Note: this is the script of a sermon that ended up being delivered just a little bit off-script. Consider yourselves lucky as you read this. 😉
Grace Presbyterian Church
March 29, 2018, Maundy Thursday B
It is entirely possible that these words from Paul to the church at Corinth are among the most familiar of words of scripture to many Christians and at the same time not always recognized by those same Christians as scripture at all.
This text has become very common, known by some as the Words of Institution. In many Protestant churches of many different persuasions, these words are heard regularly as part of the prayer that leads into the observance of the Lord’s Supper, or communion. It’s a logical enough inclusion, as in these verses Paul is reminding the Corinthians of what he had “received from the Lord” and had already passed on to them, the words and actions of Jesus at his last meal with his disciples, and in particular the command he gave to those disciples to take the bread and the cup, as often as they do, “in remembrance of me” and to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
Paul passes on these instructions not because he was trying to mandate a fixed formula for the partaking of the meal, but because the Corinthians had strayed so far from even a remotely acceptable conduct of their meals together that they had to be reined in. The verses immediately prior to this one describe how those in the Corinthian church would arrive early and guzzle down their own food (and drink, to the point of drunkenness) while others in the church went without. While that was quite possibly typical in other types of social meals in a city like Corinth, that wasn’t going to cut it for the remembrance of Christ’s meal with his disciples.
The behavior of the Corinthians undercut one of the most basic truths of the meal Christ left his followers; that the bread and cup being shared among the body of Christ was no less than a sign of their unity as the body of Christ. By allowing their privilege to rule their conduct at the meal, the well-off members of the Corinthian group were utterly undermining the very witness of the meal, even if (or maybe precisely because) their conduct looked so much like any other Corinthian social meal. This meal was different. This was the meal that remembered their crucified and risen Lord. It has to be different, Paul says, because it is the Lord himself who provides.
Again, Paul didn’t intend to give the Corinthians “magic words” to “fix” the meal. We humans, of course, are prone to get such things wrong, and spectacularly so. The ways we modern Christians have gotten the meal wrong are rather different than those of the Corinthians, but we do get it wrong nonetheless. For example, we have had a bad habit over the centuries of turning Paul’s verses into exactly those “magic words” Paul did not mean them to be. Instead of turning our attention to the Christ who gives the meal, we’ve had self-appointed watchdogs calculating whether or not the presider got the words right, and moving to correct or remove that presider when he (and it was pretty much “he” back then) got it wrong.
Or we interpret “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” by turning the event into a funeral. I remember those images vividly: the ones passing the elements looking more like pallbearers than anything, the table shrouded in the equivalent of a funeral cloth. This is missing the point of “proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes”, just a bit. Missing the point, indeed, by a rather wide margin.
The thing about the Lord’s death is that Jesus didn’t stay dead. This is not some Jesus tucked safely away in a tomb somewhere in Jerusalem, even if for all the world you couldn’t have convinced the disciples of that twenty-four hours from now. This is a Jesus who wouldn’t stay dead no matter how many nails the Romans drove into him. This is a Jesus who won’t stay dead no matter how many times we crucify him with our short-sightedness, our aloofness, our lack of care for justice, our willingness to tolerate the worst of our fellow beings (too often our fellow Christians) just to keep the peace.
This meal says “NO” to all that. This is the meal to which Christ drew his whole motley collection of disciples and gave them one bread and one cup to share, for then, for now, and for all time. This is the meal to which Christ calls the whole motley collection of humanity, no matter what race, no matter what class, no matter what sexual orientation, no matter whatany of the lines we draw to divide and exclude, and calls us one. One bread, one cup; one body, one church. Let us pray that our meal together never displays anything less to a hurting world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Songs (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): “Be present at our table, Lord” (N/A); “Jesus, remember me” (227)