It is the first of the social graces. We all teach our children to say, “thank you.” It is second nature to so many of us when we deal with each other, with strangers, with almost everyone. It ought to be second nature when we speak with God as well.
Francis Frangipane said, “It does not matter what your circumstances are; the instant you begin to thank God, even though your situation has not changed, you begin to change. The key that unlocks the gates of heaven is a thankful heart.” [Frangipane, The Shelter of the Most High, 2008, ] Todd Stocker says that “thankfulness creates gratitude which creates contentment that causes peace.” [
I asked you to tell me some of the things for which you are thankful. Here are some of your responses: Family; a warm house; my heavenly Father’s sovereignty, omniscience, and wisdom; friends; the strength given by the Holy Spirit; a new church home where the Holy Spirit meets, nourishes, and equips me; a place to serve God; many happy memories; those special people God places in our lives when we need them; the power of the Holy Spirit that has opened my eyes and led me to this new congregation and church; freedom; a country that gives us freedom to worship; God’s provision; a father devoted to his children; the gift of godly, loving daughters; forgiveness; a fulfilling and challenging life; that my children serve the Lord; opportunity; Dad and Mom and friends and of course my sisters and my cats; and dogs; God’s provision of manna for the day; health; for the Lord drawing me near to Him by guiding me on my walk.
This is Thanksgiving week, and you may have been expecting a familiar sermon about harvest and provision and being thankful for the many blessings God bestows on us. I believe that, and you should be thankful.
You may have been surprised, and you may be wondering, why I just read the passage about the Last Supper on this Sunday before Thanksgiving. The story of the Last Supper is familiar. You hear Jim and me recite it or most of it whenever we share the Lord’s Supper together, just as you heard when we celebrated communion in our service today. You probably think you know it by heart.
The Lord’s Supper is an ordinance in our church and in other like-minded congregations, and it is a sacrament in others, where the belief in the “miracle of the mass,” or transubstantiation, expresses the idea that the bread and the wine actually transform into the body and blood of Christ. For us, this bread is always bread, and this juice is always juice, but the symbolism is incredibly important. Jesus tells us that the bread is His body and the cup contains His blood. His order to us – what our ordinance requires – is to do this, as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, in remembrance of Him.
What we call the Lord’s Supper has several names. The name “Lord’s Supper” conveys the important idea that this is the table of Jesus, that He is our host, that we have celebrated and followed this ordinance because of His command. It is called by some the Mass or the Divine Service, both of which suggest the idea of our being sent out to serve the Kingdom of God. Some call it the Blessed Sacrament or the Breaking of Bread. The term “communion” focuses on what happens to us as a church body, and as fellow Christians, when we come together at the Lord’s table to share this symbolic meal. We are united in Christ’s death and resurrection. Communion is a rough translation of the Greek word in 1 Corinthians 10:16 that your Bible renders as “participation” or “sharing.” In the 19th Century, many American protestant churches referred to the event as the Christian Passover.
There is another word for this ordinance, this communion. It is the word Eucharist. It is derived from the Greek word for thanksgiving, Eucharistia. We tend to think of “Eucharist” as a Catholic term, but that is not its origin. Early Christian writers like Justin Martyr and Ignatius of Antioch used the designation, and much of Christianity preferred that expression long after the Reformation.
Have you ever thought about that, that this ordinance that we share bears the title of the Holiday coming up – Thanksgiving? Eucharist and “Thanksgiving” mean the same thing.
That brings us to our scripture, you know the one you have memorized. What does it say? You know that it says that Jesus took the bread and broke it and said, “This is my body which is broken for you.” You know that he took the cup and said, “This is the new covenant in my blood, shared for you.”
But there is something else. Before Jesus did those things, He gave thanks. In our Matthew passage as well as in Mark, the English Standard Version says He “blessed” the bread and gave thanks before pouring the wine. In Luke, He “gave thanks” for both. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul explains it this way:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also He took the cup, 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 Corinthians 11:23-26]
You see, the term Eucharist comes not because we happen to have celebrated this ordinance during the week before Thanksgiving but because Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper by giving thanks.
When we share the Lord’s Supper, we are engaging in Thanksgiving.
That has been an eye-opening idea for me this week. I have always revered the Lord’s Supper as an important thing that we do in church. Gena and I took communion as a part of our wedding ceremony, because we wanted that to be the first thing we did as a married couple. I remember hearing a moving devotional when I was in college about what Paul means when he tells us not to take the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. It has always been important to me.
But I had not thought about it as an act of Thanksgiving. I want to explore that with you today.
First, we have to ask why Jesus gave thanks at the Last Supper. As with all prayers of Jesus, we must face the trinitarian mystery of why one person of the godhead prayed to another, and we recognize that the reason we call it a mystery is because the answer is not always clear to us. But we can say that Jesus was fully human, and His fully human side prayed to God the father, modeling prayer and thanksgiving for us all.
But why this prayer? And why now?
Well, perhaps it was just habit. Maybe we should conclude that Jesus was simply blessing the food, much as we do when we sit down as a family. We know that Jesus blessed food at the feedings of the five thousand and the four thousand. But other than those two miracles and at the Last Supper, when else do we have examples of Jesus giving thanks for a meal? We know that when He ate with the two disciples He met on the road to Emmaus, he broke the bread and blessed it. Otherwise, the answer to the question of “where in scripture did Jesus bless the food” is “nowhere.” Jesus ate with the publicans and prostitutes at Matthew’s house, and there is no record of His saying a blessing. He walked through the grain fields on the Sabbath eating the grain, with not a blessing in sight. He did not say grace at the wedding feast at Cana, so far as we know. Right after He disappeared from the Emmaus disciples, He reappeared in the upper room and had fish with the apostles, and Luke says nothing about His thanking God for the food. After the resurrection, Jesus had breakfast with the apostles on the shore of the lake, and there is no mention of a prayer of thanks. My point is not a big one – He may well have said the blessing every time, but the only times the gospel writers find it important to point out are the moments when it was associated with a miracle – the great feedings and the post-resurrection Emmaus experience – and here, at the Last Supper.
This tie to the miraculous may be something. Can you think of the only other time when we have an express thanksgiving from Jesus to the Father? It is in John 11, right before He raised Lazarus from the dead. Before big miracles, Jesus was seen giving thanks.
Another reason we can offer for Jesus’s giving thanks is that He was a student of scripture, and the importance of Thanksgiving is a key theme of the Old Testament passages that He would have learned as a boy. The ancient Hebrews offered sacrifices of thanksgiving. [Leviticus 7:12-15] David appointed individuals to the specific task of thanksgiving to God. [1 Chronicles 16:7-8] After Solomon had completed the temple, it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to give thanks to God. [2 Chronicles 5:13] When Jeremiah prophesied the redemption from exile, he foresaw the cries of thanksgiving to God. [Jeremiah 30:19] Old Testament characters as diverse as Hezekiah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Amos, and Daniel modeled thanksgiving for us. And we have already heard the prophetic thanksgiving of Isaiah read aloud.
Then, of course, we have the Psalms. Psalm 9:1 – "I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart." Psalm 28:7 - "The Lord is my strength and my shield; … my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to Him." Psalm 30:4 – "Sing praises to the Lord, o you saints, and give thanks to His holy name." Psalm 92:1 – "It is good to give thanks to the Lord." Psalm 100:4 – "Enter His gates with thanksgiving." And repeatedly, this refrain, as in Psalm 118:29 – "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever!"
Jesus clearly had plenty of good religious training in thanksgiving, as do we.
But this was not a great miracle event, and it was not a Sabbath worship service. This was the Last Supper, on a Thursday. Why did Jesus offer thanks here, now, this night?
To answer that question, we need to examine the Bible a little to make sure we know the background. Our passage comes from Matthew’s gospel, and there, as in Mark, the story appears right after Jesus’s anointing at Bethany. He told the disciples to prepare the upper room, and then the verses jump to the blessing
Luke gives us more detail, telling us that Jesus told His friends, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” [Luke 22:15] John does not mention the meal or the blessing at all, instead focusing on Jesus’s washing the disciples’ feet, instructing them to be servants, and giving them their new command to love one another. [John 13:1-34]
For what was Jesus thankful that night?
Well, I am going to respectfully disagree with those commentators who write that Jesus was thankful that He was heading to the cross, that His time on earth was ending, that He was given the opportunity to shed His blood for the sins of the world. Hear me well – Jesus went to the cross willingly, and He took the sins of the world on Himself on purpose. But I do not believe He did it happily or gratefully. He did it because He had to, because no one else would or could, because the atonement of the world depended on God’s sacrificing His Son – Himself in human flesh - for the remission of sins. He did it because He loves us. But Jesus prayed – in agony, sweat drops of blood falling from His brow, just hours before that walk up the Via Dolorosa – to be delivered from the trip, and His words on the cross were anything but grateful when He cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
No, I do not believe that Jesus at the Last Supper was giving thanks for His upcoming death.
Well, then, maybe He was giving thanks for the chance to be with His friends one last time. Yes, that is part of it. He had earnestly, eagerly desired to spend this time with them – even with one who would betray Him, another who would deny Him, eleven who would not stand at the foot of the cross with His mother, one who would hang himself as the others cowered in that same upper room for fear of the Romans. Yes, they were His friends, and yes, He loved them, in spite of themselves.
And perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Perhaps Jesus was not thankful for anything but instead was thankful in the moment. When Paul wrote for us to give thanks in all circumstances. [1 Thessalonians 5:18], maybe he was thinking of Christ on the eve of His trial, offering thanks to God. Perhaps Jesus was not thankful for His circumstances but nonetheless thankful in His circumstances.
Yes, there is something to that. Jesus had food, He had friends, He had a loving Father who, even in that moment, had His Son’s destiny close in His hands, and Jesus was thankful.
So, we are putting some answers together. Jesus gave thanks at the Last Supper because He was modeling thanksgiving for us. He was blessing the food as was His grateful habit, because He was following the teachings of scripture, because He was sharing a special time with His closest friends, and because He was the very model of being thankful in all circumstances.
But there is even more here. This Last Supper was unique, and Jesus’s words here were on purpose. Let’s turn back to Luke’s account:
And when the hour came, He reclined at table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And He took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise, the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood…. You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom. [Luke 22:14-20, 28-29]
And now we have come back full circle to how we have worshiped today, celebrating this Lord’s Supper, this holy communion, this Eucharist together. We have shared the bread and the cup, and we have shared the words of Christ. We have given thanks.
Jesus tells us, as often as we do this, to do it in remembrance of Him.
What are we thankful for? Yes, we are thankful for food and friends, for every good and perfect gift that comes down from the Father of heavenly lights. [James 1:17]
But friends, we are thankful most basically, and most importantly, and I hope most enthusiastically for what happened on that cross. When Jesus says, “This is my body, broken for you,” He means that what happened on that cross was for us because we could not save ourselves, and doing it literally would break Him. When He tells us that the cup is the “new covenant in [His] blood,” he is not joking around. This is not kids’ stuff. He died on that cross. It literally would cost Him His blood.
He was not thankful for it, but we certainly are.
Here are some other answers you gave me about what you are thankful for: Jesus; my eternal destiny that God has promised through Jesus Christ; salvation; a lifetime relationship with the Lord; renewed hope; assurance of my home in heaven.
Yes, we are thankful, and we remember. We must not come to the table unworthily, because in so doing we trivialize what is symbolized here. Jesus died. Jesus shed His blood.
For you and for me. As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we do show the Lord’s death until He comes.
In remembrance of me, eat this bread.
In remembrance of me, drink this wine.
In remembrance of me, pray for the time when God’s own will is done.
In remembrance of me, heal the sick.
In remembrance of me, feed the poor.
In remembrance of me, open the door, and let your brother in.
Take, eat, and be comforted.
Drink, and remember too that this is my body and precious blood shed for you.
In remembrance of me search for truth.
In remembrance of me, always love.
In remembrance of me, don’t look above but in your heart for God.
Do this in remembrance of me.
[Ragan Courtney, “In Remembrance,” 1972]
Jesus gave thanks because His time had come. He was not grateful for suffering. He was not longing for death. He desperately wanted the cup to be taken from Him. But he gave thanks that His children, His brothers, His apostles, His followers … you and I … were about to be saved and would finally begin to understand what it means to love. To feed the poor and search for truth. It was going to be done in remembrance of Him. He eagerly desired this last meal because He knew that this ragtag bunch of fisherman and tax collectors and zealots were on the cusp of launching the church, of sparking something that is still going strong, something built on the rock of that great confession that Jesus is the Christ, something against which the gates of hell shall not prevail.
The gospels make a point of this thanksgiving of Jesus because the writers, looking back on this Supper as they write from the other side of the resurrection, see how everything was orchestrated. They finally understand what Jesus saw, where He was headed, what He knew was about to happen, what God was about to do. They are telling the story of salvation.
Yes, Jesus gave thanks when a great miracle was in the offing. Feeding thousands, raising Lazarus, giving rise to the church. Thanksgiving, Eucharist, happens just before the miracle.
Jesus gave thanks for food. And He gave thanks for His friends. And He gave thanks for a God who was about to save the world. The greatest miracle of them all. Thanks be to God. Eucharistia.
So now we approach Thanksgiving. Turkey and dressing and Cowboys and family.
Today, we have already had Thanksgiving. We have celebrated Eucharistia, Thanksgiving, the holy communion of the saints gathered at the Lord’s Table.
As you celebrate Thanksgiving this week, do not forget the Thanksgiving we have shared this afternoon. As you come to the family table on Thursday, do not forget what has happened today, as you came to this church family table. Do not forget Eucharist. Jesus gave thanks, and so did we. Keep an eye out for the miracle.