Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Communion: How, Who, When & Where

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 09/23/2012

video available at

recap of mini-series on communion: meaning and significance, presence of Jesus in the meal, a sharing in the suffering and resurrection life of Jesus that speaks to our past, our present, and our future.

A celebration intended to reveal Christ among us has far too often made his presence obscure to those who haven’t yet put their faith in him. This isn’t a recent phenomena – it began even in the early days of the church.

We’ve mentioned before that our main task is not necessarily to understand precisely what’s happening in the communion meal, but rather to learn to obey Jesus in our celebration of it, and let him do among us through his Holy Spirit whatever he wants to. Today my aim is to help us obey Jesus as best we can by tackling the questions about the meal Jesus gave us of how, who, when, and where. We’re going to take the scenic route on our way to this particular destination…

Our text today will be 1 Corinthians 10-11. [comment on the church in Corinth]]


For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.

comment on baptism, communion references; all had access to the signs of God’s favor, power, and presence, but only a few actually trusted God with their lives.

Favor, received with pride – trust in self - disobedience – death… dead end


Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

This is an encouragement not to get complacent, and think that the gifts God gives makes one exempt from the labor of faithful living or immune from the consequences of faithlessness. Everything – the signs of God’s presence and power as well as the trials and temptations of life, and even God’s discipline – is designed to draw us deeper into a trusting a faithful God.

Favor, received with humility – trust in God – obedience – favor… life


Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

complex argument here, especially for we moderns who have no experiences with ancient sacrificial religious practices…

pagan sacrifices were divisive by nature. The more one could afford to offer to a god in sacrifice, the more favor one could appropriate. One’s religious observances were a primary way of doing 2 things: (1) distinguishing yourself from others by purchasing the highest level of favor from the gods that you could afford, and (2) choosing which activities you wanted an endorsement to pursue: drunkenness from Dionysus, or lustfulness from Venus, violence from Mars, etc., etc.

This is in contrast to what happens for a Christian when we participate, through faith, in the sacrifice of Jesus. First, we are unified in the fact that the same sacrifice is required for, and offered for, each of us. My sin is no higher or lower than yours – it took the Son of God to pay for mine, it took the Son of God to pay for yours. My worth is no less or more than your worth. Our value in God’s eyes, based on the sacrifice offered on our behalf, is the same – the worth of his only begotten Son, Jesus.

And not only are we unified with each other, but we are also brought into communion with a God who is love through the sacrifice of Jesus. So there is no room for playing the field, for using the system. It’s not merely a business transaction.

A pagan might be able to buy an endorsement for drunkenness, and go pick up a six pack of lust, and a bag of new York cheddar violence. And Dionysus doesn’t care, as long as he gets his. And Venus doesn’t care as long as she gets hers. And Mars doesn’t care, as long as somebody gets what’s coming to him. Because the reality is, it’s all just different demonic manifestations of “not-love.” And all “not-love” cares about is the destruction of his supplicants.

But a follower of Jesus, in joining in the sacrifice of Jesus through the communion meal, is consuming and being consumed by love, and love alone. And if you know anything about love, it’s that love, in the end, wants all of us. Because all love wants is life for the objects of his affections, and only love will give life to them. So love is jealous for our lives, and doesn’t take kindly to anything that might bring destruction to us.

[significant other example…]

Now, before we get to the next section of the text, a couple of paragraphs on, a little background about the “love feast” or “agape feast”…first believers gathering for meal, fellowship, sharing, and climaxing with a communion celebration. Love and unity in action…


In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

comment on divisive, displeasing nature of Corinthian church’s practice…gluttony, exclusion, dishonor, drunkenness. Note ironic tone in vs. 19 – “no doubt there have to be differences to show which have God’s approval.”

11:23-34 (2 clicks)

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

And when I come I will give further directions.

“in an unworthy manner…” Not, am I worthy of this? Rather, am I receiving this in the way that is worthy of it, in the way that it deserves? [chocolate bar illustration]

“ought to examine himself…” examine = test and approve. Not a question of should. Rather, a question of why. Why am I coming to this meal today? Am I here so that I can win the approval of God and others and go about indulging my own desires? Am I here because I am better than the sinful slobs who so often surround me?

Or am I here because I am in need of Jesus, Jesus who I will meet in worship, and in his words, and in my brothers and sisters gathered around me, and in the bread and cup of the Lord’s meal?

Remember – pride leads ultimately to death. We want to stop it in its tracks while there is still time to humbly receive the life that is right before us. If our examination reveals humility already at work in us, praise God.

Note: not about introspection and cataloguing of our sins so that we repent of every one. We’d be here all day… We’re just trying to make sure pride hasn’t been invited to dinner, and if it has, that we send it away sulking before we eat. Otherwise it will gorge itself and the rest of us leave unnourished.

“Without recognizing the body of the Lord…” It is essential that we recognize Jesus present with us not just in the bread, but specifically in reference to the church gathered together, the body of the Lord.

If you can’t accept Jesus’ presence in your brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul is saying, then you can’t accept Jesus’ presence. Period. And so you remain in judgment, in pride, holding yourself distant from the saving grace of Christ.

“That is why many among you who are weak and sick…” Let’s start by saying what Paul does not mean:

Paul DOES NOT mean if someone is sick, or weak, or dead, it is because he celebrated communion with an unrepented for sin in his heart. If it were so, we’d perhaps have warrant to police communion. You know, to protect people from unwittingly bringing death upon their own heads. But also, if this were so, we’d all be unwittingly bringing death upon our own heads. Because we all have unrepented for sin in our hearts.

Weakness, Illness, and death (and all other manner of bad things) occupy the territory beyond the borders of God’s kingdom come in fullness. Sometimes they visit us because we live in a time when God’s kingdom is both already and not yet here, and our spirits cry out to God in longing for the restoration of all things and the sweet return of Jesus, the savior of the world, who will bring God’s kingdom in fullness in the fullness of time. Sometimes we encounter them when we step out of God’s kingdom through our own disobedience, whether because of willful sin, or sinful responses to other’s sin against us, or old habits, or lack of discipline. Sometimes God sends them our way to show us that we are living in dangerous territory and we would do well to run back into his arms. Sometimes God brings us face to face with them so we can reach through them and find his conquering presence on the other side. Or to form in us something essential for his purposes for our lives and this world.

What Paul is saying is this: the sickness experienced by many in the Corinthian church was an indication of the Corinthian’ unwillingness, and/or inability to come with their needs to Jesus, present in their brother’s and sisters in Christ, and present on the cross, due to their pride. They were therefore living, by their own wrong-hearted choices, in judgment, not in the grace of God’s kingdom. And so they were helpless against weakness, and sickness, even to the point of physical death -- as is every human being who is disconnected from Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life. God was, out of love for the Corinthians, using every means at his disposal to bring the Corinthians humbly back to the cross of Christ and the communion of the saints.

Paul is driving at this basic point: We cannot come to Jesus to show that we are better than another person. We cannot come to Jesus and receive only the parts of him that we like and despise the rest of him. We cannot come to Jesus hoping to attain a magical potion that will protect us while we live according to our pleasure outside of his kingdom. If we pretend to come to Jesus in this manner, we will come away without him. Without the one who is our life, our strength, our sustenance in difficulty, and our hope. And so, naturally, our strength will be depleted, our bodies and souls will become sick, and in the end death will overtake us.

But if we come together to the foot of Jesus’ cross, unified both by our need of him and by our response to his holy call on our lives, in humility and love, we will meet with Jesus, and share with him in his redeeming death on the cross and resurrection life.

“And when I come, I will give further directions…” What those further directions are, we don’t know. Perhaps they have something to do with the ones I’ll offer to you now in rapid fire fashion.

Who can participate? Anyone who is willing to receive the bread and the cup with the anticipation of sharing in Jesus’ suffering on the cross and in his resurrection life, and who is willing to also receive the others Jesus has called to be part of God’s family with him as brothers and sisters.

Can all baptized students of Jesus participate? Yes. Can men and women who haven’t yet been baptized but have given their lives to Jesus? Yes. But I’d also encourage you to be baptized – talk to me personally if you’d like – as the worldwide church has from its earliest days recognized baptism as the primary sign of entrance into the community of faith. Can children who haven’t yet been baptized but who are embracing what they’ve learned of Jesus through the faith of their guardians? Yes, at the discretion of their guardians.

What if someone is taking communion who doesn’t fit the above criteria? Maybe they clearly do not understand what it is about, or if they do, are choosing to disregard its meaning and purpose?

Step one: relax. Jesus served Judas, knowing full well what was in Judas’ heart. Judas’ conscience was given the job of policing Judas regarding the bread and cup, and we would do well to allow other’s consciences the same privilege.

Step two: relax again. God’s kindness, the scriptures say, leads to repentance. Perhaps the person in question is afraid to stick out like a sore thumb by not participating. That might well be our fault, for allowing thumbs that stick out to get sore from the elements and our withering gazes, rather than giving their owners a ride in our car. Repentance on our part might be in order if that’s the case.

Perhaps they are curious, or at the end of their ropes, just wondering, hoping that God might actually show up. More power to them…maybe He will show up…he surely did to Cleopas and his companion that night in Emmaus, much to their surprise.

If simple lack of understanding is the issue, in love we can do our best to teach what we know about the meal, and let the person judge for himself whether or not to participate.

Who can lead it?

Anyone…history of priests presiding. Jesus is the true host of the meal…

When and Where? Whenever and wherever 2 or more are gathered in Jesus’ name and the Holy Spirit leads you to share the meal together.

I’d encourage you to exercise discernment about whether or not it will serve the purposes of unity and love and give glory to Jesus, but if the prompting passes that test, then go for it.

Small groups in homes? Sure. Bible study groups at school or work? Sure. Husbands and wives? Why not? In a hospital room? Definitely.

Sunday morning at church? Let’s do it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Communion: Body and Blood

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 09/16/2012

video stream available at

podcast available on itunes at or subscribe to the rsss feed:

God is up to something. He’s got plans for this world. He’s got plans for you and plans for me. He’s taking what’s broken and hurting and dying and transforming it into wholeness and health and life. He’s setting people who have been living in slavery free. He’s letting people in on a new kind of life, inviting human beings into the celebration of love at the center of the universe. The death and resurrection of his son, Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, is the climax of that plan, and the power center from which the energy for this worldwide revolution is emanating.

Jesus wants to be the life in every circumstance and part and moment of our lives. He wants to be the life in our work, in our relationship with our families and friends and neighbors; he wants to be the life in our sorrow and pain and longing, and in our joy and celebration and wonder. For those of us who, by God’s grace, have entrusted ourselves to his kingship, who he is and what he has done and the love he has for us sustains and invigorates every aspect of our existence.

Jesus has given us, his students, a meal to share, a freedom meal, that puts us together with Jesus at the moment of his momentous victory, and that puts us together with the whole family of God in the midst of our journey through this not yet fully transformed world, and that brings the promises of God’s kingdom coming in fullness to bear on our lives now.

However, anything symbolic and powerful tends to attract controversy and strong feelings. [footballer in Glasgow nearly starting a riot by pretending to play a flute story…] Similarly, the meal Jesus gave us has become surrounded by controversy and strong feelings, tragically producing division rather than the unity it is intended to support.

Ironic that the meal is made up of bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus. Because the body is a symbol in the scriptures of the unity between brothers and sisters, between Jesus and his church. And yet the meal has been the epicenter of the disunity among Christ followers. Even to the point of blood being shed, not in the holy sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, but in the unholy disputes among bickering brothers and sisters. [brief comment on the reformation history and how communion lands at the center of it…]

This week we’ll tackle some of the most common questions that have surrounded the Communion meal.

[note Vineyard churches’ general approach to these kinds of questions – cool Vatican story]

What’s with all the names?

(credit Tom Wright’s the Meal Jesus Gave Us)

The early church had four main ways of referring to the meal they shared in remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross. Often, they simply used a descriptive term, calling the meal “the bread breaking”, or the “breaking of the bread.” Acts 2:46-47

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Acts 2:46-47

Sometimes it was called “the sharing,” which is an English translation of the Greek word koinonia. Koinonia can also be translated “communion,” because we share, or commune, with Jesus in his death and risen life.

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a sharing in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.

1 Corinthians 10:16-17

Other times it was referred to as “the thank-you meal”, because Jesus took the bread and cup and gave thanks to God for it; similarly, when we celebrate the meal, we give thanks to the Father for the sacrifice of his son, Jesus. The Greek word for thank you is “eucharisteo,” from which we get the term “Eucharist.”

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

1 Corinthians 11:23-24

Many called it the Lord’s Meal, or the Lord’s Supper, referring to its origins as the meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples the night he was arrested.

In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

1 Corinthians 11:25

Later, after Christianity had reached Rome, a new term became common, and still is among Roman Catholics. At the time, church services would be celebrated in Latin and at the end the person presiding over the meal would say, “Go - you are sent out.” This was because when we have been nourished by the death and risen life of Jesus, we have all we need to serve him powerfully in the world. The Latin phrase for “Go – you are sent out” is “ite – missa est.” That phrase is the origin of the term “the Mass,” the sending or commissioning meal.

How is Jesus present in the meal?

Over the years, and across denominations, Christians have wrestled with this question. It all goes back to how one is to interpret Jesus’ statements when he passed around the bread and the cup: “This is my body...this is my blood…” A continuum of opinions exist, from those on the one end who hold that somehow the inner substance of the bread is transubstantiated, or becomes, Jesus’ actual flesh (and similarly in the case of the wine or grape juice, his blood) to those who hold that it simply signifies, or points the way in our mind towards, Christ’s body.

[history lesson: Aristotle, accident & substance, transubstantiation… Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, 1529, a castle in Marburg, Germany…Hoc est corpus meus; depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is…Johannes Oecolampadius: Aramaic, “This – my body”… It’s the space between the words that opens up the mystery to us… Calvin?: No, John Calvin: the miracle is that we are taken into heaven, where Jesus reigns]

Followers of Jesus find they are often required to hold truths about God in tension with one another. Grace & Judgment. Justice & Mercy. One God who is Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Free Will and Pre-destination. Faith & Good Works. If we try to find a satisfactory explanation we end up settling for less than the truth and find our selves trying to defend our position with increasingly complex rationales which lead to frustrating or nonsensical conclusions.

Jesus says that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner we are doing those things for him. How exactly does that work? It’s hard to say, precisely. Seems to be more than metaphor but not exactly literal. Falls in the realm of mystery. But it’s no less true. The apostle Paul says that the church is the body of Christ. How exactly does that work? It’s hard to say, precisely. Seems to be more than metaphor but not exactly literal. Falls in the realm of mystery. But it’s no less true.

We would do well to receive the truth of the bread and cup, the body and blood of Jesus in the same manner. Seems to be more than metaphor but understanding it literally doesn’t do it justice, either. How exactly does it work? It’s hard to say, precisely. Falls in the realm of mystery. But no less true. We’ve got to be willing to live with the tension mystery creates.

Apparently, Jesus considers that tension to be healthy for our us. Jesus himself doesn’t go to great lengths to explain it. (his disciples in fact, would have likely been even more confused than us at the time of first sharing it). That’s significant, in my mind. He just commands us to share the meal, and there is evidence that when we obey him, even if we don’t precisely understand him, Jesus himself is revealed and present. And that, at the end of the day, is what matters. So we might as well get comfortable with the tension.

View most helpful to me: Timeline…We are eating food in the present that acts as a symbol of God’s future nourishment and sustenance. This food is also the food about which Jesus declared: “My body, my blood.” Mysteriously, the Holy Spirit works within us to anticipate the life we will enjoy when God’s kingdom comes in fullness. In a sense this is like the mirror image of what Calvin describes…we are not taken to heaven so much as heaven is brought to us. So this food becomes a true anticipation of the food that will sustain us in the life to come. And that food is Jesus.

“This – my body…This – my blood”

But again, not to put too fine a point on it, communion comes alive in the doing. what we need most of all, is to actually share the meal with one another in obedience to Jesus, with faith that he will be present and teach us what he wants to teach us through it. We need enough understanding to enter meaningfully into the meal, but communion is not something to be mastered. Just as Jesus is someone we must know enough to enter meaningfully into relationship with, but not someone to be mastered.

Let’s try an illustration that helps get to this:

Singing about our hunger for intimacy with God in the song, Discotheque, Bono of U2 sings…

You know you're chewing bubblegum

You know what that is

But you still want some

You just can't get enough

Of that lovie dovie stuff

[(pass out Dubble Bubble to everyone). Lead people through interacting with gum, understanding song, seeing the impact that relationship with something has on how we know it.]

In other words, we are to enter into the communion meal the same way we enter into relationship with Jesus, and let it teach us through the very doing of it. We enter into relationship in the space between the words. This bread – my body. This wine – my blood. Come to it as you come to me. With joy, celebration, repentance, anticipation, hunger, hope, faith. And in the company of a ragamuffin band, unjudging towards them, loving them because I love them, grace-filled towards them because of my grace towards them. Receive it as you receive me. Wholeheartedly, humbly, with gratitude and wonder.

Ok, one last thing for today:

What’s this sentence all about?: “For whenever you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Celebrating this meal is an action that says something. It proclaims. It announces. When we share the bread and the cup together, we are saying, to each other, to ourselves, to anyone who might be listening: Jesus’ death in the past has become our life, and his risen life now sustains us, in these dying bodies, in this broken world, until the time he returns to make all things new. When we share the bread and cup together, we are looking backwards and saying to our past, to our old selves, to the ghosts that would haunt us: Jesus’ death has conquered you and your authority over me is history. We are looking forwards and saying to our future, and its attendant worries, concerns, anxieties, anticipated sufferings: Jesus’ return is through you, and on the other side of you, so quiet your murmurings and your clamor, because Jesus will surely have the only certain and final say in my life.

Practical Tips:

1. Practice resisting disunity before you eat and drink. Perhaps practice the more commonly catholic practice of making the sign of the cross. Perhaps ask God’s blessing on an estranged brother or sister before you eat. Perhaps repent of a judgment you have held towards another brother or sister.

2. Make space for the mystery. Mystery invites reflection. Take some time to reflect on anything Jesus might want to speak to you through his holy spirit. Take a moment to ask him for something on your heart. Don’t rush through the meal – it’s bad for digestion. Savor it as you would savor Jesus’ presence if you were aware of it right now.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Communion: Actions Speak Louder than Words

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 09/09/2012

video available at

Beginning a 3 part mini-series on the communion meal, the Lord’s supper, the Eucharist, etc.

Show “whenever I say your name” presentation

There is power and mystery and depth to Communion. It is no ordinary meal. No ordinary celebration. Communion looks back to the events that led to freedom from sin and death and evil, and looks forward to a time when the dream will be fully realized. It’s a celebration that’s meant to draw all Christians together, to remind us of what we hold in common, to unite us. It’s a celebration that’s meant to not just be observed for the sake of a good time, but to say something and to impart something sustaining to its participants.

We’ll try to answer the following questions:

1. Where does this celebration come from?

2. What does it all mean? And…

3. Why does it have so many names?

We’ll also talk about some of the hard to understand verses in the Bible and what they’re saying about how Christians are to celebrate the meal Jesus gave us. We’ll discuss how Jesus is present in the celebration, and who is invited to participate. All in all, hopefully we’ll all have a deeper understanding of what’s happening when we celebrate Communion, and why it’s so important.

The communion meal is an action that is meant to speak louder than words. It is an action that is meant to say something to us. An action in which we participate, and in our participation, we say something to one another. And to God. But even more than that, the communion meal is an action, a concrete reality, that acts upon us. Something real happens in its happening. Something real happens within us, between us, among us. The words that communion communicates, we might say, are made flesh, and dwell among us.

You might ask, what in the world does that mean?


We know that actions speak louder than words. The medium always thunders over the message. [examples:…I love you (words, gestures, service)…"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you”]

Even more than that, an action can accomplish, can make real, the very thing that it’s saying. A meaningless action may accomplish nothing. A hateful action can create hate. A loving action can build love.

[St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA. 2 calls for communion. 1st for masters and their families downstairs. 2nd for slaves in segregated balcony. Sunday, April 9th, after the surrender in Appomattox Court House, former slave coming down aisle to receive communion, joined arm in arm by bearded white man…]

The action says something, powerfully, far more powerfully than words ever could. But it also does something. Something actually changes through the action. Something is mysteriously embodied, created, made real and concrete.

Communion is like that. A concrete action – a powerful celebration, really – given to us by Jesus so that he could say something to us, over and over and over again. And so that we could say something to him, over and over and over again. And so that we could say something to one another, over and over and over again. So that something would be accomplished, done among us, embodied, created, made real and concrete within us, between us, among us, over and over and over again, bit by bit by bit. Until he comes again to bring his new creation work to completion.

But actions don’t communicate very effectively if we don’t understand their meaning, do they? [examples…] So in order for communion to be the meaningful and powerful celebration Jesus intends for it to be for us, we need to begin by learning its meaning.

Let’s start by going back to the beginning, to a meal whose acquired name suggests an ending rather than a beginning, the Last Supper. Jesus and his friends have gone to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or the Passover, and gathered in a generous host’s upper room to eat together. We pick up the account in Luke’s gospel:

Read Luke 22:1-22

22 Now the Festival of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching, 2and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people. 3Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. 4And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. 5They were delighted and agreed to give him money. 6He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.

7Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”

9“Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked.

10He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.”

13They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

14When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

17After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. 18For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

19And 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.”

20In 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. 21But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. 22The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!”

We’re not going to spend much time focusing on the role of Judas the betrayer in this story, but it is important to recognize that the last supper, the first communion, takes place not in time of peace, security, and joy, but in the swirl of passions, intrigue, chaos, conflict. Evil is, almost literally, breathing down Jesus’ neck at this point in his life. It reminds us of the famous verse in psalm 23: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…”

It’s also helpful to understand that Jesus wasn’t doing something entirely original here; Jesus and his students are most likely celebrating the Passover Seder meal, a meal that was already full of meaning and purpose, and followed a particular pattern every time that it was celebrated. Jesus gives the Passover a dramatic twist that turns it into something different and new, and in some ways more than it was before.

Little of what Jesus was driving at will make sense unless we understand the original celebration that he fundamentally transformed…

The first Passover took place more than 1400 years prior to the one we read about in Luke’s account. Background: Passover / freedom meal…slavery in Egypt, 10th plague, death of firstborns, blood of lamb on doorposts…

Passover looked backwards to Egypt (lamb, bitter herbs, unleavened bread)… and forward to God’s full reign (he’d been faithful to his promise of rescue to Moses, therefore he’d be faithful to his promise of complete restoration)…all, even generations later, understood the exodus as happening to them personally…ate reclining at table, signifying freedom, nobility.

Their celebration bound them together and declared them to be unmistakably God’s family, those who could rely on his promise of provision and rescue and finally perfect presence (in the cloud and the pillar and the law and the tabernacle and the temple and eventually in the Messiah). All of Israel would gather in Jerusalem….

Jesus takes this Passover meal and infuses it with new meaning and power. In him the promise of the Passover is being fulfilled. Through him, humanity is being set free from the slave master of sin and death, and is being led into the land of promise, the kingdom of God.

And he took bread, gave thanks… The Passover bread Jesus passed around would have been unleavened, for two reasons. Leaven was a starter, old fermented dough as a rising agent. Leftovers, essentially. Unleavened bread symbolized God’s people having a fresh start, something completely new and uncorrupted happening. And secondly, to represent the urgency and haste with which Israel had left Egypt; there had been no time for the bread to rise, so it had been made quickly, without yeast, in order to sustain Israel on her flight from Egypt. Like an MRE, a meal ready to eat.

The disciples would have expected Jesus to present the bread to them with the words, “This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate when they came from Egypt.”

But Jesus says, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus, the bread of affliction? Israel’s sustenance on her flight from slavery? Yes. Jesus is telling his friends that the hour of freedom is coming with haste, in the middle of the night, and all they will have for nourishment on their journey into God’s free kingdom, into the promised land, is him. His friends would have remembered and begun to understand the words he spoke in Capernaum,

“I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” John 6:48-51

In the same way, after supper he took the cup… There were four times that a cup of wine would be blessed and shared at the Seder Meal. Some suggest that the third cup of wine represented the sacrificial lamb’s blood on the doorposts, the sign to God of his promise to spare Israel from the wrath of the angel of death, and that may be correct. Others disagree because of the general distaste (no pun intended) in Jewish law and custom toward the idea (even symbolic) of drinking blood of any kind. But all agree that Jesus’ statement, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you,” would have been both shocking and a radically new interpretation of the cup.

Israel had been looking for a new Moses, not a new lamb. Jesus was saying, in effect, “I am the lamb that is to be slaughtered to preserve you from the hand of death. It is my blood on your doorposts that will mark you out as holy, as members of the family of God. My blood poured out in death will not in fact be the end of the story, but the blood that secures the promise of God’s coming kingdom – the new covenant, the new agreement between God and humanity. Receive me, and you will receive life. My life, poured out in death, will become your life.”

Read Jeremiah 31:31-34

31“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,

“when I will make a new covenant

with the house of Israel

and with the house of Judah.

32It will not be like the covenant

I made with their ancestors

when I took them by the hand

to lead them out of Egypt,

because they broke my covenant,

though I was a husband to them,”

declares the Lord.

33“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel

after that time,” declares the Lord.

“I will put my law in their minds

and write it on their hearts.

I will be their God,

and they will be my people.

34No longer will they teach their neighbors,

or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’

because they will all know me,

from the least of them to the greatest,”

declares the Lord.

“For I will forgive their wickedness

and will remember their sins no more.”

Jesus doesn’t give his students a theory to help them understand what his death and resurrection were to mean to them. Our obedience to him does not take the form of discussions and intellectual exercise. As important as those things are, they are not obedience in themselves; they are meant to help us obey.

Jesus gives them an action to perform, an action that cannot be done by one’s self. He gives his students a meal to eat together. The power of his life, his death, his resurrection would come alive to them as they, in obedience to him, shared it together. Our obedience cannot happen fully by ourselves, either. We may wrestle with God alone in the night, but our choice to obey, to trust Jesus, will always lead us into relationship with one another.

We see that in the story of Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus with Jesus, shortly after his resurrection. He explained the scriptures to them, their hearts burned within them, but they did not recognize him.

Read Luke 24:30-35

30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.

32They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

33They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

He took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and they were drawn to their brothers and sisters and energized to engage in Christ’s mission.

All that came of sharing the meal together, the freedom meal.

So perhaps our hearts are burning within us—hungry for the freedom Jesus has won for us, hungry for his coming kingdom, hungry for his sustaining power, thirsty for holiness, thirsty for his Spirit alive in our lives.

Let’s share the bread and the cup, in obedience to Jesus, and be invigorated by his presence among and within us…

Practical Tips:

1. Let Jesus be your bread.

Think of all the things that you experience as your normal sustenance. Money, stuff, work, hobbies, even people. Families, friends, lovers. Come to the meal and recognize that all of the life you get from them comes only when and because Jesus is present to you in and through them. Say, out loud, even under your breath, “Jesus, you are my life” as you bring the bread to your lips.

2. Raise a glass to the promise.

You are aware of the evil, sin, and death that breathes down your neck in your life, the chaos that swirls around. The new covenant, sealed with the shedding of Jesus’ blood, is a promise that it cannot touch you with Jesus’ lifeblood upon your doorpost. So as you drink the cup, raise it and say, “Jesus, your love has secured my life.”

3. Serve Jesus’ life and promise to someone else.

Share the communion meal with a friend, a family member, the person behind you in line. Take the tray from the usher if you desire. Say, as you do, the body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Jesus shed for you. Let it remind you that every brother and sister is enlivened by Jesus, and that their lives are secured by him, and that your job as their brother and sister is to recognize and participate in his life in them, and to encourage them to have faith in that promise.