Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Somewhere at the intersection of joy, fear, mystery, and insight lies awe, the ineffable response to the amazing world around us…. Overwhelming, surprising, humbling, even a little terrifying--awe is what we feel when faced with something sublime, exceptional, or altogether beyond comprehension. David Hochman
Meals do more than satisfy our need for nutrition. Certainly, we need food to keep alive, but the meals we eat together do so much more. Meals give us our identity and they are an opportunity for connection and love. About 10 years ago I made a decision that as long as my kids will sit at the dinner table I will not get up. Unless I have a meeting that I have to go to, I will sit at the table as long as we are sitting around having a good time.
Our Gospel lesson this morning is the story of a meal that was very significant, not only to the people who were there, but also to the early church. The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 is the only story, other than cross, that is in all four of the gospels.
Part of the reason it was a significant event for the early Christians was because it was such an extravagant miracle. Mark says that there were 5,000 men there. Matthew’s version of the story adds a little phrase, “besides women and children.” In other words, there might have been 15-20,000 people there, fed by five loaves of bread and two fish.
There is another reason that this meal was so significant for the early church that may not be so obvious. The way Mark describes the feeding of the 5000 foreshadows what will happen later in the Upper Room. The words Mark uses to describe what Jesus does in this miracle are exactly the same words that he uses to describe the Last Supper. Jesus took the bread. He blessed it and broke it, and gave it to the disciples. The Feeding of the 5000 points to the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper is one of the two sacraments for Presbyterians, along with Baptism. By definition, sacraments are sacred. They are holy. Through them we are connected with God. We experience God’s presence, God’s power and God’s love. This meal is intended to feed us and bring us into God’s presence. What that looks like will be different for everyone and may be different at different times of our lives.
The idea that there are different experiences of the Lord’s Supper is actually built in to this meal. This meal is like a smorgasbord in that it can be understood and experienced different ways. Depending on which idea we emphasize, our experience of this meal will be different. What I’d like to do this morning is share with you five different ways to think about the Lord’s Supper.
The first image is probably the most familiar to us. It has to do with memory. When Jesus gave the gave the bread and the cup he said “Do this remembering me.” Biblical remembering is not just thinking about something that happened in the past. It is remembering in a way that it becomes a present reality. By remembering we are actually in the Upper Room with Jesus. We go with him after the meal into the Garden of Gethsemane. Like the other disciples we fall asleep as he prays that God would take the cup from him. We remember and are with him as he is arrested, put on trial, crucified and died. This is probably the most common way to experience the Lord’s Supper. It is certainly our focus on Maundy Thursday when we remember the Last Supper. It’s somber and reflective. We remember that our salvation depends on Jesus’ suffering, his sacrifice, and his death on the cross.
The second way to think about the Lord’s Supper is to focus on Christ’s presence. Jesus said “This is my body.” and “This is my blood.” In this meal we believe that Jesus is present with us. This idea has created lots of controversy over the years. Roman Catholics believe that the bread and wine transubstantiate into Jesus’ body and blood. He is physically present in the elements. During the Reformation some people completely rejected that idea and said that Jesus is not present at all. Most of the reformers tried to hold somewhere between those two ideas. They claimed that Jesus is spiritually present, but not physically present. But even then they didn’t agree exactly on what that meant. I’m not going to try to explain all the nuances of that debate, much less solve it. I simply proclaim that just as Jesus gave us the bread and the cup, he gives us himself. In this meal Jesus is present with us.
The third image for the Lord’s Supper is that it is an eschatological meal. Eschatological is a word that means the end times. This meal is a foretaste of what we call the Messianic feast after the second coming of Christ, at the end of time. This meal reminds us of our hope that someday all of God’s people, from all times and all places, will join together in a grand celebration. It will be an eternal feast with Jesus as our host.
The fourth image I’d like to lift up today is fellowship. One of the terms we use for this meal is communion. It comes from the Greek word koinonia, which means to share, to have something in common with one another. This meal reminds us that as we eat the bread and drink the cup we united with Christ and we are united to each other.
The culture in which Jesus lived was such that when you ate a meal with someone else it connected you with those people in a way that goes far beyond anything we can imagine. The idea of going to McDonalds or Bob Evans and eating a meal surrounded by complete strangers was incomprehensible. That isn’t a statement about the quality of their food. It’s because you did not eat a meal with a stranger. You only ate with close, intimate friends.
Right before she went to seminary to become an Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor worked as a cocktail waitress at a jazz club. It was called Dante’s, and was located underground in Atlanta. Let me read to you what she said about that experience.
All these years later, I like to think that I learned as much about human nature waiting tables at Dante’s as I did writing papers for my seminary professors. One happened in the dark and one happened in the light, but together they offered me a better education in the mysterium tremendum (the tremendous mystery of God’s power and presence) than I could ever have gotten by attending just one of them. Later, when I stood in front of an altar waving incense, I would remember standing in front of the bar at Dante’s waving cigarette smoke out of my face, and the exact same feeling of tenderness would wash over me, because the people in both places were so much alike. We were all seeking company, meaning, solace, self-forgetfulness. Whether we ever found those things or not, it was the seeking that led us to find each other in the cloud even when we had nothing else in common. Sometimes I wondered if it even mattered whether our communion cups were filled with consecrated wine or draft beer, as long as we bent over them long enough to recognize each other as kin. Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk – Dark p53
I can’t say that I’ve ever compared gathering at a bar to gathering around the communion table, but maybe there is some truth there. We do not eat this bread and drink this cup as isolated individuals. We are connected to each other. We are family, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. As you pass the bread and the cup look at those who are sitting next to you and around you. Do the same at the end of worship. Smile at someone. Pray for someone, and know that we have fellowship with each other.
The fifth, and final, image for the Lord’s Supper has to do with Thanksgiving. I’m sure that many of you know that when the Roman Catholic Church celebrates this meal they call it the Eucharist. Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” This meal is a celebration, a joyful feast. In the Lord’s Supper we give thanks to God for the amazing gifts that God has given to us, including our salvation, forgiveness, and life itself. We celebrate God’s love and the blessings that fill our lives every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper.
Another way of saying that is that the Eucharist is a party, a wonderful celebration. The churches that I have been part of over the years have tended to emphasize remembering more than celebration. Sometimes that is appropriate, certainly on a day like Maundy Thursday. But sometimes it feels as if Presbyterians go too far that way and this meal ends up feeling more like a funeral than a celebration.
One of my worship fantasies is that someday I would like to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with a band playing; drums, keyboard, guitars, playing upbeat and rowdy music. Instead of passing out the elements people would come dancing down the aisles. They would be laughing and hugging each other, giving high fives and having a great time. Now, I don’t think we are ready for that today so please stay in your seats. But at the least, I invite you to turn to someone right now, and smile. Turn to someone else and say “Thanks for being here.” Turn to a third person and say “Thanks be to God.”
Seth was a curious five-year-old. One Sunday he was at church with his parents. They were celebrating the Lord’s Supper that day. As the bread came by Mom and Dad each took a piece of bread and ate it. Then they closed their eyes to pray. Seth watched this very intently.
The cup came by. Mom and Dad each took a cup and drank it. Then they closed their eyes and prayed. Mom opened her eyes and stole a peak at Seth, who was watching Dad pray. She was delighted that Seth was experiencing the solemnity of the sacrament. She thought to herself, “We are setting a good parental example.”
Then Seth leaned toward her and whispered, “What’s in that stuff? Every time you eat it you go to sleep!”
I don’t usually think of telling jokes or funny stories with the Lord’s Supper. However, today, as we celebrate this meal, this gift that God has given to us, let us receive the bread and the cup with joy.
I come with joy, a child of God, forgiven, loved and free,
In awe and wonder to recall, His life laid down for me.