I returned yesterday from chaperoning a weekend beach retreat for our church’s youth group in Panama City Beach. It was a blast. I led the group in celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Before I did so, I was asked to offer a few words about the meaning of it. Ugh! Not an enviable task—because the meaning is conveyed in large part through the symbolism of bread and wine. As N.T. Wright said, when Jesus wanted to teach his disciples what the Atonement meant, he didn’t merely give them words; he gave them a meal.
But words are still useful, and here are mine. I begin with an analogy.
Many years ago, my wife and I visited Paris. We were there with Lisa’s sister, Nancy, and her husband, Jones, who lived not too far away in Brussels. Nancy and Jones had been to Paris many times. They knew where to stay, where to eat, where to tour. Since it was our first time there, we followed their lead. They reserved a room for us at a beautiful hotel, a little off the beaten path, right in the heart of the city. It’s the kind of place that tourists wouldn’t find on their own.
The problem staying at a hotel that is so authentically French is that the hotel staff mostly only spoke French. I only had two years of French in high school—and that was a very long time ago. So you can imagine how uncomfortable I felt on the day we were leaving, trying to explain, in broken French, that we needed to check out. The clerk at the front desk, a young woman, began telling me something that sounded important.
Now, my French was a little rusty, but here’s what I heard her say: “Blah-blah-blah-blah, blah-blah, toute de suit.” I got the toot-sweet part. I interrupted: “I’m sorry. I don’t understand what you’re saying.” And she smiled, and said, “Blah-blah-blah, toot-sweet.” I said, “I’m sorry. I just need to pay my bill.” And she said, “Blah-blah-blah, toot-sweet.” Finally, I pulled out my credit card to show her that I needed to pay my bill. And she smiled and said, “Blah-blah-blah, toot-sweet.”
I’m not the brightest bulb on the tree, but it slowly dawned on me that she was trying to tell me that I didn’t owe anything. I was free to leave. My debt had been paid in full. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, but I walked slowly toward the door. I looked back at her. “Are you sure it’s O.K.?” “Blah-blah-blah, toot-sweet.”
It turns out that my brother-in-law, Jones, snuck down to the lobby before me and paid my bill. Because he’s just that kind of person, generous and hospitable.
As I think back on it, you know what would have been helpful to me in that situation in the lobby of the hotel? If the clerk, instead of merely using words, had done something to show me that my debt was paid—like if she could have pulled out my bill with a list of all of my expenses on it… And then ripped it up in front of me. Then, when she said, “Blah-blah-blah, toot-sweet,” I would have known exactly what she meant!
This weekend, we’ve spoken and sung a lot about the meaning of the cross: What does it mean that God himself came to us in the person of Jesus Christ and suffered and died for us, in our place? What does it mean that Jesus, although he was without sin, took upon himself the burden of the world’s sin and guilt—including yours and mine—and paid the penalty for our sin that we deserved to pay? What does it mean that Jesus died the death that we deserved to die?
If it helps, imagine all of our sins—past, present, and future—listed on what I suspect would be a long sheet of paper. Through the cross of Christ, it’s as if God were ripping it up in front of us. “Toot-sweet, your debt has been paid in full.” For those of us who receive God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life by placing our faith in Jesus, there is now nothing that can separate us from God’s love.
Of course, these are just words. Maybe they sound like “blah-blah-blah” to you. I hope not! But Jesus gives us more than words. He shows us what he means. And here’s how does it:
“On the night in which Jesus gave himself up for us, he took the bread, gave thanks to you, broke it, and gave it to his disciples…” [Transition to Lord’s Supper liturgy.]