As usual on the first Sunday of the month, a United Methodist Church not so far away celebrated communion. The pastor stood behind the table and said the words he spoke generally every month. As he lifted the cup, he said, “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” In the congregation, a second grader was listening carefully. The pastor finished the liturgy and came down front to serve. As the second grader approached him with her piece of bread, ready to dip it in the cup, she asked a burning question:
“Is that real blood?” she asked. He replied, “no, of course not, dear.” Without missing a beat, the second-grader responded, “then I don’t want any!” And walked off without dipping her piece of bread in the cup.
I roared upon hearing that story for the first time when I worked at Vineville. The girl was recounting it several years later when I had her in confirmation. But aside from its hilarity, there’s a certain power to the story, a certain power that was authentic to the little girl, now in college. She was always real, always authentic, had a delightful and bright personality that she dimmed for no one. She was real.
And when she approached the pastor expecting blood, she was looking for something real.
Aren’t we all looking for something real?
Let’s hear our scripture for this morning. It’s the words of institution, the words we say as Jesus said them, when I lift up the bread and the cup during communion. Let’s hear them as Paul recorded them in his first letter to the Corinthian church, chapter 11, beginning with verse 23.
Looking for something real.
When we gather around the dinner table, there’s something real that happens there. We know it from family gatherings during holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas. On those holidays, we’ve been milling around, perhaps chatting with each other prior to the meal, but there’s something powerfully real about sitting down to the meal together. A commonality, a sense of shared life together, a unity of purpose, is found when we sit around that table and break bread.
In fact, sitting around the table is so real that sometimes it brings up important, consequential, weighty, matters. There’s a certain magic to sitting down together, for it brings up conversations that would not happen otherwise; it creates a space where we can be vulnerable, for better or worse.
And this happens at holidays but it also happens quite often when we sit together around a table with loved ones.
So many nights when my family and I sit down around our table, talking about what we’re most and least grateful for in the day, and then playing a card game, there’s a magic of connection that happens; a something real that happens. In the middle of me constantly reminding the kids to eat, in the middle of Carter finding all the ways he can to screw me up in whatever game we’re playing, in the middle of Jackson thinking strategically, in the middle of drinks spilled, food that falls to the floor, in the middle of what might look to an outsider like a little bit of chaos, there’s a unifying connection, there’s a pulling together, there’s a power, there’s a vulnerability, there’s something real.
Gathering around the table does that. It unifies. It creates vulnerability. It pulls us together into a common bond. In the midst of a life full of various kinds of fakery, in the midst of a life that values being shallow over deep, in the midst of a life that prefers image to the real thing, the table, gathering around the table, magically, somehow, cuts through all of that, and brings forth something real.
So it is with this table, this altar table, here in this sanctuary. There’s something real there.
So it was with the table in this scripture. The first communion, the Last Supper as we call it, happened around a table, after a dinner. On the table were the common staples of the day: bread and wine. Jesus has gathered the disciples to talk about his death, and there’s a reason it’s around the table. There’s that magic, that unifying magic, that cuts through all the fakery and brings forth something real. So real, in fact, that it also dredges up conflict. Judas can no longer stand the betrayal he holds in his heart and dashes away from the table before this moment. Things, for him, have gotten too real.
Here in 1 Corinthians, Paul records the words that Jesus said not long after Judas has run away. He’s forecasted his death, but then instructs the remaining eleven to “do this in remembrance of me.” These words are the same words Christians have been saying for the last two thousand years when they come to the table to celebrate communion. The words you’ll hear me speak in just a minute are identical to the words that priests, pastors, ministers, bishops, apostles, and popes have spoken since the very beginning of our faith! In fact, these are the earliest recorded words of Jesus in the entire Bible and in all of history! 1 Corinthians, written around the year 50, predates the writing of any of the gospels by at least 20 years.
So the very first thing ever recorded that Jesus said, the very same words spoken for the last two thousand years and all over the world today, are “this is my body, broken for you.”
And the first thing Jesus does is break some bread.
It’s symbolic, of course, of his broken body. It’s Jesus’s way of saying, “things are about to get very real. Too real. Uncomfortably real.”
But there’s more to it than that. Here is something very common to their lived experience: bread; a basic building-block of life; a staple food. Bread has been the staple food of humans for millennia, dating back to before there were even city-states. Although bread gets a bad rep now in our modern low-carb ways, it’s still a staple food for many. And, as anyone following a low-carb or no-carb diet can attest, it’s very difficult to avoid bread!
Bread comes in many forms. There’s the standard pre-cut loaf of bread for sandwiches and toast. There’s the loaf of bread that goes with dinner, sliced and perhaps with butter on it or dipped in olive oil. There’s the bun that goes around our hamburger or hot dog. There’s fancy breads with things baked into them. There are sweet breads. There’s all sorts of bread in the world. It’s such a common, staple, basic ingredient of life.
For all it takes to make a simple bread is flour, salt, yeast, and water; ingredients readily available most anywhere in the world and across all of history. Perhaps that’s why bread is something very real. When we encounter bread, we encounter something that’s definitely not fake. It’s common, universal, and real.
So it is when we break bread together, gathering around tables as a family or as a church family at our second Sunday lunches.
So it is when we come to the table.
When we come to the communion table, we come to something that is common to the experience of all Christians. Not common in the sense of unimportant or basic, but common in the sense that we all share in this ritual together. Christian worship takes many forms around the world, but all of them, today and for all of Christian history, have included communion. It’s the basic thing Jesus commanded us to do: “do this in remembrance of me.” It’s common the way dinner at home is common, as we gather around the table, in that it’s something we all share in common. And so common, that many churches do it weekly and John Wesley himself encouraged churches to include communion every week.
It’s universal, too. It applies to all people everywhere all the time. God’s universal love, God’s grace, is available here at the table. In The United Methodist Church, our understanding is that this is not just a symbol. When we receive the bread and the wine, we receive a special outpouring of God’s grace meeting us where we are. Like gathering around the dinner table, there’s something magical that happens as God’s grace is poured into our lives, bringing forth something real.
Communion, eucharist, is something real. Jesus is always with us, in the form of the Holy Spirit, but there’s something about communion that pulls us a bit closer in to God’s presence. Many of us feel it when we come to the table. Think of the name of the ritual: communion. We commune together, recognizing that we are all equally sinners in God’s hands. And we commune with God, receiving God’s grace. That’s something special; that’s something real.
And aren’t we all looking for something real?
In my lived experience, and I know for many of you here today, there’s nothing quite so real in this life than communion. There’s nothing fake about it. When we go through the ritual of being invited to the table, confessing our sins publicly, and hearing the Great Thanksgiving, we are communing in a powerful way with God. When I go through that Great Thanksgiving, I follow a pattern that’s been followed for two thousand years, praising God the Father, praising God the Son, praising God the Spirit, and praising the Church universal. When I say the words, “as the grain and the grapes once dispersed in the fields are united here on this table in bread and wine…” I’m reciting words written at least 1600 years ago and repeated ever since. One of the things that makes communion so real is how it ties us to all Christians around the world and all Christians across history.
But no words are so old as those first words of Jesus recorded here in 1 Corinthians: 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.’” Jesus, giving himself for you and for me, making himself real and available when we receive of that same bread, granting us the grace we need for this life.
And it all begins with bread: a basic, staple of life, a common sight in our daily lives. And the object covered this week by the common devotional we’re reading this Lent.
Bread is all around us. And so, because it’s so common to our daily lives, let’s use it as a reminder, a way to “do this in remembrance of me” even when we’re not at the communion table. When we see bread throughout our lives, it can be a reason to be reminded of who Jesus is and how grateful we are to know him. Jesus could have picked up something else on that Last Supper table: maybe some grapes, maybe something more regional like figs, maybe something else, but he picked up the quintessential food, the basic building-block of diets for all of human existence: bread.
And so bread means more for us Christians than simple food. Bread means Jesus Christ. Bread means our relationship with God. Bread means our faith. Bread means something real.
So, when eating bread, whether toast in the morning or a nice loaf with a big meal, when it’s stuck to the roof of your mouth after taking a bite of a hamburger, when its cornbread next to soup or chili, like the chili cook-off the other week, however you encounter bread in your daily life, let it bring to mind our faith. Let it be cause to thank God, briefly in prayer, for all that God has given us. Let it be a reminder that we commune with God in everyday life through the Holy Spirit. Bread, something we encounter every day, can be cause to remember that Jesus is in our lives and our faith, every day. This is one of the things that makes Lent special: taking extra time, or maybe taking time again if we’ve lapsed, to focus on God; to be with God. The reminder to pray that bread can provide is one way we can take on something extra during Lent. That is something real.
Then, as we prepare to approach the table this morning with open hands and open hearts, we receive something real: the grace of God meeting us where are.
Here, in this ordinary object, this staple food, is opportunity to engage with Lent. And then, to be reminded that our faith, our savior, is real. We’re all searching for something real. This Lent, practice giving thanks to God when you encounter bread, begin with receiving of the bread this morning, and discover just how real God is in your life.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.