A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 17, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 25:31-40 and Matthew 26:26-29
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            In my first sermon in this brief series on communion, I spoke about the importance of being in community and discerning the body of Christ in that community when we come to the communion table.  In the second sermon, I spoke about the mystery of how somehow Jesus can be really present in the celebration of the eucharist, present in a way that opens our eyes to a real experience that is somehow beyond what we typically describe as “real.”  Today, I conclude this series with a discussion about how communion can be a model for Christian living.

Our second scripture lesson is Matthew’s description of Jesus establishing the sacrament of communion at his last supper, just hours before his arrest and crucifixion.  We’re familiar with the story; we hear it each time we gather around the communion table.  The story the way Matthew tells it is essentially the same as the way it’s told in Mark and Luke – which isn’t surprising since most biblical scholars think that Matthew and Luke had access to Mark’s gospel when they were writing theirs.  Paul tells the story in pretty much the same way in his first letter to the Corinthians.

In John’s gospel, we have a very different set of stories and sayings of Jesus.  For instance, John tells the story of Jesus’ night with the disciples just before his arrest differently.  The action he describes is Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  Why isn’t the Lord’s Supper described there?  I don’t know.  But the Lord’s Supper is not missing from John’s gospel.

There is a reference to the meal in John 6, long before the arrest and crucifixion, when Jesus refers to himself as the “Bread of Life.”  Here’s a snippet of the exchange (John 6:51-55):
[Jesus said,] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The [crowd] then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”
This is unmistakably a reference to communion, so I assume that John assumed that his community was familiar with the last supper story, so he didn’t think he had to re-tell it.

Let’s return again to what happens in Matthew’s gospel:  “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’  Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”

Jesus does four things with the bread:  He takes it, he blesses it, he breaks it, and he gives it.  He does the same thing with the cup – except the breaking part because that would make a mess.  We see those four actions in Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians, just like in Matthew.  Any time we read that Jesus takes, blesses (or gives thanks), breaks, and gives bread, we know that the author is talking about communion.  And we see this in the gospels.

Consider the story of the feeding of the 5,000.  One of the things that make this story so important is that it is the only miracle (besides the resurrection) that is repeated in all four gospels.  Listen to what Jesus does in each version of the story.

In Matthew (14:19), “Then [Jesus] ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.”
In Mark (6:40-41), “So [the people] sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties.  Taking the five loaves and the two fish, [Jesus] looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all.”
In Luke (9:16), “And taking the five loaves and the two fish, [Jesus] looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.”
And even in John (6:11), “Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.”

This miracle of the feeding of this hungry hoard of people is a communion story.  In fact, this story is so important to Matthew and Mark that they tell is twice.  The second time the crowd is a little smaller:  only 4,000 people.  And in this second retelling, both of them say that Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it away.

So, there’s something going on here.  There’s a reason the gospel writers have connected the feeding of the hungry with communion.

Many of us look to the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25 and a key to understanding Christian living and Christian mission.  Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned – doing these things is the basic calling of all Christians.

Holy cow!  Think about all the hungry people there are.  Think about all the sick and imprisoned.  It’s overwhelming!  There is, I think, in the communion, a clue on how we can fulfill that calling without being overwhelmed or burning out.  Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave the bread.  I think that’s what Jesus wants to do with us.

One of the things we learn at the communion table is that everyone is welcome.  It’s Christ’s table and Jesus welcomes everyone.  No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, Jesus welcomes you.  But showing up doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re willing to be taken by Jesus, that we’re willing to allow Jesus to make us his own.  All too often, something stands in the way.  I suspect that most often it’s either shame or fear.

Most of us have that something we did in our past or that something that was done to us that leads us into feelings of shame and unworthiness.  You remember Groucho Marx’ line about never wanting to join a club that would have him as a member.  I mean if their membership standards are that low, who would want to be part of their organization.  We assume that Jesus’ standards must be high – after all, he’s Jesus – and so there’s no way I could get in.  So we don’t make ourselves vulnerable enough to risk the rejection.  We know in our heads that this is silly.  We know in our heads that Jesus invites us to come just as we are, but we resist.

The other fear that keeps us from fully allowing Jesus to make us his own is a fear of losing ourselves.  If we let Jesus be the master, he may ask us to do something that we don’t want to do.  We’ve got enough sense to know that the gospel calls us to move out of ourselves and to care for others – even “them” (no matter how you define who “them” is).  It’s risky stuff to allow Jesus to take us.

But when we allow Jesus to take us, the next things the eucharist tells us he’s going to do is to bless us.  Another word that gets used here is “give thanks.”  Imagine that:  Jesus blesses you and gives thanks for you.  Jesus thanks God for you.  “Blessed are you, O God of the universe, for you have given me Judy.  Blessed are you, O God of the universe, for you have given me John.  Blessed are you, O God of the universe, for you have given me Marilyn.  Blessed are you, O God of the universe, for you have given me Jeff.”

Can you imagine Jesus saying that about you?  Can you imaging Jesus laying his hands on you and thanking God for you?  But that’s what he does.

And when you’re all blessed up, he breaks.  We knew this was coming.  We knew that if we let Jesus take us, we’d risk something big.  But when I think about the breaking that Jesus does, the image that comes to mind is of a plant breaking through old blacktop, growing along a road’s edge.  The old starts to crumble away, and something new and beautiful comes in its place.

But that new growth is not for us alone.  I know of Christians to get this far, as far as the breaking open into new life, and stop there.  They are so grateful with the sense of new life, but they allow this relationship with Jesus to be about them alone.  Once Jesus breaks us open, Jesus wants to share us with the world, to start carrying out the mission he began of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.

As I contemplated this idea of being taken, blessed, broken, and given, Dorothy Day came to mind.  You may be familiar with her name.  She’s thought of as a founder of the Catholic Worker movement, seen as a compassionate, devout woman.  She’s someone who I think of as having been broken open and given to the “least of these” in our society.  So I did a little reading about her, just enough to learn that she wasn’t always that way.

As a young adult, she lived a bohemian life.  She had relationships with several me, had an abortion, had a brief marriage, had a few long-term relationships with men she didn’t marry, and had a child with one of those men.  It took a while for her to get to the place in her life where she was willing to let herself be taken by Jesus, and a while longer to accept his blessing.  When she found herself broken open, it was broken open to a passion she had all along:  working for social justice.  And my goodness, did Jesus ever share her with the world.

We come to the communion table to discern the body of Christ in our community, to open ourselves to the real presence of Christ in and among us, and to be fed for the journey.  Will we allow ourselves to be an offering, to allow Jesus to take us as we are?  Will we allow Jesus bless us, giving thanks to God for us?  Will we allow Jesus to break us open, to let new life to grow within and through us?  And will we allow Jesus to give us to the world?

Maundy Thursday – the Thursday of Holy Week, when Jesus established this sacrament – is called “Maundy” because of the Latin and then Middle English words for “commandment.”  In the gospel of John, we read that on this day Jesus told his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (13:34).

Come to the table today so that Jesus can take you, bless you, break you open, and give you to a world that is hungering to be loved the way Jesus loves us.