Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Communal Meal at the Heart of Holy Week

[N.B. This text is from the sermon I offered at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, on Palm Sunday, 2019. The illustrations that accompany it reflect the art which surrounds the dining table in our home. I have collected it from all over the world. For 13 years a eucharistic community which called itself the Francis-Claire Community met at that table weekly for liturgy and potluck.]

We have just completed the reading of the longest set of lessons in our church calendar year. It begins with the joyous entry into Jerusalem of Jesus and his followers, an event we have come to call Palm Sunday. The colorful language that the writers of Luke’s Gospel always use to describe the life of Jesus incorporates the words of the Psalmist here: “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!”

The creators of our lectionary leave us on a high note, skipping the next two chapters of Luke to pick up the story of Jesus’ final week beginning with the event we call the Last Supper. There Jesus will meet with his disciples one last time for a communal meal and then he is off to face his destiny: a night of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, arrest by Temple police, a sham trial by the Sanhedrin, condemnation to death by Pilate, crucifixion at Golgotha and burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

This week is designated Holy Week on the Christian calendar. There is no small irony in that description. For Jesus of Nazareth, there will be very little about the events about to transpire that could be called holy.

Words That Come from Praxis

If I were to locate a single point at the very heart of Holy Week, it would be the event that lies at the roots of the communion rite we are about to engage this morning. It is tempting to see this last supper through the lens of the theologies that ultimately produced the rite we are about to celebrate. We’d like to believe that the participants in that last supper understood that event exactly as we do today. But I think it is important to try to uncover this final meal Jesus shares with his disciples as it probably occurred underneath the many constructions that have been laid over it.

In all truthfulness, the historicity of any of the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper is problematic on a good day. To begin with they do not agree on the day it happened or what occurred at the event. While the Passover theme in which Jesus becomes the Pascal lamb will be readily appropriated by those who will later construct the Jesus story, it is uncertain that the last supper was even a Passover Seder. Indeed, the Gospel of John specifically states the Passover occurred after Jesus’ execution.

Layers of theological interpretations about sacrifice, ransom and payoffs will eventually be laid upon this event. Most of them will depict a deity unwilling to forgive sins without the death of Jesus. In all honesty, I feel fairly certain that Jesus would not recognize himself in much of what our eucharistic prayers have to say about him.

Indeed, scholars largely doubt that the words placed in Jesus’ mouth in this narrative are anything close to a verbatim transcript of that event. Written at the earliest some 40 years after the death of Jesus, the chances are that the words the gospel writers chose to reflect this event actually came from the writings of St. Paul.

It is in I Corinthians, an epistle which predates the very first gospel by about 30 years, that Paul talks about his experience of the early communities of Jesus followers. They held communal meals at which words we now know well were regularly spoken:

Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

These are the words that the gospel writers will later place on the lips of Jesus and they will eventually become incorporated into our eucharist liturgy. Again, it is important to note that these words originated in the actual practice of these communities. It was through the rituals of their communal meal that the Jesus whose Way they followed was experienced as once again present with them.

The Heart and Soul of the Jesus Movement

That is hardly surprising. Communal meals were the heart and soul of the Way of Jesus from the very beginning. It is at a wedding feast in Cana that Jesus performs his first miracle. It is on a mountainside in which the beatitudes are first spoken that a multitude is fed. It’s at the supper table that Jesus befriends an enemy, Levi, the tax collector, and makes him a disciple.

It’s also at supper with a prestigious Pharisee that Jesus is visited by a sinful woman. To his host’s horror, he encourages her to cross the invisible barrier of social distinctions, teaching by example the problems with seeing a fellow child of G-d in any terms other than fully human, fully loved by G-d, fully equal.       

It is at communal meals that Jesus models what the Kingdom of G-d looks like. Theologian Elizabeth Fiorenza Schussler describes the Jesus community this way: “No one is exempted. Everyone is invited. Women as well as men, prostitutes as well as Pharisees.” Even the betrayer of Jesus will find a place at this communal meal. But it will be the last one Jesus will share with his followers.

No doubt that was an anguished meal. Jesus knows his life is nearing its end. He knows that his fate will involve betrayal and abandonment by those he most trusted and a horrific death at the hands of the Romans. Whatever else was said at this last supper no doubt included warnings to his followers about what was to come as well as words of loving gratitude for their lives together. And then they were all off into the night.

But before they departed, Jesus appears to have offered something new: After I am gone, when the community gathers together to remember me, I will be present with you. John Chrysostom’s beloved prayer that we often use to conclude our Morning Prayer service will reflect that idea: “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them.”

Now, let’s fast forward to the weeks that follow Easter. It is hardly an accident that it will be in the settings of communal meals that the disciples report seeing their risen Lord. At supper after a long walk home on the road from Emaus, Jesus appears to his disciples. On the shores of a lake, Jesus just shows up to cook the fish the disciples have just caught for breakfast. At supper where the disciples have been discussing sightings of the risen Lord he suddenly just appears in the room.                                                                  

In seminary we were taught a fancy Greek word that describes this phenomenon. Anamenesis. Essentially that means that the events being remembered collectively are not merely a recollection of historical events. As people recall these events, they are happening here, now. When we gather for communion, we, too, are present at this last supper, however it occurred. But most importantly, Jesus is in the midst of us.

Communal Meals, Spiritual Grounding

All healthy communities require communal rituals that bind them together. And there is no deeper ritual than one which involves eating and drinking together. All communities devoted to justice work that would survive the angry resistance they will inevitably encounter must be grounded in spiritual community or they will fail. It is crucial that they gather, pray for one another and the world they seek to change, sharing rituals that bind them together.

This community routinely states the following as its mission statement: “We are on a mission to discover G-d’s grace, change our lives and thereby change the whole world.” It’s important to note the communal language there: we, our, the world. For a community that seeks to change individual lives and thereby the whole world, participating in this communal meal in which Jesus becomes present to us each week is essential. We need Jesus to be present with us. And fortunately for us, we can be assured that will happen just moments from now as we gather as this altar.

But there is another reason we need to eat this communal meal together this day in particular as we begin this Holy Week together. Because while it is important to us that Jesus becomes present with us, that presence works both ways.

This is the week in which we remember collectively the last, painful days of Jesus’ life. This week, Jesus needs us to be present with him as he walks this Via Dolorosa, this way of sorrows to the cross. That walk begins this morning at this altar as we share the common meal of the Jesus community.

And so I would like to invite you to the communal meal we are about to share with the words from the eucharistic liturgy of the Iona Community:

The table of bread and wine is now ready. It is the table of company with Jesus, and all who love him. It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world, with whom Jesus identified himself. It is the table of communion with the good earth, within which the Christ became incarnate.

So come to this table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more;
you who have been here often and you who have not been for a while; you who have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have failed; Come. It is our brother Jesus who invites us to meet him here.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston 2019