April 21, 2011
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
1 Corinthians 11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,
11:24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
11:25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
/51b/ … and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” /52/ The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” /53/ So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. /54/ Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; /55/ for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. /56/ Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. /57/ Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. /58/ This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
This text, from Paul’s hand to the Corinthian Church, is perhaps the earliest account of our practice of the Eucharist. John’s Gospel does not describe this scene, one we are so familiar with. It is recorded in Luke, in Mark, and in Matthew, but here in John’s upper room, there is no breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup. To find it in John’s Gospel you must look early on, in chapter 5 and 6. This shouldn’t be a surprise, really. John’s Gospel was written nearly 50 years after the Corinthian correspondence, and nearly 30 years after Luke. John has had time to think about the significance of this person Jesus, his place as the Christ, and so from the very beginning he is interpreting (as opposed to writing an ‘orderly account’) of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
John’s gospel is full of metaphor and imagery that moves our imagination. That’s why (in John’s gospel, at least) Jesus offers himself to us as the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven. Since the 16th century, people have often debated the meaning of the images offered in John 6. Should we interpret the manna from heaven to be his Word, or rather the Eucharist? This is a false alternative, as shown to us by the earliest Christian traditions. An ancient tradition dating back to the early Church Fathers says that we feed on Christ from two tables, the table of the word, symbolized by the ambo, a raised reading desk similar to what we call the lecturn; and the table of the Eucharist, which is the altar. We recognize these two tables today when we ordain ministers to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
Recreating this scene is an essential part of worship. So we shouldn’t be surprised when, Sometimes, brides and grooms desire the Eucharist during the wedding liturgy. I am willing, but when we do I insist that the entire congregation participates. Why? Because first and foremost the Lord’s supper is an affirmation of Christian community. It is a declaration that we are a people bound under a new agreement with the living Lord, an agreement which sets us apart as an eternal community – a people bound in love to one another and to the Lord.1
Before church governments were devised, before creeds were formalized, before the first word of the New Testament was written, the Lord’s Supper was firmly fixed at the heart of Christian faith and life.2 As the church grew, and responsibility for being the ‘mediator’ of this grace, concerns about who receives this sacrament grew. Earlier this week I was part of a conversation with other preacher types about an element of the Eucharist liturgy called the “Invitation to the Lord’s Table.” This part of the liturgy was an effort to ensure that no one would receive the sacrament who was not ‘rightly’ prepared. So we used to have preparatory services, some churches gave out tokens at the preparatory service and only those with those tokens received the sacrament the next day, or the next week, whenever it was held. This is called “fencing the table.”
The liturgy has changed over the centuries, I believe for the better, in that we now celebrate what is called an ‘open’ table; any baptized Christian who desires to know grace of God and the love of their neighbor can participate. The open table intends to accomplish what the sacrament itself seeks: that we all may be one. That is why from the earliest times the left over elements would be taken out to those of the fellowship who were unable to attend. Gathered, or scattered, we are one family in Christ, one community of the Spirit. We get this idea from the intimacy expressed in the upper room as Jesus shared this Passover feast with his disciples.
What do we believe about this rite, this ritual, this sacrament? If we carefully walk through the liturgy, you will notice that we understand: The Eucharist as Thanksgiving to the Father. This too is not a recent development. Whether short, or long, the Eucharistic prayer begins with thanks to God. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharistia, meaning thanksgiving. So as we prepare in prayer, you will hear me remember God’s graciousness to God’s people going all the way back to the creation.
Next, you will notice that we understand: The Eucharist as Anamnesis or Memorial of Christ. For some churches, that is what it is, a memorial. The bread is the bread, the wine is the wine, and it is the act of remembering Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and so our salvation, that is important. In this we reenact Jesus’ promise, and Paul’s consolation: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
I want you to know that this is not a mere memorial. We understand the Eucharist as the “Real Presence” of Christ. As such, we understand The Eucharist as Invocation of the Spirit.3 The Holy Spirit is called upon to draw us together, to nourish us with Christ’s body, and to unite us with the faithful in all times and places. Some churches believe that the elements actually become the body and blood of Christ. We believe that Christ’s presence is real, and that what Jesus declared in the upper room is true, but in a unique way: He is present in and through and around these elements as we receive them.
This mystical presence, as it is called, means that we treat these elements with great reverence. Most congregations do not throw out the leftovers, but offer the bread to the birds and the wine to the ground. Some people would put some of the leftovers, symbolically, on the graves of their loved ones. In other traditions the celebrant would consume the leftovers so as to not treat the body and blood of Christ as refuse.
That is also why, when at the rail we hold out our hands to receive the bread, this precious body of our Lord. We might be tempted to grab for it, but instead it is something we graciously receive from the one who presides. As we receive it, we hear the words, ‘the Body of Christ,’ and so we respond, ‘Amen,’ which means so be it, may it be so for me. The same is true for the cup, we hear the words, ‘the blood of Christ…’ and graciously, by dipping, or drinking, we exclaim, ‘Amen,’ may it be so for me.
By recognizing the Eucharist as a sacrament (one of two we recognize), we believe that something quite remarkable takes place at this table. Here we come to know the real presence of Christ, and receive all Christ’s benefits. What I think we mean by this is that we are made one with Christ, and made one, we are made right through our faith as we are so joined, and we are strengthened for our Christian life of service to him.
I want you to remember we never come to this rail, to this table, alone. Even if the sacrament is brought to a lonely bedside, there is a very special sense in which we are surrounded by generations. This evening we are surrounded by our Jewish brothers and sisters who call Abraham, “Father” — and by Peter, James and John who called Jesus, “Lord.” — and wonderfully, by our mothers and father and grandfathers and grandmothers who came to this church and remembered the Lord and received Holy Communion — and passed it all on to us. What a rich heritage we have as we gather tonight with the whole Communion of Saints! On this night so long ago, something very powerful happened. Jesus took the Passover meal and instituted something that would bind his followers together for all time and eternity. He broke bread and said, “This is my body for you.” Then he took wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood for you.”
On this night, we celebrate the institution of what we call the Eucharist. It is almost two thousand years ago that Jesus and his disciples gathered to celebrate the Passover just before he was arrested, tried and executed.
Who can possibly be totally ready to receive this gift? There is no possible way that the disciples could have understood the incredible implications of this. The age old Passover became the Holy Communion of God’s new children — every person of every tongue and every color and every tribe on this planet — who would come to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord. Thankfully, the benefits we receive are not dependent upon our understanding, but upon our faith.
It was the last night of Jesus’ life and the disciples would never forget the memories of those events. The foot washing. The wine. The bread. The words: “This is my body. This is my blood shed for the forgiveness of your sins. Do this is remembrance of me.” We gather to know this same Jesus, to be strengthened for our own faith by this gift, we gather to again be united to Him and one another by His presence. We are here, receiving this spiritual food, to increase our love of God and one another. This is the blessing of this sacrament.
1 In his last meal, the fellowship of the Kingdom was connected with the imminence of Jesus’ suffering. After his resurrection, the Lord made his presence known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread. Thus the eucharist continues these meals of Jesus during his earthly life and after his resurrection, always as a sign of the Kingdom. Christians see the eucharist prefigured in the Passover memorial of Israel’s deliverance from the land of bondage and in the meal of the Covenant on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24). It is the new paschal meal of the Church, the meal of the New Covenant, which Christ gave to his disciples as the anamnesis of his death and resurrection, as the anticipation of the Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9). Christ commanded his disciples thus to remember and encounter him in this sacramental meal, as the continuing people of God, until his return. The last meal celebrated by Jesus was a liturgical meal employing symbolic words and actions. Consequently the Eucharist is a sacramental meal which by visible signs communicates to us God’s love in Jesus Christ, the love by which Jesus loved his own “to the end” (John13:1)… Its celebration continues as the central act of the Church’s worship. (WCC, “Lima Document” Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry)
2 Book of Common Worship, WJK, p. 41
The words and acts of Christ at the institution of the eucharist stand at the heart of the celebration; the eucharistic meal is the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, the sacrament of his real presence. Christ fulfills in a variety of ways his promise to be always with his own even to the end of the world. But Christ’s mode of presence in the eucharist is unique. Jesus said over the bread and wine of the eucharist: “This is my body … this is my blood …” What Christ declared is true, and this truth is fulfilled every time the eucharist is celebrated. The Church confesses Christ’s real, living and active presence in the eucharist. (Lima Document, WCC, Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry)
This is not to spiritualize the eucharistic presence of Christ but to affirm the indissoluble union between the Son and the Spirit. This union makes it clear that the eucharist is not a magical or mechanical action but a prayer addressed to the Father, one which emphasizes the Church’s utter dependence. There is an intrinsic relationship between the words of institution, Christ’s promise, and the epiklesis, the in-vocation of the Spirit, in the liturgy. In the early liturgies the whole “prayer action” was thought of as bringing about the reality promised by Christ. The invocation of the Spirit was made both on the community and on the elements of bread and wine. (Lima Document, WCC, Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry)