Sisters and Brothers,
“Protestant” is just one of the many categories we apply to the universal Church, but our identity as protestants in general and Moravians in particular help us to have a sense of perspective when talking the bigger picture of “the whole Church of Jesus Christ.”
As Protestants, we observe two sacraments (essential rituals): baptism and Holy Communion. Christian baptism has its roots in the command of Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20 and the practices we see in the book of Acts. Holy Communion is described in Mark, Luke, and Matthew, but in Luke 19 we have the command “do this in remembrance of me,” which identifies it as a ritual we continue.
Both sacraments involve both word and a material sign: In baptism we use water, but in communion there is the bread and cup. Baptism has become a naming ceremony where we either entrust our children to God or entrust ourselves to God. As with the ancient Jewish naming ceremony, it is only done once, but its promises can be reaffirmed. Holy Communion is a shared meal that takes the place of the ancient Jewish meals that took place at the finish of a sacrifice in the Temple. As meals are a repeated event, we receive Holy Communion many times in our lives.
Another thing that both sacraments share is mystery. Something happens in both sacraments that is inexplicable. Human frailty has led many theologians and church leaders to try to fully explain the mystery, but mysteries of faith refuse to be explained. In baptism, we are reassured that God loves us and we are in relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but we can’t dissect it the way you could a legal certificate of adoption or citizenship.
In Holy Communion, we know that we are encountering Christ in the bread and cup, but there has been a great difference of opinion in how the miracle of connection and identity is achieved. People have fought for centuries over the question of how and when the miracle happens. Is the bread and cup changed? Do the bread and cup remain unchanged, but successfully communicate the body and blood of Christ? Is it meal of remembrance like the Passover Seder? Is it a re-enactment of the Last Supper or do we participate across time and space at one table with Christ and all the participants who ever have and ever will receive it? What is best is to let the mystery be a mystery. Holy Communion makes us part of the body and blood of Christ, but we don’t know how. The miracle of connection can’t be pinned down.
On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”
So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”
The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.
These first verse make it clear that Jesus and the disciples are devout Jews. The observance of Passover is based on the 12th chapter of Exodus and the story of how God delivered the enslaved children of Israel from the hands of the Egyptians. The Seder reenacts the last meal of unleavened bread, lamb, and herbs had by the Hebrews while their houses were passed over and death came to the first-born sons of Egypt. Eventually the Seder also included mentions of the prophet Elijah and a promise that he would return with hopeful words about the messiah. We are not sure if Elijah would have been mentioned at the last Supper, but thoughts of his return have been mentioned many times in previous chapters of Mark.
The place for the Passover meal is found in the way that the disciples found a donkey a few days before for Jesus’ entry into the city. The Passover meal would include many loaves of unleavened bread, multiple cups of wine for each person, and a variety of other foods (including a roasted leg of lamb). On the night of the original Passover, lambs were slaughtered and their blood was painted onto the doorposts and lintels of the Hebrew houses. The lambs were then cooked and shared as part of the meal.
When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.”
They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely you don’t mean me?”
“It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”
As they are eating and dipping their bread in bowls of olive oil or vegetable paste, Jesus announces that one of them sitting close to him will betray him. Mark gives us no mention of what Judas Iscariot does at this point, but he parts from them all sometime before they get to the Garden of Gethsemane, later in the chapter. The twelve are upset at what Jesus says, but the meal continues.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
These few verses are all that Mark gives us of the first Communion service. The words may not have made much sense to the disciple until later, but the imagery was shocking. Try to imagine someone, without explanation, handing you some food and saying “this is my body.” For the Jews who had strict rules about avoiding contact with blood, the next words were even more shocking. He passes around a cup of wine and after they have drunk it, he says “this is my blood.” We are not told of any of their reactions.
So communion is like a family gathered around a table, but it is also like a blood oath where two people cut themselves and press the wounds together. In the ancient world, sharing a meal showed a tremendous amount of trust and intimacy. Like the sharing of a peace pipe or the signing of a peace treaty, the gathering creates a new relationship.
“Holy Communion” is a name that means “sacred gathering” or “sacred unification.” Other names for this sacrament are “Eucharist” meaning “The Giving of Thanks;” “The Lord’s Table” emphasizing that we are invited into deeper relationship with Jesus;, or “The Lord’s Supper” which means also reminds us that Jesus invites into deeper relationship. The word “Mass” is also applied to the entire Roman Catholic service that concludes with the Eucharist. The term “Mass” comes from a Latin phrase that means “to be sent out” or dismissed.
After sharing the Passover meal, the disciples sing one of the Psalms as they walk out of the city gates to the adjacent Mount of Olives, which included a garden with olive trees called “Gethsemane.”
When we participate in Holy Communion, we are identifying ourselves as members of a community of faith. The main Protestant understanding of the Christian Church is that its identity is not rooted in human organizations managed or led by human beings. The Church on Earth shows signs of human fallen-ness by being broken into hundreds of parties, denominations, and orders. We assume that “real” Christian identity is a “Holy Communion” or sacred unification that happens in the sacraments, the experience of the cross and resurrection of Christ, and in the shared love of the Father. The Church was founded by Jesus who leads us into the covenant that God made with Abraham, so we also have shared family roots with our Jewish brothers and sisters. In Holy Communion, we accept and shared identity that is not broken by nationality or human institutions. We believe that our relationship is established in Christ and not by human authorities. We hope that people know that neither Jesus nor the true Church are Moravian, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or any other of our human divisions. We are all a part of a much larger unity that begins and ends in Christ.
Questions to Ponder: What does Holy Communion mean to you? Can you be comfortable with the idea of letting a mystery go unexplained?