Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. Mark 14:23
Our Holy Week addresses this year focus upon five objects from the events of the week; five objects which are significant details of the story; five objects that point beyond themselves, five objects that point to truths for us to see, five objects that ask questions of us.
Cups appear in the Gospel story both as physical objects and as symbols of deep experiences, Jesus using the idea of a cup as a symbol of what both he and his disciples would experience.
A cup of religiosity is the first cup we encounter in Saint Mark’s Gospel. The Pharisees are critical of the disciples for not washing their hands and Saint Mark says of the Pharisees in Chapter 7 Verse 4, “they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.” Jesus is unimpressed by the Pharisees, seeing them as concerned only with the outward thing, being concerned only with religious behaviour and not being inwardly changed. In Verse 6 he quotes words of the Lord spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Jesus is stern in his rebuke of the Pharisees in Verse 8, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
The cup of religiosity is a challenge to us. How much is our own faith outward appearance? How much is it a genuine change of heart? The Pharisees are criticized for their attention to cups, pots and kettles; in the life of the church, do we pay attention to the trivial things and neglect those things that matter?
In Saint Mark Chapter 9 Verse 41, Jesus speaks of a cup of service, “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” The ordinary, the every day, the simple action of giving someone a cup of water is a service performed for Jesus himself. In a time when faith was often assumed to be about rituals and ceremonies, when service to God was thought to be about the ritual of the Temple and attendance at the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus is telling his followers that service is something much wider. The cup of service is a symbol of ordinary hospitality, a symbol of practical love for neighbours and for strangers. Jesus promises that such ordinary care will be rewarded.
The cup of service challenges us to be practical in our faith. If a stranger giving a cup of water to one of the disciples was serving God, then what ways could, and should, we be showing service to others? Are we aware that when we turn away from people, when we do not bother, we are turning away from Jesus himself?
A cup can be a symbol of religiosity that expects to serve God and fails; it can be a symbol of actions that might not have been intended to serve God, but that, in serving others, serve him; it is also used by Jesus as a symbol of faithfulness.
In Saint Mark Chapter 10 Verse 38, we read of the cup of faithfulness to God’s call. James and John ask to sit at Jesus’ side in the coming Kingdom. We read that Jesus said to them,”You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Drinking from a cup becomes the picture Jesus uses of his own acceptance of the way he must take in order to fulfil God’s will.
After the Last Supper, Jesus and his friends go to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus moves away from the group in order to have time to pray, Saint Luke Chapter 22 Verse 42 tells of Jesus’ prayer, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Later that night, Jesus again talks of a cup of faithfulness. Jesus’ enemies, led by Judas, come to the garden to arrest Jesus, and Peter wants to resist, lashing out with a sword. Jesus responds to the violence in Saint John Chapter 18 Verse 11, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
Avoiding the cup of religiosity, giving the cup of service, both are much easier challenges to us than accepting the cup of faithfulness. Jesus warns James and John in Saint Mark Chapter 10 Verse 39, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” His words would have been an encouragement to them as they faced the persecutions that lay ahead. We are fortunate in having to face no such cups, many Christians in our world today face persecution as violent as that faced by the early church; many Christians accept that cup of faithfulness. It asks a question of us, how far would our faith take us, how far would we go in following Jesus?
A cup of religiosity, a cup of service, a cup of faithfulness; these are metaphorical cups. The fourth cup is a cup that is both real and hugely symbolic; it is the cup of salvation, the cup at the Last Supper. Saint Mark Chapter 14 Verse 23 says, “Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it.”
The Last Supper was a Jewish Passover meal, each thing done at the meal was symbolic in telling the Passover story, but Jesus takes the bread and the cup of wine at that meal and he gives them a new meaning. At the meal itself, the disciples may have wondered what it was that Jesus was saying, may have wondered why he was saying such troubling things. Only looking back on the meal would the disciples have fully realized what Jesus meant by the words with which he shared the bread and the cup; only looking back, would they have realized the meaning of the broken bread and the poured out cup. Only looking back would they have understood Saint Luke Chapter 22 Verse 20, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
In Psalm 116 Verse 13, the Psalmist says he will “lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” The cup of salvation symbolises God’s deliverance of the person from death and the cup at the Last Supper becomes a cup of salvation for us, it becomes the blood of Jesus that delivers us from death.
The cup at the Last Supper became an object of fascination down through the centuries; the Holy Grail for which people would search. But it was never about the cup, it was about the salvation Jesus brought us, a salvation for which the cup was no more than a symbol. It was about what was poured from the cup, never the cup itself.
How often when we come to church, when we gather at the Lord’s table, do we think about the cup of salvation? How often do we think of what our freedom cost Jesus?
Four cups to challenge us: religiosity, service, faithfulness and salvation.