Take this Bread
1. If you knew that you had only one more night of freedom and life, what would you do? Who would you want around you? What would you want to do? On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he chose to celebrate the Passover Feast with his disciples. And more than just celebrating the ancient feast, he transformed the Jewish Passover into the Christian Eucharist or Holy Communion.
2. You might have read the story in the Knoxville News-Sentinel about the church in Pigeon Forge that was passing around a tract titled, “The Death Cookie.” According to the paper, it was an anti-Catholic rant which Catholic Bishop Stika spoke out against because it was “hateful, discriminatory, and full of prejudice and bigotry” (4). I read the tract, and it is all of that. More than spreading hate about the Catholics, its message claims a narrow view of Holy Communion, too. While there are doctrinal differences between the Catholic and United Methodist teachings on the bread and the wine, we have more in common than we are different. One indication of what we hold in common is that Immaculate Conception Catholic Church is part of the Wednesday Lenten Services that we are sharing with the downtown churches. This is perhaps a good time for us to talk together about the meaning of the bread and the wine of Holy Communion. My claim: To the extent that our teachings are consistent with the scriptures, we are in the right to offer Holy Communion; we are in the right share the bread and cup.
3. TASK: Today, we are continuing our focus on the last 24-hours of Jesus' earthly life. We will read the story of the Last Supper from Mark's Gospel. What is it telling us about being the church? How does eating this bread and drinking this wine shape us?
Sometimes Jesus just taught; sometimes Jesus gave an example; other times Jesus commanded: “Take.” Those things which Jesus commanded his disciples to do are those things that we modern disciples feel equally commanded to do. Holy Communion is one of those moments: Jesus broke the bread and said, “Take, eat.” Jesus took the cup and said, “Drink...” As disciples of Jesus Christ, shouldn’t we hear the command to do the same? Today, let’s go through the story of the institution of the Last Supper. Each step is important.
First, notice that this is passage, taken together, is one story. It begins in v. 12 with the disciples asking Jesus, “Where do you want us to go and prepare the Passover feast?” It ends in v. 25 with Jesus saying that he will not drink the cup, which is so important to the Passover feast, until he drinks it new in the Kingdom of God. Avoid the temptation to jump to the familiar words of institution; we should read it as a whole.
PART-1: The disciples ask Jesus where to prepare the Passover feast. This feast is the defining feast for the Jewish people. It began when Israel was enslaved in Egypt. God heard the cry of their distress because of the treatment of their slave masters. And God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go. When Pharaoh was hardhearted and would not let Israel go, God began to send plagues to punish Egypt and to demonstrate His power. There were frogs and flies – nine plagues in all. Now, on the night of the tenth plague, God sends word to the Israelites to prepare. God tells them that after this plague the Egyptians will gladly let them go. They must be ready.
All Israel is commanded to kill a lamb and smear a bit of the blood on the doorposts of their houses. Then, they are to eat the meal hurriedly with their coats on, waiting for the Angel of God to pass over them. Any who are not ready will suffer the plague with the Egyptians; any who are prepared will be spared. On that night, God’s angel passes over the land, and the first born of every house of the Egyptians is killed. One by one as the Egyptians realize the devastation God is working on their people, they let out a cry of anguish. Even Pharaoh’s household is not spared this plague of God.
So, the Egyptians turn from their refusal and now send the Israelites out of their bondage to freedom and to the Land of Promise. The Israelites’ escape sets in motion their epic journey though the wilderness, a 40-year trek that transformed them into a nation.
To remember that defining experience, the Israelites began to retell the story of what God did for them that night. The Jewish people still celebrate the Passover feast. The meal includes foods that symbolically tell the story of Israel’s deliverance.
+They eat bitter herbs–horseradish and parsley, reminders of the bitterness the Israelites experienced when they were slaves in Egypt.
+The herbs were dipped in salt water, which represented their tears.
+They eat charoset which looks like the mortar the Israelites used to make the bricks as slaves in Egypt.
+The unleavened bread reminds them of their hurried escape.
+And of course, they eat lamb as the Israelites ate on the Passover night in Egypt.
This is the same feast, with all this rich meaning, that Jesus and his disciples celebrated on the night we know as the Last Supper.
For the Jews in Jesus’ day and now, the Passover reminds them that they used to be slaves but now, by God’s hand, they are free. They used to be owned by their Egyptian slave masters, but now by God’s hand, they are a people – the people of God.
In the Last Supper, Jesus is taking these great themes which had nourished the Israelites across the centuries and recast them into the message of Holy Communion. (We’ll come back to Jesus’ message in the third part of this text.)
PART II: At the meal, Jesus makes a prediction: “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me."
In Biblical times and, to a lesser extent, even now: To eat with someone is extend a hand of friendship and trust. It is to offer your guest the protection of your home and your reputation. Jesus was constantly being criticized because he ate with sinners. It is not that he ate in public places that were shady or located in bad parts of town. By sharing meals with people, he extended his friendship and his reputation to them.
+If he is a prophet, he is supposed to know what kinds of people these are.
+If his is a prophet, he is supposed to protect himself from a bad reputation.
At the Last Supper, he extends this kind of friendship and loyalty to his disciples. Who sits at the Table with him matters - especially at an important feast like Passover. And now, he says them, “One who is eating with me” is the one who will betray me. 19 They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, "Surely, not I?"
On Monk several weeks ago, there was an episode in which a woman was missing and feared dead. The husband, who had killed her, was trying to hide his crime. So, when the authorities organized a search across a field of high grass, he joined the search hoping to look innocent. This was an old fashioned, “Who done it?” The detective, who was beginning to suspect the husband, stopped everyone and said to the crowd of volunteer searchers, “I believe that this woman is not missing but has been murdered. Further, I believe that one of you might be the guilty person – the one who killed her.” Of course, no one stepped forward to confess.
Later, Monk said with confidence that the husband had done the crime. The other officers asked how the detective could be so sure. He said, “Did you watch the husband when I told the volunteers that one of them had killed her?” Everyone *looked around* to see who it might be. Everyone except the husband. He stared straight ahead because he knew that none of them had done anything.”
Well, all the disciples looked around, asking if they might be the one AND sure that they could not possibly betray Jesus. And Jesus goes on to say:
"It is one of the twelve,
one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.
PART-III: 22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." 23 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. 24 He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
The disciples did not expect Jesus to say anything like this. When he took bread, he was supposed to give thanks to God, then remind them that they ate unleavened bread as their ancestors had one. But, he doesn’t say that. Instead he says: Take and eat; this bread is my body.”
Now, think with me about this action.
1. Jesus took the bread, as the Passover tradition expected him to do.
2. He blessed it and broke it. Again, the tradition expected him to offer the blessing:
“Blessed art thou, our Father in heaven,
who gives us our daily bread.”
++So far, the disciples find nothing unusual about this meal and neither should we.
1. What they now *expect* is that he will offer them the memory of the Exodus bread which sustained Israel on the long journey out of slavery to freedom. On that journey they became a distinct people; they made a covenant with God; they discovered their limitations; and they saw the grace of God demonstrated in their lives, and they were led to the Land of Promise. In the breaking and eating of the Passover bread, every Jew claims a place in Israel's great story.
2. For the disciples who expected Jesus to be the revolutionary king, as some did, they might have expected him to promise that he would lead them to throw off the oppression of Rome. "*Eat this bread* as the promise that we will re-create the Exodus journey to freedom. For those who wanted Jesus to be the revolutionary king, this would have sounded sweet, indeed.
3. IMPORTANT: But, Jesus does not make either one of these statements – neither the expected one about the past, *NOR* the hoped-for statement about a revolution. Instead, Jesus catches them unprepared when he says to them: “Take, this is my body.” Then, he offered them the cup of wine saying: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many." What happened to the Passover speech about the past? Or what about the promise of a revolutionary king? Those speeches are not here. This statement is different: the bread they eat is his body; the wine they drink is his blood. There is nothing at this point on Passover night to help them understand. It will only make sense in the events *after the meal* as Jesus will be arrested, beaten, and then crucified. They will not understand this until the cross, because only on the cross will they see his body broken and his blood poured out.
4. Something extra and this is important: It was common in the sacrificial tradition of ancient worship, both in Israel and even in pagan religions, that worshipers would sit down and eat of the bread or animal which had been offered to God. The prayer of blessing over the bread and later the cup offered this piece of bread and this cup of wine to God. The basic model of worship was sacrifice; this is one of the world's oldest religious practices. Portions of all the O.T. sacrifices, except the sin and the guilt offerings, were expected to be eaten by those who brought them.
What this means is that the bread or the animal sacrificed was offered to God; it was now God's bread or God's animal. When those who worshiped sat down to eat the sacrifice, they shared in the sacrifice offered on their behalf and took its blessings into their own bodies and lives. This is the way you worshiped with sacrifices. Of course, the Passover Lamb, the bread, and the wine were all sacrifices: offered to God; they became God's lamb, God's bread, God's wine. As you ate of your sacrifices, given completely to God, you now took God's property/blessings into your own body/life. Now: Jesus said to them: "Eat this bread; this is my body.” Then, he offered them the cup of wine saying: "Drink this wine; this is my blood of the covenant." He is telling them that his body and his blood are the sacrifices, offered completely to God. Eating the bread; drinking the wine, they take the sacrifice offered to God, take it into their own bodies and receive its blessings. The bread remains bread, of course; but his death on the cross was very real, indeed.
As the disciples heard Jesus say this at the Last Supper, it could not have made any sense; it will only make sense when they stand at the cross to see his body broken and his blood poured out for the world. It only makes sense at the cross (1).
When you and I break the bread and share the cup of Holy Communion, we re-present that sacrifice which Jesus presented to his disciples on that long-ago night. And as we re-present it again, it is real for us as it was real for them. But, in every case the only place we truly get it is when we stand at the cross and remember Jesus’ body broken and his blood shed for the world.
C. So, can Holy Communion be as powerful for us as it was for the disciples long ago?
STORY: I Smell Bread
In one of the episodes of M*A*S*H, the sophisticated shell, inside which Major Winchester protects himself from the horror of the suffering and death with which he constantly deals, breaks; and he is left defenseless. He goes into a type of depression in which he struggles to find some answers to life ’s most perplexing problem —death. Finally, in utter desperation, he leaves the base hospital and goes up to the battalion aid station where the wounded are first taken. Winchester believes that someone at the moment of dying can see what lies beyond death; he wants to talk with someone at that terrible moment.
Colonel Potter discovers where he is and calls him, ordering him to return to the M*A*S*H hospital. But, a medical corpsman interrupts the conversation and calls Winchester over to a man who is dying. Winchester confirms the impending death with a glance. The soldier says, “I can’t see anything. Hold my hand.”
The major replies, “I am.”
“I’m dying,” the soldier moans, and this causes Colonel Winchester's unarticulated questions to surface: “Can you see anything? Can you feel anything? I have to know.”
But the dying soldier doesn’t answer. Instead, he says, “I smell bread.”
You cannot miss the significance of the symbol. Bread is the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. It is a symbol for going home.
It is at the table that we are brought face to face with the person and mission of Jesus Christ. In that meal, we celebrate our death and our life in Christ.
INVITATION - Come to the Table...
–Come to the Table all you who heard the invitation spoken with your name on it.
–and come, all you who were busy with the cares of the world, but hope you might be included. You are, you know.
–and come, all you who are sure you don’t deserve the richness of this invitation. The host sent word that you are invited, too.
–and when the hour is finished and we go out into the world, tell the people on the street that we broke the Holy Bread on Sunday morning, and Jesus spent the whole time watching the door, hoping they would come.
Come to the Table.
1. Taylor, Vincent. The Gospel according to St Mark, p. 544.
2. Adapted from George Bass, The Tree, The Tomb, and the Trumpet: Sermons for Lent and Easter, CSS, 1984, p.75, 77.
4. “Bishop Calls Tract “Hateful,” The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Saturday, March 6, 2010, p. A-1.