I’m in the middle of reading 1 Corinthians right now for The Bible Podcast. This morning I recorded myself reading 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul smacks the church in Corinth upside the head for their mishandling of, well, pretty much everything. But in this chapter, mostly communion.
It’s the chapter that the famous “Words of Institution” come from …
The Lord Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For every time you eat this bread, and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
In the middle of recording myself reading that chapter, I had a sudden vivid memory of the last time I had said those words out loud.
Our pastor Doug was out of town, it was toward the end of summer, I think, and he had asked me to preach. It wasn’t the first time I had given the message, but it was the first time that it had landed on Communion Sunday, which we celebrate on the first Sunday of every month.
I come from the low church tradition, Baptist and later Evangelical Free. We didn’t have much in the way of ritual, or liturgy. We believed strongly in the priesthood of all believers, in the personal dimension of each person’s relationship with Christ, in the primacy of the preached word, and our corporate worship was constructed along those lines. We celebrated baptisms with great fervor, because baptism meant conversion. We observed communion, but it seemed more out of obligation than any great sense of purpose or meaning.
That might be too harsh. Let me leave it this way – we were never taught to understand the value of ritual itself, how to find meaning in the repetition of words or actions.
When Pope John Paul II died, the funeral was televised live in the middle of the night here in LA. I was just coming home from a gig, and flipped on the TV to unwind. I watched, transfixed, as the BBC newsperson explained the meaning of every movement, every word, each act in the unfolding drama. Everything had purpose, everything was a symbol and a reenactment. As the choir sang songs composed 800 years ago, as the cardinals recited prayers written 1600 years ago, I had a profound sense of standing in the stream of history.
I had been raised in a tradition that viewed ritual as “dead acts”, a lifeless repetition of habit in the place of real worship, by people who didn’t have the Holy Spirit in them. But there was nothing lifeless about what I saw that night. It was made alive in the people who reenacted it, step for step. It had the breath of the Holy Spirit in it, from first note to final prayer.
I watched the whole thing. When I finally shut off the TV and crawled into bed, I lay awake for a while, thinking about what it means to be connected to 2,000 years of Christ’s People.
Rituals are reenactments of the sacred themes of life. Placing the ring on the finger, going under the water, eating the bread and wine, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed, they are all reenactments of true themes.
And in each ritual, there is a part to play. The bride and groom play the roles of Christ and Church, the child in soaking white robes is Good Friday and Easter, the leader and the congregation reciting the creeds become Prophet and Israel.
And on Sunday morning, when I raised the bread, and broke it, and spoke out loud the words of institution, “This is my body, and it is for you,” I become suddenly, manifestly aware of my role in the ritual.
It is Christ who lifts bread, and breaks it. It is Christ who drinks the wine. It is Christ who feeds his people, and who proclaims their unity. And in this reenactment, this remembrance, I was standing in his place for that congregation, that day, in that place.
The words caught in my throat that morning. I’m glad that they did. I would not like to be the sort of person who suddenly pictures himself in Christ’s sandals, and keeps right on going. The words caught in my throat, and I felt tears gathering in my eyes. I felt the crushing weight of my own dark soul, made evident in the glare of that moment.
It can be a beautiful thing to have such clarity right before you eat at the Lord’s table.
I finished the words of institution, and the elders distributed the bread and cup throughout the congregation. They returned, and knelt on the front step of the platform to receive their own portion. I handed bread and wine to these men and women, years ahead of me in faith and dignity, any one of whom would have been a more fitting representative of Christ that morning.
But the ritual doesn’t depend on the worth of the players. The proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection, the power of grace, the unity of all believers, these are the beautiful truths that the ritual proclaims. Maybe it’s better to have someone in the role at the head of the table who no one would mistake for the real thing.
And so, when I ate the bread, and when I drank the cup, the entire congregation did too. And I was with them, again, eating at the same table, receiving the same grace.
That morning, as I moved through the scenes of the play, and followed the motions, as I spoke the words of Christ by way of Paul, and played the part of Christ to his people in that place, I was doing two things.
I was remembering Christ.
And I was remembering his people, that great cloud of witnesses who, for 2000 years, have used this ritual to make present the mystery of grace.