April 13, 2017 St. Paul’s L’Amoreaux, Toronto
- Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
- Psalm 116:1, 10-17
- 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
- John 13:1-17, 31b-35
“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights, we eat leavened and unleavened bread. Why on this night do we only eat unleavened bread?
Every year growing up, I would ask these questions at our annual Passover Seder. It was the most important night in our family’s year, and it began one of the most important parts of the Passover ritual. The questions would spark an extended retelling of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt—our people’sexodus from slavery—by God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm.” This retelling would include the account of the first Passover from our first reading this evening.
But in a Messianic Jewish home, we were also taught that Jesus of Nazareth, His birth, death and resurrection, was the true hope of God’s people, as Israel’s God come to them in the flesh. Every Passover, we would also join with Christ’s own retelling of the exodus from Egypt. We would return to that night in the Upper Room when He perfected Israel’s exodus from slavery in Egypt by extending His own “mighty hand and outstretched arm,” by delivering all people from slavery in sin to eternal life.
We would really be asking, “why is this night different from all other nights, except one?”
And tonight, we too find ourselves in that upper room with Christ and His disciples. Our Gospel tells us of Christ’s powerful act of foot washing and His subsequent command for us to love and serve each other. Our reading from 1 Corinthians brings us to the heart of the story, to an act so world-changing that it hasn’t ever really ended. St. Paul lets us in on his own invitation to the Last Supper “as to one untimely born,” to the Institution of the Eucharist recorded in the other Gospels. It’s Paul’s exposition on the Blessed Sacrament that I’d like to focus on tonight.
How does Paul record the birth of this world-changing Sacrament? English translations tend to obscure some connections between words, so I’ll modify the translation a little bit with words from our own Book of Alternative Services. Paul tells us,
“I took from the Lord what I also handed down to you, that
On the night he was handed over to suffering and death…,
our Lord Jesus Christ took bread;
and when he had given thanks…,
he broke it, and handed it to his disciples,
and said, ‘Take, eat:
this is my body which is given for you.
Do this for the remembrance of me.'”
“After supper he took the cup of wine;
and when he had given thanks,
he gave it to them,
and said, ‘Drink this, all of you:
this is my blood of the new covenant,
which is shed for you and for many
for the forgiveness of sins.
Whenever you drink it,
do this for the remembrance of me.’”
And Paul comments, “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
Take, hand on. Take, hand over. Take, and eat, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. We see Christ taken and handed down or handed over (it’s all the same word) in three related ways.
First, Paul tells us that he “took from the Lord what he handed down to” us. He uses this exact wording a little later in this First Epistle to the Corinthians, when he describes the way people began to know that Christ died and rose again. It’s actually what we mean with the word “tradition.” He writes,
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also took: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
We know that last appearance refers to Paul’s life-altering vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, which we celebrated in January as our Patronal feast. But he needed Ananias’ help to understand who this Jesus was, that He was Lord and that He had risen from the dead. Ananias, of course, had to have taken this doctrine from someone in order to then hand it down to Paul.
And it was only after the freshly-converted Paul took this doctrine from Ananias that he could then go and hand it on to the gentiles. In our reading for this evening, is Paul saying something similar about the Eucharist? He understood that the very identity of the Jewish people was created and sustained by the annual Passover celebration and the daily Temple Sacrifices, which taught the people that God is our deliverer and saviour. So too does this night, and our Good Friday and Easter services, and every time we gather on a Sunday morning: the Holy Spirit creates and sustain Christ’s Church today by showing us God’s salvation once for all.
This is what it means for this day to be a “memorial day,” for God to command us to “keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations,” to “do this in remembrance of me.” And it’s the way we too are invited into the upper room. If we learn what happened at the Last Supper in the same way that we learn about the death and resurrection of Christ, even while we are taught about the death and resurrection of Christ, then the Eucharist in some way brings to us and brings us to that saving death and resurrection. Put another way: the story of the Last Supper is contained within the larger story of the Gospel in our Eucharistic prayers in the BAS, because the Eucharist brings the Gospel to us and brings us to the Gospel.
But how? This leads us to the second and third ways that Christ is taken and handed over. Paul says that this was “on the night he was betrayed,” “handed over to suffering and death.” Of all the many things that happened that night—this night—Paul names it for Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. This night when Judas, one of Jesus’ closest friends, took our Lord and handed him over to a “band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, [who] went [to the garden] with lanterns and torches and weapons.”
The Eucharist brings us to Christ’s betrayal and death, and through it we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The main reason why Paul is bringing up the Last Supper at all is because he has just admonished the Corinthian Church for the way their divisions and contentions make a mockery of the Eucharist: they bring their own “lanterns and torches and weapons” to church. Such divisions in the Church, especially ones that privilege the rich over the poor, those with food over those without, will always end up betraying the very Bread of Life that has been offered to the whole “Church of God.”
But Matthew and Mark record Jesus as saying that “the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners….See my betrayer is at hand.” As we know, Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion is the shedding of his “blood for the forgiveness of sins.” As Paul would write to the Ephesians, “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” Even as sinners, with all our divisions, we can still plead the mercy of God, and approach this altar rail together, to receive His healing love in His own flesh.
Because third and finally, Christ truly hands Himself to us, really present in the Bread and the Wine. He said “this is my Body…this is my Blood.” Christians have debated what this means for centuries, some of it (I’m not kidding) revolving around what the word “is” means. We can’t lose sight of the reality, however it happens, that Christ is truly with us, that our God is truly present on that altar. St. Thomas Aquinas grasps something in poetic verse that goes beyond the limits of even his own masterful speculation:
On the night of that Last Supper,
Seated with His chosen band,
He, the Paschal Victim eating,
First fulfils the Law’s command;
Then as Food to all his brethren
Gives Himself with His own Hand.
Word-made-Flesh, the bread of nature
By His Word to Flesh He turns;
Wine into His Blood He changes:
What though sense no change discerns.
Only be the heart in earnest,
Faith her lesson quickly learns.
And as Paul writes to the Corinthians shortly before our reading for tonight, “the cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a communion 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.” By giving Himself to us in perfect love, He draws us in, makes us His own, and heals our divisions by making us one. By “communion,” or “Holy Communion” we really mean a union, a joining to Christ’s death and resurrection. And this is my last point: we are joined not just to His crucified Body and Blood, but His Risen, Ascended and eternal life as well. Through this Sacrament God “raises us up with Christ” and “assures us thereby that we are heirs through hope of His everlasting Kingdom.” For
“If we have died with him,
we shall live with him;
if we hold firm,
we shall reign with him.”
The truth of Christ’s saving love is handed on from generation to generation, inviting all people through all time into His family of faith. The suffering of Christ is handed over to sinners, breaking down our “dividing wall of hostility.” And the Risen and Ascended Body and Blood of Christ is handed down to His disciples, preserving our bodies and souls unto everlasting life.
And so we proclaim, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.”
Thanks be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.