In, With, and Under

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.

Betrayed- A Maundy Thursday Meditation

“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” ― William Blake

Betrayed. It’s such a gut-wrenching word, isn’t it? Betrayed. Just to say it, just to read it can open up that aching hollow in the pit of your stomach, can make the room tilt, can dim the light and warmth of the brightest day. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt it at one time or another.

Betrayed. The word can conjure up faces you haven’t thought of in years, or bring to mind places and events you thought were long ago laid to rest. It can test your claims of forgiveness. Betrayal cannot happen unless first there is trust. It is, by definition, a breach of trust.

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.” –1 Corinthians 11:23-24

We hear these words every week in the Words of Institution. I was taught in Confirmation, and the lesson was repeated in seminary, that the most important words here are the words for you. That’s what Martin Luther said: the most important words we hear as we receive the sacrament are the words for you. I’m certainly not going to argue with that. I believe that every time we receive the sacrament we are having a powerful encounter with Christ. I think that’s happening on both a personal level and on a community level. The you is both singular and plural, although in the Greek text it is decidedly plural, all y’all.

Lately, however, the word in the Words that gives me pause is the word betrayed. On the night he was betrayed. I find it remarkable that, knowing everything that was about to happen, knowing that a friend who had followed him, listened to his teaching, watched him perform miracles, a friend who had travelled with him, camped with him and broken bread with him was leaving the room to betray him, to arrange for his death—knowing all this, Jesus still took the time and energy to give his followers, to give us, a gift.

I can’t help but think that this betrayal was very much on his mind when he picked up that piece of Passover bread and transformed its meaning with the words, “This is my body.” This is my body that is even now being betrayed. This is my body that will suffer in ways you won’t want to remember. So when you see that suffering and your mind reels, bring your staggering thoughts back to this bread. Think of how it takes life to sustain life. Think of how the wheat gives its all, its stalk cut off at the ground, its long stem, once supple and green, desiccated into sun-bleached straw, its nutritious seeds ground to powder, all to sustain your life. Think of how it is transformed into a loaf, a thing that bears no resemblance to what it was except by its flavor. Think of how in that new form it can serve many whereas when it was a single seed it was not even enough to meet the needs of one. Think of how in passing through the oven its ordeal of baking fills the room with one of the most restful, restorative fragrances known to humankind. Think of how there is redemption and new life in its pain.

Pain is the French word for bread. It is a strange quirk of our languages and there is no clear etymological connection, but I think of it almost every time I serve communion. Pain is bread. Bread is pain. It’s pronounced differently than our English word pain—more like pan—but even knowing that there is no clear linguistic relationship between French pain and English pain, my mind and heart refuse to accept that it is mere coincidence or accident that pain means bread.

The bread that heals us is pain. It is the pain of betrayal. It is the pain of humiliation. It is the pain of physical ordeal. For you. For me. For us. It is a pain to end all pain, eventually. A pain to make us cling to each other and make us vow that we will do whatever we can to save anyone, everyone, else from ever having to endure such pain again.