Texts: John 12:15-17, I Corinthians 11:23-26
When I was in seminary, I had a strategy I would use when struggling with a theological concept. I would take a sheet of paper, draw a line down the center and make two columns. On one side, at the top, I would write, “What I don’t believe.” At the top of the other column, I would write, “What I do believe.” Sometimes, sorting out what I didn’t believe about something first would help me clarify what I did believe. Over the years, this strategy has continued to help me grappled with difficult or hard-to-understand faith concepts.
For some time now, I have wanted to preach a sermon on the meaning of communion. My desire to do so comes out of years of conversations with some of you and your own wrestling with how to make sense of what is represented in this meal we call The Lord’s Supper. Like many of you, I have struggled with how to frame what we-the church-are doing when we gather around this table and speak the words, “This is my body and blood given for you, as often as you eat this bread and drink from this cup, do so in remembrance of me.” I have talked before, and even preached on the violence represented at the table and how I believe that glorifying such violence diminishes our faith. I have even declared that I didn’t believe such a sacrifice was necessary for humanity to know of God’s love for us. At some point in my ministry, I made a conscious decision to never again say this is my blood given for you because of the images that such speech can conjure up. I couldn’t and I still can’t reconcile that language and way of speech with a meal that I understand to be about love. How helpful is it, really, to even symbolically reference the bread and juice as Christ’s body broken for us and his blood shed for our sins? And yet, when participating in this meal, if we don’t make some connection to the sacrifice Christ made, what do we have left in terms what it all means? If we don’t acknowledge what the bread and cup represent, are we simply engaging in an empty ritual that holds no significance for our spiritual lives?
Imagine with me that sheet of paper from seminary that I would divide into two columns. At the top of the page is the word “communion.” To the left of the line is the phrase: “What it is not.” And listed underneath that phrase are statements like: it is not a memorial service, it is not a way of helping us to remember what Christ did a long time ago, and it is not an example for us of how we are to sacrifice ourselves for others. On the other side of the line, listed under the phrase “what it is” are statements like: it is about what Christ is doing NOW, it is about God’s movement toward humanity, it is about our solidarity with Christ and his love for us. And then going across both columns is the statement: the emphasis is not flesh and blood but rather God’s presence with us and God’s authentic love for us.
The church, throughout its history, has focused on the phrases, “this is my body broken for you” and “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” By doing so, we have grossly ignored what I believe to be the most important part of what Jesus said when he spoke the words of institution to his disciples. After each of those phrases he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” How does the act of remembering help us reframe our thinking and understanding of what we are doing when we gather around the table?
The idea of memory and remembering has roots that reach way back into Israel’s history and are a part of Paul’s Jewish heritage. What is involved in “remembering” in Israel’s traditions can be seen in many of the Hebrew scriptures where the narrative begins as a story told in the third person then shifts to the second-person plural. Take for instance this familiar story from Deuteronomy. It begins, “a wandering Aramean was my ancester; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number,” and then shifts to the second-person plural “us”: “when the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us…we cried to the Lord. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt.” Did you catch the shift? The old story becomes the teller’s story. What happened back then is retold to incorporate the new tellers and hearers as a part of the narrative, as participants in the old and ongoing story. So it is with Paul’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper. When the Corinthians tell the story, it becomes their story; and they “remember” it in a way that ties their own lives into it in a transforming way. As people of faith, it is our work with all the stories of our faith to internalize them in such a way that they become our story; not just something that happened a long time ago, to someone else.
Several weeks ago, I told a story about an over-night trip Malkhaz and I took while I was visiting with him in England. What I didn’t tell as a part of that story was that we spent the night in a convent. When we arrived at the convent, Mother Superior Robina, Sister Mary Clare, Sister Elizabeth, and Sister Gwenth welcomed us by sharing their modest evening meal with us. Now, not only was this my first experience staying in a convent, it was also my first time meeting a Mother Superior. And wow, what a woman! She was delightful, engaging, and extremely entertaining. At dinner she told a story, with great enthusiasm, about her first visit to Windsor Castle just several months earlier. As she was telling of her experience at Windsor Castle she began telling a story, again with great excitement, about visiting the grave of King George III there in the castle. Without pause, she diverges into this story about how while a group of tourists are standing around King George III’s grave hearing about the history of it, all of a sudden there was this big bang, then smoke filled the room along with an awful odor. As her voice ascended, she exclaimed that King George had exploded in his grave. She goes on to tell how all the tourists were quickly escorted out and of all the commotion that followed. Caught up in her story and her excitement, I exclaimed: “and you were there when this happened!” to which she responded, “Oh no, this happened some years before my visit.” I couldn’t believe it. She had told the story as if she were standing in the room when King George III exploded. She had described the sound of the loud bang, placing her hands over her ears; and the awful smell that filled the room, again placing her hands over her nose as she told the story. As she told the story, I was convinced that she had been in that room when poor ole King George had exploded. Amazed by the story herself, she had internalized it to the point where she had heard the sounds and smelled the smells that had been described to her.
Now you may think that is just a silly story. But it’s not-not the part of how Mother Superior Robina could tell that story as if she had been standing in that room and witnessed what had happened when King George III exploded in his grave.
It makes me wonder how we might understand, on a different level, what happened at that last meal Jesus shared with the disciples if only we could place ourselves in that room with him and internalize within our being his words and actions. How might we experience today, what took place so long ago, if we could imagine ourselves hearing him speak those words, “this is my body broken for you…this is the new covenant of my blood…as often as you eat this bread and drink from this cup, remember me-remember what I am doing, now and always.” Would we continue to focus on the flesh and blood; on the pain and suffering; or would we focus on the love in his eyes, the passion in his heart, his presence with us and his commitment to living out his own calling? That is what is represented at the table, in this meal: Christ’s work in the world, his presence with us, our oneness with him, and most of all, his love for us.
Love-more love than we can imagine or take in-that is what this table is all about. Do we have the courage and the faith to accept that much love? That is the question we would do well to focus on when we gather around the table.
Several years ago, I accompanied Nora to the communion table. As we were returning to our seat, she looked at me and said, “Mom, I want to go again.” When I asked her why, she responded, “I want more love.” That Sunday, Mary Beth Hall had offered us the cup and in doing so she had said, “the cup of love for you.” Nora got it and she wanted more-more love. Who doesn’t? Who doesn’t want more love? And yet, because we can’t imagine it, we struggle to accept it-to take it in. All that Jesus did was about love. Not some feel good, easy love; but the kind of love that sometimes carries with it pain and suffering-that is the other side of love. Three times, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and each time Peter said yes. Yet, when that love was needed the most, Peter couldn’t say yes to it. I believe Peter did love Jesus and I believe Jesus knew that Peter loved him. Jesus wasn’t trying to convince himself when he asked Peter the question three times. No, I believe he was saying to Peter, “I know you love me but can you let me love you?” Like us, Peter couldn’t take it all in-it was simply too much. But eventually, yes, eventually Peter did take it in. And in the end, that love became so much a part of who he was that it transformed his life; and he became one of the greatest witnesses of God’s love revealed in Jesus the Christ. That can happen to us if we will allow this story to become our story. But the question remains: Do we have the courage to enter into that room with Jesus-to look into his eyes and see how much he cares for us; to feel the love coming from his heart and soul as he reaches toward us with the bread and cup in his hands? Do we have the courage, when we gather around the table, to accept his love-more love than we are accustomed to receiving? Our challenge in coming to this table is not reconciling the pain and suffering-the violence and injustice that is, without question, a part of this story. No, our challenge is whether or not we can accept the gift of being loved so much that not even pain and suffering can stop the loving. The gift of Christ’s love for us-a love that has the ability to make everything it touches sacred-is what this table is about. And it is about remembering a story that happened so long ago in such a way that it becomes our story today. Like Mother Superior Robina, can I-can we-tell this story in such a way that others might just think that we were there when Jesus said, “This is my way of loving you”? I will admit, that most days, it is more love than I can imagine. But this I know, I want to keep trying until, like Peter, this gift of love transforms how I live my life.
Though I may speak, with bravest fire,
and have the gift, to all inspire,
and have not love, my words are vain;
as sounding brass, and hopeless gain.
Come spirit, come, our hearts control,
our spirits long, to be made whole.
Let inward love, guide every deed;
by this we worship, and are freed.