Part of me is surprised at the brevity of this passage. Here is this important moment in Jesus’ ministry that we remember every Sunday (or at least once a month, depending on your church’s tradition) and Matthew spends a mere four verses on it. It seems so deceptively simple and straight forward. Four verses and over a thousand years of conflict about whether the communion elements were actually becoming Christ’s body and blood through transubstantiation or transmutation. I remember these questions being a very big deal in my early Christian experience because to question the miracle of communion that the priest performed each Sunday was to question the whole foundation of the Faith. Not that our opinions were going to change the welfare of the Church, but I remember some very heated arguments.
My current fellowship offers a communion table every Sunday but it’s off to one side and done in a private way during the last part of the service during the worship music following the message. My previous fellowship seemed to break ranks with our Vineyard/Calvary Chapel heritage and had communion every Sunday following the message with single worship song. I have to smile because I know how Protestants are so insistent, several hundred years after Martin Luther, to maintain a belief that they have no rituals or “ceremonies” and that it’s all about the personal spontaneous relationship with our God. In some podcast by J. Vernon McGee I heard him go on against the dead rituals that the 1st century Jews had built up. He’s right, we do need that personal connection with the Almighty, but he seems to forget that even personal relationships need ritual or familiarity to move past those awkward first moments of not understanding.
Ritual is one of the things that we humans do. It’s the sound of a loved one’s voice coming from the door at the end of the day. It’s the familiar hand held in the darkened theater during a movie. It’s a Christmas carol (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse) sung outside ones door during the holiday season. It’s saying “I love you” before hanging up the phone. We take something that takes a lot of time spent and perhaps endless conversations and compress it into a gesture or symbol. If done with the right heart none of the meaningfulness or depth or importance is lost. It’s wrong headed to think that this is just wrong because some of us have forgotten the depth or meaning behind the symbol, gesture or ritual. And in the church, no matter how we attempt to skate around it, whenever we do something (greeting, three songs, announcements, message, three songs/communion/offering, concluding bless/prayer), if we do it more than once, it become ritual. And that’s okay.
Jesus knew that and he took the millennia old passover meal and institute a new observation, a new memorial. He connected something that was part of their heritage to something that he was going to do for them (and us) in the future. He took the familiar, some might say mundane, elements of this meal and gave them new meaning. He was also answering, in advance, the question of why he was going to die. Through this new institution he was connecting his death with the Passover sacrifice. Simple bread and wine become reminders of our Savior’s sacrifice so that we can share in his Father’s kingdom. Jesus took a ritual and made it his own and that’s what we remember every Sunday: the sacrifice behind the ritual. JBB 07/04/2007