Have you ever had the experience where you had a conversation that seemed relatively ordinary until after the fact? Most of us have experienced this sort of retroactively meaning in our lives. Life would be different now, because what was normal ended.
I first met Leonard on an online discussion forum for those who use Apple products in ministry. The group has a good-sized user base, but remains small enough that one can actually get to know the other members. Though Leonard and I occasionally talked in the conversations on the community, I did not really get to know him until I asked a question about buying a new camera. Leonard was a passionate photographer.
Leonard had various physical disabilities and could no longer get around to all of the interesting places he told me he had once enjoyed photographing. But, he was still enthusiastic about cameras and the art of photography – and eager to help out someone interested in learning more about camera equipment.
As we talked, our conversations would stray from my quest to purchase the right DSLR camera and into theology. I came to know Leonard as a man who was also passionate about Jesus and who deeply desired to help spread the Gospel in whatever ways he could. Though he had plenty of reasons to complain about his ailments, his letters to me would never focus on his problems. Quite often, in fact, he would focus on seeing how he could be praying for me and whatever I might be dealing with.
When we chatted one day last February, I learned he was going in for a surgical procedure the next day. He downplayed the significance of it and the conversation ended like so many before. Only, it wasn’t the same. After weeks of silence from Leonard, I would finally learn that Leonard’s illnesses had gotten the best of him and he had passed away just days after that seemingly ordinary conversation.
It wasn’t an ordinary conversation, but I didn’t know that.
I reflected on this as I studied 1 Corinthians 11.23-26 last week in preparation for my Maundy Thursday homily. The disciples were clearly unaware of the weight of the meal we now call the Last Supper. Though Christ knew this supper would be a turning point, the Gospel writers repeatedly emphasize the disciples were oblivious.
In John 13.7, at the opening of the meal, the evangelist tells us that the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them. Their lack of comprehension is even clearer in Luke 22.24. After Jesus gave them the bread and the wine, clearly telling them that these elements were his body and blood being poured out as a sacrifice for them, they didn’t spend their time speaking of their gratitude to Christ. Or even trying to make sense of what Jesus meant when he talked about “this is my body” and “this is my blood.”
No, they spent their time arguing over which of the twelve of them would be the greatest. They didn’t understand that their Teacher would be killed the next day. They didn’t understand how unordinary this meal was.
In the years afterwards, the Twelve obviously started to understand and spread what Jesus had taught and commanded them all over the world. But, at the time, they couldn’t manage to keep their focus on their Lord and his love for them.
The 16th century church reformer John Calvin spoke of the continued practice of the Lord’s Supper as something that Christ gave the church because of our constant weakness in staying focused on his death and resurrection. Christ lived, suffered, died and was resurrected for us. That’s what we celebrate on Easter. The heart of the Gospel — that God loved us enough to save us at an unimaginable cost, realizing we could never earn salvation by our own good works – is proclaimed each time we come to the Eucharistic table.
But, too often, the Supper is celebrated and Christians go back to their old routines as if nothing were different. Though the meal is intended to proclaim the Gospel, many who don’t believe may look at it and wonder what the use is if Christians act no differently in response to receiving the Supper.
Thus it is that as we move past Easter, the day that Christ overcame death, believers are called to confess where we have failed and pray anew that God would enable us to demonstrate the love that he has called us to. We will continue to falter, but our inevitable failings are not an excuse to stop trying.
For those who have never believed, the Supper is a reminder of the drastic steps God took for you. He gave himself for imperfect human beings like you and like me. So, yes, those who confess his name often fall far short. But that’s the point.
Just like the disciples in the Upper Room eating that meal, we often don’t respond as we should. But, Christ didn’t come to save those who already had their lives just as they should be; he came for all of us who imperfectly, stumblingly and, yes, even reluctantly, come to him.
On Easter morning, things again were different. But, this time it wasn’t an ending, but a beginning.