People love potlucks. I heard it in Texas and I’ve heard it here. Potlucks have ancient origins. The Corinthian church received the Lord’s Supper in close connection with a potluck.
Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 11, except he yells at the Corinthians: “I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.” Paul has heard that the potlucks leading to the Lord’s Supper have degenerated into orgies of overeating and drunkenness. The rich didn’t share with the poor. Pride and selfishness ruled the day and they dared to call it “the Lord’s Supper.” Paul stripped them of that: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat.” So Paul reteaches them: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.”
Fifteen hundred years later the same thing happened. The potlucks were gone, but the Lord’s Supper had become a place of “sacrilegious profit”. The Lord’s Supper became the Mass. It was the place where the priest offered a sacrifice on behalf of the living and the dead; a place where money could buy you or a loved one escape from purgatory, not just now, but even after you died. The Lord’s Supper became something done to earn rewards from God. It had fallen, in Luther’s words, under “the tyranny of the pope.”
Then a new problem developed. The Church had distanced the offending potlucks from the Lord’s meal. The Lutheran Reformation purged the Lord’s Supper of its sacrificial aspects and made it once again an arrow-down, God’s gift to me, for my forgiveness, sacrament. The compulsion of earning time out of purgatory and paying for the privilege of doing so was gone. But now that it was free, people abused that freedom.
In the late 1520s, Luther, with the help of others, traveled throughout Germany visiting congregations and pastors, trying to learn how things were going and what still needed doing. He returned depressed. “Mercy! Dear God, what great misery I beheld! The common person, especially in the villages, has no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine. And unfortunately, many pastors are completely unable and unqualified to teach….Yet, everyone says that they are Christians, have been baptized, and receive the holy Sacraments, even though they cannot even recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed or the Ten Commandments. They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs. Now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all freedom like experts.”
Things haven’t changed that much. Put on the spot, could we recite the Creed, the Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer? With catechism explanations? Could we even recite the books of the Bible? More, could we articulate the doctrines of the Scriptures that set us apart from other churches and religions? Certainly faith isn’t just bare knowledge and historical facts. Even the demons know these things James writes. But faith is also about knowledge. It’s not godly to say, “Jesus loves me, this I know, and this is all I want to know,” and ignore the Bible’s teachings. We might as well run back to the pope then, say, “I believe what the Church believes,” and assume we’re getting into heaven because we’ve danced the right steps and signed the right forms. And you know what happens when you assume. In this case, hell.
No wonder, then, when Paul retaught the Corinthians, he emphasized remembering and recognizing. The Lord’s Supper makes us think. “Do this in remembrance of me.” “You proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” “A man ought to examine himself.” We eat and we remember. We remember Jesus and his death. We remember that he gave his body and his blood. For us. We remember to do this worthily and properly, that is, knowing what it is and why we need it: Christ’s body and blood, given up for my sins, given to me for my forgiveness. I test and try myself according to God’s Word and must find myself needing this.
This doesn’t make the Lord’s Supper arrow-up; us doing something for God. It emphasizes that this meal is the Lord’s thing, the Lord’s Supper, from the Lord to us, so we treat it that way.
We treat it with the awe our Lenten hymns teach: “Oh sorrow dread, God’s Son is dead.” When we eat this meal we confess that truth: God died for us, for me. He came down to do this, to die for me.
And he will come again. In this meal we proclaim the Lord’s death “until he comes,” and in so doing we proclaim the resurrection of our Lord. “Until he comes,” reminds us that he rose from the dead and that a day is coming when remembering ends, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” On that day, the day of resurrection for us, Christ promises that he will eat this meal anew with us in the Father’s kingdom where faith is gone and hope is gone, because we will see and know what we have so long only believed: eternal life, with God, seeing him as he is, being as God intended us to be: immortal, incorruptible, imperishable.
Not because we’re so good, but because God is so good. In the Apology to the Augsburg Confession we say about this meal: “The Sacraments are signs of God’s will toward us and not merely signs of people among one another.” It’s easy to turn the meal just into something I do, either to be seen doing it or because it’s happening today. That fails to examine ourselves. As if it’s just something personal and private or mechanical. In this meal God comes and delivers to us the precious medicine we need, or, in the words of the Large Catechism, the “precious antidote against the poison that they have in them.” Sin poisons me. Maybe it doesn’t come out in potluck drunkenness or trying to buy my dead uncle into heaven. But it’s there. We examine ourselves according to God’s Word and the Spirit convicts us. We find ourselves poisoned. Dying.
But then Paul passes on what he received from the Lord. “Take this bread, eat it. Take this wine, drink it. It’s the body and blood of Christ. For you. Remember that. Know that. See that. Taste it. Taste the death of Jesus for you. Taste the life of Christ for you. The life he gave; the life he took up again.”
That’s the Lord’s Supper. God prepares a table before you in the presence of your enemies: the devil, the world, and your own flesh. And they can’t harm you or touch this table. They can’t spoil this food. It’s a divine medicine, God’s medicine, for eternal life. That’s God’s promise, valid “until he comes,” at which time he will take his believers to the wedding supper of the Lamb. No longer poisoned. No longer sick. No longer dying, but alive, through Christ and only through Christ, the life of all the living, the death of death our foe. Take, eat, his body, for you. Drink it, his blood. For you. For forgiveness, life. The potluck continues. Amen.