Thursday, May 28, 2015

What’s coming…

Every Sunday, we take Communion. You know this. But do you listen closely to the words our Servant Leaders say? Technically, they’re “The Words of Institution.” Different churches use different versions, but they’re mostly either a quotation of 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, or based upon it. Fun fact: those verses are taped to the cross on our communion table, in case someone needs help!

They begin, “On the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread…” The passage continues with a retelling of that last supper; Christ breaking the bread, sharing the cup. But the final words aren’t a quotation from Jesus. They’re what Paul (the author) wrote to the Corinthians as a summation of this story. He said, “(A)s often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.”

To many, that’s the most confusing part of Communion. Assuming, that is, they’re still paying attention! I’ll be honest, I used to hate that last part when it was my turn to preside. I’ve even- Paul, forgive me- left it out before. Now, instead, I change it slightly. I add something to that final verse that communicates my understanding of Paul’s meaning- “…you proclaim the Lord’s victory over death…” See what I did there?! You decide if it’s clever or blasphemous. But more interesting, I think, is that last phrase, “until he comes again.”

In Sunday School recently, we discussed Paul’s understanding of the Second Coming. Specifically, we listened to an NPR interview with John Dominic Crossan, a scholar of early Christian history (whose Irish accent is awesome). In it, he said something about that spooky doctrine I found rather profound. First, recall the way many folk understand Jesus’ return. They predict that someday soon or otherwise, he’ll come to earth and the world will end in violent tribulation and mass death. To which, Crossan responded, “Such people seemingly refuse to accept the First Coming. As if Christ’s non-violent acceptance of crucifixion was a mistake. They want Jesus to come back and do it right this time, by killing all the evildoers.”

Interesting perspective. To be fair to those who pine for Jesus’ violent return, there’s fodder for that in the New Testament. Paul himself obviously thought that, in his lifetime, Jesus’ reappearance would create a sudden, permanent transformation of society. He was wrong, obviously. But Crossan’s point wasn’t to laugh at Paul’s poor prediction. That’s secondary to Paul’s wiser instinct that the “End of Days” wasn’t to be a bloody cosmic battle fought outside Jerusalem. Rather, the “End of Days” (in Jesus’ words, “The Kingdom of God,” a social order ruled by compassion and love, not violence and greed) was already at hand, had begun with Christ’s first coming. And whatever fight it required would occur in the hearts of God’s children.

I love that! Why assume a Second Coming if you’re convinced the first one worked great?! That Jesus already conquered death, already overcame sin, already ushered his followers into life eternal, which began the moment they accepted God’s Love. Did Jesus fail by not leaving the cross, killing the Romans and setting himself up as King? No! Instead, he revealed the ultimate, radical truth that God’s peace is stronger than war, that compassion will defeat fear, that love won’t ever be beaten, no matter how terrifying the present looks, how long the bending arc of justice.

In other words, from the eternal perspective, troubles look different. And while that doesn’t mean our hurts are trivial- God knows our trials real and hard- because Jesus came, we can live with confidence that we’ll make it, that we’re never alone if we let ourselves be known. So here’s how I now understand that final, elusive Communion phrase. Next time someone says, “…you proclaim the Lord’s (victory over) death, until he comes again,” remember that Jesus is ever-poised to “come again” into your heart, your life, if you ask his power to guide you, his hope to uplift you, his joy to strengthen you, his truth to set you free. That’s a second coming I look forward to. And third, and fourth, and forever!

Grace and Peace,
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