Thursday, April 01, 2010

The faith once given and the Lord's Supper

Sorry, internet was down last night and most of this morning. So here's the Maundy Thursday post, backdated to when it was finished, if only my internet had been cooperating ...

Today is the anniversary of that day when Jesus first broke the bread and took the cup and spoke the words to his disciples that we still speak to this day: "My body, given for you. My blood, shed for you." Jesus commanded his followers, "Do this to remember me." It was the night of his betrayal, the night of his arrest.

How soon did the remembering start? Jesus did the first reminding. Only a few days later -- after his execution, after his burial. After his resurrection. Jesus walked with two people on the road to Emmaus. They didn't recognize him ... until he broke the bread.

A few weeks later at Pentecost, the disciples who had been at that Last Supper were boldly preaching Christ crucified and raised from the dead. Thousands of the Jews in Jerusalem for Pentecost were added to their number that day. And how did they practice their newfound faith in God's messiah? The immediately following passages mention the breaking of bread more than once, saying that they did it from house to house. It was a way the earliest believers -- just weeks after the resurrection -- were already connecting. "Do this to remember me" was put into action right away.

The dates of the New Testament writings are not known down to the exact year, but it's possible that the first written account is Paul's in his first letter to Corinth. Why Corinth? They seemed to be having some trouble -- and they had a close tie to Paul. When Paul went to Jerusalem for the council (Acts 15), he spent some time with some of the disciples. He met people who had known Jesus directly. And odds are, during that time, they broke bread together. Paul likely celebrated the Lord's Supper with some of the people who had been there in the upper room on the night in which Jesus was betrayed. When he left Jerusalem on his next missionary journey, he spent a large portion of that time in the city of Corinth. With the memories of his trip to Jerusalem fresh in his mind, he spent a year and a half in Corinth (Acts 18:12). It is important to keep in mind the length of his stay when we read his letter to them: "While I was with you I resolved to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified." (1 Cor 2:2). That was not for just one or two weeks, or just a handful of sermons. It was his constant message for a year and a half.

There are two places where Paul, writing to the Corinthians, emphasizes that what he told them was the same thing that he himself was told. And the first thing of which he says it is the Lord's supper. Reminding them of what he taught them right after his visit to Jerusalem, he said:
For I received from the Lord what I passed on to you: That the Lord Jesus, the night in which he was betrayed, took bread. And when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, 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 this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (I Cor 11:23-26)
It is likely that this reflects Paul's memories of his trip to Jerusalem, his meeting with the apostles, likely too his celebration of the Lord's Supper with people who had been in the upper room that night. The distance between us and them is not so large. We are all participants in the same act, remembering that night in the upper room.

That is one thing that has joined all Christians through time. You and I eat the same supper which Jesus first gave, which Peter and John took and ate, who in turn gave to Paul. All the saints and sinners of the church have shared the same supper, from Athanasius and Eusebius to Augustine to St Francis to Martin Luther King. They all have taken the cup and called on the name of the Lord along with us. For all our flaws as a church, we are joined to them in a way that cannot be separated. The church's divisions are tragic; but they are not eternal. When Christ comes, the imperfect will be gone. And the Body of Christ will remain.

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