What would you do on your last night?
We know Jesus’ answer. On the night before he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread . . . . Jesus spent his precious final hours instituting the Eucharist and sharing communion with his brothers and sisters in God. Clearly Jesus thought the Eucharist mattered a LOT.
Tonight, and virtually every Sunday morning, we continue the tradition that began on this night nearly two thousand years ago.
One of the great privileges of serving as a priest is the opportunity to experience frequent Communion. But there is a danger in frequent communion—and not only for priests—a danger that we begin to take the Eucharist for granted, that the words and actions become so familiar to us that they lose their mystique, that we forget that we are sharing in a sacred mystery, that we miss what the Eucharist does to us and in us.
So tonight we pause. On this anniversary of Christ’s institution of the Eucharist we reflect on what the Eucharist means and on what the Eucharist does.
On this, as on everything that really matters, Jesus establishes the pattern.
So back to that first Holy Week. Things happened quickly for Jesus after the Last Supper. Almost without pause, Jesus goes from the Last Supper to the garden where he is arrested, to a series of rigged trials, to the cross, to the tomb, to the resurrection. It can make your head spin.
Our three main services this week—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday—follow that same pattern. As I note every year, our service this evening has no dismissal. We strip the altar and then file out quietly. The Good Friday service picks up where we end tonight, and it, too, has no dismissal. The series of services—really the three different parts of a single grand service—finally ends on Easter morning.
The three great events we commemorate this weekend, the institution of the Eucharist, the crucifixion, and the resurrection, all go together. They went together in Jesus’ experience. They go together in our worship. And together they define the meaning of the Eucharist for us.
As we often summarize the mystery of our faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. As we participate in the Eucharist, we are moved through each part of that mystery, from suffering and death to new life and on to God’s kingdom.
Most obviously, Eucharist is tied to crucifixion. The bread becomes Christ’s body, broken for us on the cross. The wine becomes Christ’s blood poured out for sinners. This is the point of the apostle Paul when he says, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death.” Eucharist begins is the awful reality of Christ’s suffering and death.
And that is an important part of the meaning of the Eucharist for us still today. It connects to our suffering. None of us will be crucified. But there is plenty of suffering in our world. So we share Eucharist as a way of receiving comfort from God.
Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we hear again the story of what Christ has done for us. And Christ’s suffering can help us find meaning in our own suffering by reminding us that God knows what we are going through, that God is with us, that God supports us. By sharing the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, we receive a little bit of Christ’s strength, which helps us to carry on when it is hard.
But of course if the story had ended with crucifixion, we would not still be telling it. Crucifixion apart from resurrection would be cause for mourning, and nothing more.
Thankfully the Eucharist also takes us beyond Christ’s suffering and death. The Eucharist starts in crucifixion, but moves beyond crucifixion to resurrection. In our celebration of Holy Communion, we acknowledge the painful truth that Christ has died. But we also rejoice that Christ is risen. Christ’s body may have been broken, but God puts it back together again.
That is why we do not celebrate Holy Communion on Good Friday, the day of crucifixion. On Good Friday we are not ready to move to resurrection. After tonight, we will not celebrate the Eucharist again until Easter, when we next celebrate the good news of great joy that the tomb is empty and that Christ is alive.
The Eucharist is ultimately an Easter sacrament. The Eucharist is all about the new life that God brings out of suffering. The Eucharist is all about resurrection, about Christ’s victory over death.
And what was true for Jesus will also be true for us. Like Christ, we suffer. But someday, somehow, God will bring good out of our suffering, life out of our deaths, just as God did for Christ. Suffering is not the end of the story, for Christ or for us. Suffering does not have the last word, for Christ or for us. That is a lesson of the Eucharist.
And so we celebrate the Eucharist with joy. We call it the “Great Thanksgiving.” In the Eucharist, we acknowledge the painful reality of suffering and death so that we can celebrate Christ’s victory over suffering and death, a victory in which we share, through Christ.
But the story keeps going even past resurrection. The mystery of our faith is that Christ has died and is risen. And, finally, Christ will come again.
The Eucharist is the great sacrament of hope. As the Apostle Paul says, “as often as [we] eat this bread and drink the cup, [we] proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
The Eucharist points towards the future at least as much as it points towards the past. The Eucharist is not only a feast of remembrance about what Christ did two thousand years ago. The Eucharist is about what Christ is doing right now and will eventually bring to completion. In the final analysis, the Eucharist is about the kingdom of God. The Eucharist propels us forward in hope to a time when Christ will return and God’s kingdom of peace and justice will be established, when love and life will at last triumph over sin and death.
When we share Eucharist in just a few minutes, repeating essentially the same words and actions that Christians have been repeating for two thousand years, we do remember what Christ did so long ago. And we acknowledge what Christ is still doing, in our lives and in our world. And we affirm our faith in what Christ will ultimately do to bring about the new creation, the new heaven and earth.
In some mysterious way, when we share Eucharist we are ourselves participating in that great mystery of our faith, in that move from crucifixion to resurrection to God’s kingdom. In some mysterious way, God works on us every time we share Eucharist, moving us through suffering, to new life, and towards new creation.
We will not complete the move to new life and new creation in this lifetime. But through the grace of God, we make progress. We catch glimpses of a glorious future in God. And so we rightly give God thanks and praise for allowing us to share the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood and to know, however imperfectly, the joy of his resurrection and the hope of his kingdom.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Passage: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26