I walked into my study last summer and found on my desk a gift. It was around the time of my tenth anniversary as pastor here, and the gift was ten of my favorite things. It was clear that each item in the basket had been thoughtfully considered. I just want to run through some of them here in case anyone has thoughts for the eleventh anniversary – there was Peet’s Coffee, and an Alabama tumbler, a bottle of red wine from Sonoma, and some really peaty Scotch – the kind you can still taste a few days after drinking it – organic dark chocolate, and did I mention Scotch? The most meaningful part of the gift was the cards inside, each one with words of grace and love that were immediately written on my heart. And there was Scotch.
There is no moment more fraught with the potential for transformation than the moment two people stand facing each other, one bearing a gift, the other poised to receive it. Will the one for whom it is intended receive the gift, or reject it? If accepted, will the gift be cherished, or discarded? More importantly, will the gift alter the relationship between giver and receiver, perhaps facilitating reconciliation, or joyful transformation, or deepening love?
Some of the busiest days of the year for retail stores are the ones leading up to Christmas, as people rush to the stores to buy gifts so they can stand face to face with someone in relationship to them and have that moment – one giving the gift, the other receiving it. And some of the equally busiest days of the year for retailers are the days after Christmas, when the lines to return or exchange the gifts are long enough to rival the lines only days earlier when they were purchased.
Maybe that phenomenon is a sign, among others, that we should take more seriously the impact of that fraught moment, when we stand face to face, gift in hand, giving and receiving, that we recognize what is at stake. More is happening than the exchange of goods, more is happening than the fulfillment of a cultural obligation – to give and receive is to remember who we are – children of God, children of grace – and when we give grace and receive grace, we are tapping into the thing that sustains us all, the love of God.
We come here this night on the receiving end of a gift God offers us, face to face in Jesus Christ. Rowan Williams says, “For Christians, to share in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, means to live as people who know that they are always guests – that they have been welcomed and that they are wanted.”
This table set before us is a sign in the world of this giving God. We remember that on this night, Jesus told his disciples that the things that were about to happen to him, the tearing and shredding of his body, the pouring out of his blood, were going to be the ultimate sign of God’s welcome and God’s mercy. Jesus reaches out with the gift – bread and wine – in a moment fraught with the potential for transformation – this is my body, this is my blood – take and eat, make your home in me, allow me to make my home in you.
The words we use in the Lord’s Supper are words given to us by Paul, who says they were handed on to him by others, and are heavy on memory. Take, eat, and remember. Mark, the earliest gospel writer, follows closely to Paul, as do Matthew and Luke. And the church through the ages has largely followed suit, seeing this meal as a remembrance. On the front of our Communion Table are the words, “In remembrance of me.” It is important to remember. There is power in remembrance.
But there is more to this meal than remembrance. John, the last gospel writer, tells his story of the last meal with an eye cast not to the past, but to the future. The disciples are called upon to observe what Jesus does. Jesus gives. He stretches out his hand and offers this most fraught of gifts, to take the feet of his students, his disciples, and to serve them, to wash them. Peter tries to reject the outreached hand, but is gently reminded that to receive grace is as important as giving it, that to be part of the community Christ is building is to participate in this vulnerable giving and receiving.
They are asked not so much to remember, but to go and do, to live into the future knowing that the power of this love will be present in the Risen Christ, not as a faded memory, but as an active agent in the world; not as words in the pages of an old book, but as a living Word.
John sends us out looking for this sacrament in every place we go. His is an invitation to live sacramentally in the world, to recognize that any moment can be a moment of gift.
It is unfortunate that the name Leonardo DaVinci gave to his magisterial painting (which we see so beautifully represented here) was “The Last Supper.” It seems a mistake.
It was not the last supper. If anything, it was only the beginning, a foretaste of many to come. We sometimes call this meal Eucharist, which means thanksgiving. When we give thanks, we “connect our experience with the reality of God the giver…If in every corner of experience God the giver is at work, then in every situation we encounter, God the giver is present and our reaction is shaped by this.” We become a Eucharistic people, a thanksgiving people.
I recall a Choctaw family in Broken Bow, Oklahoma who fed us cornbread and drunken beans after a long day of building. The cook’s shoes had holes in the top, yet his joy was palpable as he ladled the beans and sent the cornbread (the kind that melts before you can swallow it) around again and again. As he served, he kept saying, ‘thank you.’ I had the sense it was not so much to us, as it was to the God who had brought us all together.
I remember a meal – tuna casserole and sweet tea – in the basement of a church building on Highway 13 after we buried Russ, age 19, after he slid off the road on the way home from college for the summer. His grandmother prayed for the meal, thanking God for the food through her tears.
Then there was that Peruvian restaurant in the Mission in San Francisco, when we devoured fish and pork and wine and laughed like the kingdom had come, where the whole restaurant seemed to unify in a joy that transcended language and race, and we found ourselves saying thank you.
He broke the bread and poured the wine and said “remember me,” but it was not the last supper.
Each time we eat, we remember the mandate – “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.”
Each day is held before us, a basket on the desk, from the hand of the giving God, fraught with the potential for transformation. We take it – dare we take it? – it has the texture of bread, the aroma of wine – it is both gift and command. Love.