The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
April 2, 2015
I Corinthians 11:23-26
After my first year of seminary, I spent the summer working as a chaplain at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. I don’t want to sound grotesque, but it was about as awful as you can imagine. I spent weeks with one child who had been shot, and whose life as he had known it, was over. I saw an infant who had been beaten by its parents, I worked with an entire family who had been in a horrific car accident. Other children were there who were slowly being eaten away by cancer. And yes, I saw children die.
Our supervisors at the hospital were insistent that we use that word, “die.” Our natural instinct is to shy away from that word and use a euphemism. We say that somebody, “expired,” or “passed away.” But as our supervisors said, “milk expires, time passes away, but people die.” This was a huge learning curve for me. Because, honestly, I didn’t want to talk about death. I didn’t want to help families out the front door of the hospital without their children. I didn’t want to escort lifeless children to the morgue. I didn’t want to talk about death.
But tonight, Maundy Thursday, we gather to do precisely that. To talk about death, specifically the death of Jesus. Jesus didn’t expire. He didn’t pass away. Jesus died. This is the heart of the Christian story – that God’s own Son died for us because he loves us.
To remember this death, we gather for a meal. It’s an odd ceremony, when you think about it. We come together to celebrate the gruesome death of a man. No one else in the world would do such a thing. Death, for the world, is embarrassing. That’s why we use those euphemisms. But we, as Christians, eat this meal with confidence, because death is nothing to be afraid of.
This meal of bread and wine we call the Holy Communion or the Holy Eucharist was first shared on this night by Jesus with his disciples, two thousand years ago. St. Paul records for us what happened:
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.
We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We gather in darkness to break this bread and drink this cup, and to boldly proclaim that our Lord has died. That is what makes Maundy Thursday, and tomorrow, Good Friday, just so subversive. Our leader, our Lord, is not some powerful tyrant with an army. Our Lord does not have banquet halls filled with the rich and mighty. Our Lord is not some megalomaniac who wants to live forever. Our Lord shares a simple meal with twelve disciples. Our Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ, dies for us; and dies willingly. When we eat this bread, and drink this cup – we are proclaiming his death and what his death has done for us.
As Episcopalians, we are used to taking communion. We know when it’s time to come up here. We know when it’s time to kneel. We get the routine of taking the bread and the wine. But in all of the commotion and the ritual, it’s awfully easy to forget why we’re taking communion. Sometimes we do it without thinking. I think that’s because we don’t often stop and ask why we are taking communion. Tonight, this night that commemorates that first communion, is the opportunity to stop and ask why.
But before we get to that question, we get all wound up about how communion works. Does it really become the Body and Blood of Jesus? Is it just a symbol? Is it just a ritual? Do we believe in transubstantiation like our Catholic friends, or do we believe in consubstantiation like our Lutheran friends? Or is it just some memorial that our Presbyterian friends say it is? I spent many hours at seminary writing papers on those things, about how communion works, and I have reached a conclusion: None of that matters. Too much hot air has been wasted among Christians about how communion works. As Episcopalians, we don’t care whether the Holy Spirit is in the bread or underneath the bread or hovering over the bread. And yes, those are actual theological controversies. It doesn’t matter if the wine is symbolic blood or spiritual blood. What we care about is that through the Holy Communion we connect with the living God. We connect with the Lord Jesus who died for us. That’s it. That’s what matters.
So, why do we take communion? As Paul says, “To proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” We do not take communion because it will save us – God has already saved us. We do not take communion because it will forgive our sins – God has already forgiven our sins. We gather around this holy table, to eat this bread and drink this cup, to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We say to the world that we are not afraid of death, in fact we proclaim a death. Because we believe that death is not the end of the world. And this meal fortifies us and strengthens us so that we can meet our own death without fear or trembling.
And, when our Lord Jesus does come again, when we meet Jesus in this life or the next, we will sit down together with him as companions, and not as strangers. At that point, we will be familiar with Jesus because we have shared in his body and blood time and time again. Going to meet Jesus when we die won’t be scary, but it will be like a reunion with a long lost friend. When we sit down in the New Jerusalem to share the heavenly banquet with our Lord, it will be a celebration. Death will be just a memory, and all we’ll have is life with Jesus.