"What's to Celebrate?"
Scripture - 1 Corinthians 11:17-29
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, February 1, 2015

Growing up in the church, I never felt totally at ease with the Lord's Supper. My discomfort stemmed from the various meanings swirling around the sacrament. When communion was served, the pastor always focused our thoughts on the last supper that Jesus ate with his disciples.

You know the familiar story. During the meal, Jesus identified the bread they were eating with his body and the wine they were drinking with his blood. Sitting in the pew, I would dutifully picture Jesus sitting at the center of a table with his disciples seated to his left and right, a la Leonardo da Vinci. I imagined Jesus warning the disciples that one of them had a corrupt heart and would betray him, and each disciple protesting, "Surely not I, Lord?"

I focused my thoughts on Jesus departing the upper room, walking to the Garden of Gethsemane and pleading with God that his life not end so soon. But eventually praying, "Yet, not my will, but your will be done."

While I ate the small wafer and drank the thimble full of grape juice, I envisioned Jesus suffering and dying a gruesome death on the cross. This, I was told, was a wonderful sacrifice that cleared my sinful record and saved me. Thus, despite the somber atmosphere and the focus on suffering and death, we were to celebrate the Lord's Supper because the sacrifice of Jesus kept us out of hell.

This must be the reason why participating in the Lord's Supper was never a highpoint of my spiritual life. In my mind, the death of a genuinely innocent person was not to be celebrated, but grieved. Plus there was the disturbing thought, initially in my subconscious, but eventually rising to consciousness, that God - the God of love and mercy, the good Shepherd who "leads me beside still waters and restores my soul," the father who runs down the road to welcome the wayward son home - demanded a ghastly death before opening the gates of heaven.

If Jesus sacrificed his life for us, what kind of sacrifice was it? Is the only lens through which we can interpret it, the ancient Jewish Day of Atonement? This is the day when the priest slaughtered one goat as a sin offering and placed the sins of the people on a second goat, then drove it into the wilderness. It is hardly surprising that the first followers of Jesus would interpret his death in terms of their Jewish faith, but it seems to me that we can still think of the death of Jesus as a sacrifice without believing that an innocent man's blood had to be shed before God would forgive us.

In the early 1500s, George Wishart was one of the first Protestant reformers in Scotland. Among other things, he taught that we do not have to go through clergy to talk to God. Each of us has direct access - the idea is called the priesthood of all believers. He taught that the only two sacraments were baptism and the Lord's Supper. He rejected the idea that the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper became the literal body and blood of Jesus. Today, Protestants throughout the world take these three ideas for granted, but Wishart was burned at the stake for these ideas because he defied official teachings of the church. His sacrifice gave energy to the Protestant Reformation and set the stage for John Knox to emerge and establish the Church of Scotland. I cannot imagine God ordained Wishart to be burned at the stake, but his courage in defying the corrupt authorities of his day, led to his death.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, Oscar Romero in El Salvador, Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States, all took courageous stands for biblical justice that led to their deaths. It could be said of each, that he sacrificed his life for others because he defied abusive authorities that were oppressing people.

In the heat of battle, there have been soldiers who sacrificed themselves so that others could live. God did not want them to die or compel them to die, but their courageous act on behalf of others led to their deaths. Could we not see the death of Jesus in a similar light?

I do not see the death of Jesus as a blood sacrifice that was needed to appease God, but rather as a sign that God's love for us is so immense that God suffers with us when we are in pain and God's love is unconquered by death.

What's to celebrate about an innocent man suffering and dying? Nothing. We celebrate because his death was not the end of the story. We celebrate that he is not a martyr, but a living presence.

If the entire focus of communion were the Last Supper and Good Friday, it would be a depressing moment when all of the hopes and dreams of the disciples were blotted out. It would be a ritual designed to remind us only of a great tragedy. We celebrate because the supper points not only to his death, but beyond, to his resurrection.

Unfortunately, for several centuries, the Church has placed a heavy emphasis on the dark night of betrayal and the death of our Savior, rather than rejoicing in our risen Lord. Too often the Lord's Supper is a memorial service for the faithful rather than a joyous feast for the people of God.

Remember Luke's story of the road to Emmaus? On the afternoon of the first Easter, two followers of Jesus are heading out of Jerusalem to a village seven miles away. They are trying to make sense of the crucifixion and the rumors that some had seen Jesus alive. At some point, a stranger began to walk along with them. It was the risen Jesus, but something prevented them from recognizing him.

When they reached their destination, Jesus sat down to eat with them. And Luke says that Jesus "took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him." It was a celebration of communion with the risen Lord.

In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus gives his disciples a glimpse of a future banquet in God's kingdom. He says to his disciples, "I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in the kingdom of God."

When we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we are to focus not merely on the past but also the present and the future. We look back to remember the life and teachings of Jesus, and his death that declares that God is not a distant God, but One who knows the pain of human suffering. We look to the future when all will gather at the table in God's everlasting kingdom. And we focus on the present. We affirm that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God and we are called to be the Body of Christ in the world today.

In our reading from one of his letters to the church in Corinth, it is obvious that Paul saw the Lord's Supper as a meal intended to draw church members closer to God and closer to each other. It was intended to focus on the fact that followers of Jesus have a special bond with one another.

This passage provides us with the most common words we use for communion. Paul writes, "On the night when he was betrayed, Jesus 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.' In the same way he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'"

Yet, how ironic that the passage we rely on for the Lord's Supper is a passage in which Paul is furious with the believers in Corinth because of the way they are demeaning the meal.

In the early church, the Lord's Supper consisted not only of bread and wine, but a full meal. In Corinth, those with higher social standing would gather early and bring large quantities of food and drink. They would consume it like gluttons and some of them would have so many glasses of wine they became drunk. Those who came later to the meal were the servants and the poor in their congregation. They had little to bring to the feast and by the time they arrived, the wealthier members had gobbled up most of the food and devoured most of the drink, leaving the poor with paltry leftovers. Paul was furious with the well-to-do members because of the way they were mistreating their brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul writes, "Do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? Should I commend you? I do not commend you." (1 Corinthians 11:22)

Social class struggles during the Lord's Supper corrupted the sacrament and sowed the seeds that could destroy the church. Paul was determined to make clear that one of the chief reasons for celebrating communion is to deepen ties among the faithful. The Lord's Supper is not a private affair. It is to be shared among the gathered believers who are tethered to one another in the community of faith. Eating the bread Jesus identified with his body and drinking the cup he identified with his blood is to remind us that we are to take Christ into ourselves so that he may live in and through us. That is why one of the names we use for the community of faith is the Body of Christ. Before he departed, Jesus was saying, "You will now be my hands and feet in the world."

In the church of a friend of mine (Al Tisdale) there was a young man with a serious heart condition. His name was placed on a transplant list in hopes of finding a suitable donor whose heart would give him a new and extended life. Late one night, the call came. A young man died in a motorcycle accident and his parents made the decision to offer his organs to others.

The young man with the diseased heart was rushed into surgery and the donated heart was engrafted into his chest. The transplant was successful.

After he had fully recovered and was living a new life, he began to wonder about the parents of the man whose heart was now keeping him alive. He contacted the hospital where the transplant had occurred and asked if someone could speak to the parents to see if they would meet with him. The hospital reached the parents and they agreed to the meeting.

After some initial awkwardness, they began to get to know one another. The parents shared pictures of their son who had died in the wreck. The man, who was alive thanks to their son's heart, showed photographs of his children.

Near the end of their meeting, the young man asked the couple, "Would you like to hear your son's heart?" The mother said "Yes."

He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled out a stethoscope he had brought along with him. But the woman brushed aside the stethoscope and laid her ear directly on the man's chest. After listening for a few moments, she said, "There is no sweeter sound than the sound of my son's heart beating in you."1

In a similar way, when we eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord's Supper, we take Jesus into ourselves so that he can pulse through our veins, and we can live the extraordinary lives God calls us to live.


  1. Baron Mullis, "Redemption," April 24, 2011