"Take & Eat---And Be Changed" - Thoughts On The Eucharist
And a reminder that I didn't remember that much from what I learned in seminary.
This is what happens when you drink from a fire hose, so to speak: you might get some water down your gullet, but all you remember is the fact that you got owned by the hose.
The topic of this sermon is The Lord's Supper. Or Holy Communion. Or the Eucharist.
Lots of Christians call it different things. And celebrate it in different ways.
Which leads us to some questions that could use answering, at least in my mind.
First, If we say that we are celebrating the Lord's Supper, why does it always seem as though we are acting like we are at a funeral?
Anyone else feel me on this? Seriously, for most of my life I have experienced the Lord's Supper as a solemn and slow-moving ceremony---truly as if I was attending a memorial service. No one smiles, no one dances, no one speaks... Does this describe a celebration to you?
Second, Does it matter how you celebrate the Lord's Supper?
Some churches only celebrate the Lord's Supper by distributing the elements in silver trays, quietly and solemnly---what a pastor friend of mine calls "curbside communion." Others celebrate it through intinction, the tearing off of pieces of a common loaf of bread that are then dipped in a common cup. Churches that practice a "high" liturgical form of worship typically have a priest or pastor distribute the elements to celebrants who come forward either to kneel at the altar, or approach it reverently.
I heard that years ago in my church one of the pastors decided to introduce the practice of "intinction" to the worshipping faithful. The plan was to celebrate Holy Communion through intinction on the months the church wasn't doing it through distribution. People who thought it was wrong to do intinction simply stayed home on those Sundays.
I just have to say this---there were no communion trays and little glasses at the Last Supper. There was bread and wine, and they broke the bread and shared the cup.
Third, What happens when we celebrate The Lord's Supper?
Ah, now that's actually a question that gets to the heart of the matter. In fact, I think if we focus on that question alone, we might discover that these other questions just sort of work themselves out.
But before we go there, think about this:
For over two thousand years there has not been a single Sunday--and maybe not even a single day---that has passed that Christians somewhere on this planet have not gathered together at the table of the Lord.
There is something to this. And it has nothing to do with the proper way to do it. Clearly the reason why those of us who call ourselves Christians keep coming back to the Table has more to do with silver trays, wafers and grape juice.
Read 1 Corinthians 11:17-32
So what is going on here? What was Paul talking about?
To begin with, the of meal of the Lord that is being referred to here is obviously not the sort of "celebration" that we undertake. This was pot luck, baby. It was messy. There wasn't organ music playing in the background while people sat and stared at the grape juice in their cup.
What Paul is addressing here has to do with the unity and the new community of Christ. Much like in our own culture, the way you eat and what you eat tells a lot about the social stratus within which you live and breathe. In the case of Corinth, there was a church made up of people from more wealthy classes along with people from not-wealthy classes. So we are dealing with issues of space, location and also content of community meals.
What seems to be happening here is that the wealthy folks are not too keen on letting the poorer folks eat their food and possibly even share the same space for dinner. The upper class people would have eaten in the main dining room, for example, while the lower class folks would have eaten in the kitchen dinette.
To top things off, the upper class people were eating their main meal before the poor folks showed up so that there was nothing much left for them to eat. So in some cases, the poor folks were consuming the elements of the Lord's Table out of hunger.
The bottom line for Paul was that they were all united by baptism in Christ and that the unity of that baptism should have been visible at the Table.
What Paul was trying to tell them was, "Yeah, I know that what you are doing, and how you are acting is the way things are, but that's not how they should be." The meal of the Lord was different from the meals of the world. And the people who ate of this meal, according to Paul, were called to be different as well.
Theologians call what Paul is describing here when he speaks of the Eucharist and proclaims the "words of institution" (On the night Jesus was betrayed...) as a moment of "liminal transcendence." Liminal transcendence describes a crossing of a threshold between this world and the next, between our time and every time.
Let me break it down in culturally relevant language. In the moment when followers of Christ break bread and drink wine together in remembrance of Him, something happens that dissolves the space-time continuum and turns us all into Marty McFly---we go "Back to the Future."
So in this moment when God's time (kairos) connects with our time (chronos) a transformation occurs that should change us, and the change should be evident. The old divisions, and issues---the sin---that separate us from God and one another should be broken down.
Time doesn't have any meaning in the moment of sharing the bread and the cup in the name of and in the very real presence of Jesus
(I'll talk about that in a moment, so don't freak out Protestants)
In other words, the Past, Present and Future all come together.
C.S. Lewis described this moment as one in which the other world--the one where Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty-- is so close that it's like the hand from "the other country" reaches through and touches our hearts and our minds.
I know. It blows your mind, doesn't it?
C.S. Lewis also wisely noted that "The command [of Jesus] after all, was 'Take and eat,' NOT take and understand."
Maybe this will help: When you share the bread and wine of Holy Communion, You remember what Jesus did, you experience what Jesus is doing, and you are transformed by what Jesus will do.
Let's unpack this a bit.
First, we need to deal with the names of things. I am going to call The Lord's Supper "The Eucharist" from here on out. It's a good word and one that means "The Great Thanksgiving." This is an opportune moment to reflect on thanksgiving because when we eat and drink of The Eucharist, we both remember and are thankful.
There's something about the past---the historical Jesus if you will---that speaks right into our gratitude. The fact that Jesus became one of us to save all of us is important. God took on flesh, because flesh matters.
Matter matters, if I may shamelessly appropriate a quote I heard from Rob Bell.
It is good to be human. God became one for a reason.
Jesus wants to touch us, to connect with us. He wants to both know and be known just as we do. He wants us to remember and to be thankful---to know that we are loved and cherished in all of our earthiness and bodily-ness.
Speaking of earthiness, some of Jesus most wonderful work was done at meals, wasn't it? Think about it. Water to wine. Zaccheus restored, Mary's anointing, Disciples feet washed...
Why do you think we say "grace" when we sit down to a meal together? So we can give the little ones in our family something to do?
What if the reason we said "grace" at each meal that we shared with friends and family was because we desired for Christ to be present in that liminal moment---the moment when we break bread together?
And that leads us to a very serious question, Is Christ really present with us during the celebration of the Eucharist?
Protestants do not affirm that the elements of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ as our Catholic brothers and sisters. Some of us believe that our celebration is simply about remembrance. That it's all about the Past.
But those of us who are part of the Reformed traditions believe that in some mysterious way Christ is present with us whenever the elements are shared.
John Calvin, one of the fathers of the Reformation once wrote about this, "It is a mystery too sublime for me to be able to express, or even to comprehend; and to be still more explicit, I would rather experience it, than understand it."
There is a word for this in Greek: anamnesis, a belief that through the Eucharist we are truly connected with Jesus entire ministry, his death, his burial and resurrection---all of it.
He is present. In our Present.
And further, something happens in the moment of the Eucharist being celebrated that speaks of how things will be. In Greek, the word used to describe this experience of the coming kingdom of God in Christ is parousia--the way things ought to/will be.
Do you ever find yourself sitting in church, and you look around at the people there with you, and you just want to say, "What in the world does this group of people really have in common?"
Seriously, us Christians---we are a motley crew. There is no way that we can possibly overcome our divisions, pull ourselves together and do anything worth doing if not for the presence of Christ among us.
But when we do... it shows us what we could be. Heck, what we will be.
There's a movie that I think is pretty special. It's kind of an "old" movie from the early 1980's called Places In The Heart. The film is in set in Texas in the 1930's. Sally Field plays a woman named Edna Splading who is widowed when her husband is accidentally killed by a young black boy, who is subsequently lynched by the local Ku Klux Klan mob. Edna is forced to take in boarders and finds herself housing a young blind man named Mr. Will, played by John Malkovich and a black man named Moze, played by Danny Glover, who vows to help her harvest her cotton. Edna fights to keep her farm which is under siege from the nasty banker who wants to foreclose, and the Klan who want Moze gone. Ed Harris plays a philandering husband, named Wayne seeking redemption by trying to help Edna. Eventually the Klan does drive Moze away, but not before he helps Edna harvest her crop and save her farm.
The closing scene of the movie is legendary.
In the scene, which takes place in the town's church, communion is served to the faithful, while an organ plays "In The Garden."
In the crowd we see Wayne, now reconciled with his wife. We also see the members of the Ku Klux Klan, and the banker who tried to foreclose on Edna. Then we see Moze receiving communion, and it's our first sign that something truly odd is going on... He passes the plate to Mr. Will, and then we then see Edna and her children. And at last we see Edna's dead husband sitting next to the young black boy who killed him. Edna passes the communion elements to him and they exchange a small glance. He then turns to the young boy next to him and hands him communion. The young boy says, "The peace of God," and the movie ends.
Here is the clip:
I love this.
The Past, the Present and the Future---all together at once. There are no more divisions. The wayward are redeemed. The hate-filled are at peace. Black and white share the meal together. Even those who have been lost to death are there in the midst of it all.
It's kairos time. A liminal transcendence.
Because when we celebrate the Lord's Supper We remember what Jesus did, experience what Jesus is doing and we are transformed by what Jesus will do.