1 Corinthians 11:17-34
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
The Eucharist is the most ordinary and the most divine gesture imaginable. This is the truth of Jesus. So human, yet so divine; so familiar, yet so mysterious; so close, yet so revealing! Reaching Out Henri Nouwen
Look: Back / Around / Up / Out / Forward
When Max Lucado was a young man he was part of a group at his church that took communion to people who were in the hospital, or who couldn’t come to church for whatever reason. One time he and another server went into the room of an elderly gentleman who was asleep. They spoke his name, bumped his bed a little, and even tried shaking him. He never woke up.
They weren’t quite sure what to do but they didn’t want to leave without performing their duty. The other guy noticed that this man who was asleep had his mouth open. Why not? They prayed over the little wafer and stuck it in the man’s mouth. Nothing happened. They prayed over the grape juice and poured a little into his mouth. The old man never woke up! Listen to what Max said about this:
“He never woke up. Neither do many today. For some, communion is a sleepy hour in which wafers are eaten and juice is drunk and the soul never stirs. It wasn’t intended this way” (Max Lucado, And the Angels Were Silent, p149).
The worship committee has recommended, and session has approved, celebrating the Lord’s Supper eleven times this year. That is more than we have done communion in the past, so I want to take some time this morning to think about what this meal means, so that we don’t participate in this meal as if we are asleep. Why do we eat a little piece of bread and drink a little taste of grape juice? What is the meaning of this meal? In our passage from 1 Corinthians Paul gives us five different ways to think about this holy meal, five different meanings for the Lord’s Supper.
First, when we celebrate this meal we look back. In the Upper Room, when Jesus first shared this meal with his disciples, he gave them the bread and said “Do this in remembrance of me.” He said the same thing when he gave the cup. “Remember me.” Whenever we celebrate this meal we are to look back and remember what Jesus has done for us.
Memory is a wonderful thing. Yet in the Biblical world remembering is more than nostalgia and thinking about the past. To remember something was to think about the past in a way that it becomes a present reality. When the early Christians heard the call to remember they pictured themselves in the Upper Room with Jesus at the Last Supper. He washes their feet. They eat a meal together. Jesus prays for them. He takes bread and a cup and gives it to them. They are there. When these early Christians heard the call to remember they imagined themselves at the foot of the cross. Their Lord, their leader, was hanging there, suffering and dying. He was beaten beyond recognition. Yet he cried out, “Father, forgive them.” They are there. When they heard the call to remember they imagined themselves gathered with the disciples on that first Easter morning, broken-hearted at the death of their friend. Then Jesus showed up. He’s alive! They are there.
Part of the beauty and genius of African American spirituals is that they are intended to help us see ourselves as part of the Biblical story. When the slaves sang they saw themselves as Israelite slaves in Egypt. They imagined themselves crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land. One of my favorite spirituals is Were You There? “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they whipped him up a hill? Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Were you there when he hung his head and died? Were you there when he rose up from the dead?” As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper look back at what Jesus has done for you. Remember the past in a way that it becomes a present reality in your life. Look back. You are there.
Second, look around. Look around at your relationships with other Christians. This is actually the main emphasis in this passage. In verse 28 Paul says “Examine yourselves.” Then he says “Discern the body.” This isn’t an individual, inward navel-gazing. This means examine the relationships you have with others in the church. There were problems in the Corinthian church. There were different factions, so Paul challenged them to focus on repairing their relationships with each other. One of the names for this meal is communion. It is a meal that shows our union with each other, our unity.
Look around. Are there people in your life that you need to love and forgive? It wasn’t that long ago that there was a conflict here in this church. Are there relationships that still need healing? I love the image of the church as porcupines who come together on a cold night. They huddle together for warmth, but they poke each other. They hurt each other. Any time people live together, whether it is in a church or in a family, there is going to be conflict. Look around. What relationships in your life need to be restored?
Look back. Look around, and look up. Look up, to your relationship with God. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of the first time Jesus celebrated this meal in the Upper Room with his disciples. In First Corinthians Paul also tells the story. Each story is a little different, but one thing they have in common is that when Jesus takes the cup he says “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” A covenant is a relationship, a formal agreement between two parties. In Biblical times covenants were sealed with a sacrifice, with blood. The old covenant, between the Israelites and God, had many different sacrifices. But now, through Jesus’ death on the cross we have a new covenant. Through Jesus’ blood we have a relationship with God. Look up and focus on your relationship with God.
I grew up in a Presbyterian church. I knew the basic Christian story and had a decent understanding of Christian teachings and what was right and wrong. However, my faith came alive when I realized that God wanted a personal relationship with me. The center of Christianity, as I understand it, is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. There is more to being a Christian than that and there are different ways of living out our faith, but at its core, Christianity involves a relationship with the God of the universe. As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, let us look up, and reflect on our relationship with God. What do you need so that you can grow closer to God? What is God wanting in your relationship? Look up and grow closer to God.
Look back. Look around. Look up. Look out. Look outside the church, to those who do not know Jesus, to those who have never heard the good news. In verse 26 Paul says that whenever we “eat this bread and drink the cup, [we] proclaim the Lord’s death.” To be honest with you, I’ve never understand that statement. What is it about eating a little piece of bread and drinking a shot-glass full of grape juice that proclaims the good news of Jesus? How does the world hear the message of Christ when we eat this meal?
The Greek word for proclaim, “you proclaim the Lord’s death,” is messenger. We are God’s messengers. We are messengers of the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We are messengers of good news to a world that desperately needs good news. I’m not sure how that happens through this meal. Maybe when we gather to celebrate this meal the message of Christ is supposed to be proclaimed in the sermon. Maybe the act of coming to worship, committing our time that we could be spending doing any number of other things, gives a message to those around us. Maybe there is some other mysterious way it happens. However it happens, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we are proclaiming the message of Jesus’ death. We are to look out, outside the church and tell the world of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
This has to do with one of our favorite words as Presbyterians – evangelism! I know that many Christians are not comfortable with evangelism. Part of that is all the horrible examples we have seen. We need to do evangelism in a way that is consistent with our theology and with our personalities. But above all, we need to do evangelism. Part of being a faithful Christian is telling others about Jesus and inviting them to follow him. It is sharing your story of God’s love.
One of our friends in Colorado tells the story of a time he was working at Highlands Presbyterian Camp. It is a spectacular place set in the Rockies, about an hour northwest of Denver. Mark was leading their horse camp. His group stayed down in the Lodge. One morning he woke up early, before sunrise, and couldn’t get back to sleep. He went outside and saw something that confused him at first. There was a trail of lights moving on a hill across the valley. Then Mark remembered that at the top of that hill there was a cross. He realized that some of the counselors were leading the campers on an early morning hike, carrying flashlights, up to the cross to watch the sunrise. Mark said that he realized that is what camp is all about. That is what evangelism is all about – leading people to the cross where they can meet Jesus and receive God’s love.
We are called to proclaim the goodness of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We are called look out and tell others about God’s love.
Look back. Look around. Look up. Look out. Look forward. In verse 26 Paul tells us that when we celebrate this meal we proclaim the Lord’s death “until he comes.” This has to do with another favorite Presbyterian word – eschatology, the study of the end times. Sometimes it is called the Parousia or the rapture or the second coming of Christ. We believe that at some point Jesus will come back to earth. This meal reminds us of that time. When it happens we will be invited to the eschatological banquet, a messianic feast. The Lord’s Supper looks forward, with a sense of anticipation and hope for the future.
About eighteen years ago Tanya and I took our kids on a family mission trip to Ciudad Juarez. It’s one of the border cities of Mexico, right across from El Paso, Texas. We worked in a couple of churches in Juarez. One evening we went to dinner at the home of lady in one of the churches. Her pastor was there along with a couple of other people. As we talked I realized that the second coming of Christ was a significant part of their faith. I don’t deny the second coming, but it isn’t an important part of my faith. For most of us life is fairly good. We don’t need the second coming. In the developing world, or in the third world, the second coming is much more important because it gives them hope.
Here’s the thing – at some point life is likely to become difficult for all of us. That may be a personal crisis that you go through. It may be a global problem. When that happens, not if but when, the second coming of Jesus will be a source of great hope. No matter how bad things get in the present, our belief in the second coming brings us hope that the future will be better. The Lord’s Supper reminds us of that hope. It reminds us of the heavenly feast we will someday join. This meal reminds us that the future is in God’s hands. Therefore, we can look forward with hope.
Look back. Look around. Look up. Look out. Look forward – five ideas as we approach this table. Five ways to understand this meal. Five ways to live in the endless, undeserved and unlimited love of Jesus Christ.