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The Body of Christ: A Maundy Thursday Homily

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after 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, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

“This is my body.” There are few verses of Scripture that have aroused more controversy than these four words of Jesus. It is said that two of the great reformers, Luther and Zwingli once met to debate the Lord’s Supper, with Luther holding the view that Christ was indeed “really present” in the elements and Zwingli insisting that the Supper was a mere memorial through which we remember Christ. As they say at the table and debated Luther wrote with his finger in the dust of the table “this is my body.” That seemed to end the debate. Years later when Zwingli was killed in battle, Luther upon hearing of it remarked that he definitely deserved his fate. For all the zeal that the doctors and reformers of the church have had for thinking accurately about the Eucharist and its relation to the life of the church, much of what has taken place in that history has been profoundly un-Eucharistic, as this story tells most clearly of all.

It is not by accident that this passage in the letter to the Corinthians appears but a chapter before 1 Corinthians 13, and it is not by accident that in our gospel reading, Jesus declares his new commandment: that we love one another just as he has loved us. Today we celebrate the last supper the final meal of the Lord with his disciples before his death “for us.” If there is one thing that ties together the Eucharistic theology put forth in these scriptures it is that this practice of together eating the bread and the wine, partaking of the Lord’s body and blood (whatever that ultimately means) cannot be understood or even thought about unless we practice it in Christ’s own Eucharistic way of being, which is to say in his love.

The invitation, given by Christ to participate in the feast that remembers him, that shares in his body and blood, given for us is an invitation that is given out the superabundance of his divine love. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper we come and “receive” from Christ the body that he gives us out of the depths of his love. We often think of the love of Christ as seen most in his sufferings, which is certainly true, it is there in his death and descent into hell that we see the lengths to which God goes to pour out his love into all our brokenness and sin. But, it is crucial to recognize that in the meal that Christ gives us, we see that God’s desire to give himself to us, embodied in loving, kenotic service already comes before we conspire to overthrow his love which threatens to turn our world of sin upside down. God is always-already giving himself to us in Eucharistic love, before we can get our wits together and run to the temple with our thirty pieces of silver.

And this brings me to one of the main points I want us to hear as we celebrate the Lord’s gift of his supper to us. While so much of the church’s energy over the years has been spent speculating about what it might mean to call a loaf of bread and a cup of wine Christ’s body and blood we have ignored what I take to be the center of what Christ says to his church when he gives us the supper. “This is my body which is for you.” At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration lies the fact that the body and blood of Christ are Christ’s gift of himself to us. Or, to say it differently, Christ loves us so much that he lets us slaughter, crush and consume him. The very idea that a loaf of bread, torn apart and eaten could be someone’s “body”, or even be talked about that way says something quite significant about what kind of body that person would have! The defining feature which marks Christ’s body, then according to these Eucharistic scriptures is that Christ’s body is given away, ripped apart and liquefied among many people, who are his enemies. That is the essence of Eucharist. Eucharist is what God does in giving himself away to humanity, letting himself be broken apart and spread throughout all people, who “eat” and consume the gift of God.

And yet, herein lies the miracle of Christ’s body. Unlike normal food, which gets broken down and eliminated, Christ’s body, when consumed by sinners, takes them up and consumes them in the rapture of divine love. When we take the Lord’s gift of himself and tear it apart, we find ourselves drawn by a power that is greater than our attempts to break and tear. We find that even as we break apart the body of Christ, we are drawn together ourselves into one body, with Christ as head. We think we have sundered the body of Jesus when we betray him and hand him over to death, but it is in fact that very action on our part which he uses to gather all the children of God together into himself, from all corners of the world.

And so we find ourselves in a conundrum, we thought that we had “broken” the body of Christ, finished it and left it to die. But it turns out that it was not we, but Christ himself that broke his body for us, that we might be made whole! Suddenly we find out that we are Christ’s body. Whether we wanted it or not, Christ has loved us so much, and given himself to us so ultimately, that we are now suffused with his life and bound together around him just as surely as my muscles and organs are bound together around myself. Through our very betrayal and flagellation of our Lord’s body, we have, through a Trinitarian miracle become that body ourselves. The Spirit himself unites us with Christ and now, somehow we indeed become the body of Jesus which is now to be given “for you”, that is, for the world.

To be embodied is ultimately to be available to others, as Robert Jenson has said. If I had no body, I would not be available to you for relationship. Thus, when God comes to save us, he comes to us in a body, Jesus of Nazareth. It is that body that is God’s availability to us, his gift of himself to us as savior. As we now believe that the human body of Christ has ascended to the right hand of the Father, which is to say, into God’s future, we must ask how is God now available to the world? The answer, according to the church is still, “In Christ’s body.” Christ has ascended into God’s future, but that is precisely what is made available in the present in the church as the people of God come together bound by the Love of God, celebrating the Eucharistic feast in which we re-member the self-giving of Christ. When we re-member the loving gift of the Savior, God’s future happens now. Christ’s body has ascended into God’s future and it is precisely that future that exists now in and as the church. That is what it means when we call the church the body of Christ. It means that the church is the place where Christ is “located.” We have been blessed by the wondrous grace of the Triune God in which, through the Spirit we are made into the body of Christ, the place where Christ’s life – God’s future – is made available to the world. We are the body of Christ, in loving one another as he loved us and in celebrating (eucharistia) his self-giving for us as Savior. This is what it means to be the body of Christ, to love all with the love of Christ, and to give thanks to God for giving us that love.

And thus, to be the body of Christ, to be God’s embodied availability in the world is to be given a vocation: a vocation of love. The body of Christ, Jesus’ Eucharistic gift of himself is given “for you.” The definition of Christ’s body is i
t’s “for-othersness”. So, as we come together and remember the gift by which our Lord handed down to us the feast of love, the Eucharist, through which we remember him and are drawn back into participation in his life, let us allow ourselves to truly be his body. To be his body is to ultimately live by Christ’s “for-othersness”. It is to live a life of kenosis, of self-emptying out of love for the other. This is the vision that is given to us in the history of our Lord who girds himself with a towel and washes our feet. If we are to be his body, we must never be without a towel around our waist, washing the feet of our brothers and sisters, wherever they may be.

“For I have given you an example – you should do just as I have done for you.” (John 13:15)


One Comment

  1. Andrew S. Tatum wrote:

    I’m glad to have found your blog. I assume you’re the same person who writes occasionally for Ekklesia Project. I look forward to future posts.

    Saturday, April 7, 2007 at 12:06 am | Permalink

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