Our Moment of Remembering
I confess that without domestic help it’s possible for me to overlook a family birthday, what with three children and six grandchildren, but I’ve never had any trouble remembering the birthday of this church….and as of this morning we are 16 years old. I realize that isn’t terribly important, and I mention it only because years ago we chose years ago to have one of our twice-a-year communion services fall on the third Sunday of April, the day we were born with the name University Congregational Church.
There have been some strange ideas about what different churches call Communion or Mass or The Eucharist (from Latin and Greek words for “gratitude”) or The Lord’s Supper — the last one a phrase that always seemed odd to me as a literal-minded child since we observed it on Sunday morning at about the time many other people were having toast and coffee at home. When I dared ask an Elder of the church why we didn’t call it The Lord’s Breakfast all I got was a strong hint that the question was impertinent so I gave it up. But there were still plenty of other incongruities to think about.
Why, for example, we insisted so strongly that if you hoped to get to heaven you had to observe communion every single unday of the year, when the only comment Jesus ever made about frequency of observance was, “As often as you do this, do it in memory of me,” which would certainly seem to leave the timing up to us. And why some churches were so literal-minded as to think that the wine in the chalice, properly blessed, turned into the actual blood of Christ, so that if a few drops were left over they had to be disposed of with special reverence. At the Last Supper, when Jesus held up a cup of wine and said to his friends, “Drink, all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant,” he knew and they knew that the liquid in the cup had come from a vine on a hillside and not from a vein in his arm. He was not speaking literally, any more than when he compared the kingdom of God to lost sheep, or lost coins, or mustard seeds, or new wine.He was using a metaphor based on an ancient practice in which covenants, or agreements, were sealed with blood.
There is a faint echo of that in the initiation ceremonies some of us remember from childhood. When I was nine years old I agreed to become a blood brother to my best neighborhood friend, a tall gangly boy named Jack Sloan. For a few years we were inseparable, racing our bikes to school, spiking tops and shooting marbles at recess, taking long hikes on Saturdays to what we thought at the time was a very large mountain. It was a special treat to have lunch at Jack’s house because he could eat bologna sandwiches on soft white bread that was slathered with mayonnaise — and I loved it because at home my Registered Nurse mother pushed whole wheat bread and carrots and spinach….. all sorts of “healthy” stuff.
The entire Sloan household, in fact, seemed exotic to me. They had a real liquor cabinet, which was wickedly awesome to a boy who had never seen so much as a bottle of beer in our house, and my buddy Jack even told me there were guns at his place, and that if I wanted to see them all I had to do was ask. When my mother would wish that his vocabulary were not quite so limited, I thought it best not to tell her about some of the new words he had taught me. We built an elaborate tree house in an ancient elm, complete with carpet scraps from my dad’s furniture store, and we banned girls completely. It would be several more years before all we could think about was the hope that some girl might at least wish to come and see the place.
When I said Jack and I were blood brothers I was not just using a figure of speech. There was a very literal ceremony in those days for a blood-brother ritual, so when he and I made our decision, I borrowed a needle from my mother’s sewing basket, and some matches from the kitchen, and we climbed up into the tree house. We held up our right hands and vowed to be loyal to each other forever. We would rule the neighborhood, we would feast on bologna sandwiches and all-day caramel candies known as Black Cows, and there would never, never, ever be girls in the tree house.
Conditioned by my mother’s medical knowledge, I carefully sterilized the needle ove a match flame, and then we pricked our fingers. I did mine fast to get it over with, but Jack impressed me by pushed his needle slowly and deliberately into his finger. I’ve not seen him in the long years since we grew up, but I’ve always imagined him as a crewcut sergeant in the Marines . When the required drop of blood had beaded up on the ends of our fingers we pressed them together and imagined that we had each other’s blood in our veins — that our friendship was more than just a friendship, that we were blood-brothers, lords of the neighborhood, who would be nine years old and misunderstood, forever.
It turns out, of course, that we were not doing something as unusual as we thought. I did a little research on blood covenants once for a seminary paper and discovered that there are countless blood rituals all over the world for celebrating solemn promises. There was a time in Lebanon when young men of Arab descent enacted a blood covenant by means of an elaborate ritual in which they declared themselves brothers before a crowd, and spelled out what that would mean for each of them while a scribe wrote down their words — not once but twice, so each man would have a written reminder. Then they moved to the center of the crowd and one friend took a sharp lancet and opened a vein in the other’s arm, inserted a hollow quill into the wound, and drank the living blood of his friend. The two of them declared in unison, “We are brothers in a covenant made before God: who deceiveth the other, him God will deceive.” Then their covenant papers wre folded into one-inch squares and sewn into matching leather amulets that the young men would wear around their necks for the rest of their lives as tokens of an indissoluble union.
I suppose that belief in the power of blood, equating it with life itself, would have come easily from anyone who had ever watched a living creature bleed to death. No wonder that in Old Testament times, life was thought to reside in the body’s blood, so that in the blood sacrifices of ancient religions, it was the mystery and value of “life” itself that was being offered to a god. When Cain kills his brother Abel in that ancient Hebrew story, the blood of Abel is said to have cried out from the ground, as if it still had power to call out for justice. When Noah comes stumbling down the gangplank of the ark, he follows the custom of his times and offers a sacrifice of life in gratitude for his deliverance. It all seems primitive to us now, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would march in protest, but in the dawn of many religions it was considered a holy obligation if one wished to prove loyalty to the gods.
This is the idea behind that strange story in which Abraham seems perfectly willing to stretch out his beloved son Isaac on a crude altar and sacrifice him to the Hebrew god known as Yahweh. It’s hard for us to fathom the willingness of a father to do such a terrible thing, but that’s at least partly the case because it’s hard for us to imagine anyone taking religion that seriously. The story is….a story, not a case history, and it was told so as to define obedience in the most absolute terms. By offering his only son to God, Abraham would be offering up the one thing he had to give that was more precious to him than himself. The storyteller saw to it that no murder was committed, and that what the Hebrew god really wanted was a lamb or a goat and not a human being, but this new instruction was not meant to lessen the strength of a covenantmade with God.
All these ideas were part of the mind of Jesus on that famous night when he sat at table with his friends and turned two familiar parts of a normal meal into symbols of remembrance. The way Paul tells it, who was not there that night and heard the story from others, Jesus picked up a loaf of home-baked bread and broke it as one might do to pass a half of it down each side of the table, gave the usual thanks for it, and then said something quite unusual. No one knows but I like to think he held the bread for a moment, looking reflectively first at it and then at his wondering friends before he said quietly, “This is my body.”
It wasn’t, of course, but they would not have had to be geniuses to get the point. “This is my body….broken for you.” They all knew what was going on that night in the tinderbox called Jerusalem. They knew that within hours his figure of speech might well turn into literal truth. So if this solemn note was struck at the start of the meal, as Paul tells the story, then it must have been a subdued little group who ate the bread he passed to them and washed it down with the usual home-made wine — talking nervously all the while about whether a dreaded knock at the door might at any moment mark the end of their hopes for a better world.
There is no videotape of that intimate evening, and Paul has almost no details of the way it happened, so we are free to use our imaginations….and this is how I use mine: as the meal comes to an end, perhaps in fearful silence, Jesus picks up a cup of wine, holds it for a long moment until they wait in wonder to hear his words, and then tells them that the cup is a new agreement withGod, a which will be sealed by his blood. Whether he said much more, or whether they understood very well what he did say, we have no way of knowing. What we do know is that out of that simple symbolic ritual on a night of great distress and danger came a ceremony later on in church life known by those names I mentioned earlier: Communion, Mass, The Eucharist , and The Lord’s Supper.
To be literal-minded when we celebrate it in just a moment is to turn the poetry with which Jesus so often expressed himself into cause for religious quarreling and division. For example, in the name of Jesus many churches over the centuries have practiced “closed communion,” meaning that one had to be certified, bring some token of faithful membership to sit at the table. How strange to be so exclusive when Judas sat near Jesus that night and was included until he excluded himself. And it was not as if the rest of them were noble souls with no faults. Soon after this night they will scatter to the four winds at signs of serious trouble, and one of them who later became prominent, will swear to a lie — that he never knew Jesus at all.
So we are not exclusive, and we invite anyone who wishes to eat this symbolic meal in memory of the life of Christ to join the rest of us. And if, like the Quakers and some others in the great and varied world of Christian faith, you prefer to commune in spirit without the help of physical objects, we respect that way as well. What is important in this ritual is that you find an imaginative way to touch the life of the One who for us is the ultimate symbol of inclusive love. We invite you now, in heart and mind, to join us in remembering.