Show and Tell

I was asked this week why I call our monthly sacrament of bread and cup “Communion,” rather than “the Lord’s Supper,” which is the term many of our members grew up using. One insufficient reason is that I tend to hear too much similarity in the terms “Lord’s supper” and “last supper,” and I don’t want the sacrament to be just a funeral meal for Jesus. But there are different layers of meaning in some of the different terms we have at our disposal. Pastor Lindy Black lays it out this way:

Communion has a past/present/future quality about it.
Called “The Lord’s Supper,” it is a memorial meal that we do “in remembrance.” It solidifies our traditional faith as we envision ourselves back there in that upper room with Jesus.
Called “Communion,” it is a present tense, acknowledging that “where two or three are gathered,” Christ is present. Here we see Him as host who invites us to His table.
Called “Eucharist” (thanksgiving), it is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. This is the not-yet of the kindom of God for which we hunger and thirst.

All three layers of-meaning are there every time we celebrate. In the reading from John’s gospel, what layers of meaning do you hear?

1 Kings 3:4-14; John 6:51-58

Meditation

If you could ask God for anything in the world, what would you ask for? Not just what should we ask for, but what would we truly ask for if we were given that choice? I like to think maybe I’d go for something noble like world peace or unending patience with my family, but knowing me, the first thing out of my mouth would be “unlimited Skittles!” Maybe I’d have the presence of mind to ask for a couple of shots at the question, or more likely my Questioner would have the grace to say no to my stupid ideas.

Well, God gave Solomon that choice: “Ask me for anything.” As we read, Solomon made the right choice and asked for the wisdom to rule God’s people rightly. Another biblical verse states that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but you could just as easily say that the root of wisdom is the awareness that we’re not yet as wise as we could be. Solomon had that awareness, that first wisdom that leads to all the rest.

We all know I’m cynical, and most of us are aware that there’s a big election coming up in ten weeks or so. Some of us even knew there was a primary election this Tuesday. So in this context, and being me, I keep thinking about how this story about Solomon sounds like a campaign ad. It at least sounds like the famous stories about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln being more honest than anyone before or since. Whether I’m supposed to vote for Solomon now or just remember him fondly, this feels a little too good to be true.

Solomon is so earnest, and he makes such a spot-on choice, that I just know there has to be more to the story. You’re all welcome to read the two chapters preceding this, and the book before that, all the bloody history of how Solomon ascended to the throne. You’re welcome to keep reading about the wonderful but checkered reign Solomon puts together. Yes, there’s much more to the story.

All the same, after God’s complicated relationship with David, I’m not all that surprised about how this story shapes up. Yes, Solomon is going to mess up in his own ways, almost as royally as David did, but God isn’t as inclined to nitpick as maybe the rest of us are. God is less concerned about how we’ve been and where we’ve failed (or succeeded) than about what our deepest desires are. It’s nothing special, necessarily, that Solomon was shrewd and powerful, but it mattered greatly that he wanted wisdom more than anything else. (Note that these divine criteria are only somewhat applicable to the decisions we’ll have to make in November.)

In the gospel reading, Jesus shows us what his answer to the great question would be. What does Jesus want? (Maybe we should get bracelets made that say WDJW?) What Jesus wants is to give us life – eternal, abundant, blessed life. In John’s gospel, one of the most important phrases is “eternal life,” which is a little more meaningful than our translation of “living forever” (although that sense is there, to be sure). Jesus is here to offer us the boundlessness and depth of life in God’s amazing reality. He’s here to invite us beyond the world’s limitations and shortages, into something far greater.

I haven’t spent much time this month talking about the obvious theological purpose of this chapter, which is to tease out the meaning of Christ’s sacramental meal as Passover done right. It’s truly a tease, too, because John doesn’t even tell us that this is what Jesus is doing. The closest he gets is at the beginning of the chapter when Jesus gives thanks for the bread before he shares it. Giving thanks is the root word for one of the names of our sacrament, the Eucharist. We’re supposed to get that, even without knowing the Greek, and we’re supposed to hear those senses of Communion and the Lord’s Supper as we talked about in the show and tell. Jesus spends a month telling us about what he just did because we need at least that long to explore some of what he meant by it.

It’s funny to talk about John’s gospel as being the most concerned about the sacraments – I’m going to say “Communion” because that’s become my most natural word – because he doesn’t actually include the part where Jesus institutes it. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include Communion at the “last supper” just before Jesus’ arrest, but John tells that story differently. In John’s story, Jesus doesn’t just change the Passover ritual, he fulfills it once and for all. Jesus doesn’t have to tell us to celebrate the Lord’s supper, because he is the meal itself.

I’m grateful that John didn’t copy the other three gospels around Communion, because he reminds us that it’s not about the form of that ritual. I think part of his refusal to give us “Jesus’ own eucharistic rite” is a reminder that we can’t limit the mystery of Christ’s presence to one form. We already tend to do that on account of the other three gospels and a few verses from Paul, but here’s this lonely voice telling us that it shouldn’t be that way. The Lord’s supper is about giving thanks for the presence of Christ as we share and embody it, and Jesus will keep talking until we quit pretending we finally know what he means.

For the same reason, I’m grateful that Jesus doesn’t talk about love here. Love is another key word in John’s telling of Christ’s story, but it doesn’t turn up at all in this chapter. I’m grateful for that because it rejects just what we’ve tended to do with love, which is to turn it into a warm-fuzzy, happy feeling. Instead of talking about the word, Jesus talks about what love does, which is to give itself away. Jesus gives himself away so we can live, and that’s what this whole story is about: “whoever eats me will live because of me.”

With that gift, the question comes back to us: what do we want with the life Jesus gives us? Imagine that the life Christ came to give was here for you today. What would you do with it? Would you ask God how we can dwell in this life? Would you seek the depth of life in prayer and scripture? Would you serve someone who needs to receive life from you? Would you reconcile with someone you can live with anew in this “eternal” reality? Or would you simply rest and trust that God has this world under control?

Well, you can do more than imagine. You can know that reality is there. Life is yours because that’s what Jesus did with his life: he laid it down so we could all share in it. May we have the grace to do likewise.

Amen.

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