Message for March 29, 2020
Texts: John 13:3-16 and Luke 4:16-21
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take and eat. This is my body, broken for you.” After the supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Drink of this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
You’ve heard those words, and I have spoken those words, hundreds of times. You can probably recite them yourself without any effort. The repetition may bring you comfort. But do these words come as a shock to you?
Professor A.J. Levine suggests that they would, if you were a faithful Jew living in the first century. They would shock you on many levels. And if we are to be faithful to the text, and faithful to the spirit of Jesus, we will find it an illumining exercise to delve into the words and allow them to shock us, so that we might more deeply appreciate the significance and power of this sacrament which is so foundational to our faith.
I have mentioned, many times, in church, that the communion table was originally a Passover table, and that Jesus took that feast of freedom and gave some of the symbols a new meaning. Many of you have told me that observation has opened your eyes, caused you to think about what we are doing in a new way, and I am glad of that. It’s good that we cherish our connection to our Jewish cousins, that we see this sacrament, which Jesus shockingly calls “a new covenant,” not as a undoing of the tradition in which Jesus himself was steeped, but as an expansion, a way to reflect on our need for freedom from all that threatens to enslave us in this life. Jesus offers himself as a means to that liberation, and it’s fitting that we Methodists refer to the sacrament as “a means of grace.”
Let’s consider some of the other shocking elements — like eating “my body” and drinking “my blood.” There were folks in one of my previous churches who deliberately avoided attending church on Communion Sundays — or at least, remained steadfastly seated in the pew rather than coming up to the altar rail — because they took offense at the “cannibalistic language” of the communion liturgy. But imagine how much more shocking the words would be to one whose religious tradition expressly named the consumption of blood as forbidden. We don’t (mostly) consume blood because it seems “icky” — but consider the idea from the Hebrew scriptures and ancient thought that “the life is in the blood” as the reason not to consume it; consider that blood was the key part of an animal sacrifice that was to be offered to God. That makes what Jesus was saying at this Last Supper all the more significant.
A.J. Levine points out that the idea of sacrifice was well understood in Jesus’ time, not only within Jewish culture, but among those practicing other religions, as well. And she notes that the meat from sacrifices was probably, pretty much, the only meat that was ever eaten by families in those days, so such meals were really special occasions. Furthermore, by giving part to God, and the rest being consumed by the family, it was like eating a meal with God.
There’s a theological term you probably haven’t heard much in Methodist circles, though we talked about it a lot at my Lutheran seminary — it’s the idea of the “real presence” of Christ in this sacrament (it is a belief we share in common with the Lutherans and many other denominations). We used to banter around with big words describing what we thought this meant, but I really love how simply A.J. puts it — sharing a meal with God, and with each other.
I’ve often said there is something sacred about eating together in any context. There’s a level of trust and shared acknowledgement of our vulnerability that happens when we eat together (something we’ve sadly had to curtail in these days of COVID-19, when we must limit contact to those closest to us). We acknowledge that human life is frail, that we need the regular intake of the gifts of the earth to stay alive — and we need the labor of others to provide much of that food. In this meal, we also acknowledge our need of God — not just to provide the conditions that make growing that food possible, but for everything — every relationship, every breath, every good gift.
Another shock of that evening was the shock of betrayal. Judas sat at that table. I’ve often been struck that it is at the very moment that Jesus announces, “One of you will betray me” (although the exact way he puts it varies between the different gospel accounts) — the very moment betrayal is revealed is the moment that Jesus institutes the sacrament of Holy Communion. Judas was there at the table. Peter was there at the table. Every one of us has failed Jesus, in one way or another, by things we have done and by things we have left undone. And at this table, everyone is welcome. Not only us, but also our enemies. Not only you and me, but those with whom we would rather not associate: the people who irritate us, the people who scare us, the people who have disappointed God as much as we have. There is room for all of us at the table, and it is in spite of betrayal, even because of betrayal, that Jesus bid us come here together for this meal.
The final shock (at least the last one I will mention today) is the shock of servant leadership. It’s another one of those concepts to which we’ve become rather immune due to long years of repetition. And yet, it is a lesson that we perhaps most need to learn — we, who in this culture of celebrity, long for recognition, status, praise, privilege and power. I don’t think we quite “get” the “slave” language of the gospels — the utter counter-cultural message of the Lord who serves. But I think it is the example that, followed, can truly change the world.
In this Last Supper scene, Jesus delivers shock after shock after shock. This was part of the risk Jesus was taking, of being misunderstood by his friends. We might lose the import of his radical message, as well — not because we find it shocking, but because we don’t. If we let it register with us if we let the shock register with us, will we be willing to follow where he leads?