jesus wasn’t about luxuries.

Second, because lamb was seasonal. Sheep only give birth at certain times of the year. Without modern refrigeration, lamb simply couldn’t be served year round.

But mainly, I think it was because lamb was expensive. The Jews might afford a lamb once a year, but once a week would have been impossibly costly even for the well off. Bread, however, was the food of the poor. And the rich. And everyone in between.

Even the poorest family could afford to host a small group of Christians to eat bread together. And most Christians were very poor. Jesus chose to trade symbolism for practicality — because he thought it was important — essential — that the poor feel welcome and worthy. He didn’t want a church where only the well off could host a meeting. He didn’t want a church where the poor weren’t as good as everyone else. And so, in that time and culture, he used bread to symbolize his body.

That is, he used bread to symbolize a body open and available to all people of all cultures of all walks of life, of all levels of income, of all languages — because everyone, everywhere eats bread — just as Jesus wants everyone, everywhere to join him at his communion table.

Sometimes in our ceremonies we miss the point. We serve communion bread on a gold plate covered with satin or lace. We wear our “Sunday best” to dress up and impress God with our willingness to spend money and display our wealth to honor him.

But I believe we honor God best when we serve communion, not as a meal fit for a king, but as an ordinary meal, without ostentation or displays of wealth and privilege. If God wanted those things, he’d have come to earth as the wealthiest man in Israel. But he came as a penniless carpenter’s son, who owned only the clothes on his back. And he asked to be remembered using the least expensive, most common of all foods, just to be sure that the poor would belong and feel comfortable at his table — indeed, so that even the poor could host their brothers and sisters at an agape — a love feast.

So as we take this meal — this love feast — together, think of yourselves as choosing to eat a meal with your brothers and sisters in a private home of the poorest of the poor. Perhaps a slave. Perhaps a woman who can no longer be a prostitute because she’s chosen to be a Christian, and so she has to rely on the church for her support. You gather to remember Jesus by eating a meal together, and all your host can afford is bread and wine. And that’s enough. You happily do without because you came for something other than food. You came to remember Jesus, to see Jesus in the faces of your beloved friends. You came to grow together in the love of Jesus.

(John 6:27 ESV) 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”

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  1. Jay, according to the prosperity preachers- Jesus was rich! He had a nice house and wore designer clothes. He expects his disciples to walk in health and prosperity too! (Sarcasm of course). I’m surprised they haven’t substituted filet mignon for bread.