6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” 8 And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:6-11 ESV)
22 And as they were eating, [Jesus] took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. 24 And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. (Mark 14:22-24 ESV)
I sometimes tell the story of hitching a ride with the Royal Flying Doctor in western Queensland when he was doing a clinic run and I went with him to the hospital and while he conducted his clinic I walked down the street and did a visit to the only Lutheran I knew to be there. I had been asked to visit. What I don’t say in this story is that I went to administer Holy Communion.
One of the things that many people tell me about this past year’s congregational experience that has been hard is the not being together in church, not singing, and not coming to the Lord’s Table.
And who just thought that I left out a word? Who expected me to say more? Was anyone thinking I was going to say ‘and not coming to the Lord’s Table together’?
You see there hasn’t been an absence of the sacrament for the year because even when the churches were closed and public worship in this space not happening the sacrament was still offered – yes, a physically distanced distribution – because the tradition of the Church is that where people are unable to attend then Jesus goes to them – but this going out presupposes and comes from the being-together as the Body of Christ. Jesus didn’t institute Holy Communion by separating the disciples into breakout rooms and dealing with them individually. No, we know Holy Communion is – personal, intimate even, and communal, public even.
And as soon as you describe or define something in terms of two aspects you are always going to get the pendulum between the two as we try to keep the tension ‘just right’. And so church history shows the pendulum swinging between …
- body and blood emphasis and bread and wine emphasis – and Lutherans hold to all four emphasised …
- a sacramental presence or a symbolic presence?
- a reality determined by an objective declaration that is true whether one believes it or not or a reality that is determined by our views and our faith?
- the practice about who receives what at the meal? Bread to the laity and wine to the clergy or bread and wine to all who attend?
- wafers or one loaf of bread or one cup or individual cups?
- and even the commands ‘take and eat’ and ‘take and drink’ are commands in the plural about things that you can only do in the singular since you can’t eat and drink for someone else.
I will leave you to ponder how the Church in your life time has responded to the understanding of Holy Communion because what happens now hasn’t always been so as the pendulum swings and yet what we cannot lose is the tension that this gift brings with it. I’m not talking about a tension that makes us afraid but a tension that comes about because of the divine mystery of a holy God coming close to sinners.
Do we honestly there was no tension or mystery when Jesus broke bread at the beginning of the Passover and then later in the meal when it was eaten with bitter herbs (the bitterness of slavery) and somewhere in that process said words that had never been said before about himself and his body and that bread? Do we honestly think that when taking the third cup of the Passover ritual the disciples drank the cup of redemption ‘I will redeem’ says the Lord with Jesus additional words in the ears without batting an eyelid? There is something visceral and personal about Jesus getting so close to us. We are generally cautious about intimacy – there is always a risk, a level of safety that needs to be negotiated.
And when the people were rescued from Egypt and became God’s people in ritual at Mount Sinai, do we ignore the truth that half of the blood was splattered on the people – nothing like that happens again – in fact the regulations about the blood are precise – return it to God. And then there is the eating and drinking in the presence of the Lord – ok, not everyone but 70+ is a good feasting but who picked up the phrase ‘And [God] did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel’?.
Whatever is happening in Exodus and in the Upper Room and in Jesus’ name around countless altars is not something people control, cafeteria style, where people menu-like approach the meal on their terms but again and again when one pauses and listens to what is said there is a realisation that we are the ones receiving something prepared for us – that the holy God comes close to us – so close – and we are beggars with empty hands who can receive safely what God wants to give because God has made it possible. And that is what Jesus’ death tomorrow makes possible – salvation and life – living with God.
Thus for nearly 2,000 years the followers of Jesus come in our internal tension of individuals living in relationships to receive Jesus personally and for our relationships. We receive Jesus to be loved – and so we can love. We receive Jesus to be forgiven – and so we forgive. We receive Jesus to be strengthened in faith – and so we can encourage and be encouraged by the fellow travellers next to us. Please don’t tell me that there is no tension here in families, in congregations, in relationships and that this encounter with Jesus is for ‘me only’. There is no ‘me only’ for the disciple of Jesus – actually I think there is no ‘me only’ at all – but for the disciple of Jesus we live our lives personal and communal and with all the mess, problems, tensions, hassles, sins that happens – this is our life and it is with Jesus. Jesus has made life with him possible – think Baptism, think his Word – and he know about our lives – truly he does – and he calls us to follow him personally – and communally. We are who we are and in our relationships so that those around us can be served. Yes, Jesus’ plan is that we too can be encouraged and served – but should that not happen for much of our lives then Jesus is always there for us in this precious meal consumed in the company of others like us – struggling sinners who know that the host and the meal is mysteriously the Lord of all who has given himself so that we may live – together.
- Exodus 24:6 - 11
- Mark 14:22 - 24