The following sermon was preached on Maundy Thursday, April 5, 2012 at Divinity Lutheran Church Parma Heights, OH, on the passage 1 Corinthians 11:23-32.
On January 26, I was standing on the beach at Pacific Ocean in El Salvador. I had come to Central America on an academic delegation, and after spending a week meeting various political and religious leaders, conversing with families who had survived a horrific civil war of genocide, and learning about the roles the US government and spiritual leaders played to both perpetuate and prevent the armed conflict, I was now at the farewell worship service.
On my right stood my Salvadorian guide, Ceasar, whose father, a priest, had been assassinated because he was preaching a message of Christian non-violence during a violent time. On my left stood a fellow seminarian, Dominic, who left the battlegrounds of Liberia to study theology in the United States. One day Dominic will return to his wife, daughter, and mother in Africa and share the good news of Jesus Christ to a war-torn people.
I was sandwiched between two brave men who had seen the blood of their loved ones shed upon the ground, and now we were about to accept the means of grace that is the blood of Jesus Christ through Holy Communion.
I was reminded of my friend Stephanie, who when working with ELCA Young Adult in Global Mission spent a year in South Africa where she worked with people who have AIDS. She told me that it was really powerful sharing Christ’s blood while standing beside AIDS patients, knowing that while the blood coursing through their bodies will eventually kill them, the blood that they drink together will save them. She said that each and every time she shared the cup in South Africa she was scared because there was no escaping the sin of her humanity or the love that sets us free.
There are few times in my life where coming to the table has been a scary step. I couldn’t help but in that moment in El Salvador to remember my first communion, here in this very sanctuary. Like our brothers and sisters who are about to celebrate their first communion tonight, I had the loving support of my family and church behind me. That support system watched as I took into my own hands the promises my parents made at my baptism.
I have lots of safe memories communing at the table. I can scarcely kneel at a rail without feeling the phantom of my father, Dale, at my back. My family always sat in the same pew, and my father always sat at the end of the isle. Week after week, my dad would wait until my siblings, mother and I would exit the pew before he would get in line himself, so that he was the last of our family to come to the table. I have many memories of my dad rubbing my shoulders in in a supportive way as we approached the rail, lovingly encouraging my faith each time we communed as a family.
In January, standing underneath the night sky, hearing the ocean roar as water lapped at my feet, remembering all that I had learned about the Salvadorian people, Holy Communion seemed different to me than it ever had been before. I didn’t have my dad behind me, or the comfort of a familiar hymn ringing in the air. Even the bread was different – a tortilla – honoring our Lutheran tradition of the body being found in the staple food of the culture. This was a table unlike any I had ever seen, and I was really nervous.
Then my professor, a pastor, said the words found in today’s reading from Paul, “This cup is a new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
I may be going out on a limb here, but I’d be willing to bet there are some of us here today who are nervous about coming to the table and participating in this means of grace. I’m not even thinking only about our first communion students who have dutifully studied what makes communion a sacrament and the differences between common cup and individual cups.
I bet there are those of us here today who are nervous about remembering the sin of our own humanity. As we begin the three days which contain the death and resurrection of Christ, we cannot avoid the fact that Jesus died because we are sinners.
I believe further still that there are times when we come to the table hoping for an answer to some sort of question, only to return to our seats feeling as if nothing has changed.
While I felt grateful for the support of my family when I celebrated my first communion, it did not quite live up the hype I had in my head. I thought I would have one of those cloud-opening moments where as soon as I swallowed the last drop of wine I would feel different and changed forever.
I can’t speak for others but for me, on my first communion, that did not happen. Those moments have happened since, like on the beach in El Salvador, but there have been plenty of Sundays where I when I have ate, drank, and returned to my seat while the pressures that came from sinning still felt like pressure. On those days, I recognize that something big just happened here, but I can’t quite figure it out.
I wonder if those many nights ago, as they broke bread together and Jesus washed their feet, if the disciples really understood what was happening. I’m sure some of them knew something big just happened, but did they experience that cloud-opening moment of clarity?
I didn’t feel the cloud-opening moment at my first communion, but there have been many times since when the memory of that day has come back and enhanced things for me. In the middle of my confirmation, right when I was reciting the Apostles Creed, I remember thinking about two other big days of faith: the day I received my first Bible and the day I first came to the table.
I remembered my first communion the day my nephew was baptized. As I stood holding him at the font, I realized for the first time that at Divinity we keep our baptismal font at the foot of our communion rail, symbolizing how the grace of baptism and grace of communion anchor one another in our salvation.
I remembered my first communion again the first time I preached, realizing that I had to both pass a symbol of my baptism – the font – and a symbol of communion – the rail – to even make it up to the pulpit.
Memories are a powerful thing. Memories can transform a moment that meant one thing when you experienced it to mean something totally different when you remember it. Memories help us tell our story, and today we remember the story of the Last Supper.
But when Paul (and later Luke) tells us that Jesus says, “This cup is a new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me,” he is not just speaking to a memory. How could we remember the Last Supper when we weren’t there? None of us were there when the bread was initially broken, so what part of that memory is ours?
Spending some time with this passage, I discovered that there is more to the word “remember” then meets the eye. We sometimes use the word “remember” in place of honor, as if Jesus was saying, “Do this to honor me.” Other times the word “remember” means to think back upon a memory, or to repeat an action. While it is important to repeat these steps and honor Christ and remember his sacrifice, we are also being called to do something much greater.
In Greek, the word “remember” comes from the root word ἀναμιμνήσκω (anamimnéskó). This translates as going through a process of recollection, to be intentional about gathering together again, to literally re-member.
We are Christ’s body in the world. When Jesus says “do this,” in remembrance of him, he is instructing us celebrate Holy Communion in order to re-member his body.
Presbyterians take this command to re-member the body of Christ quite literally, and as such will not celebrate communion without an assembly of people. For them, you cannot re-member a body with only one piece of the body. This means that when Presbyterians celebrate homebound communion, both the distributer and the homebound person take communion together, so that they are doing the work of re-membering Christ’s body.
As Lutherans, we recognize our calling to re-member Christ’s body, and whenever able we come to the table together. This re-membering is so important to our understanding of the gospel that we open our table to anyone who wishes to be re-membered to Christ.
We also recognize a deeper layer then just assembling persons together to re-member Jesus. We recognize that when we are joined together as one body, we share in each others stories and histories. It is not possible for my arm to be in El Salvador while my legs remained in Parma. All of my essence shared my experience on the beach. All of my essence has had faith milestones in this sanctuary. All of my essence listened to my friend Stephanie share about her time in South Africa.
So when we join together and re-member Christ’s body at the table, we are also merging together our essences and our experiences. My story becomes your story, and your story becomes mine. When we re-member as the body of Christ through the means of Holy Communion, my story of El Salvador becomes our story of El Salvador, and Stephanie’s memories of South Africa become our memories of South Africa. We also reconnect to those who have gone before us, and by remembering the histories of the foot washing, the betrayal of Jesus, the death on the cross and the resurrection from the tomb, we join together so that those stories become our stories too.
So it’s okay if there are times when we come to the table praying for some sort of spiritual awakening that doesn’t quite happen, because there are others who are creating life changing memories that will affect the our body of our church. Think of how our lives are transformed by re-membering with the disciples who ate with Jesus at the Last Supper. Their experience at that meal continues to shape our faith every time we taste the bread and the wine.
We have been transformed by the disciples’ experience, just as we will go forth and transform another person’s experience. There will be times when we come to the table and what we encounter will be so powerful that we will feel we have no choice but to share that memory with someone else so that they can encounter the joy of being re-membered as Christ’s body.
We describe Holy Communion as a means of grace because it is a sacred thing to be connected to each other through the sacrifice of Jesus. It is only because of the grace of God’s love for us that despite our sin we are granted this magnificent blessing.
It was grace that allowed me to be re-membered with Ceasar and Dominic, having their brave histories become a part of my memory. It was grace that allowed Stephanie to see her own salvation while drinking Christ’s blood with brothers and sisters who are dying from the poison of their own blood. It is grace that re-members our homebound members to those able to assemble together at Divinity each Sunday. It is grace that will re-member us with a future generation as our young people celebrate communion for the first time today. We are not worthy of this gift of re-membering, but God’s love for us is so strong that we are given this gift.
This gift is not something that should be taken lightly. Paul tells us,
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”
Paul urges us to recognize the importance of this re-membering. He asks us to hold this gift with respect, examining our intentions of why we come to the table. Are we coming seeking forgiveness? Are we coming to connect as the body of Christ? Are we coming, in hopes that this will meal will help enhance our faith? Or are we coming to the table because we this is just what we do on Maundy Thursday, that this is just an expectation of being a part of the church?
All are invited to the table to experience this grace, and grace will be given to anyone who seeks it. It is a miraculous thing, and Paul is right to encourage us to recognize the blessing of what Holy Communion means.