Sermon for Sunday, May 23, 2021 || Pentecost B || Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Today is the day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit inspiring the first disciples of Jesus to spread his message of love and reconciliation to people of all nations. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit happened for the disciples in the wake of Jesus’ ascension. In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells his followers that when he is no longer physically present among them, he will send the Holy Spirit to lead them into all truth. Today, on the day of Pentecost, we celebrate this sending of the Spirit. And we believe that the Holy Spirit did not just descend on those first disciples, but fills each of us with the creative imagination of God.
I can think of no better feast day of the church to share Holy Communion for the first time since March 8, 2020. Every celebration of Holy Communion is a miniature Pentecost because we believe that the Holy Spirit descends upon the gifts of bread and wine, filling them with the presence of Christ and making them his Body and Blood. Later in this service, we will pray: “Gracious God…send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant.”
Send your Holy Spirit. This Spirit connects us to one another, to all people throughout time that the Spirit’s spark has enlivened, and to the God of all creation. When we share Holy Communion with each other, we are actively participating in the life of this connecting Spirit as members of the Body of Christ. Because it has been so long since we’ve had a service of Holy Communion, I’d like to spend the rest of this sermon talking about the sacramental act that those of us here at the church are about to participate in, which I hope those of you still at home will have the opportunity to partake of soon.
The special meal we will share in a few minutes goes by many names: Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Sacrament. And they all derive from the event at which Jesus is speaking in the Gospel lesson I just read, an event we call the “Last Supper.”
Have you ever wondered why we call it that? The “Last Supper.” Probably not, because the answer seems obvious. We know from the beginning of this long section of John’s Gospel that Jesus knows his time has come. He has just sent Judas out into the night to do what he will do. When Jesus is finished talking to his disciples, he will go out to the garden, be arrested, stand trial, and be crucified. Can’t get more “Last” than Jesus’ final meal before his execution.
Jesus knows events are converging toward the climactic finale of his earthly ministry. He knows what the next day will hold if everything goes the way he expects. He also knows that even after his resurrection, he won’t be with his friends in bodily form for too long. Indeed, in today’s lesson, Jesus says, “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me.” Jesus also also knows that without some physical, tactile, sensory – what we now call “sacramental” – reminder of his continued presence through the connecting power of the Holy Spirit; without this reminder, his disciples might just forget about him over the long march of years.
Jesus understands human nature so well. How many folks from our past do we really stay in touch with? Not many. I have exactly two high school friends that I would consider lifelong because we’ve made the effort to stay in touch for all these years. Notice that phrase: “stay in touch,” which we say even when we simply mean “talk on the phone.” After a year of pandemic, “staying in touch” has gained a new level of poignancy.
“Stay in touch.” That’s what Jesus institutes in the Last Supper: staying in touch. He doesn’t want his disciples to forget about him, and that’s exactly what he says. We translate using the less emotional word “remembrance”: “Do this in remembrance of me.” But that’s not what the original language says. You all know the Greek word used here, I guarantee it. The word has been imported directly into English as “amnesia”; that is, clinical forgetfulness. Adding an “a” to a word in Greek gives you its opposite, so “amnesia” really means “don’t remember.” And the word we translate as “remembrance” gets an additional “a”; it is “anamnesia.” That is, “Don’t forget.”
That’s what Jesus really says. “Do this so you don’t forget me.” There’s a lot more grit in that version, right? You can hear his angst, his anxiety over what’s about to happen, his need to impart to his friends all the wisdom he can before the betrayer returns. “Do this so you don’t forget me.”
And we haven’t. One thousand, nine hundred and eighty-something years later, we are still sharing his meal, and we will begin again today. We are still sharing this Last Supper. We call it the Last Supper because it was Jesus’ final meal before his crucifixion, yes, but there’s another reason. We call this meal the Last Supper because it is still going on.
Let that sink in for a moment.
When we share Holy Communion with one another, we are not simply re-enacting the Last Supper. We are participating in it. Through the connecting power of the Holy Spirit, we are there with Jesus in the upper room, even as he is here with us in our sanctuary (and in our homes). As the priest, I am not standing in for Jesus. Jesus needs no understudy because Jesus is present. All he needs me to do is manipulate the physical objects in front of me. Have you ever noticed that I don’t break the bread when I narrate Jesus breaking it? I don’t break the bread then because, again, it’s not a re-enactment. It’s a participation, a sharing in the same meal that has been happening down through the ages, this same meal called the Last Supper.
Has that sunk in yet? Just imagine how many people have participated in this meal, and how many will in the future. Our loved ones alive and dead and yet unborn, our ancestors and neighbors and friends and strangers and enemies, all sharing this same meal together, this Body broken once for all – and over and over again to feed the souls of billions.
What a gift Jesus has given us in this Last Supper, this sacrament of connection with Jesus: his Body broken and shared with his Body gathered together. Today we once again share the physical element of that Body in the bread of Holy Communion. And also, this pandemic year has taught us that the Body of Christ is able to gather even when we are not physically located in the same space. The Body of Christ is able to gather across farflung distances through the connecting presence of the Holy Spirit that descended on the first disciples on the day of Pentecost and inspires us even now. At the same time, I am so glad to be sharing this tactile sacrament with you this morning. And I look forward sometime soon to sharing the same with those of you watching at home.
“Do this so you don’t forget me.” It has been over a year, but we have not forgotten. Today we return to the table. We stretch out our open hands. Jesus’ Body is placed in them. And for a moment that can stretch to fill a lifetime, we stay in touch with Jesus Christ. Every service of Holy Communion is a little Pentecost, for we stay in touch with Jesus through that connecting and inspiring presence of the Holy Spirit. And then, nourished by the sacrament, we embody that presence out in the world.