A Meal to Remember - A Reflection for Maundy Thursday (1 Corinthians 11)

1 Corinthians 11:23-26  The Message

23-26 Let me go over with you again exactly what goes on in the Lord’s Supper and why it is so centrally important. I received my instructions from the Master himself and passed them on to you. The Master, Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, took bread. Having given thanks, he broke it and said,

This is my body, broken for you.
Do this to remember me.

After supper, he did the same thing with the cup:

This cup is my blood, my new covenant with you.
Each time you drink this cup, remember me.

What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt.


                We have reached that moment in Holy Week when things really get moving, at least in most Protestant churches. This is the day we call Maundy Thursday/Holy Thursday. It is a time to remember that final meal Jesus shared with his disciples. The gospels aren’t in agreement as to whether this was the Passover meal and what took place during that meal. Paul joins the Synoptics in noting that it was at this final meal, whether Passover or not (Paul doesn’t say), Jesus instituted a supper of remembrance (John lacks that part of the story, focusing on the foot washing and the new command to love—John 13). I’ve chosen to share Paul’s version in 1 Corinthians 11 using Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message.

                Here we have the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist/Holy Communion). Paul claims he got this information directly from Jesus, and now he shares it with the Corinthians so they can know how to conduct the Lord’s Supper. Many communion services use Paul’s formula as the Words of Institution. It’s brief, direct, and provides the foundation for the meal shared in congregations near and far. What Paul doesn’t do here is define who is allowed to consecrate the elements. He’s more concerned about the behavior of the congregation, not who presides. That comes later, as early as the first decades of the second century, but not here. What Paul wants to see happen is reverence for the body of Christ—that is the congregation gathered in the name of Jesus. As such, they can share the meal of remembrance.

                We’re reminded first that this meal takes place on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. Paul doesn’t point fingers here; the Gospels provide that information. The point is: Jesus invites the community to share a meal that will remember him. Thus, as Jesus takes the loaf, gives thanks, he breaks it, and says “This is my body that is for you.” The word “is” has proven challenging because theologians have argued about it for centuries. In fact, it served as a primary sticking point in the debate between Luther and Zwingli (see my book on the Eucharist). Whether Jesus meant us to take this literally such that a change of substance takes place as the prayer is said, is a matter of dispute. I tend to embrace a form of real presence and not mere memorial, but I sense the presence is with the people and not the elements, but that’s just me). Then Jesus does the same with the cup, which is the “new covenant” in Jesus’ blood. With this said, Paul records that Jesus commands that this be done in remembrance of him as often as these elements are consumed.

                After recording Jesus’ words of institution, Paul interprets them such that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” This final interpretive statement reminds us that this is an apocalyptic meal. It’s a meal of expectation. It is something we do to remember both his death and resurrection. After all, why do this until he comes, if he is not alive. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 15, but that’s an Easter text, not a Maundy Thursday text. However, they are related.

                Paul wants his readers to know that this meal they have treated with irreverence because of their unseemly behavior, denies the promise of the meal, that Jesus who died will return, and this should not be forgotten. Thus, we read from Karl Barth’s reflection on the resurrection:

Paul’s interest is not, as in a later age, fixed on the relation of element and thing, but on the action as such. Those who take part in it thereby proclaim (upon that which they receive Paul lays no stress) that they know their Lord, that, although outwardly invisible, He is immediately present with them like that which they eat and drink. In fact, they eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord (11:27), and, indeed, of the crucified Lord, who will come again bringing with Him the end of all things, even the end of all such celebrations. Obviously what Paul means is that, during this celebration, the shadow which Christ casts over the whole of life on this side of the grave cannot be forgotten. [Barth, Karl. The Resurrection of the Dead, Wipf & Stock. Kindle loc 1029-1038.].

                So, as we gather for this meal of remembrance, let us not forget that as we share the meal, in the words of The Message translation, we "reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt." Let us, therefore, share the meal in anticipation of the return of the one whom God raised on Easter morning.

Image attribution: Saget, Father George. Last Supper, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58346 [retrieved April 13, 2022]. Original source: www.robertharding.com.


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