Sunday, March 28, 2010

eucharistic courage

When the hour for the Passover meal came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." Then he took the cup and said, “This cup is poured out for you. This is the new covenant in my blood.”

Let me begin by saying thank you. Thanks for being here tonight. Thanks for being ready to come up and take Communion. Thank you for your courage. I’m not joking – what you’re about to do is incredibly brave. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” And that’s exactly what we’re here for tonight. Now before you freak out, I’m not going to pull a Jim Jones and pass out Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. But – what you’ve come to do tonight require you to be courageous. The Eucharist takes courage.

Now, to understand what I’m talking about, to understand what Jesus was doing in tonight’s Gospel when he instituted the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we need to understand something central to Jesus’ 1st century Palestinian Jewish world – and that’s symbolism. Jesus’ world was steeped in symbols.

A symbol, by definition, takes one thing and uses it to say something else. Let’s look at a few examples from Jesus’ Bible, or as we call it, the Old Testament. The prophet Hosea married a prostitute to symbolize Israel’s infidelity. Jeremiah preached while holding a pair of dirty underwear – a symbol of Israel’s filth. Ezekiel cooked a meal over his own poop. I have to say this is a symbol I have yet to see the big stink about. My point is this – symbols were central to Jesus’ world. Jesus’ world was steeped in symbols.

And so it shouldn’t surprise us to discover that symbols were central to Jesus’ ministry. After all, there is a reason he chose 12 disciples – it was a symbol for the 12 tribes of Israel being restored through his ministry. There’s a reason that he chose to be baptized, even though he was sinless. It was a symbol for his mission to be numbered among the transgressors on the cross. There’s a reason Jesus prayed in a garden the night before he died – the Garden of Gethsemane was a symbol for Eden, for that which was lost when Adam and Eve rebelled. Jesus’ ministry was steeped in symbols.

And so it also shouldn’t surprise us that when Jesus gathered his disciples around a table at the Passover, took a piece of bread, broke that bread, and then gave it to his disciples, this too was a symbol. In fact, this was Jesus’ last great symbol before he died. Jesus took bread. Jesus broke bread. Jesus gave bread. And so here’s my question. Assuming he wasn’t just loading up on carbs – that this meal was Jesus’ last great symbol – what was Jesus trying to say? When Jesus took the bread, broke the bread, and gave the bread – what did this taking, this breaking, this giving symbolize? Why does it take courage to eat this meal in particular, week after week, like he told us to do?

The Last Supper happens during Passover – a Jewish festival that celebrates the exodus. And so to unlock the meaning of Jesus’ greatest symbol there’s something we need to recall about the first Passover night. God told the people of Israel to slaughter a lamb, take its blood, and place it on the doorposts of their home. This blood, God promised, would protect them and save them. Yes – judgment would be passed on the first-born of Egypt. But – those protected by the blood of a lamb would be “passed over.” The blood would protect them and save them.

And so this meal, the Passover meal, was a symbol – a symbol of what God had done, a symbolic meal Jews shared year after year. And this symbol was so important that to not celebrate the Passover was to reject the covenant. It’d be like burning the American flag. But even more, to not celebrate the Passover was basically saying that you had lost hope in God. Why? Because Jews in Jesus’ day were praying for a second exodus, and for God to bring about a new covenant. In other words, looking back to what God had done – set them free – they prayed for what God would do – set the entire creation free.

Now with that in mind, let’s go back to that Upper Room – to the “last supper” that takes place at the Passover. Rather than looking back to the first exodus, to the first covenant, Jesus looks forward to a new exodus, to the new covenant He’s going to bring about. And like in the first Passover, blood will be shed – but it won’t be the blood of a lamb. It will be the blood of the Lamb. Like in the first Passover, judgment will take place. But it won’t be on the firstborn of Egypt. It will be on the firstborn of God. As Jesus gathers his disciples in that Upper Room, he tells them once again that blood will be shed – blood that will protect them and save them. “This is my blood,” he says, “given for you.” But to emphasize, to hammer home whose blood that must be, how the new covenant will come about, Jesus makes use of his last great symbol. And so taking a piece of bread he says, “This is my body, given for you.” “This bread – this is my body. What happens to this bread will happen to me.” And then he broke it. And he gave it to them as food.

These symbols that Jesus gives us – when he took the bread, when he broke the bread, and when he gave the bread – mean at least these three things.

First, this meal symbolizes what Jesus did for us. Like the bread Jesus is taken. The Roman authorities take him and nail him to a cross. He’s taken by the will of His Father, He’s taken by the leading of the Spirit, He’s taken by a vision of the Kingdom of God and set apart to establish that Kingdom here on earth. In his own words, “I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” Jesus is taken.

Second, like the bread Jesus is broken. His heart is broken by the sin and faithlessness that surround him. His body is broken and bruised as he’s nailed to a cross. His Spirit is broken as He cries out to His Father only to hear silence. Jesus is broken.

Third, Jesus is given to the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” God gave his only Son. To us. To bring about the new covenant. To set creation free. Jesus is taken, broken, and given to the world for this very purpose.

But that’s only half the story. Jesus then gives his disciples the bread and says, “Eat it,” which in Jesus’ symbol steeped world means, “may what happens to this bread, may what happens to me, happen to you too. If you eat this bread my story will become your story. My life will become your life. Take this bread – my broken body given for the world – and eat it.”

Do you see now why Eucharistic worship takes courage? Eucharistic worship takes courage because, whether we realize it or not, every time we approach God’s altar and hold out our hands we accept our mission as the people of God – we pray that what happened to Jesus will happen to us. Eucharistic worship takes courage because God answers that prayer.

First, God will take us. Right where we are. It doesn’t matter how sinful we are, how many shameful secrets we have, or how unworthy we feel. God will take us.

Second, God will break us. He will break us of our pride. He will break us of our self-sufficiency. He will break us of our idols – of whatever it is in our life other than Him that we think will give meaning to our life. The living Lord that says, “take up your cross and follow me” will lay a cross upon our back. And that cross will break us.

Finally, God will give us to the world as food. The Lord who laid down his life for us will teach us to lay down our life for the world. We’ll become what Paul calls a “living sacrifice.” And by laying down our life for the world we’ll take our part in God’s work to set the creation free.

Someone once told me that they love how the Episcopal Church doesn’t do altar calls. They were obviously grossly misinformed. Because we do one every single week. And it takes courage to come forward. Because we’re not asking you to accept Christ. We are bidding you to come and die – to be taken, broken, and given to the world as ministers of Christ’s new covenant. We’re asking for Jesus’ story to become your story. For Jesus’ life to become your life. For Jesus’ death to become your death. And so once again, thank you for your courage. Because what you’re about to do is incredibly brave.

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