There have been many interpretations over the years about what happens in the sacrament of Holy Communion. For instance, back in the Middle Ages, many pious Christians saw what happened here as a kind of magic. The faithful were sitting out in the nave, where you are sitting, and up here, what was called the “east wall” in gothic architecture, the priest faced the altar, his back to the people, reading the service in Latin, a language the people couldn’t understand. They knew, though, that a miracle was taking place up there. That is why they had come to church, to witness a miracle.
It happened when the priest lifted the host, and said in Latin, “this is my body given for you.” Hoc est corpus meum is the phrase in Latin. To the communicants, the priest, way up in the front, his back to them, mumbling hoc est corpus meum, sounded like “hocus pocus.” That is how we got that phrase into our language, “hocus pocus,” which means an incantation which will bring about some magic.
Protestant mumblings have also framed communion expectations. There is a wonderful story about a young boy attending a Presbyterian service in Scotland many years ago. At a certain point in the service the minister announced that during the singing of the hymn, the elders would bring the elements forward. The little boy thought the minister had said, “elephants.” All of a sudden he got real interested in the communion. He thought it was going to be like the last act of Aida. Needless to say, he was disappointed.
My favorite is a Methodist-related story. A little boy attends his first communion in a Methodist Church with his parents. The sacraments were served in the congregation, as we will do in this service, passing the trays with the little cups on them. The father holds the tray for his son to take a cup, then he takes one himself. He passes it on to the next person in the pew. The little boy, who was being allowed to participate in this adult ritual for the first time, did what he had seen adults do in another ritual he had observed, he touched his father’s glass, and said, “cheers!” Well the meaning of what we do here in Holy Communion is not captured by any of those anecdotes. It is not magic performed by a sorcerer. It is not a spectacular extravaganza with elephants. Nor is it a cocktail party conviviality, either.
To find out what it is that happens in the sacrament, we turn to the lesson for this morning from the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew’s account of the Last Supper.
All four gospels generally agree on what happened there. They all agree that Jesus was eating a Passover Meal with his disciples. The Passover Meal is a meal which commemorates the Exodus, the freedom from slavery in Egypt, God making the Jews a nation with a covenant to be their God. Every element in that meal has some symbolic reference to the event called the Exodus.
Jesus, in the middle of the meal, takes two of those elements, the bread and the wine, and gives them a new interpretation. He take the bread, breaks it, and says:
This is my body given for you. Later he took the cup, held it up, and said:
This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Then, he said one more thing: I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.
That is about all that was remembered of that Last Supper. But that is the essence of the sacrament, those three sentences, the few words that he said. The rituals that have grown up about Holy Communion are simply adornments on those three sentences.
In those three sentences are to be found the two actions in the meal. There is a remembrance of the cross, “This is my body broken for you…this is my blood of the new covenant,” and there is an anticipation of the Kingdom, “I shall not drink of this cup again until I drink it anew with you in my Father’s Kingdom.”
First, a looking backwards, “This is my body broken for you.” That is a reminder of the cross. First we look back to what Jesus has done for us. In the old Methodist Church, the ritual used in the Church when I grew up, that was about all that happened. We looked back to the cross. In fact, that service used the term “memorial” to define what was going on. It said, “…this memorial of his precious death.” The ritual focused on the cross, and on our sins, looking backwards, remembering how Jesus paid for our sins upon the cross, and how we should appropriately feel sorrowful for that. It gave us ample opportunity throughout the service to feel sorrowful. The service began with a litany of confession using the Ten Commandments. Then it had a prayer of confession using the term, “our manifold sins and wickedness.” Then there was another prayer of confession, called the Prayer of Humble Access, which had this line in it, “we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table.” We called that the “crumby prayer.”
As if that were not enough, just before we received the sacrament itself, we sang the Agnus Dei, “O Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.” After all of that, I don’t think anyone who took the cup felt like saying, “cheers!” It was a different mood in that service. A penitential mood, and an introspective mood, focusing on me, me, me, and my sins.
The reason I believe that so many people back in those days would stay away from communion, and why it was celebrated so seldom, they would tell me, was because they didn’t understand it. But I don’t think that was it. I think the problem is, they did understand it. It communicated clearly what it was designed to communicate: that this is a remembrance, this is the memorial of the death of a man, and it our fault that it happened. The service never really got beyond that, “this is my body broken for you.” But Jesus said more than that at the Last Supper. He not only said to look back at the cross and remember, he said to look forward to the Kingdom and hope.
I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.
There have been many revolutions in worship in the last part of this century. The most revolutionary was the discovery that in the early Church, communion was not only a looking back to the cross, it was a looking forward, anticipating the Kingdom. Not only a remembrance, but a service of hope and anticipation. Instead of just focusing alone on the cross, it really focused on the Kingdom, and Jesus’ promise that someday he would celebrate this meal with us, together with him, in his Kingdom.
The word that they used for the sacrament was, “Eucharist,” the Greek word which means “thanksgiving.” It was an entirely different mood from the observance that I remember, and perhaps you, too. In fact, we would never have called what we did in those days, a “celebration” or a “thanksgiving.” We called it an “observance.” We were observing the Last Supper.
The ritual we now use in the Methodist Church, in fact all of the churches today, Protestant and Catholic use essentially the same one, is the service where the sacrament is an anticipation of the Kingdom. That is to say, it is oriented to the future, and not to the past. And it is oriented to the future and not to the past to teach us to see our lives the same way. Christians are to look forward, not backwards.
But we have been trained differently. In fact, the whole weight of the wisdom of Western Civilization has taught us differently, told us we are products of the past. Therefore, there have always been wars, so there always will be wars. There has always been prejudice, there will always be prejudice. There has always been crime, there will always be crime. Something has happened in the past, therefore, it will always continue in the future. That is called “determinism.” Many people who believe that would be shocked if anybody told them, “You are a determinist.” And especially in America, because in America we are supposed to believe in freedom. We have the freedom to choose our own life. But practically speaking, that is what we are really determinists, especially when it comes to thinking about our own lives and understanding our own behavior.
Pop psychology has shaped us that way. My parents made me this way, or they did this to me, and that is the reason I am who I am today. Or I made that decision in the past, I made that mistake, I took that wrong turn, and that is why I am the way I am today. I can’t do anything about it. That is determinism. The belief that the past is what determines the present. You cannot call yourself a Christian, and believe that. Christians believe that the future is what is supposed to shape the present, not the past.
The relation between the cross and the Kingdom is just that. The cross is there to forgive the past, so you can put it behind you. You can forgive others, and put that behind you. You can be forgiven, and put that behind you, so that you can live the kind of life that God has planned for you in the future. As Christians we shape our lives not on what has happened to us, but on what is coming to us. We don’t look at what we have been. We look at what we can become. As the old Isaac Watts hymn put it: “We are marching to Zion, Beautiful, beautiful Zion; We are marching upward to Zion, The beautiful city of God.”
That is what is awaiting us. Jesus said: I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.
That is why people who are oriented to the future are hopeful, they are courageous, they are ready to forgive and accept forgiveness in their own life. They are not chained to the past. They are ready to put the past behind them, and get on with a new life. They are looking at what Jesus said life should be like, and will be like, someday in the future, and trying to make the present look like that.
One of the most dramatic illustrations of that was in a movie that was so popular many years ago, Places In The Heart. It was set in Texas during the Depression. It is about a woman who is left a widow when her husband was killed by a drunken man. Now she must raise her children by herself. She must run the farm by herself. She must face all the pain in her life all by herself.
Her name is Mrs. Spaulding. That is the only name she is known by in the story. You wonder how she does it. Where does she get the courage, the strength, the faith, the hope and the love?
I know where she gets it. It is as plain as it can be, right there in the movie. But what amused me was that the critics who reviewed that movie, never saw it. Which is further proof to me that the Christian view of life is a unique way of seeing the world. They saw the movie in terms of a class struggle. They said that it was a struggle between the rich and the poor. Or, they saw it as a commentary on the plight of the small farm in America.
None of them liked the last scene. They said they should get rid of that last scene. Do you remember the last scene in the movie, Places in the Heart? Critics didn’t understand it. But you should understand it.
It was on a Sunday, in church. It was communion Sunday. The camera is first on the minister. He is reading First Corinthians 13, the chapter about faith, hope and love abiding, the eternal realities of the world. Then the camera shows the ushers passing the communion trays, with the little cups on them. The camera follows the plate as it moves down the aisle, each person passing it to their neighbor, saying, “The peace of the Lord be with you.”
And this is so powerfully wonderful. The camera moves up so you can see the faces of the people who are there. The first one is Mrs. Spaulding. Sitting next to her is her husband, the one who had been killed. He is there now, with his family. The camera moves to the next person in the pew. It is the man who killed him. Mr. Spaulding hands him the tray, and says, “The peace of the Lord be with you.” The man next to him is the black man, who helped the widow make the farm a success. He is there. Next to him is the banker, the one with the smooth manners that hides a cold heart. He is there. Next to him is the couple that are threatening to split apart because of infidelity in their relationship. They are there now, holding hands.
The critics said, “What is that? Why did they put that in the movie?” They didn’t get it.
But you and I get it. We know that what we do here in Holy Communion is look forward to that day when life will finally be the way God wants it to be. So we understand how Mrs. Spaulding is able to go forth victoriously, in spite of the terrible harshness of her life. And we can understand why she took in an outcast, and why she cared for the homeless, and why she had concern for the blind and the lame, and why she didn’t feel sorry for herself, in spite of what life had done to her. Because she had her eye on the future, not on the past; on what was coming, not on what had been.
We know, also, why that preacher read from First Corinthians 13. Because he speaks of what endures, what will be there at the end, “Everything else passes away; but faith, hope and love abide.” They’ll be there when Christ eats with us at his holy banquet.
That is what makes us different, we Christians, because of this meal. We are different because we look to the future, the way life someday will be. We let that future determine the way life will be now.