You can learn a lot about people, whether individuals or groups, by watching what they do, seeing what rituals they keep. People say a lot about themselves in the habits they foster. A meticulously kept house, a perfectly trimmed lawn, elegantly set dinner table, clean finger nails, perfectly coifed hair: these things immediately tell you something about a person. Stacks of books everywhere, a cluttered car, piles of dishes in the sink, flies buzzing around empty (we hope!) pizza boxes on the kitchen counter. These things tell you about a person. Word choices, firmness of a handshake, position of the eyes during a conversation, all of these give us clues and cues about how a person thinks and engages the world around them.
This is why it is important that we carefully craft the habits of the kind of person we want to be. Habits are difficult creatures. They are hard to form, and often harder to break. Habits require repetition: doing the same thing over and over again. First the task is difficult, uncomfortable, perhaps even painful. There is often little in the way of fun to be had. But then, over time and repetition, the appropriate grooves and calluses begin to form. Muscles learn and adapt to the stressors we place on them. And slowly, but surely, the task becomes normal. Expected, even. And, if we aren’t careful, without any warning or flags, one day we wake up and realize that this formerly new thing is now a habit that we are keeping.
We can form habits about cleanliness. We can form habits about the routes we drive to and from stores, school, or work. We form habits about the television shows that we watch. We form habits about the way we start and end conversations with others, and we utilize different habits based on the type and depth of relationship. We form habits physically, mentally, and emotionally. We also form habits spiritually. Prayer, Scripture reading, Scripture memorization, church attendance, service, missions, Bible study, worship…these are all habits that we can form and foster over time. Ways and patterns can become ingrained or excised as we do so.
Theologians call it the process of sanctification. Growing ever more into Christlikeness as we replace old habits of the world with new habits of the new creatures that we have become.
But the habits that we form – even the spiritual ones – they all say something about us. About how important or unimportant we count something. It’s amazing how we will speed, thrash, gulp down dinner, rush through a conversation, and cut off every other item on our agenda when a certain television show, sports team, or athlete is involved. And yet, when someone asks for help, suddenly we have no time to do anything for them. Because habits have been formed. What’s important to us stands out and rises to the top.
Churches are the same way. It’s important that we consider our church’s habits as we go through this process of Imagineering that I’m borrowing from those Disney artists. Some habits are good habits. Individually we might read our Bible while eating lunch. We might be in the habit of praying unceasingly throughout the day. But some habits aren’t worth keeping. If we regularly eat unhealthily or don’t exercise, we should seek to change those habits. If we spend more than we earn every pay period, we need to change our habits. It’s true individually, and it’s true in our corporate worship and work together as a congregation of believers.
As a church, we need to examine our habits and look at them closely. Is this habit worth keeping? Is that one ready to be discarded in favor of something else? Sometimes, things begin with good motive and intent, and even good results, but their effectiveness fades over time. Perhaps it is time to reexamine this practice or that habit and see if it needs discarding or replacing or updating in some way.
But of course there are also habits and practices that are timeless. These are habits that are necessary to keep around. Things that the church has done as long as the church has been around. Today, we will keep one of those habits as we gather around the table of the Lord together.
Consider with me Paul’s words to the Corinthians regarding the practice of the Lord’s Supper. The difficulty with habits is that we often forget why it is that we do them. Words and actions become just words and actions that we say and do, not because the words or actions carry any meaning for us, but simply because those are the words and actions that we do. They are the habits that we have formed. Paul was very concerned about how the Corinthians were going forward with their faithfulness to the rituals that were quickly becoming central to Christian belief and practice. The first of the two letters we have of Paul’s to the church at Corinth is full of concern over a number of different areas of the life of the church and its members that did not practice what they should have been preaching. In regards to the Lord’s Supper, it seems as though the Corinthian church carried over secular social stratification into the holy habit of breaking bread and drinking from the cup together.
Corinthian houses, particularly the houses of the wealthy, like many across the Roman Empire, had a dining room as well as a larger open space near the entrance to the house. The dining room would normally be a smaller area, holding perhaps a dozen people, while the larger outer space might accommodate 30 to even 50 people. It seems that perhaps some of the wealthy patrons of the church who opened their homes to be meeting places for local believers would invite their socioeconomic peers to join them in the dining room to eat their accustomed diet, while the rest of the congregation would meet out in the open air of the courtyard to have normal plebeian style food.
It’s as if we opened one of the Sunday school rooms in the back and provided cushy sofas, fruit smoothies, a nice vegetable tray with dip, some caviar, and a waiter refilling cups, while out in the fellowship hall were a dozen or so pizza boxes, plastic cups, and help-yourself water bottles with trash bins in the entry way. Paul responded to this report with one concerned phrase: Brothers! This is not how it’s supposed to be!
And to remind them how it was supposed to be, he returned them to the why of the practice of sharing this Lord’s Supper together. To the beginning, where the habit itself started forming. Let’s join him there and take a look at why we keep this habit of bread and juice that we variously call the Lord’s Supper or Communion or, in some churches, the Eucharist.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:23, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.” This habit – this practice – doesn’t just come from anywhere or nowhere. This is a practice that has real background. This is a habit that has a solid foundation to it. This is a habit with pedigree and proper upbringing. For this habit comes from the Lord Himself. This habit of celebrating the Lord’s Supper derives from the last supper that Jesus ate with his disciples before He was arrested, tried, and crucified. Obviously, Paul wasn’t there for that event. He did not share in that meal, as he wouldn’t even become a Christian for quite some time yet. He was still busy being a good student of Gamaliel and being angry and mad at those Jesus followers – an anger that would eventually swell into intense persecution against them.
But this tradition is solidly based. Knowledge of that night spread with Christendom everywhere it went, from the shores of Palestine to the northern reaches of Africa, from Herod’s palace to Caesar’s dungeon, with the Gospel went the story of Jesus’ last night with his twelve disciples. The words of the Lord that He spoke that night were well known and oft-repeated. Because of that, Paul could confidently state that these were the very words of the Lord, and even though he heard them second or third-hand, there was no denying their source. Peter or a leader in Antioch may have told Paul what the words were, but Paul received them from the Lord.
“That the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread,…” This is the reason that Jesus came. He who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but who humbled himself and became a man like one of us. He poured himself into twelve guys so that after their last meal together, one of them could go and sell him for 30 pieces of silver. He was betrayed. And while knowing what Judas Iscariot was plotting, he served him. He fellowshipped with him. He loved him. He provided for him. He took care of him. Jesus did all of these things for Judas knowing what was coming his way in just a few short hours.
Oh that we could be so gracious, so loving, so…godly…in the face of betrayal that is certain to come. And here’s the thing: the betrayal didn’t come from the Pharisees or Sadducees who had long challenged him. It didn’t come from a Roman centurion or a worshipper of one of the Greek or Roman pantheon. It came from his own circle. We celebrate this meal because some of us among us are going to betray us. They are going to fail us. They are going to backbite us. They are going to be the worst to us. Yet, like Jesus, we share a meal with them. We break bread. We drink of the fruit of the vine. We worship together. We serve together. We share life together. We give them our purse strings, as Judas had the disciples’ purse strings. We do this knowing that betrayal may very well come. We do it because betrayal very well may come.
“The Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you.’” Jesus never held onto anything. Not his equality with God. Not his trade as a carpenter. Not his mother, or his brothers. Not his hometown, where a prophet could not be recognized. Foxes may have their holes and birds may have their nests, but Jesus did not claim even his own pillow where he could lay his head to rest. He held nothing to himself, but surrendered everything. “This is my body which is for you.” Not even His body was His own. In John 6, after feeding thousands and walking on water, Jesus talks to the disciples where the crowds could overhear about taking and eating his body and drinking his blood. Indeed, this act of apparent cannibalism Jesus taught was the very way to eternal life. And after such a bizarre teaching, many of those who had been following Jesus turned away from him.
At this meal, we take Christ’s body. Not in the literal way Catholics think that they do, where the bread transubstantiates and somehow actually becomes the flesh of Christ while maintaining the form of bread. Not even in the way Lutherans and some other Protestants believe that Jesus’ presence is somehow mystically and mysteriously present with the bread and the wine. We take the bread as a reference to his body. A symbol. A stand in that reminds us that Jesus gave up everything – his body included – so that we could be made holy and stand once again in the presence of God. “This is my body which is for you.”
Back in 1 Corinthians, Paul continues with his flashback for the sake of those who were wayward in their habit of the Lord’s Supper. In verse 25 he says, “In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.’” Blood is sacred. The life is in the blood, which is why God always commanded that the blood be offered in sacrifice and that it should never, ever be consumed. But then Jesus, back in John 6, and then again at this last supper with his disciples says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”
Covenants always require the shedding of blood. When Noah got off the ark and witnessed the rainbow in the sky, his first act was to build an altar and offer a sacrifice. When God promised to bless Abram and changed his name to Abraham, animals were split in half in order to seal the covenant promise. The Mosaic law had numerous sacrificial offerings, culminating in the Day of Atonement when the blood of a goat would be shed to cleanse the stain of the sin of the people.
This was a new covenant. The one that Jeremiah had promised would come. It, too, required blood. But animal blood never really sufficed. It was at best a temporary band-aid on a massive trauma wound. No, the blood of God himself would be offered for this covenant. This was the cost of our redemption. This was the cost of our sin. Not just our blood, but God’s blood
Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood. These were the beginnings of habits that would become rituals. Eating together. Drinking together. But not just eating and drinking, for Paul doesn’t just leave it there. And, as Paul received from the Lord, we must also realize that Jesus did not just leave it at the eating and the drinking of the Passover meal. Those were not sufficient. When we eat the bread that was for us, we are to do so in remembrance of Him. Of Christ. When we drink the cup of the blood of the new covenant, we are to do so, as often as we do it, in remembrance of Him. Of Christ.
We are to remember. We cannot enter into this ritual lightly. We cannot mumble through the words and glide through the actions without also engaging our minds and our spirits. We are not just to do these things. We are to remember Him. What He did. How He lived. How He died. How He lives again. Bread is body. Drink is blood. Sacrifice. New covenant. Hope. Peace. Reconciliation. Redemption. Provision. Providence.
This that we do here today is not just a habit. It is not just a ritual. It is a command of Christ himself. Do these things and remember. The remembering is central. If the church has a singular purpose of making disciples as we talked last week, we can only do so as long as we actively cultivate habits and rituals that continually recall to mind whom we are making disciples of and why we have chosen to be His disciples.
Over the summer we talked for a number of weeks about our stone stories. Those significant times from our lives that create foundational memories that shape us and guide us. Like Paul, we were not there when the twelve gathered around that table for the last time with their teacher and our Lord before His trial and death. And yet, we can just as vividly as they remember. Because even as they did, we too have received from Him the cleansing by His blood, the healing by His broken body.
Today we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. But it is no mere cultic ritual that we do by force of habit every time a new calendar quarter comes around. This is a living, breathing reminder of our one and only hope.
As we imagine and engineer church, this memory must hold front and center. We are sinners, separated from God, with no hope of pulling ourselves over to the other side. Into this desperation steps Christ, the humble God become man. To be betrayed by us. To be killed by us. To be rejected by us. To have His body broken and His blood spilled by us. So that He can love us and redeem us and cleanse us and purify us and bring us boldly and proudly into the throne room of God the Father where we will be able to spend eternity worshipping and praising and serving and loving.
Let’s remember. Let’s always remember. As often as we do these things, and more often still. Let’s remember. Will you gather with me at the table of our Lord?