It’s like living in that old game of “Telephone.” You know, the game where the first player whispers something to the next player, and on and on, until at the end what is reported is not at all like what was whispered by the first player. On the night of the Last Supper Jesus said to His disciples, “A new commandment I give you. Love one another.” Jesus said, “Love on another.” Somehow in the transmission we have heard “Be nice.” “Be nice to one another.” Indeed, “being nice,” is a tiny, tiny, tiny slice of the meaning of the word love. But…sometimes love must do what is not nice.
Growing up on the farm there were plenty of table conversations that seemed perfectly fitting for a farm family sitting down to eat together after a busy day. But as I learned—usually by a stern look from mom—some topics that were appropriate at a table on a farm were not so appropriate when one was a guest at a home in town. As a young boy it escaped me why at dinner you couldn’t talk about that dead hog that had been lying in the sun a couple days. “It’s not appropriate” came the usual answer. “It’s not a nice conversation at dinner.”
Jesus interrupts a nice dinner—a dinner where they were, in fact, guests at someone’s home—Jesus interrupts the nice supper first with words about betrayal and then with talk about blood. His blood. Not a nice topic for dinner, especially a holiday dinner like Passover.
Oh yes, in the ritual of the Passover meal there was talk of blood. The lamb’s blood smeared on the doorframes of the Israelite homes in Egypt. The blood of the firstborn Egyptian sons who would die in the culminating and liberating plague. Plenty of talk of blood at Passover.
And yet…after a couple thousand years (2000 years in Jesus’ own day!) that ritualized talk of blood kind of drifted in one ear and out the other. Perhaps not all that different than in our day when a pastor recites, “Our Lord Jesus Christ on the night in which He was betrayed…” Words…that have a way of drifting in one ear and right out the other.
“This is My Blood,” the pastor recites the words of Jesus. It is talk of blood at the supper table. But who, after two thousand years, gags at the thought of drinking blood? Whereas Jesus performed the miracle of turning water into wine, we have managed to turn the blood of the Holy Supper into something “nice.”
We spiritualize the words. “This is My Blood.” “Well not really…it’s only wine, it’s just a symbol.” When Jesus said “is” He didn’t really mean “is.” Or we make Jesus’ words nice by turning them into a theological doctrine. And we can argue passionately about the real presence of Christ. It really is His body and blood…and then we eat and drink it we nary a moment’s hesitation of gagging. The Supper has become “nice.”
When Jesus spoke these words, “This is My blood shed for you” the temple was still standing in Jerusalem. When Jesus said these words the disciples‘ already-troubled minds exploded with sensory ramifications.
When Jesus said these words the disciples could still smell the sacrifices at the temple. That aroma of all those animal body parts burning on the altar. The smell of smoke. The pungent aroma of burning animal fat and meat mingled with various incense and oils.
When Jesus spoke these words the disciples could still hear the sacrifices at the temple. All those priests chanting the words of offering, not together but in a cacophony of words, together with the cries of the captive animals and the great noise they made as their throats were cut and their blood poured out.
When Jesus spoke these words the disciples could still see the sacrifice a the temple…blood…lots of blood. “Oooh, that’s not a nice topic before Supper.” Maybe not nice. But it is the graphic power of Jesus’ love.
Often times, in ages past—ages that were not so demonically fixated on antiseptic sterility as our age—the paintings above the altar (especially among early Lutherans) were rather graphic portrayals of the crucifixion, placed for people to ponder as they knelt at the rail. And often times in the symbolism of that art a figure would be standing at the foot of the cross holding a communion chalice as blood streamed from Jesus’ body into the cup. One wonders how many people who knelt there gagged at that image…or how many were simply oblivious to the significance of the painting!
The point of all of this “not nice” conversation before supper is not to repel folks from the holy meal, to make anyone lose their appetite. Rather this pointed imagery is to shatter our tendency to spiritualize our faith. When we think that the forgiveness of our sins just kind of floats around in the atmosphere…we have spiritualized the faith. When Jesus Himself becomes conceived as being vaguely everywhere and nowhere…we have spiritualized the faith. When faith itself becomes only a thing in the heart, a feeling of some sort of inexplicable description…we have spiritualized our faith. It is nice…but it is not true.
Jesus spoke the words He spoke to rivet the disciples into comprehending that all the sights and sounds and smells of sacrifice—the sights and sounds and smells of death—at the temple were now His. Jesus spoke these words to rivet our attention on that which we eat and drink at the rail. It is not nice spirituality. It is death and life itself. Not spiritual death and life, but real body, as real as our own body, death and life.
Jesus spoke these startling words that the disciples and we know the our sins are forgiven, that we know we have eternal life, not because we think these thoughts but because we eat and drink Him who forgives our sins. We eat and drink Him who is life itself.
Martin Luther recalled that the first time after his ordination that he presided at the Sacrament of the Altar he had to hold tightly to the altar lest he turn and run from what he was doing. The eternal God, the holy Son, was present with him. Not spiritually present. Not hovering somewhere nearby. The Christ, the One who opens and no one can close, who closes and no one can open; the living Christ was present as truly as the bread and wine Luther held in his hands, present in that bread and wine he held in his hands. It terrified Luther…for he had not yet discovered the Gospel, that the Christ is present with grace, not with judgment.
It might be nice to say, “Oh just think some thoughts about Jesus…just feel in your heart that Jesus is with you…just sit back and absorb the good vibrations that Jesus is giving off.” That’s so nice!
But love does not do that. Our sin is forgiven not because we believe it is forgiven. It is forgiven because we eat and drink Him who forgives our sins. We have eternal life not because we believe we have eternal life. We have eternal life because we eat and drink Him who is the Alpha and the Omega, Him who is life.
Nice-ness may conjure up pleasant feelings and illusions. But Jesus said, “Love one another.” And love speaks of what is real. Of what is tangible. Of what may repulse, yet at the same time attract. Love speaks of Jesus. Of His blood. Of His life. For us to eat and to drink.