Every century has its own great Christian prophets, and among the most notable and effective Christian spokesmen of the twentieth century was the Russian writer and political prisoner Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent years in a Stalinist prison camp in Siberia. He tells of being among a group of prisoners riding to their horrible destination at the prison camp and stopping to stretch their legs at a train station enroute. The prisoners were huddled together, isolated from the general public in a feeble attempt to disprove the existence of such prisoners or such a destination. But old ladies in that community knew of the prisoners’ existence, having seen previous groups of prisoners huddled there, and they came equipped with gifts of mercy and sustenance, bundles of clothing, packages of bread and meat. While Solzhenitsyn and his comrades were huddled in the cold, an elderly woman came bearing loaves of bread. The sadistic guards would not let her near these men bound for the gulag, so, elderly though she was, she attempted to throw her bundles of bread to the hungry prisoners. But her ambition was stronger than her arm. Plop; plop; plop; plop; plop, plop — the bundles of bread fell short of their intended audience, out of the prisoners’ reach. The guards wouldn’t let the prisoners retrieve the bread. Solzhenitsyn ended his account tersely: “The holy bread was left to lie in the dust.”
A sadness permeates that story, and a similar sadness permeates what we call the Lord’s Supper. The central images of broken bread, symbolizing Jesus’ broken body, and wine poured out, symbolizing Jesus’ shed blood – these images speak to us of the costliness of God’s love. In the Supper, the mundane mingles with the mystical: bread is common and real; wine is common and real; suffering is common and real. The brokenness of our Lord’s body mirrors the brokenness of our world. Our God has deemed us strong enough to be free, but God has also deemed us to be strong enough to be vulnerable, strong enough to suffer. Every week we experience the brokenness that besets our caring community of faith. Our hearts are saddened by deaths that diminish our congregation. Every week we hear of new illnesses diagnosed, new infections detected, new surgeries endured, new diagnoses shared. The brokenness of Christ underscored in the Supper speaks to the brokenness experienced in every community of faith.
But through the vehicle of his Supper, our Lord reminds us that his suffering is not purposeless. Rather, our Lord’s suffering is suffering for, suffering for us. He declares, “This is my body which is given for you. This is my blood which is shed for you.” The suffering our Lord endures, as symbolized by the Supper, expresses the very purposeful intent of God. Likewise, whatever we suffer, whatever might be our particular cross, it is not meant to be purposeless. Rather, we seek to transform our suffering into a cross that we can bear to God’s glory. We seek to turn our suffering into a burden that we bear for Christ, glorifying God in the process.
But I wonder, how often do we leave the holy bread uneaten? Judas probably ate of the bread served to the disciples that evening, but he left the holy bread uneaten. Our Lord was summoning his disciples to see this meal as a summons to take up their own particular cross, to be willing to die with him. Jesus is always beckoning us to die not once, but daily, to die daily to self, and to take up the cross of living in behalf of the virtues of the Kingdom of God. How often do we hear the summons of Christ, “Take and eat,” but we turn a deaf ear, because we do not want to pay the price of true discipleship? How often do we prefer to follow our own agenda, rather than that of our Lord? How often do we leave the holy bread uneaten? For to partake of this Supper is to willingly vow, ‘I will die to self and take up your cross of service, O Lord.’ That is why our Lord says to us, “Whenever you eat this meal, you do so in remembrance of me.”
Almost every Friday, on my day off, when I drive back from the golf course, I pass the prison in Perry. I often see the inmates walking the well-worn path just inside the barbed-wire fence that defines their circumscribed world. Sometimes, I see a group of prisoners hanging on the fence, looking through it, out upon the world of freedom. I wonder, how often do these men think about the fact there was a time in their lives when they heard the summons of God to walk the straight and narrow – but they left that holy bread uneaten. There was a time when God summoned them to use their time and talents to maximize their gifts, but they left that holy bread uneaten. Now, they longingly look out through that fence into the world of freedom. But I cannot help but ask, how much do we do with our freedom?
Our Christ comes to us this morning to remind us, “I am the Bread of Life.” Our Lord comes to us broken, to speak to our particular brokenness. He comes to us broken, to speak to the brokenness endured by every community of faith that not only laughs with those who laugh, but also weeps with those who weep. Christ comes to summon us, ‘Take and eat. Die to self. Take my cross and truly use your freedom for the sake of my Kingdom.’ It is that summons that we hear this morning as we approach this table.