I imagine the disciples could sense something was different that evening. They had shared countless meals together, and often those meals would be the stage in which their rabbi performed. They had seen Him eat with elite dignitaries and social pariahs. They had heard Him forgive the sins of tax collectors and seen Him turn jars of water into wine at a wedding feast. They had witnessed Him turn a small boy’s offering into enough food to feed a hillside of thousands. That evening, when they celebrated the Passover together, it likely seemed different and particularly void of miracles and grandiose teachings. That evening, He told the disciples that one of them who had loyally followed Him for years, and had heard His teachings with his own ears, would betray Him. The tension in the room had to have been amplified by the growing hostility that they experienced from the religious elite, who were tired of hearing about this itinerant rabbi some were whispering might actually be the Messiah, the Son of Man.
In the midst of all this, Jesus reached for bread, unleavened bread that had no yeast because the Israelites’ escape from slavery left no time for bread to rise. Again, this evening, the bread would represent escape and redemption. Jesus held the bread and gave thanks, and then broke the bread so that all could share in it. He told those young men, who were wondering what life-changing message their teacher would share with them, that the bread was His body broken for them. After their meal was finished, He took the cup full of wine, and gave thanks for it. He shared it with His friends, after He told them that this cup was a sign of the new promise He was making with humanity. It was His blood, shed for them. A broken body and shed blood.
An inexplicable feeling of grief likely filled the room as those men, who had left their nets to follow this man, were wondering what would happen next. However, Jesus had left them a wonderful gift that they likely had no appreciation for until the events of the next three days were over.
He had taught them a way to give thanks and to remember.
Over the course of the 2000 years since that fateful evening, Christ’s followers have hotly debated what this meal was really all about. Some have wondered if His real flesh and blood is present in the elements of what we might call the Lord’s Supper. In the ritual of the modern Evangelical Church, we often find a simple loaf of bread and grape juice used for the elements. Despite the disagreements that stem from as far back as the early church fathers, what Christians seem to agree on is that the purpose of the meal can be found on the pages of Scripture itself. We are to give thanks and to remember.
Catholics, and many mainline Protestants, still refer to the meal by its ancient name, the Eucharist. It is a shame that many evangelicals refuse to use the word now, likely due to feelings of ritual that surround it, because the word is an appropriate label. The Greek word eucharisteo literally means to “give thanks.” It is the word used by Matthew and Mark to describe what Jesus did both in the Passover celebration and on the hillside where He multiplied those fish and loaves. It is the word Paul would use all those times he would tell a faithful church that he gave thanks to God for them, and the testimony he had heard about them. It is this word that serves as our reminder that before Christ gave the bread and wine to His disciples, He first gave His Father the small gift of His appreciation for the provision of bread and wine. It is the best translation of our English phrase “thank you.”
We too, when we take the bread in our hands, are to first simply give thanks to God both for the bread and for what it represents. Christ tells us that we are to remember Him when we eat. That includes remembering the events that followed this meal, i.e., the suffering He experienced at the hands of Roman guards, at the feeling of stark loneliness on the cross, at the death of the Son of Man, and at the victorious resurrection that gave us life. Yet we also forget to remember other things. There is the sermon He gave on the mountainside when He told His followers to love their enemies, the moment when He first forgave the sins of the paralyzed man before making him walk again, and the tears He shed with those who were grieving over the death of His friend Lazarus. We are to remember these things too and to give thanks for them.
To “give” thanks is an expectation we likely forget we have for others.
We expect a small wave from the driver of the car we allow to cut in front of us. Some of us struggle to find the right words to express gratitude when we are opening Christmas gifts in front of loved ones. That is because, ultimately, we are simply bad at saying, “thank you.” It is no wonder then that what humanity values so much, yet struggles to perform, would be something God desires to see us exercise and grow in. The habit of gratitude is one that escapes even the most “mature” Christians, yet I challenge you to think of someone who constantly practices it, who is not also the most encouraging Christian you know.
A change of mind is necessary to see this change in a believer’s life. We must realize that there is a reason the Biblical authors so often phrased this charge as to “give” thanks, and not simply to “say” thanks. Our gratitude is itself a gift regardless of how much it pales in comparison to the gift that provoked it. In the case of the parent on Christmas who has given their child something they desperately hoped to receive, that child’s “thank you” is the only thing the child could possibly give back to their parent. We are in the same position with God as He bestows eternal riches and gifts beyond our wildest imaginations. The life of obedience for the Christ follower begins with a simple “thank you” in response to the work of the cross and resurrection.
This habit of gratitude leads us to remembering as well. As we face the temptation to shipwreck our faith at every turn, we can remember that on the night in which He was betrayed, Christ took bread and broke it to symbolize His body that would be broken.
In light of this, it is easier for us to abstain from a trivial and temporary temptation that has consequences far surpassing the fleeting pleasure it might give us. Entering an American holiday season, which forces our consumerist muscles to get stronger every year, the cup which Christ gave thanks for, before explaining that His blood would give us all we could ever need, allows us the liberty to remember that we, in fact, do not need all we are told we do. God does not leave us with vague esoteric teachings that we must memorize by rote, but instead gives us bread and wine. As we look upon these all-too-common objects, He asks that we remember Him and all He has done for us.
The Church is to be a called-out-group that is defined by being eucharistic.
That is to say, we are to be both grateful and generous. Paul’s charges to the church at Corinth in his first letter implied that one of the catalysts of their many problems was a sinful view of the Eucharistic meal. It is around the table, remembering Christ, that the Church becomes one body and the Corinthians had horribly missed that. It is not foolish to say that we too have missed the mark on being known as a group defined by the broken body and shed blood of Jesus. How much more flavorful the earth would be if we, the salt, turned our minds more often to that night 2000 years ago? How much more light would our city on a hill give if wanderers were met more often with the ever-present glow of the upper room instead of the wild flashes of our modern strategy and salesmanship? How much easier would it be to persuade the world that our physical bodies were designed and sanctified by God if we regularly bowed our heads and pointed them to how Christ used His?
We can remedy this by first making more time to pause and remember, and to give thanks. Pastors can lead their congregations to the table more frequently and cease allowing the meal to be an addition to a service or a transition between a sermon and an invitation. Parents can bring their children to experience the life-giving story of the time when the disciples thought all might be lost, but Christ knew better, and so He gave them reminders to hold in their hands. Bread and juice can be in the cabinet, waiting to be brought out for a weekly remembrance.
If we desire our generosity to be cheerful and not obligatory, understanding the practice of the Eucharist, of giving thanks, is a fantastic place to start. If we want the center of our daily lives to be the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection, then choosing to live a life of gratitude and memory is the only place to start. So, take the bread and cup in your hands, say, “thank you,” and then pause to remember.