The Second Sunday in Lent: February 25, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Kyle Oliver
“Do this in remembrance of me.”
These words of Jesus are at the center of the remarkable prayer we offer each week as we celebrate the Eucharist. We think of this observance as a commandment and an invitation and a gift he gave on the night before he died.
What does Jesus want us to recall, to make present? That’s our investigation for this morning, as we continue our sermon series about the major pieces of our Sunday morning worship.
So imagine yourself as a participant in that very special meal some two thousand years ago.
Your teacher has arranged for your motley crew to eat the Passover meal in the upstairs room of a dwelling outside Jerusalem. The ritual itself and frankly the luxury of a quiet meal in private have you pretty excited.
On the other hand, Jesus has been acting weird lately, and you have the sense that something important is about to happen. He confirms your hunch as he begins:
“I’ve really been looking forward to sharing this meal with you before I suffer. I won’t eat again until after my work is done.”
Then he picks up a loaf of bread. Gives thanks. Breaks it into pieces. Raises his voice in that way he does when he really wants you to remember something: “This is my body, which is given for you.”
What does that mean? What can that mean?
You realize he’s trained you pretty well for this kind of reflection about holy symbolism. You rifle through some options in your head:
- Our teacher and his teachings sustain us, like the mana in the desert sustained our ancestors.
- Our teacher is a holy presence, like the bread the priests in the temple leave on the altar each week, as an offering.
As an offering. You get a pit-of-the-stomach feeling as you consider a third option:
- Our teacher’s very life, his very body, is an offering, a sacrifice. Freely given, for our sake.
That he might be alluding to this last option doesn’t sound so crazy in light of what Jesus has been up to lately.
Could this really be his last meal, our last meal? What good could his death accomplish, this man who has been for us a source of abundant life, who has turned our world upside down and somehow left us hungry for more?
You realize he’s serious about this “offering” stuff when he gets to the wine: “This cup that I am pouring out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Your mind races when he says “new covenant.” It races immediately to that place in the scriptures where God promises to write the law on our very hearts.
It’s the next part of that scroll that always sticks out for you: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”
Until the night is interrupted by more urgent matters, you ponder what this all could mean. And you return to this moment again and again in the years to come, as does your community.
OK, so please forgive my somewhat absurd telling of the story. Holy Eucharist means all this and more, of course: presence, sustenance, sacrifice, an intimate meal.
Also the chance to know and experience God with our bodies, to taste and see that the Lord is good. And the chance to remember that Christ’s death was not the end of this story of sacrifice.
But it’s not like all that could have gotten through to any single disciple in the moment it was happening. That’s not how meaning-making works.
It works by people working things out, together, slowly, guided by God through successive retellings of the story. We see that process happening in the scriptures, with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul passing on what they were told about what happened and what they think it all means. It’s a process we’re engaging still.
But what about John, and today’s gospel passage? Well, John takes a completely different tack on that momentous evening, focusing not on the meal but on Jesus pausing to wash the disciples feet. And then on a seemingly endless speech that Biblical scholars call the Farewell Discourse.
To my ears, that speech can be read as a meditation on what communion with God and community means. Listen again to a tiny part of it:
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Abide in me and I will abide in you, just as I abide in the Father and the Father in me. This basic idea sort of rolls through the Farewell Discourse, repeated and remixed in endless permutation.
Even though the metaphor here is vine and branches, it’s connected to the metaphor of bread and wine. I will abide in you, says Christ. I am a part of you. You and I share one substance. We all share one substance. We are connected. We are intertwined. We are both many and one.
(And I should pause and say that today the “we” here at St. Michael’s, our little corner of the vine, if you will, includes a few more people than it did a few months ago. I hope this experience of grace and intimacy will be even more meaningful for all of us on this New Member Sunday. We are so glad you’ve decided to make St. Michael’s your church home.)
OK, but what about this prayer? How does all this actually work?
“Do this in remembrance of me.” The prayer is how we remember. We retell the story to make the events present today. We retell the story to claim our part in it.
Since we can’t hit every point in every prayer, there are many to choose from in a variety of sources, most obviously the Book of Common Prayer. So whenever you participate in the Eucharist in an Episcopal Church, you get some version of each of a predictable set of elements in a pretty consistent order.
- We turn our hearts to God, joining our voices with the saints and angels.
- We recall the story of God’s relationship to creation and to us, and then of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, plus this ritual he gave us to celebrate it all.
- Finally, we ask the Holy Spirit to make Christ present in the bread and wine and among us as a community.
If you want that outline chopped into smaller pieces, or you want to learn the Greek and Latin words we use to label them, there’s a link in the bulletin to some illuminated notecards I created on Friday and inserted into this sermon post. I also left a few copies with the ushers.
Perhaps the only sure thing we can say after 2,000 years of reflection is that the Eucharist can and should mean many different things to us. We can and should experience a wide range of spiritual benefits from participating.
We might feel closer to God. We might feel closer to each other. We might feel hope that for for us, as for Christ, death is not the final word.
But in my opinion, the most important thing we should feel is empowered. My favorite line of any Eucharist prayer is this:
Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.
We do what we do in here so we can do what is needed out there.
The fullness of this vision of communion is what we might call Eucharistic living. It turns our acts of seeking and serving into an integrated movement of worship and witness. You might even call it the Jesus Movement.
If you don’t believe me, remember once again what Jesus said on the night before he died for us:
“My Father is glorified by this: that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”