The Sunday Sermon: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 7, 2018
Scripture: Mark 14:22-25
What We Have in Common
We’ve been reading and learning from the gospel of Mark these past weeks, following the lectionary. This morning, I leave the suggested lectionary text from Mark, but remain in the Gospel because it’s World Communion Sunday, this first Sunday in October, and the reading we have before us is Mark’s account of the “covenant meal” that is the most frequently enacted scene in the life of Jesus. All around the world, in Christian communities in every country where there is a Christian community, those gathered in Christi’s name are enacting it today: The Holy Eucharist, Communion, the Lord’s Supper.
I’ve never used the verses in Mark’s fourteenth chapter to “institute” the meal when I’m behind the Communion table. I’ve never preached on, or about, these five verses or the context in which Mark places them, before. So, as I read the passage this week, I was struck by something very different in his writing than in the words we most often share, and will again in a few moments, from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Something different, as well, from Matthew and Luke’s retelling. We have used those versions before, though rarely. Most often on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday as we follow the passion in those Gospels. This “something different” caught my eye as I read. Let’s see if it “catches your ear” as I read.
First, let’s pray together … And now listen, for something different in the Word of God … Read Mark 14:22-26 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Did anyone hear it? I punched it up a little. Mark has Jesus do something different than Matthew, Luke, or Paul’s Jesus does. (John’s gospel, of course, doesn’t depict the meal in this way. In his Gospel foot-washing is the liturgical act of his last night with the disciples. Anyway …) Did anyone hear it … in Mark?
Jesus takes the loaf of bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them, saying “Take; this is my body.” And the disciples “take and eat.” He does it just like that in the other synoptic Gospels, in Matthew and Luke, and in Paul’s account in the eleventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, the one most familiar to us. Nothing different there.
But then something different does happen in Mark’s telling of this shared meal, something different from the other three narratives. Jesus takes the cup, gives thanks, and gives it to his disciples – so far the same. But then, the disciples drink from the cup before Jesus says explains to them, before Jesus says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” In all the other accounts, in one way or another, with different wording, Jesus takes the cup, gives thanks, pours it out and tells those who will drink of it what it is, what it means, or what it will mean, before they drink it. Not in Mark.
I tried to get away from this this past week thinking, “Well, that’s just … that’s just translation. No big deal, there’s nothing there.” None of my usual commentaries or other sources of inspiration for sermon writing mentioned this much, if at all. But I couldn’t get this difference out of my mind.
It’s like, I think, Jesus saw something after he shared the bread. He “took, blessed, broke, gave, and said …” All of those verbs are in every account of the institution of the Christian Eucharist: “took, blessed, broke, gave, and said.” So he does that with the bread in Mark’s account, and it’s like he watched his disciples eat the bread rather mindlessly and thought, “They still don’t get it. They’ll do anything I ask them to do, like ‘take and eat,’ but they don’t get it. They’re like sheep – obedient, but unthinking.” And so, when he takes the cup, I imagine he thinks, “I’m not going to ‘say’ anything this time.” In Mark, with the cup, Jesus “takes, blesses, pours, gives …” and then waits.
I love imagining what happens “between” the lines of scripture in our bible’s telling of “God at work,” or of humans trying to figure out how to be in relationship, or in this case, of Jesus attempting to make his disciples understand. He “takes, blesses, pours, and gives” in this verse, but before he “says anything,” Mark writes, “And all of them drank from it.” Now, I don’t imagine “they drank” right away. I imagine the disciples are waiting. Jesus just did this with the bread and before they ate of it, he told them, “This is my body.” So you know they’re waiting for him to tell them what they’re doing again.
“What’s this for, Jesus? What does this represent? How are we supposed to think deeper about this?”
But Jesus doesn’t say anything about the cup. Not yet. If you imagine that all of the disciples had a cup, then one by one they all take a sip. Peter goes first, then John and James, maybe Judas next shaking his head, Andrew, Thomas, and the rest. He’s given it to them, so they assume they’re supposed to drink it.
If you imagine it’s only one cup, since the scripture says, “He took a cup and gave it to them,” then it’s a bit more dramatic. That one cup makes it way around the table in silence. The first, say Peter again, waiting for a few seconds before shrugging and drinking and passing it on. Nothing. Then another drinks. Still nothing. As it goes down the line there is less and less hesitation until “all of them drank from it.”
We can imagine that cup coming back to Jesus. And then, only after his friends – those who profess him Lord, those who have sworn they will do what he asks them to do – only after they have had a sip does Jesus “say” anything. And he says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” He says, in other words, “You have just signed a contract with me and there are a lot of people you’ll need to reach …” Many, he says.
Again, read between the verses. Those who were sitting there on the night in which he was betrayed (in fact, just a few verses earlier Jesus told them that one of them “one who is eating with me will betray me”), all those sitting there have been, in a way, caught. Nowhere in Mark’s telling of the institution of the Lord’s Supper do we hear Jesus appeal to his disciple’s memory. We search Mark in vain for “Do this in remembrance of me.” Instead, Jesus in Mark’s writing, and in our reading and hearing this morning, sets them up and calls them out. He tells them that because they shared this cup, they are one. He speaks of the oneness that all Christians, anywhere in the world, have with him and the oneness that all Christians, all around the world, have with each other. A “oneness” that unites all of those who, at great personal cost, seek to follow Jesus. That’s certainly something we all have in common.
This is my blood … of the covenant. A symbol for us in the Presbyterian church, but no less of a commitment. Do you understand that? Do I? Really … I think maybe that this is what we all have “more” in common with one another and with too many other Christians all around the world. We participate before really knowing what it means and we aren’t really too eager to find out.
All through the Gospel of Mark, the disciples are pictured following Jesus on the road, but in contrast to his determination they are filled with amazement and fear. Surely in the scene this morning, they are at last beginning to understand what Jesus is talking about. He will be killed here, in Jerusalem. But even with this dawning realization, and maybe because of it, they cannot begin to understand why, if he is to be killed, he is determined to be here. Like Jesus, they sense impending doom; but unlike him they sense in it no purpose. Sitting all at the table, they share this meal with him and one another, but they eat anxiously and fearfully.
Jesus’ response at this “last supper” in our reading is, of course, consistent with his response at all other times to those who follow him. Despite the inappropriateness of their questions or the unwillingness to truly engage, Jesus does not rebuke them. He accepts them as they are and calls them to be more. This bread and this cup point them in a new direction. These symbols are not a means to share in worldly glory, but a way to a life in service, sacrifice, suffering and even death, from whence comes true life. Life that is not defined by this world and its empires, but by God and the kingdom of God.
Our relationship to Jesus and to the God he reveals is imperfect. We are all slow learners, ambitious, selfish, and more than a little clueless at to the life our Christian faith requires of us. Our relationship is imperfect. But this is what we have most in common: It is also unbroken. For here we are again. Ready to receive what has been given to others for almost two thousand years.
Let us prepare to gather at the table for this World Communion. Let us take and eat, for this is Christ’s body. And let us take and drink, for this is … well … let’s wait and see.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / October 7, 2018