It’s a simple thing. You take a bit of bread and a taste of wine. But it’s not just bread and wine. You are told that Christ is in these things. You are taking Christ into yourself. In that bit of bread and that taste of wine you are drawn back to that original supper that Jesus shared with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. In that bit of bread and taste of wine you are also being drawn into tomorrow. You are being equipped to be Christ’s hands and feet and eyes and ears, to speak Christ’s love and forgiveness and grace. In that bit of bread and taste of wine you are united as one with all the others who have shared in this sacrament in every age.
This is the eucharist, literally “the good gift,” the sacrament of communion. This is the sacrament that signifies our unity as followers of Jesus. And ironically, sadly, it has been the pivot point of many of Christianity’s most intense disagreements.
Over the centuries church leaders and theologians have excommunicated each other over their different understandings of just exactly how Jesus is present or if Jesus is present in that bit of bread and taste of wine. Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss reformer said that Christ isn’t really present. The sacrament, he said, is only a “remembrance.” Martin Luther insisted that Christ truly is present “in, with, and under” the bread and the wine. Legend says he was so adamant about this that while arguing with Zwingli he carved it into a table top: “corpus meum est”—“this is my body.” Luther and Zwingli excommunicated each other. And the Pope excommunicated them both. Calvin later said that Christ is present, but only spiritually. No one was quite sure what to do with that.
And I think all of this makes Jesus weep.
One of the very first social boundaries that Jesus crossed was the boundary of table fellowship. The Pharisees criticized him roundly for it. In their day, who you ate with was important. Table fellowship determined your social status. It had implications beyond that. In a culture where the ideas of “clean” and “unclean” or “acceptable” and “unacceptable” were important social constructs that could have serious implications for how your life was going to go, who you shared a table with and who invited you to their table was a huge thing. Dining with the right people could open doors and make your reputation. Dining with the wrong people could close those doors and besmirch your name even if you had done nothing wrong. So when the Pharisees talk about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, it’s not a compliment. But Jesus did it to make a point. In the kingdom of God everyone is welcome at the table. In the kingdom of God everyone is “acceptable.” Everyone.
On the night he was betrayed, even Judas was at the table. Even his betrayer received the bread and wine. Levi the tax collector was there. So was Simon Peter the Galilean fisherman and Simon the Zealot. They’re not mentioned by name, but it’s probably safe to assume that Mary Magdalene was there, and Joanna, and Mary, his mother. The point is, there were people gathered around that table who we know would not have been acceptable in the “polite” company of the Pharisees.
When Jesus breaks the bread and begins to pass it around the table, I can’t help but wonder if he is looking at the faces of his friends as he says, “this is my body.” Is he, maybe, thinking, “You—this eclectic group who would never in a million years have come together on your own, you all together, each of whom would be an outcast somewhere—you, this companionship, is my body. You people sharing this bread are the ones who will carry on my Christ-ness, my Christ presence in the world. Take me into yourselves the way you take in the bread and the wine. My teaching, my way of being, my love, my grace, my way of seeing—swallow me whole so you can be my hands and feet and voice, so I will still be present in the world.”
Grains of wheat or barley are crushed and ground. They change in form to become flour, which changes in form again when bound with water then baked to become bread.
Individuals who learn the Way of Jesus together and work together in the work of Christ are changed in form. Their habits, impulses and priorities change. They are infused with the Holy Spirit. They’re bound together in the water of baptism, then baked into a community through life and service together.
This is my body. For you.
That same night, we’re told in John’s gospel, Jesus had washed their feet. “You call me Teacher and Master,” he said. “And you’re right, I am. But if I, your Master and Teacher have washed your feet, you should wash one another’s feet. And in case you’re a little slow on the uptake, what I’ve just done was to give you an example. I want you to serve each other. More than that, I want you to love each other. I’m giving you a new commandment: you must love one another just as I have loved you. That’s how people will know you’re my disciples—if you have love for one another.”
And these things, too, are in that bit of bread and that taste of wine.
The call to serve is there, in, with and under the bread and the wine.
Love is there, in, with and under the bread and the wine.
Grace and forgiveness are there, in, with and under the bread and the wine.
The Word of Creation is there, in, with and under the bread and the wine.
Christ is there, in, with, and under the bread and wine—the way Christ is present in all of Creation.
All of that in a bit of bread and a taste of wine if you open your heart to take it in.