Being a minister in a church which practices infant Baptism, I’m often asked, “Why doesn’t the church develop a sacrament in which we can make an adult commitment to Jesus?” My answer comes quickly: “We already have one!” (And I’m not referring to Confirmation.) The Christian sacrament of adult commitment is the Eucharist. Listening to tonight’s second and third readings, there’s no doubt Jesus’ early followers regarded their participation in the Lord’s Supper as a total giving of themselves to the message and ministry of the risen Jesus. They were convinced that they most became other Christs during the Breaking of Bread.
As good Jews, Jesus’ first disciples were quite familiar with symbolic acts of faith, acts which joined them not only to those around them, but also to their ancestors who originally developed and professed that faith.
Tonight’s Exodus passage, for instance, is part of the yearly celebration of Judaism’s most important faith event: Passover. By Jesus’ day and age, the Chosen People had been celebrating this climactic act of freedom for over 1,200 years, yet each time Jews heard these words they believed they were actually transported back to that original night in Egypt. They weren’t just listening to their ancestors’ commitment. They themselves were making that same commitment.
Though three of the five biblical accounts of the Lord’s Supper place this meal in the context of a Passover celebration, tonight’s I Corinthians’ passage and John’s Last Supper narrative don’t. Paul mentions nothing about Passover in this pericope; John locates Passover on Good Friday, not Holy Thursday. Yet that doesn’t stop these two authors from applying the same principle of universal and timeless participation to what happened at the Last Supper. Just as Jews, centuries after the Passover, could agree to put their faith in Yahweh’s freeing them from slavery, so Jesus’ followers could put themselves in the Upper Room 30 or 60 years after that first Holy Thursday gathering. They could make the same commitment the men and women made who participated in that original meal.
What is that commitment? Notice that Jesus doesn’t say what we have come to expect him to say over the cup. Instead of stating, “This is my blood!” he proclaims, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Though most scholars believe the early church added “new” to Jesus’ words, he’s still expressing his belief that those who take from his cup are committing themselves to the same covenant to which he binds himself during that last meal. When we drink from the cup we’re making a commitment to carry on his covenant, his work.
John tells us what’s at the heart of carrying on Jesus’ work. “Do you understand what I just did for you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and fittingly enough, for that is what I am. But if I washed your feet - I who am teacher and Lord - then you must wash each other’s feet. What I did was to give you an example: as I have done, so you must do.”
The encounter with Peter during the foot washing is essential to John’s theology. Peter is basically telling Jesus, “If I were in your place, I’d never do such a stupid thing.” Jesus’” my way or the highway” response is based on his conviction that one day Peter and all his disciples will be “in his place,” and literally by God, they’d better wash one another’s feet.
If we’re content to go through life just worshipping Jesus, we can always pass on the Eucharistic cup. Those who dare to imitate him receive it as an essential part of their adult commitment to Jesus’ faith.