The Meal

Wednesday, October 5, 2011 — Week of Proper 22, Year One

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 986)

Psalms 119:145-176 (morning) // 128, 129, 130 (evening)

2 Kings 22:14 – 23:3

1 Corinthians 11:23-34

Matthew 9:9-17

Today in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, we read the oldest written record of the first Eucharist. Paul tells the church he “received from the Lord” what he “handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed 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.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'”

The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke each have a similar narrative, Luke’s being closest to Paul’s version. Among the extra-canonical resources for this text are versions from The Didache in the early second century and a full Eucharistic Prayer text from The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, dated in the early 200’s, but representing an older tradition. The similarities are remarkable and trace an enduring tradition.

The context for this passage in Paul’s letter is his scolding of the Corinthian church for their failure of community and charity. As the church meets together in Gaius’ house in Corinth, there are different factions, divided along social and economic lines. It appears that those who have leisure come early to the meal and eat and drink to excess, while those who are poor remain hungry. Some have become sick because the church has not cared for them, Paul says. Paul expects this to be a communion of unity and caring.

This gathering for a common meal has been the distinctive mark of Christian worship from the evening of the resurrection on Easter Day until now. The last thing Jesus did before his passion was to give his disciples his own interpretation of his death by giving them the bread and wine as a witness to his sacrificial life and his continued presence.

During Jesus’ life, his table had been a remarkable place. There he ate with outcasts and sinners as well as with the observant and religious. Zealot, tax collector and scribe all found welcome. Women such as Mary of Bethany were invited to be in conversations traditionally reserved to men. His table fellowship was so extraordinary that it caused scandal to many: “He sits with sinners and tax collectors.”

After his crucifixion and death, on Easter evening somewhere near Emmaus, a stranger joined a group of disciples at a table. When he broke the bread, “they knew him.” From that time on, the disciples continued to gather at table to tell the story, to break bread and drink wine, and to be with Jesus. It is in this particular context that we have known the risen Lord to be present with us for more than two thousand years.

In the meal we become one body, for we are constituted by the one bread and one cup. Jesus identified the elements of bread and wine with his very life. And so we know ourselves to be nourished and nurtured by the life of Christ in the sacrament of his Body and Blood.

He is present; he is with us. He feeds us with his own divine life, which heals, forgives, and strengthens us for service.

In this meal, we are one with Christ and each other. We become Christ’s body in the world. We leave empowered to give to the world the gifts that Christ gave: reconciliation, healing, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, and above all, love.

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