THE GOSPEL IN SIX OBJECTS: (5) THE CUP
In his book, Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects, one of the objects Neil MacGregor describes is an ornately decorated glass goblet. Made 400 years ago, this goblet originally came from the city of Venice, which was at that time the most luxurious city in Europe. Only the very rich could afford a goblet like this. Macgregor says it was an object literally fit for a king. He notes that when Shakespeare describes Richard II renouncing the crown and everything that goes with it, he has Richard say with great sadness that he is going to exchange his “figured goblets for a dish of wood.”
One of the objects at the centre of the gospel story is a cup – the cup that Jesus took in his hand at the Last Supper. Over the centuries, this cup has often been imagined as a richly decorated goblet, perhaps even encrusted with jewels. An extremely detailed mythology grew up around what was called the Holy Grail. Grail is an old word for cup or bowl. The Holy Grail, it was said, was the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper, and that had infused it with all kinds of magical power.
This kind of fascination with the cup of the Last Supper can become quite unhealthy and even idolatrous. There’s a story about Leonardo da Vinci, who painted a famous depiction of the Last Supper. This story, which I’m sure is apocryphal, describes how Leonardo painted the scene in great detail. He had Jesus seated in the middle, with the disciples on either side of him. Leonardo gave particular attention to the cup Jesus was holding in his right hand. Once he’d finished the painting, Leonardo asked a friend for his opinion of it. The friend said, “It’s wonderful. The cup is so real that I can’t take my eyes off it.” With that, Leonardo took his paintbrush and completely erased the cup. He said, “Nothing shall detract from the figure of Christ!”
If we become too fascinated with the cup as an object we risk losing sight of the meaning of the cup. The reason the cup is important is not that it has power in and of itself. The reason the cup is important is that it points us to Christ.
A few years ago, archeologists in Jerusalem found the fragments of an ancient household utensil. It was a cup. It was found near the palace of King Herod, and it dated from the exact period when Jesus held his Last Supper in that very neighbourhood. The interesting thing about this cup was what it was made of. It wasn’t made of glass, as the cups of the king would have been. It wasn’t even made of pottery, as many other household items would have been. Instead it was carved out of stone. There was a very important reason for that. According to Jewish law, stone cannot become ritually unclean. A pottery cup, if it came in contact with anything impure, would have to be destroyed. But with a stone cup you wouldn’t have to worry about that – because a stone cup could not absorb the impurity of what it touched.
It’s most likely, then, that the cup Jesus took in his hand at the Last Supper was not a richly decorated goblet, but rather a cup made of stone – something that looked less like a chalice and more like a mug.
Such a cup would have been a common part of the Passover meal, which is what the Last Supper was. In fact, in the traditions of the Passover meal, there would have been several cups, each with its own symbolic meaning. Passover was the celebration of God’s liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. It was a celebration of God’s salvation. Each part of the Passover meal related to a part of the Exodus story. At various points in the meal, as the story of the Passover was retold, those present would drink a cup of wine.
So when Jesus takes the cup at the Passover meal, that cup already has a symbolic meaning. But Jesus is now going to give it a new meaning. He’s going to relate it in a new way to the story of God’s salvation.
According to Luke, Jesus takes the cup, gives thanks and says to his disciples, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then, a second time, after supper, he takes the cup and says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
These words are pivotal in the story of the gospel, and they are full of many layers of meaning. When Jesus refers to the cup, he’s drawing on some of Israel’s deepest traditions. The cup which is poured out immediately brings to mind the drink offerings that were made in the temple. In the book of Numbers, God commanded the Israelites to make food offerings in the holy place. These consisted not only of spotless lambs presented as burnt offerings; they also included offerings of grain and offerings of wine, which was poured out before the Lord in the sanctuary.
In referring to the cup, Jesus is comparing himself to the drink offering in the temple. Just as the wine is poured out before the Lord, Jesus’ blood is going to be poured out in an act of sacrifice. In his death, he will be making himself a holy offering.
But there’s more. The disciples present for this Passover meal already know the red wine in the cup is a symbol of blood. But the blood they have in mind is the blood of the lambs that were slaughtered on the night the Israelites escaped from Egypt. God told the Israelites to take this blood and daub it over and around the doorways of their houses. They were to do this in order to be protected. The angel of death would pass over any house where this blood was present.
At the Last Supper, Jesus is telling his disciples that the wine in the cup now represents his blood. This is now the blood that will protect them, the blood that will save them. What God first did in the story of Exodus he is now doing in the most complete way possible. The perfect Lamb of God is going to be sacrificed, and his blood is going to bring salvation to all who put their trust in him.
This leads directly into another layer of symbolism. Jesus speaks of the cup as “the new covenant in my blood.” This is a statement that’s dense with meaning. It’s saying that there is now a new covenant between God and his people, and this new covenant is sealed with Jesus’ blood.
The old covenant was the covenant from the story of Exodus. It was the covenant between God and Israel – the covenant that made a special relationship between them. Because of this covenant, Israel was God’s people. They belonged to him, and he was their God. It was because he was their God that he saved them from slavery. It was because he was their God that he protected them and set them free.
At the Passover meal, the Israelites celebrated their covenant relationship with God. The sacrifice of a lamb at Passover was a reminder that God had sealed his covenant with Israel with blood. Exodus tells us that when the Israelites confirmed their covenant with God on Mount Sinai, Moses took the blood of sacrificed bulls and sprinkled it on the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you.”
From now on, Jesus is saying, there’s a new covenant, and it’s sealed with his blood. This new covenant goes far beyond the old covenant. The old covenant was just between God and Israel. But the new covenant is between God and anyone of any nation who desires to have a relationship with him. The new covenant is open to absolutely anyone who is willing to put their faith in Jesus. It’s not defined by the race you belong to. It’s defined by the faith you profess. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Whoever you are, you can belong to God’s people. You can enjoy a covenant relationship with God if you believe in Jesus his Son.
Just like the old covenant, the new covenant brings salvation. But unlike in old covenant, this salvation is not limited to freedom from slavery. The new covenant brings salvation from sin and from death. It brings everlasting life. It brings ultimate freedom from the final enemy.
Jesus’ blood seals this covenant. That’s why the cup he holds at the Last Supper is the cup of the new covenant in his blood.
The Last Supper, of course, becomes the pattern for our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” As a result, the cup has ongoing importance in our spiritual lives. When the Apostle Paul talked to the church in Corinth about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, he spoke of the “cup of blessing”. He said, “Is not the cup of blessing for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ?”
Every time we observe the Lord’s Supper, we are giving thanks once again for the new covenant Christ has sealed in his blood. We are giving thanks that through Christ’s sacrifice, our relationship with God is confirmed, and we receive all the blessings that come from that relationship. We are giving thanks for this matchless gift of God’s grace.
The new covenant goes far beyond the old covenant. But it is like the old covenant in one very important respect. The old covenant was also a gift of God’s grace – but that grace came with some important responsibilities. Those responsibilities were the Ten Commandments, written on the tablets of stone. Having been made God’s people, the Israelites were to live as God’s people. A relationship with God is never just a one-way street. We have our part to play as well.
According to John’s Gospel, it was at the Last Supper that Jesus initiated a new commandment. Even as he was offering his disciples a new covenant to be a part of, he was also giving them a new commandment. And that commandment was this: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
Paul Scherer was a powerful preacher of an earlier generation. In looking at this new commandment, he said there was much more to it than we might be inclined to think. He said, “You can’t just take it for granted that nothing more is expected of us now than ‘little deeds of kindness, little words of love.’ It has been said that God never asks of us anything that he doesn't give. And what he gives moves along stately lines. ‘This is my commandment’ - here is what he asks - ‘that you love one another.’ Then those terrible words - and here is what he gives – ‘as I have loved you.’”
God never asks of us anything that he doesn’t give. He gives us the cup. And he asks us to participate in everything that it represents.
In the fourteenth century, Thomas a Kempis wrote, “Many follow Jesus to the breaking of the bread: but few to the drinking of the Cup of his Passion.”
There’s a bumper sticker that you see on occasion that says quite glibly, “My religion is kindness.” There’s nothing wrong with kindness, of course. It’s one of the things Jesus calls us to display. But it really is only one small part of the picture. Little deeds of kindness, little words of love only go so far. They fall far short of what God asks of us, which is complete commitment to the new covenant in Jesus’ blood.
A student about graduate from university went to the chaplain’s office to speak to the chaplain. She told him that during her time at university, as she had explored new ideas and met new people, she had begun to think that her life back home had been much too limiting and narrow. She’d reached the conclusion that she had lost her faith. She’d come to chaplain to try to figure all this out. After listening to her, the chaplain simply asked her, “Do you see anything in the personality of Jesus which so intrigues and excites you that you feel sure it would be worth giving yourself to it, no matter what the outcome or sacrifice?” The student said, “Of course, but that has nothing to do with religion.”
No wonder the student had lost her way if she thought her faith was nothing more than following certain rules or observing certain rituals. She had missed the fact that faith is all about having a relationship with one who has poured out himself for us, and who calls us to pour out ourselves for him in return. As Christ has given himself fully to us, he calls us to give ourselves fully to him. As he has taken up the cup, he calls us to take up that cup ourselves.
This is not something that can be done lightly or half-heartedly. It takes an act of full surrender on our part. It takes a willingness to give ourselves fully to God, no matter what the outcome or sacrifice.
Keep in mind that God never asks of us what he does not also give. And he doesn’t just give us an example to follow. He gives us Christ himself, whose self-sacrifice is so complete that it makes up for everything that we lack. This too is the gift of grace. This too is the new covenant in Jesus’ blood – blood that was poured out for you and for me – blood that was poured out for every one of us.
Let us give thanks for the cup.