In the Eucharist, God makes us the Church.
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey
At St. Peter & St. Paul Marietta, GA, Maundy Thursday, April 1, 2021
Luke 22:14-30, 1 Corinthians 11:23-32 (Exodus 12:1-14a)
Luke 22:14-30, (NRSV) When the hour came, he 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; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 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.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this. A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. “You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
1 Corinthians 11:23-32 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 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. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
The last time we celebrated Maundy Thursday in our building was 2019. Last year, we connected online while I led the service from my house. This has been a long year and two weeks. We have mostly been apart from one another. This has been a long Lent.
One benefit to a Lenten fast is that we learn to appreciate the food God provides when we are not fasting. In our Lenten fast this past year, we have missed this building, haven’t we? We have missed the stained glass that tells the stories of God’s people and God’s son. We have missed the woodcuts of the stations of the cross. We have missed the rumble in our seats from the organ, with its dedication: “Soli Deo Gloria:” To God alone be the glory. We have missed these pews, ‘ripened over so many prayers.’
It has been a privilege for me and Mother Elisa to come to pray in this place and to sustain the life of the church by continuing to celebrate the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day at this altar. And yet, this nearly empty building does not quite feed the fast that we feel. We don’t hunger and thirst for wood and brick and glass. We hunger and thirst for the body of Christ. And the body of Christ is not made with wood and brick and glass, but with the community of brothers and sisters in Christ gathered in the presence of Christ.
Church buildings may close, but the church cannot close. The body of Christ cannot close. The body of Christ is a living, breathing community. In Christ, this community even includes those who have gone before us in the faith and who now await the resurrection in the nearer presence of God.
I love the way that Eastern Orthodox Christians think about the Eucharist. Instead of thinking that we are bringing Christ down to us from heaven, they see the Eucharist as lifting us up into the presence of Christ in heaven. “Lift up your hearts!” we say, “We lift them up to the Lord!” The Eucharist is a heavenly feast for the whole body of Christ, and our liturgy here draws us into that great heavenly banquet, in communion with all the faithful around the world who join us there. In the Eucharist, God makes us the Church.
Even for traditions that seldom celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist remains the heart of the Christian Community. Protestants usually define the church as that gathering where the word of God is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments duly administered. Catholics would add the importance of being connected to the successors of the apostles, keeping fellowship with that chain of Christians who delivered to us the faith once delivered to the saints by our Lord himself.
Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox would agree. St. Paul would agree: the words we heard in tonight’s New Testament reading are part of Paul’s call for unity in the body of Christ, especially in the Eucharist. Keeping fellowship with the church is an important part of being the church, and our divisions grieve the Holy Spirit.
Even so, each Eucharist in any of our churches, brings with it a desire to be in communion with Christ who calls us together. It is not our broken efforts to stay together as a human institution that makes us the church. It is Jesus himself who makes us the church. And the sacraments are the central way that Jesus makes us the church. Jesus is the host of this heavenly meal, and in him we find our unity.
The Eucharist is fundamental to defining who we are as Christians and who we are as the church. Paul writes “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” In the same letter, Paul also writes “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). In the Eucharist, God makes us the Church.
So, why is the Eucharist so important for us as Christians? Protestants rightly challenge the attitude that sees only “magic bread” in communion. But since the early church, Christians have recognized something unique and special about the presence of our Lord in this sacrament, and in the bread and wine shared within it. And Jesus himself, at the critical time of his crucifixion and resurrection instituted this sacrament and commanded us to continue it. This is the mandate that gives Maundy Thursday its name.
What is it about the Eucharist that makes it such an important gift from our Lord? Jesus is not simply having a meal and asking to be recalled later on. The Jewish meal he leads is at the time of the Passover. Even at the weekly sabbath meal, the host lifted bread and wine to heaven and asked God’s blessing before sharing with those at the table. Here, Jesus takes this sacred meal and adds deeper meaning to it, connecting this meal to his death and resurrection.
The Passover meal is the central feast for Jews. In the Passover meal, they look back to how God delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. But the meal and the prayers and customs also make real for today the events of the past. It was not just our ancestors, but it was also us whom God saved from slavery, us whom God delivered at the red sea. This is the much deeper meaning of the word remembrance. The Passover is not a historical reenactment; the Passover is a remembrance, a making real for today God’s salvation in the past. The same is true for the Eucharist. We are not historical reenactors, we are present as God makes real for us the presence of Christ.
The Hebrew word for Passover is “Pesach.” It is the word from which we get “pascha” and paschal, like paschal candle. Pascha is the word for Easter in most languages (English being a rare exception). Easter is the Christian Passover, and Jesus is our Passover lamb. The lamb’s blood was a sign that the angel of death would pass over the house and save the lives of those inside. Jesus is also the sacrificial lamb, bearing our sins on the cross that we might be forgiven. All this meaning in the Eucharist is why we sometimes say, at the breaking of the bread: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us! Therefore let us keep the feast!”
The Eucharist is a proclamation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Eucharist is a sharing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is not just a great moral teacher that we remember. This is not just a divine messiah that we honor. This is God himself coming to us as a savior who gives his whole life for us that we might be forgiven and rises again that we might have new life in him. In the Eucharist, we enter into and embrace the love he has for us, and the love he calls us to share. He gives his body broken for us. He gives his blood poured out as a sacrificial offering for us. Like the sacrificial lamb, he dies once for all for our sins. Like the Passover lamb, his blood saves us from death. The Eucharist is the new Passover, the central feast of the new pascha.
Therefore, in the Eucharist, following Jesus’ mandate to us, we gather as brothers and sisters in Christ, we take bread and wine, surrounded by prayer and holy scripture, in connection with the church that has come before us, and we offer these gifts to God that Christ might be truly present with us in and through the bread and wine and the sharing of these elements together.
In remembrance of Jesus, the meal of the past becomes real for us today. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are lifted into the presence of Christ. There we share in the feast with the whole body of Christ, living and dead.
This is communion in the body of Christ. This is what we have hungered and thirsted for in this long Lent.
I pray that for you who participate online you will join in the prayer of spiritual communion, seeking the presence of Christ who transcends all earthly things to reach out with his presence to you. Unite yourself to our Lord in this time together. Let your hunger and thirst for the presence of Christ continue to animate your prayers and give you that mindset of anticipation that Jesus invites us to always—the anticipation of the heavenly feast in God’s kingdom.
As we begin the great three days of Easter: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter, let us turn our hearts to the sacred mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and let us rejoice with all the saints in heaven and on earth who keep the feast this night.
In the Eucharist, God makes us the Church.