Text: I Corinthians 11:23-26
I remember the conversation so well as if it were yesterday, and yet it was over a decade ago. I had called to ask about being liturgist for the upcoming Sunday. We chatted for a bit and then I made my ask. “Hey, I’m calling to see if you would be liturgist this Sunday. It’s communion Sunday so you would be assisting me in serving communion.” After the prolonged silence, an honest response followed, “Nancy I can’t. I just can’t. I’m so sorry but I’m not comfortable with all that body and blood and sacrifice stuff. Can you ask me again when its not communion Sunday?” It would not be the last time that I would hear that response when seeking a liturgist for communion Sunday. Accepting the response without question, I gave a reassuring, “Sure, no problem. I understand.” And I did.
Over the years, I have increasingly become uncomfortable with the words that shape the ancient practice of communion.
While they were still eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Whether you read the words of institution from the earliest gospel account, Mark, or from Matthew or Luke, or from I Corinthians you get some version of what I just quoted.
This is my body that is broken for you. (Paul)
Take; this is my body. (Mark)
Take, eat; this is my body. (Matthew)
This is my body, which is given for you. (Luke)
This cup is the new covenant in my blood. (Paul)
This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many. (Mark)
This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness
of sins. (Matthew)
This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke)
John is the only gospel that does not give an account of the last supper. However, John’s Jesus, in the 6th chapter of John, comments on the practice of eating his body and blood. So any way you look at it, there is something significant about this ancient practice.
Years ago, I let go of the idea of this ritual meal as an act of atonement. The idea of the atoning Jesus—the Jesus who died on a cross to atone for my personal sins—became more and more distant as I studied and understood the political motives that lead to Jesus’ crucifixion. I thought less and less of the historical questions and disputes that we batted around in seminary about transubstantiation (the bread and wine actually becoming the flesh and blood of Christ) vs. consubstantiation (Christ’s presence is “in” and “with” the bread and wine but the elements physically remain bread and wine). And instead, I thought more and more about how to shape my words and actions around this ancient practice that in some mysterious way felt like it still held meaning for our modern world. I struggled with the question: How can I make meaning of this ancient practice when trying to frame words around an act that in our modern world would be called an execution while relating it to a table and a meal that is supposed to represent God’s love and grace for us? The two things felt exclusive of one another. I would ask myself, “As we “celebrate communion” what are we celebrating: sacrificial death, life, violence, sacrificial love, grace, community?” And furthermore, I would ask myself, “What was Jesus thinking and asking of us when he gave us this ancient practice and said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me?’”
So let’s start with this latter question of what Jesus might have been thinking and asking of us when he said, “As often as you eat of this bread and drink from this cup, remember me.”
Let me start with what I think he wasn’t thinking about or asking us. I don’t think he was thinking about the physical or metaphysical nature of the bread and wine. I don’t think he was thinking about a theology of atonement, personal salvation, or the forgiveness of sins. I think Matthew’s addition of “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” was an editorial addition that made a theological point that Matthew was trying to make. I don’t think that Jesus was elevating the notion of sacrificial death as a path to spiritual wholeness. No, these ideas are the markings of church doctrine and dogma. And when we try and make this ancient practice about doctrine and dogma—transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation; or making it about the baptized or non-baptized; or serving it on the plate of “right” belief; or about whether the bread should be leavened or unleavened (an issue that was the basis of the split between the Church of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the eleventh century); or about who is worthy or not worthy of this meal—we miss what I think Jesus was about and what he was asking of us when he broke the bread and passed the cup and asked of us to “remember him.”
Here is what I think Jesus was thinking and asking. He knew he was in trouble. He knew that the politics of his message—a message that lifted the poor and powerless and critiqued the wealthy and powerful—was dangerous business. He knew, like the prophets before him knew and the prophets after him have known, that an honest moral critique of systems of injustice based on wealth and power, exclusivity and violence could land a person in trouble with the powers that be—even get them killed. He knew what other prophets have known—that those in power will do whatever is necessary to silence the truth-tellers, to silence those who speak on behalf of the poor and the powerless. He knew he was in trouble and that the powerful were coming after him. So, as he sat with his disciples eating a meal, he did what he always did. He took two objects that were commonplace in the lives of those with whom he ate—bread and wine—something that they would touch everyday of their lives. And he said something like, “when you gather to break bread together remember the vision of God’s commonwealth that I embodied. Remember me means remember the vision.” The “me” in “remember me” was not about him personally. It was about the vision for humanity that he embodied. A vision of how the world would be if God, not Herod or Caesar, sat on the throne. A vision of a world guided by compassion and kindness and equality for all. That is the “me” part. He was saying to those early followers and to us, “remember the vision of what can be.” And when, as the church, we are committed to the vision Jesus embodied, this ancient practice has new meaning for a modern world. It can be seen as a practice of justice, not a sacrament of sacrificial atonement. And I think that is exactly what the Jesus I understand was thinking about and saying to us when he passed on this meal to us.
Here at this table we are asked to consider a vision for how the world could be: a world where the oppressed are set free; a world where we dedicate our goods and lives to meeting each other’s needs; a world where everyone is accepted for who they are; a world that bends toward justice no matter the cost; a world in which we break our own bodies and shed our own blood for those who are suffering and oppressed and marginalized.
Martin Luther wrote in 1519:
“When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore, or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship…all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, pray and—if you cannot do more—have heartfelt sympathy.”
If this ancient practice is to have any meaning in a modern world, then it must send us forth from this safe and sacred space into the world where we break our own bodies and shed our own blood for a vision that has God on the throne, not Herod or Caesar or Trump.
I will be honest with you. I still haven’t fully figured out how to shape the words to adequately and sufficiently express the meaning of this meal. Month after month I keep struggling to find what feels authentic and honest. But I am okay to keep struggling because what I have learned with you is that the power and meaning of this ancient practice is not in the words but rather in the movement of us coming to the table together. The power and meaning is in the relationships that we build and nurture within this community. The power and meaning is found when we leave this place and go forth together to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner and the sick, welcome the stranger, and give the thirsty a drink of water. The power and meaning is found when we embody the vision to lift up the poor and the powerless, and when we stand before the powerful and speak truth, and when put our own bodies on the line for justice-love.
And when we can understand this to be the meaning of the words “broken body” and “blood poured out” then it is clear how desperately our modern world needs this ancient practice. We, the church, need this ancient practice of gathering around this table with one another to remember and feast on the vision of how the world could be if we would but follow the way of our brother, Jesus.
On the night of his betrayal and arrest,
as he shared a meal with his friends,
Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it,
and gave it to his followers, saying:
Share this bread among you; this is my body which will be broken for justice.
Do this to remember the vision of justice-love.
When supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks,
and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Share this wine among you; this is my blood which will be shed for liberation.
Do this to remember the vision of freedom for all.