Passing on the traditions

Original photo by Gary Scott
Original photo by Gary Scott

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  (1 Cor 11:23-26, NRSV)

Whenever I read this passage, the phrase “words of institution” automatically comes to mind: it’s the liturgical lead-in to the ritual of remembrance that we variously call “communion” or “the Lord’s Supper” or the “Eucharist.”  I myself have used these words when I’ve had the privilege of presiding.

But that phrase brings its own associations.  Even though I know better, I begin thinking “institutionally,” as if Paul’s intent was to write a policy and procedures manual for the Corinthian church: No, no, no — don’t do it that way, do it this way.

He is, of course, concerned about their behavior, and has some concrete suggestions as to what to do differently.  But the point of reminding them of the tradition he’s already handed on is to immerse them again into the ongoing story.

Something happened between Jesus and his disciples in that Upper Room.  A Passover meal was celebrated; words were spoken.  After the resurrection and the birth of the church at Pentecost, after congregations of converts began dotting the Empire, stories of that meal were told and retold among Christians who gathered in faithfulness to the Lord’s command to remember.  Paul’s words here are probably the first time the oral tradition was written down; the gospels would not be written until many years later.

For Paul, this is a living, breathing tradition.  But sadly, the problem we see in Corinth may parallel the problem we still experience today: the tradition became emptied of substance; the ritual became mere religion, something we do to make us feel more “spiritual” without any transformation of how we think or behave.

What are we doing when we take the Lord’s Supper together?  We are remembering.  We are proclaiming.  But these in turn are based on Jesus’ reclamation and reinterpretation of the Passover.  Thus, in subsequent posts, we’ll play out these three themes: reinterpretation, remembrance, proclamation.