1 Corinthians 11:23-36
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Did our reading today sound familiar to any of you? If you’re around for communion on a semi-regular basis, your answer is probably yes. Our reading today from 1 Corinthians is one of the sources from which we draw our words of institution, the sort of preamble and blessing the pastor gives before people are invited up to receive communion. So, if you’ve ever received communion, you’ve very likely heard these words before.
Why are we talking about these words today? Well, this week is the first of a seven-week series we will be doing on the elements of worship. We’re going to be talking about many of the various things we do on Sundays – the order of confession and forgiveness, the music that we sing… Next week, Pastor Aune will even preach about the sermon itself, why we get up here and talk at you for ten minutes each week. Our goal is to dig a little deeper into why we as Lutheran Christians practice what we practice. We don’t just do things to fill time or because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” The hows and whys of our worship are actually deeply theological and rooted in scripture. And, spoiler alert: don’t be surprised to find Christ at the center of each thing we do.
So, today, we’re talking about communion. As you might remember from confirmation class or elsewhere, communion is a sacrament that was instituted by Jesus himself at the Last Supper. As our text says, on the night when he was betrayed – that is, the same night that Judas turned Jesus over to the authorities, an action that ultimately led to the crucifixion – on that night, Jesus took both bread and wine, blessed them, and instructed his disciples to eat and drink. And with the words “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus extended that request past that particular night. This was not something the disciples and followers of Jesus would do just once, but often. It is part of the reason we still celebrate communion as a congregation today – Jesus instituted it, and commanded that we do it again and again.
But why? Why would Jesus ask us to do this? “Do this in remembrance of me…” Is it just that, to simply remind us? So we don’t forget about Jesus and his sacrifice? That might also be part of it. But I think it’s more than that. It’s more complicated than that.
I don’t know about you, but I have had experiences where something – something hard to explain or even describe – happens when I receive communion. Something emotional, something that feels deeply spiritual. It’s not something I am conscious of every time I receive communion, but I do remember one time in particular. Some of you know that, while I was raised in an ELCA church, I spent a good part of my twenties exploring other denominations, denominations that didn’t always ascribe the same practical importance or liturgical weight to communion that Lutherans tend to. On my very first day at Luther Seminary, there was a chapel service, complete with communion. It was my first Lutheran service in a long time, and as I went up and received the bread and the wine, I experienced an unexpected joy. The bread felt substantial in my hand, the taste of the wine was familiar, and as I took my seat again in the pew, I felt almost a sense of relief. It was like coming home, not just in a nostalgic way, but in a way that brought true peace and comfort. It was as though I had finally returned to something I had been missing. Something I didn’t even know I missed.
“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus says. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Liturgical historian James White – yes, liturgical historian is a thing – writes about the original Greek word we translate in our text as remembrance. The thing is, the word “remembrance” doesn’t quite cut it translation-wise… it doesn’t fully encompass all that the Greek word expresses. White writes, “No single English word conveys its full meaning; remembrance, recalling, representation, and experiencing anew are all weak approximations. [Instead, the Greek word] expresses the sense that in repeating these actions, [receiving communion], one experiences once again the reality of Jesus himself present.” In other words, when Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” what he was really saying was, “Do this again, because every time you do, you will re-experience this moment. Do this again, because every time you do, I will be with you.” Receiving communion is not just about remembering some past event. When we receive communion, Jesus is there with us, in that moment. The experience that I had of coming home through this sacrament… that was Christ. And when you receive the bread and the wine, Christ is with you too, beside you, in you, all around you.
Imagine with me, for a moment, everything that happens when you receive communion. First, the table is prepared and blessed as the pastor speaks the very same words that Jesus himself spoke. You are then invited to the table, not out of your own merit or worthiness, but because Christ himself invites you. As you’re given the elements, the forgiveness found through Christ is proclaimed directly to you – “the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for you.” As the server speaks these words, Jesus speaks them too. You’re then handed a very tangible sign of that forgiveness, something you can hold in your hand, something you can touch and smell and taste. Jesus himself is present in and under those elements, elements meant to nourish and strengthen and sustain. And as you leave the table, you walk away a living, breathing proclamation of the gospel, a body and soul renewed and forgiven and made whole. A place where Christ will continue to dwell long after the taste of the wine has gone.
We don’t just take communion because Jesus told us to. We do it because it is an unimaginable gift. We do it because, in that moment, Jesus is with us in every way possible. And we do it because, through communion, we get to experience God’s grace and forgiveness first-hand.
In just a few minutes, you’ll be invited forward to participate in this sacrament, this gift that we are given. I hope you can hold these things in your hearts, that you can maybe open yourself up to experiencing communion in a new way. See what Christ does. See how he shows up. May you experience the fullness of Christ’s presence and forgiveness through this bread and this wine. May you do this in true remembrance of him. Amen.