May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
“Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus himself says very little about what we have come to call Holy Communion, the Divine Liturgy, the Great Thanksgiving, or Holy Eucharist. Simply “do this in remembrance of me.” Maundy Thursday provides no shortage of topics for a preacher. We could turn our focus to the new commandment that Jesus gives, that we “love one another.” Or perhaps an exploration of Jesus as the new Moses, comparing the Passover of Exodus to this Passover meal. Another option would be to dive into the idea of servant leadership, being modeled by Jesus in the act of washing the disciples feet. The themes of betrayal and allegiance as seen in Judas and Peter would also be a good foundation for a sermon. And while some good intentioned preachers might subject their congregation to a sermon that tries to tied up all of those threads into one, I’d like to instead pay closer attention to the institution of the Last Supper and our own celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
When I was in Israel last year I learned a lot about some of the ancient traditions of the Church, many of which are still keep alive today. And one gem in particular that I ran across comes from St. Augustine. Tonight when you receive the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, we will say “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven; the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” But there is a more ancient saying that dates back to the 4th century, coming from a reflection written by St. Augustine. These words were used as the Eucharist was distributed- “Behold the mystery of your salvation laid before you. Behold what you are. Become what you receive.” It is such a beautiful and powerful way to view the Eucharist and understand what the “this” to which Jesus was referring when he said “do this in remembrance of me.” “Behold the mystery of your salvation laid before you. Behold what you are. Become what you receive.” We’ll spend a few moments on each of these phrases.
Behold the mystery of your salvation laid before you. Behold isn’t a word that appears in our vernacular. We say things like “see, what I’m saying is…” or “look, the way to go is…” But rarely do we behold anything. Instead, our language forces us to simply glance at things, often gazing past their deeper meaning. But tonight, we are invited to behold the Eucharist. Feel it in your hand, in your mouth, and in your soul. As the Psalmist writes in Psalm 34, “taste…the goodness of the Lord.” Let the taste of the wine linger on your lips, knowing that it is the very grace of God. Truly experience the Eucharist.
In my work, I notice that the idea of Sacraments tend to give people some trouble. What are we to believe about these acts of faith? Do we have to believe in miracles to believe that Baptism or Eucharist are special? If you look at the Sacraments of the Church, very few of them are taken seriously. Marriage is plagued by infidelity and divorce. Confirmation is often imposed on youth who have no choice in the matter, and whom we rarely see after they are Confirmed. The same is often true of Baptism, which is a grossly misunderstood Sacrament. People are often skeptical and scared of Confession and few know of the power of that Sacrament. Burial and Unction people tend to get, because of their more serious nature. Ordination is only taken on as a choice, so there is often a great deal of solemnity in that Sacrament.
One of the places that I feel most privileged to serve as a priest is at the Communion rail, distributing the gifts of God to the people of God. And there are many who do take the Sacrament seriously, I can see it on your faces, and it is inspiring. But I’ve also seen many people have conversations with their neighbors while kneeling at the rail. Others smack chewing gum in their mouths. And don’t even get me started on the idea of passing around crackers and grape juice in thimble sized shot glasses. At least in the Episcopal Church we have kept some dignity with the Sacrament.
Let these words of St. Augustine to truly behold the Eucharist remind us of the importance of the Sacrament of Eucharist. The word “behold” is derived from a word that means “to give regard and obligation to.” In the verses that directly follow our reading from 1 Corinthians, St. Paul writes “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” And a few verses later, he says that because some people have not taken the Eucharist with an attitude of beholding that “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” Now I’m not going to tell you that if you don’t take Eucharist seriously enough that God will strike you down, but St. Paul seems to be insinuating that it is a matter of life and death. Just as God told Moses to take off his shoes when he approached the burning bush, approaching the Lord’s Table for Holy Eucharist is worthy of our fear, trembling, and beholding.
St. Paul is writing about Holy Eucharist because there are divisions in the church in Corinth. And he urges them to remember what the Eucharist is about- about the Lord’s body being broken and his blood poured out. Let us remember that the bread and wine are a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where we will one day all dine together. Let us behold these elements as the great mystery which embodies the body and blood of Christ, which were given for us.
And we would do well to pay special attention to that word, “mystery.” If you were to look up “Eucharist” in a theological dictionary, you’d find an abundance of interpretations such as real presence, transubstantiation, transignification, sacramental union, memorialism, and consubstantiation. They are all human’s attempts to explain the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. And while it can be fun and interesting to wade into those theological waters, let us remember that trying to define a mystery will have the same success rate as trying to lasso the wind. The most important meaning that we can take away from the Eucharist is that Christ is with us. Now how that plays out, the scholars can debate.
Jesus was a Jew and would have been Jewish in his thought processes. In Hebrew, the word “remember” means to not only “recall to mind,” but to “make real again.” So when he says “do this in remembrance of me,” he is saying “each time you do this, it will happening again for the first time, and I will be there again with you.” The metaphysics of the Eucharist don’t matter nearly as much as the fact that Jesus is with us when we celebrate this feast.
And the last word in that initial phrase that I’d like to point out is “salvation.” Anytime that word comes up, it is helpful to ask “saved from what?” Now I don’t want to get into the weeds of atonement theology, that will be Michael’s task tomorrow when preaching on Good Friday. But I’d suggest that we look at the roots of the word “atonement;” break it down and you have at-one-ment. Atonement is about reconciling and uniting, and that is also what the Eucharist does. It brings heaven to earth in the bread and wine that are for us the body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist makes Christ present in a very tangible and real sense. The Eucharist saves us from being alone.
So then we might rephrase “behold the mystery of your salvation laid before you” as “take seriously the unexplainable but very real and very saving presence of Christ with you in the Eucharist.”
Next, St. Augustine’s Eucharistic wording invites us to “behold what you are.” Again, everything I said earlier about behold, repeat it. The linkage of the Last Supper to the Passover meal is quite clear in the gospels. And if you boil both of these holy meals down to their most basic parts, they are meals about identity; they are meals about beholding who we are. What does the Eucharist say about who we are?
The word “holy” is often tacked on in front of words such as “Communion” or “Eucharist.” Holy means “set apart,” as contrasted to what is ordinary and every day. And when we consume that Holy Eucharist, we become set apart as well. We become set apart for the task of following Jesus. When we eat the bread of heaven, we are given the nourishment to transform this world so that heaven might come to earth. When we drink the blood of Christ, we share in his martyrdom. When Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist, we are then made holy so that we might take Jesus with us into all aspects of our lives.
As I mentioned earlier, St. Paul was writing because the Corinthians were divided. The issue is that they were coming to the Eucharist as individuals and not a community. He writes “For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk…So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” People who had bread for Eucharist weren’t sharing with those who needed bread, and others were guzzling the wine, becoming drunk as they waited for others to join them to celebrate the Eucharist. They were not beholding what they are- the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ receives the body of Christ in the Eucharist. The people of God receive the gifts of God. So when you behold who you are, remember that you are part of a community, and how we treat other members of our Body matters.
And the last thing to know about who you are is that you are beloved. Tonight in John, we heard Jesus say “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus washes feet out of love, he gives himself up to betrayal and death out of love, on Easter he will rise out of the tomb on account of love. We all have scars and flaws. We’re all self-conscious about something. Whatever doubts you might have about yourself or your worthiness- you are loved, deeply loved. And that is as much a part of the Eucharist as anything else- the beloved of God receiving the love of God.
“Behold what you are,” or in other words, when you receive the Eucharist, value and hold in your heart that you are set apart for God’s service, that you are part of a larger community, and that you are loved.
And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, “become what you receive.” We receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, the body and blood of Christ. What does it mean to become those things? We can dedicate ourselves to following Jesus in his willingness to be betrayed by the world. We can forsake our seeking of worldly comforts and stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalized. We can be willing to be broken just as Jesus was as we follow him in taking up our crosses. We can pour out our blood, sweat, and tears working for the justice and dignity of every part of Creation until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. We can be the bread which gives nourishment to others, either literally in helping to feed the hungry, or metaphorically in being a shoulder to those who need one to lean on. We can be the wine of rejoicing to those are struggling to find a reason to give thanks or celebrate.
One misunderstood part of Christian theology is the concept of the Second-Coming. The problem is that it has created as bunch of people who look towards the sky for the Messiah to come again, meanwhile, as St. Paul suggests, our brothers and sisters are going hungry down below. But Jesus clearly says that the Kingdom of God is a present reality. You’re perhaps familiar with the phrase “be the change you want to see in the world;” to become what you receive is an invitation to be the salvation you want to see in the world. If you have a heart for hunger issues, feed the hungry; if you are passionate about animal welfare, volunteer at the animal shelter. Our salvation is that we are reconciled to God, so be vessels of that reconciliation with the world. Wear your discipleship on your sleeve. Let the whole world behold and know that God is doing a grand thing in your life and in our world.
Regardless of how we view what happens during the Eucharist, some sort of transformation happens. That is part of what makes it a Sacramental event, something changes. Some unleavened grain and fermented grape juice, whether literally, symbolically, or metaphorically, become the body and blood of Christ in some fashion. Transformation happens. So if we are to become what we receive, we must be transformed, because in the Eucharist, we received something that has been transformed. Anytime we have an encounter with the Divine, we are transformed.
But for that transformation to truly take root in our lives, we have to plant those seeds of transformation deep within our soul. The Corinthians weren’t doing that, hence St. Paul wrote this letter exhorting them to become what they received- a transformed people who bear the image of Christ. Be changed in receiving the Eucharist. Let the petty things go, change your outlook, act differently, be transformed.
So we might hear “become what you receive” as an exhortation to “be the body and blood of Christ to those who need it, be the salvation that the world needs, be transformed when you receive the transformation of the Eucharist.”
Behold the mystery of your salvation laid before you. Behold what you are. Become what you receive. They are good words for us to consider on this night when we remember the Last Supper and the first Holy Eucharist. I hope and pray that this has been a truly holy week for you thus far. As we enter the most sacred three-day period in our Christian life and faith, may it be beholding the mystery of our salvation, knowing that God is with us. May it be beholding what we are, the sacred and beloved community of God. And may we become what we receive in the Holy Eucharist, the salvific transformation of this world. Amen.