"Making a Meal of It"
About five years ago, when we were having The Vine in the gym, we severed communion like we normally do. I thought the service had gone well and the sermon was pretty good. After the service was over, I noticed a group of college students meeting over in the back corner, sitting in a circle. A few of the students had the Bible's open. It appeared that they were looking up different Scripture texts. Being curious, I walked over and asked them what they were looking up.
One of the students looked up from her Bible, and said, "We did not like the way you served communion so we were looking for the place in the Bible to tell you to read so that you would not do that again." I went from being curious to agitated, so I asked what they thought I had done wrong. They said, "You served communion to people who were unbelievers and we know the bible says not to do this."
At this point, they still had not found the Scripture passage they were looking for, so I thought I would help them out. I told them to look in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul does tell the Corinthians that some of the Corinthians were getting sick because they were taking communion in an "unworthy manner." We did have good discussion about communion and the passage in 1 Corinthians. At the end of the day, I think we had all made our points and agreed to disagree.
There has been several issue of contention over Communion in the last 2000 years, ranging from who can receive communion, how often it should be taken, and what happens when the elements are blessed.
As we go back and look at the last meal Jesus ate with his disciples, which happened about 20 hours or so before he died, I hope we will better understand what happened at that meal and what it means to celebrate this meal when we take communion. Luke's gospel records the story as follows,
14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God."
17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, "Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes."
19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me."
20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. 21 But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. 22 The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!" 23 They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.
All three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record this story. John's gospel records a last meal, but seems to highlight Jesus washing the disciple's feet. Either this was the same meal with a different emphasis or these meals are separated by time, perhaps a day or so.
The storyline in the synoptic gospels run fairly similar. Luke changes some of the order, but here is the basic outline.
- Ate a meal with disciples
- Jesus pointed out that someone would betray him
- The disciples question Jesus about who it is
- Jesus broke bread and said, this is was his body
- Jesus took a cup and said that this was a new covenant poured out for many
- Jesus says he either will not drink again until he is in God's kingdom
Luke adds the following to the story line.
- Jesus says he is eager to eat the Passover meal with the disciples before he suffers
- Jesus adds that he will not eat this meal again until he does so in God's kingdom
- Jesus' saying about not drinking from the cup again is done so as he passes an extra cup.
The setting for this supper was the Passover meal, which was celebrated each year by all Jews. This was the meal which remembered Israel's rescue by God from Egypt, as recorded in the book of Exodus. It was called Passover because God "passed over" the first born children of Israel and killed the first born sons of the Egyptians, causing Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go and worship God. At this meal, four cups of wine would be passed as the family shared the story of the Exodus. The youngest son would ask the head of the household why this meal was so special. They ate unleavened bread and ate bitter spices to represent their slavery and God's hurried rescue.
It was at this dinner that Jesus shared his last meal with the disciples. As Jesus passed the first or second cup, he broke away from the standard liturgy and told his disciples that he would not drink from the fruit of the vine again until he was in God's kingdom.
Before the meal was shared, the bread would be passed around and they would speak about its meaning. As Jesus passed the bread, he said that it was his body, given for them. After the supper was over, two more cups of wine would be passed. Jesus took one of these post dinner cups and said that it was the blood of the new covenant, poured out for them.
What exactly was Jesus trying to say at this Passover meal? According to Rabbi Irving Greenberg, the primary meaning of Passover was that by reliving God's act of his liberated the Hebrews from slavery gave the hope that God would liberate the whole word from sin and bondage. Jews believed that one day, God's kingdom would reign and the world would be set free. He says the Exodus story set up an alternative conception of life. While this has not been realized in the world yet, this is the goal to which it will go.
I want to submit that Jesus is saying that in his death, this alternative conception of life has come to pass. When Jesus says that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood of the new covenant, Jesus believes this is now happening. God is about to liberate the whole world from sin and bondage just as he liberated the Hebrews from Egypt. Jesus is saying that this will be a reality in his own death. Like the Passover lamb was slaughtered, he will die in order to bring life.
Jesus does ask his followers to do these things in remembrance of him. Therefore we take the wine and the bread and we remember that Jesus gave his life in order to set the whole world free from sin and bondage. We remember that Jesus died to set us free in order to bring life.
Argument at the Dinner Table
Luke adds one story to the end of this special meal. While Jesus is talking about the significance of this meal and what he is about to do, Luke tells us that the disciples begin to argue about which one of them is the greatest. Think about this scene for a moment. The disciples are obviously not in the proper mind set for the things Jesus is saying. They still seem to refuse to believe that Jesus is going to die and they are arguing over meaningless stuff.
The closest example I can think of would be a family arguing over their parent's inheritance when one of their parents are in the midst of dying. Instead of living in the moment and capturing their last memories, they are fighting. The disciples were missing out on this amazing moment that would transform the world.
Amazingly, Jesus served every disciple and Judas, who would leave and betray him. As I have reflected about this action, I think Jesus is showing us a foretaste of what heaven will be like. Jesus invites each and every person to the table to experience the bread and the cup. In these elements is represented the life changing act of Jesus' death that transforms the world. Jesus invited the disciples to the table, in spite of their shortcomings and he invites us all to his table, just the way we are. However, Jesus does not expect to leave us the way we are when we come to the table, Jesus expects to transform us through the grace that comes from the table.