Who has ever walked the National Mall in Washington, D. C. to look at our national monuments? If this week’s snow hasn’t affected the blossoms, thousands will be viewing those monuments this week as they enjoy the beauty of the Cherry Blossom Festival. Those cherry trees began from a gift from Japan in 1912 and are almost monuments themselves. But there are monuments all over the world. I found some interesting ones that you might like to know about.
If you’re off the coast of Granada, put on some scuba gear, and you can discover underwater monuments by artist Jason deCaires Taylor. It is a series of cement statues depicting people going about their daily lives. You can find a boy riding a bike and a man sitting on the sofa watching TV. I doubt anything more than basic cable is available there.
If you find yourself in Oxford, England, you might want to visit the Headington Shark. Most homeowners don’t like to put holes in their rooves to accommodate shark statues, and you might be tempted to think this is a prop for the set of another terrible Sharknado movie. But John Buckly actually created this to symbolize the absurd helplessness experienced from the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan.
While in England, you would certainly want to visit Stonehenge, but since we are on this “side of the pond,” as they say, you might prefer to simply travel to Nebraska, where you can visit Carhenge. 38 vintage cars have been spray painted gray and arranged in the exact same configuration as Stonehenge.
You might prefer to travel south, and if you do, you surely would want to stop to see the Boll Weevil Monument in Enterprise, Alabama. If you ask me, we have too few monuments honoring boll weevils in this country. The monument is dedicated to the pest that destroyed all the cotton crops within 3 years of its arrival in the state in 1915. So why build a monument to a crop destroyer? It’s because the town switched to peanut farming and enjoyed greater economic growth than ever before![i]
And I know we all love paperclips, especially when we want to keep our papers together but aren’t quite ready for the commitment a staple requires. But I don’t know that we’re ready to make monuments for them. If you head to Norway, you’ll find a 23 foot monument to this handy little commodity, but it has nothing to do with paper. During World War II, the paperclip became a symbol of resistance in Norway against the Nazi regime.[ii]
All of this shows that there is a wide variety of monuments on our planet, and some of them are very strange! But I think we connect with a monument much more when we understand the purpose behind it. For example, I find monuments to paperclips, sharks sticking out of rooves, and boll weevils to be very odd, yet I connect with them because of their purpose. Carhenge and underwater cement people, however, don’t have a strong purpose that connects with me, so they leave me scratching my head.
Today we observe the Lord’s Supper. It isn’t a monument, but it is a tradition that is filled with meaning. We get the basics of what it means, but often we Protestants are guilty of trying to describe what it isn’t instead of focusing on what it is. What I mean is that our Catholic friends believe some things about the Lord’s Supper – the Eucharist, as they term it – that we don’t believe. We don’t subscribe to their teaching that the bread and the cup become the real, actual body and blood of Jesus. So it’s easy for us to say that this is a cracker and some juice – nothing more. A theologian named Millard Erickson put it this way:
“Out of a zeal to avoid the conception that Jesus is present in some sort of magical way, certain Baptists among others have gone to such extremes as to give the impression that the one place Jesus most assuredly is not to be found is the Lord’s Supper.”[iii]
Turn to 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Today we will prepare to share together in this wonderful meal with the plan to talk about what it is rather than what it is not. We can know that there is real significance to this supper. This knowledge will help us to understand and appreciate it more. This passage is of Paul describing the Lord’s Supper, and he passes along the tradition and the significance he received on Communion. We will use this and a few other texts to show some of the significance. I do mean some, because there is much more here than we can get to today. But let’s start with Corinthians 11:23-26:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This is a familiar passage that many of us have heard several times. We can see a basis here for what we do when we observe communion. The bread was taken first, followed by the cup, and a prayer of thanks was given for each one. In both Luke and 1 Corinthians we see the command from Jesus: “Do this in remembrance of me.” What is it about Jesus that we are remembering? We remember that Jesus gave his body for us. The crackers, the bread, that we use have all been broken, just as Jesus said his body was broken for us. They are pierced, just like our Savior was pierced for our sins. They have cook marks on them, and Jesus took the marks of the whip on our behalf. His body was offered up for us. His blood is the blood of a new covenant we have with God. Recently in the youth ministry the question was asked why God had a blood sacrificial system in the Old Testament. We talked about the reality that we are still under a blood covenant. It is still a blood sacrifice that takes away our sins. The only difference is that our sacrifice – Jesus – made his once and for all. So instead of bringing a new lamb with us each time to take our place, we drink and remember the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. After 2,000 years his blood is still effective to take away sin.
Still, in all of this, sometimes we feel compelled to distance ourselves from taking Communion to be more important than it is. We have found ourselves emphasizing that these are just symbols. Ray Van Neste shares about our confusion when he writes,
“People are often unclear on what the value of Communion is. We know the Bible says to do it, and we want to obey the Bible, but we don’t really know what benefit to expect. We understand our duty but frankly don’t take much delight in it.”[iv]
Later, addressing our tendency to dismiss this supper as a mere symbol, Van Neste writes,
“Why ‘mere’? This is not a ‘mere’ symbol, but a Christ-ordained, holy, precious symbol which portrays for us the gospel.”[v]
So how can we better appreciate this precious symbol for what it is? What happens whenever we observe the Lord’s Supper?
We look both to our past and to our future
First, we look both to our past and to our future. When we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we demonstrate our own need for them. Our past is one of sinners needing a savior. We might be tempted to skip this part, and say, “Look, that was back then. There’s no need to rub our noses in it anymore, because we are forgiven!” We live in a time when words like sin are often changed to sickness or simply celebrated as not a problem at all. So we should be well aware that this sort of introspection – this inward look at the sin in our own lives – is fairly remarkable. It is also exactly where we need to start. We cannot have an appreciation for who we are now without a clear picture of who we were then. When we remember Jesus’ death, we must also remember the reason for his death. He died to take away your sin, my sin.
Imagine for a moment that you are walking along a dusty road in Ancient Palestine. As you walk you come across several rocks arranged in a circle. You know from your Palestinian Geology 101 course that this circle of stones did not simply come together naturally. It likely took a very strong man to carry just one of them. You count the stones and note that there are twelve of them, and they are all smoother than surrounding stones, but they are smooth in a natural sense, suggesting that forces of nature rather than human tools removed their rough edges. As you are thinking about this, you see a Jewish father and son walking toward you from the river about a hundred yards away. They, too, stop at these rocks. You can see the inquisitive expression on the boy’s face as he contemplates some of the very things you did about the stones. Finally, the boy looks up at his father and asks, “Dad, what is the point of all these stones here?” The father flashes you a knowing smile before looking down to his son and telling him, “Son, those stones are there so that you would ask me that very question that you just asked. They were taken from the river we just walked along. If it were not for God, these stones would be covered by several feet of water right now. But here they stand, because God stopped the waters of the Jordan so that our people could cross over on dry ground. To celebrate God’s faithfulness, one man from each of Israel’s twelve tribes picked up a stone from the river and set it up here so that your generation would know just how faithful God has been to us.”
Memorials and traditions do look to the past help us understand the way we once were, but they also look to the future, giving us confidence and hope. Imagine that the boy and his father are having this conversation about the stones and God’s faithfulness during a time of struggle in Israel’s history. Perhaps there is a famine, or Moab is invading. Both of these things happened during the time of the Judges. Don’t you think that the memorial stones would increase confidence in God’s continued faithfulness to his people? Speaking of this sort of monument and remembrance, Brian Vickers states,
[T]o remember them is not merely to list some historical facts, or to recall a piece of personal, experienced history; it is to take part in those events now in the remembering of them…This kind of remembering was meant to inform, shape, sustain, and give hope to the Israelites. And that is the pattern we are meant to apply when we hear the words, “Do this in remembrance of me.”[vi]
When instituting this supper, Jesus declared that the next time he drank of the fruit of the vine, it would be when he drank it “new in the kingdom of God.” That looks to the future. Paul shares that when we observe communion we proclaim Jesus’ death “until he comes.” There is a return of Jesus that we look forward to, and there is a future that we share with him. We know we are doing this for now. We are preparing ourselves, reminding ourselves of God’s faithfulness and his future promises to us. We hold up a symbol for all to see what God has done for us.
We share the message of the gospel
In addition to this, whenever we observe communion, we make a proclamation – we share the message of the gospel. Again, Paul shares that in this observance we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” In a little while we will again make a proclamation together. We will share a meal that symbolizes what Jesus went through on our behalf. When we eat the bread, we state that Jesus sacrificed himself for us. By eating it, we are including ourselves as beneficiaries of that sacrifice. When we drink from the cup, we acknowledge that Jesus started a new covenant for the forgiveness of our sins. In the Old Testament, this covenant was established when basins of blood from sacrificed bulls were sprinkled over the people. We instead drink it. We are still under a blood covenant, but one that comes from our all-sufficient Savior. I like to think of the Holy Spirit living inside me when I put these elements inside me. God hasn’t simply covered over my sin. He has made me new. Proclaiming his death for us also proclaims our life in him – this is the gospel message we share!
Still, you might wonder about some other teachings on this subject. For example, Jesus stated that the bread was his body and that the wine was his blood, not that they merely represented his body and blood. So should we believe that when we take these they somehow become something more? Well the short answer is no, and I’ll quickly add that this does not diminish the significance of this meal. If you look at our text, Paul affirms what we are affirming today. After quoting Jesus statement – that the bread is his body and the cup is his blood – Paul calls them the bread and the cup, not the body and blood. Paul’s point is to say that by eating and drinking these elements together, we are sharing the message of Jesus’ death – that we are showing they represent Jesus’ body and blood.
Jesus’ point was to establish a symbolic connection, and a powerful one at that, but he was not claiming a mystical reality. It reminds me of an anti-drug commercial I saw several times on TV while growing up. There was a man holding an egg, and he says, “This is your brain” – the egg. Then he scrambles it in a frying pan and says, “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” Well if I ever did have any questions, I know that I never asked if the egg really was my brain. I knew it was a symbol, a representation of what trauma faces the human brain – especially a developing one – to drug use. This is how we understand Jesus’ statement; the bread and wine represent his body and blood in a powerful way.
We accept the gift of forgiveness
When we take Communion, we also do something else; we accepts the gift of forgiveness. We have already mentioned this, but ponder for a moment that we take this meal together. All of us, en masse are accepting that Jesus death was for us. We accept his gift by eating and drinking together. When Paul was writing to the Corinthian believers, the wealthy ones turned it into a party, and the poorer ones didn’t get to participate. They were not sharing in the meal together and had lost sight of its purpose. We accept the gift not only of salvation but also of unity within the body of Christ. We are cemented together in a way that transcends all other differences we may have. Our unity in Christ transcends race. It takes priority over gender. Economic status means nothing here. The ground is level. All of us are accepting the same, wonderful gift on the same, amazing terms. Vickers:
“The Supper is the ultimate symbolic act of unity in the Church, as the body of Christ gathers around common symbols of the one Lord who died for all and in whom all are united.”[vii]
It makes sense then that any disruption of this unity is a reason to wait to observe this meal. Paul calls this eating and drinking “without discerning the body of Christ” in verse 29. In the prior verse we are told to examine ourselves before we take this meal. Some people think this means that we should feel good and guilty so that we feel sufficiently bad, but that isn’t the purpose of this act. We are telling the message of redemption! Others think we need to be completely free of sin before partaking. This means they might not observe communion or they might take it while feeling guilty. As we become aware of sin, we should always repent of it, but think about the purpose of what we are about to do. We are about to recognize that Jesus freed us from the sin problem that entangled us. Would perfection on our own merit be a prerequisite for taking this meal? No. We come as sinners saved by God’s grace, and we celebrate what Jesus has done for us.
So we move now to our time of Communion, and a quote from Brian Vickers helps us prepare:
The invitation to the Supper is an invitation to remember the gospel, promised by the prophets, fulfilled in Christ, and proclaimed by the apostles. The thirsty, hungry, and tired are welcome, for God makes them worthy by the blood of Jesus Christ; they can come through faith, grasping promises kept and promises awaiting fulfillment.[viii]
That invitation is for you if you have placed your faith in Jesus for salvation. This is open to all believers, those who have trusted in Christ, committing to follow him, their Savior. If that does not describe you, then we invite you to observe this act of unity together and hope in our Savior, even as we declare his death on our behalf. If you are his, this is yours.
[iii] M. Erickson. Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 1123.
[iv] Schreiner, Thomas R. and Crawford, Matthew R., eds. The Lord’s Supper.
[vi] Schreiner, Thomas R. and Crawford, Matthew R., eds. The Lord’s Supper, p 316.
[vii] Schreiner, Thomas R. and Crawford, Matthew R., eds. The Lord’s Supper, p 328.
[viii] Schreiner, Thomas R. and Crawford, Matthew R., eds. The Lord’s Supper, p 325.