Presented at ARK Community Church in Dalton, MA
October 6, 2013
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (NRSV)
This morning is World Communion Sunday, a day where we join with our fellow Christians throughout the world in proclaiming the unity and diversity of our faith through the symbolic sharing of Christ’s Body and Blood: gathering together as one to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, which in turn frees us to partake of the bounty of the Lord’s Table, filled with Grace and Love for each and every one of us.
But, what is Communion? It has to be more than just a bit of bread and juice. Why does it matter? What good is it? For that matter, why is it a Sacrament?
Please join me in prayer…
Lord, open our eyes that we may see the truth you have for us here today; place in our hands and hearts the key that shall unite us, bridging the differences that isolate us from each other and from you. Open my mouth, Lord, that I may be a faithful witness to your Gospel, that the eyes of our hearts might be opened, and that your love for all of us, your children, is made manifest, and that our hearts are prepared for sharing your gospel with all we whom encounter today, and in the days ahead. Amen.
This past January, I was in China, and had the opportunity to attend a Mandarin language worship service at St. John’s Cathedral, the Anglican Congregation in Central Hong Kong.
It was a communion service, delivered by intinction, as we will be doing here today; all who were there joining together as one to share the Lord’s Supper. After I returned to my second row seat, I watched and prayed as the rest of the numerous members of the congregation filed past me.
The last to receive communion were a small family – mother, father, and their two little girls; ages perhaps 5 and 3. The littlest, in her lacy white dress and shiny black shoes, was the last. The priest had to bend down for her to dip her bread in the cup. It seemed that this was the first time she’d had communion, and she was very excited, though not quite sure how it all worked. She took her bit of bread, and promptly dropped it in the cup. …Oh dear!
The parents, the priest and her big sister all clustered around as she shoved her hand into the cup and fished around to retrieve her morsel. The priest smiled, the parents laughed nervously, and we all looked on as this little girl retrieved her bread, ate it, and then skipped with her sister along the front of the Nave and down the aisle in victory, holding her dripping purple stained hand high, a big smile on her face, parents meekly trailing behind.
Now, that’s Communion!
We were blessed to share in an intimately beautiful moment for that little girl; as it probably was for many of us when we were young: a chance to participate in the bounty of God for the first time, joining with something bigger than ourselves, a demonstration of our love for our Creator and to receive unconditional, unlimited love in return. And besides, it was fun!
I didn’t understand a word of what was said in that service, but I didn’t need to; because it is such a familiar ritual: the Words of Institution, the Prayer, the Invitation. I could follow along and participate fully, even though I didn’t know the language and was half a world away from my home.
And that’s one of the many blessings of Communion – it can unite us across cultures, races, denominations, and political boundaries… It is a powerful demonstration of our unity before Christ, despite the many deep and seemingly unbridgeable differences between our neighbors and ourselves. Communion transcends human limitations and frailty.
Every Christian Tradition has its own definition of what a “Sacrament” is, and so the number of Sacraments they recognize varies. The Roman Catholic Church recognizes 7, other traditions recognize more (or fewer). True to form, the Reformed Protestant tradition of which we are a part takes a minimalist approach: a Sacrament is defined as a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace that we have with God, rooted in a concrete example from Jesus’ ministry. In other words, a Sacrament unites us with God and links us across time directly to its original expression in the life and teachings of Jesus.
Using this definition, there are just two sacraments: Baptism and Communion. Baptism is well attested throughout the New Testament, and is a one-time event for each of us when we are born or when we commit ourselves to our faith and Christian Community.
Unlike Baptism, Communion is a Sacrament we celebrate repeatedly. It originates in the story of the Last Supper, but is otherwise mentioned just once in the New Testament, in 1st Corinthians chapter 11, where Paul refers to it as “the Lord’s Supper.” We still use his description of it in the words of institution: “on the night when he was betrayed, [Jesus] 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.”
Even in Paul’s time, Communion was a regular part of worship in all of the many, often isolated, communities of believers scattered throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. It united them just as it unites us today, and was crucial to their identity and understanding of themselves as followers of The Way. It was an anchor that helped assure that the story and the teachings of Jesus would continue to be heard and celebrated for generations to come.
Communion is an answer, and I believe the most critical of all answers we have to the concerns we see in both 2nd Timothy and Luke from today’s readings, the challenge of how to persist the faith, how to keep it alive and powerful as we await Christ’s return. In 2nd Timothy, Paul advises on how to preserve the essential core of the Gospel, to enable Timothy and others to keep it a living and dynamic message for the future. It is a challenge we still confront today. Communion was one of the first answers to that challenge, and we cannot diminish its importance and centrality in the practice of our faith.
The resounding concern of the community in which the Gospel of Luke originated is apparent in today’s reading when the disciples say to Jesus: “Give us more faith.” In other words, keep it from fading! How do we help our faith grow? How do we deal with our doubts and fears for the future?
Jesus’ response is interesting. As was previously noted [in the prolog given prior to the reading of Luke 17:5-10], a better translation of this morning’s reading would be “If you have a bare kernel of faith, and I know that you do, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and it would do it.”
Jesus is saying they already have the faith they need, and also implies that doubt is natural and not an evil thing. In spite of doubt, they (and we) can already do what ought to be done. We already have what we need to preserve and grow our faith. We only need to live it.
Another key insight in Luke is that the Gospel and Salvation are open to all alike. Christ’s message is universal, not limited to Jews or to those who adopt Judaic traditions as their own. There is no straightjacket of specific laws or rules that we must follow, nor can anyone claim special favor or position with respect to God; hence our celebration of World Communion Sunday today, which highlights the universality of the Gospel of God’s Love.
Communion celebrates the freedom we have been given to receive and share the gifts bestowed upon us by our Creator, who so loved us that he gave his only son, who then died in consequence of our sins. The Creator who then resurrected him to life – demonstrating once and for all that we are free from death, free from sin, and that the Lord’s salvation is open and available to all.
God is the Great I Am; and ultimately, this is another reason why Communion is a Sacrament. “The Great I Am” is a phrase always spoken in the present tense: God is not “The Great I Was.” God is present with us here today, and is also the Great I Am (present tense!) for those who are lost to us in the mists of time. They may have vanished from human memory, but are not lost to God, for they are still in God’s present just as we are. Equally, God is also present with those who are yet to come. For if God is truly Creator of the Universe, then God is not subject to time, but time is subject to God.
Communion transcends time, symbolically joining us with all who have ever shared at the table of the Lord, or ever will. In taking the bread and the cup, we are declaring ourselves to be members of the sacred and eternal Body of Christ, which transcends space and time; a Sacrament, demonstrating our unity with those in the world now, and with those in the past and future. We are all one, united before the Lord our God, the God who is present everywhere and every-when, welcoming us all to the table.
But, why has this concept, this symbolic knitting together of the Body of Christ, remained so much at the center of our faith for so long?
For me, one thing I think of is that in saying Communion is a statement of our unity within the Body of Christ, we are saying that this unity matters: it effects us as individuals in terms of providing a deeper, more meaningful relationship with our faith and our God, as it did for that little girl in Hong Kong; but also, and more importantly, I think, it focuses our thoughts on how we are called to be responsible for each others’ welfare, despite our differences. Because of that unity, we impact each other in some way, since we are members of the same Body: we cannot be who we are without the other. Therefore, if we love ourselves, and love God, how can we not love those others who are also a part of us?
The statement that we are all members of the Body of Christ is not something to be lightly dismissed. It is a powerful statement. By identifying ourselves as part of a greater whole, the greatest whole in fact – a wholeness that embraces every human being, we are saying that the whole, and the welfare and needs of the whole, and every one of its members, matters. We are saying that our differences are less important than our common identity as Children of God.
Participating in the Lord’s Supper demonstrates that we are keeping the faith; that we have faith in that Unity, faith in the Body of Christ, faith in the Communion of Saints of which we are all a part, and that we are certain that through Christ we can and will accomplish all that we are called to do.
And so, I remember that little girl and her hand stained with grape juice: she has her whole life ahead of her, a life that will be filled with joys and sorrows, victories and defeats. She is our sister in Christ, and therefore her life is part of ours, and ours hers. We are connected: we are both beloved children of God. We will all eventually stand together with her before the throne of our loving Creator, simply because we have done what Christ has called us to do.
Copyright (c) 2013, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site).