Well, I’m looking at the table and I see the communion dishes set up again, and I’m filled with this kind of agitation like “Didn’t we just do this two weeks ago? This communion thing?”
Well, yes, we did. And we are going to do it again this morning – and by intinction. We will move towards the table to take a bit of bread and dip it in the juice. And once again, Clover and I will be poised at the railing to offer an anointment blessing.
When I was young and attending the New York Avenue Church, we did Communion only 4 times a year! And until 2 or 3 years ago when the “radicals” on the Ministry of Worship changed it – we were “doing it” no more than 7 times a year at Forest Hill.
And just to get you thinking, the Worship Ministry is even pondering recommending to the Session to “do it” on Easter Sunday. We have never done that before. Serving 500+ people makes me feel a little tense and agitated.
But Catholics and Episcopalians do it all the time and at the opening worship service of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, they served over 5,000 were served communion. And they heard a sermon and there were two anthems and it all happened within an hour and fifteen minutes. Now that is doing it decently and in order!
John Calvin – upon whose theology our Presbyterian Church is founded – believed that whenever the Word was preached the Sacrament should be served (so at least weekly).
Now Communion truthfully raises lots of questions and reactions. I remember many years ago when we began to serve the Lord’s Supper by intinction some one said: “This is soooo Catholic” and they didn’t mean that as a compliment. Of course, on the other hand, there are many among us who were raised in the Catholic church who say they just LOVE it!
Intinction has become the “norm” for us now. But I still hear the question, “What happened to the traditional way?” Meaning having 16 Elders come forward and get the elements and serve you in the pew with little white bread cubes and little glasses of grape juice. In some of the more formal churches the ushers actually wore morning coats to serve the elements. There was such a sense of formality.
I remember back in the 60’s when the hot question that the youth group raised to the youth minister was, “Why can’t hamburgers and Coke be served instead of bread and wine?”
And needless to say the whole body and blood thing is peculiar. Clover and I have seen children do a double take and really peer into the cup to make sure it is grape juice. And why grape juice and not wine? Of course some of the early skeptics about Christianity accused the church of cannibalism – and no wonder.
And if we do the sacrament so often, won’t it lose its specialness? Maybe, but you can say that about a whole lot of things – the Lord’s prayer for instance, or the sermon, or sex, or food. Too much of a good thing is bad for you, I guess.
And what is the difference in the titles: Lord’s Supper, Communion, Eucharist? And what is “transubstantiation” and “consubstantiation”? What do Presbyterians believe?
Well, let’s look at those titles. Remember – the Lord’s Supper is in memory of Jesus’ last supper in the upper room before his death. He was with his disciples and they were eating what was either a Passover meal or a pre-Passover meal – and Jesus re-interpreted this central liturgical act of Judaism and turned it into a new feast remembering his forthcoming sacrifice and death. He said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” St. Paul didn’t know much of the life of Jesus but he knew about Jesus’ word – the breaking of the bread was bedrock to the early church. This sacramental meal goes way back!
Communion – reminds us that we do this meal of Jesus in community – it isn’t a solo act. And what is really profound is that this community is not only located only in this particular time and space but that we are in communion with all those who have gone before throughout time and space and we enjoy a cosmic reunion – we are connected with the beloved community every time and every place. We are not alone.
Eucharist – comes from the Greek word eucharisteo, which means to “give thanks” emphasizing joy! We are not engaged in a memorial service or a funeral procession with glum, serious faces. Rather, this is the joyful foretaste of the kingdom feast (I just hope there is a little more food when we get there!) In our space and time we are creating a kingdom moment where all are welcomed. We come from the east and west and north and south to celebrate a presence and to both remember the past and re-member – bring the body together, bring the members of the body together again in a present moment so that we can move with confidence into a hopeful future.
Presbyterians believe that Jesus is really spiritually present – here. These are not mere symbols. Incarnated in the body of believers, Jesus offers himself to you, as you offer yourself to him.
In breaking bread and sharing the cup, and coming forward, we really are participating in an act of such radical significance.
For this table is open – this is not a club – it’s open to all who seek after Jesus, whatever that might mean to you.
You are invited to this table not because you have answers but you have questions and Jesus says: “Come and see.” You come forward not because you are fulfilled (although you might be) but because in your emptiness you stand in need of God’s assurance of love. You come forward not to express an opinion or theological stance, but to seek a presence and to pray for a spirit. You come just as you are, with doubt and certainty, with pain and joy – and no one will turn you away – where else do you get that?
At last, at last in a church, it isn’t about theology or politics – or having the “right answer” – it is about presence and trust. As Henri Nouwen once wrote: “in communion we remember the presence of the ONE (Jesus) who remembers us!” Jesus knows you.
And I love it when you come forward and if you are wearing a name tag so that Clover and I don’t have a brain freeze (for sometimes you just blank out on a name, even with someone you’ve known for 20 years!), we can greet you by name. We recognize you, just as Jesus recognizes you for who you are and accepts you as a beloved child. And I think we need to hear that often (I know I do.)
And we are reminded that we are part of a large community of hope – and that from this table so fed we move out into the world in joy, thankgiving – not in despair… for we are a kingdom people, and we trust that the kingdom will come and we can help create it now, and we might even catch glimmers of it in our homes, and at work and at school, and within our relationships. That the kingdom is coming and is here – so close, it is brushing by – and we look around and see every Tom, Dick and Harry and every Thelma and Louise and Margaret – and we see us – young and old, gay and straight, black and white – maybe we will “overcome one day” and “live in peace, one day,” and “walk hand in hand, one day.” Because we are making it happen now.
It is not a lot of words – just gentle ones: “The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you. The cup of Salvation.”… and you bow your head and receive a blessing and you go forth and the music is lovely and the moment is quiet and it is as if the whole myriad of saints and martyrs and angles and arch- angles and all the company of heaven is present – we are not alone, isolated in a pew – we are caught up in a band of angles marching forward into life.
And I hear the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Ho, everyone who thirsts come.” “You with no money – you will be fed.” You, who are in exile from you homes, from your selves, just like the Jewish people were in Isaiah’s day – DELIGHT for a moment. Be present for a moment.
Listen carefully – “incline your ear” says the Lord, lean into me for I am leaning towards you. God is whispering “I haven’t forgotten you. The covenant I made with David is still good. I will show you… in time, in my time, and even in your time – you will see.”
Doesn’t that stir you just a little bit? That God knows YOU and hasn’t fogotten YOU and even if you feel the heavy weight of exile – it isn’t over…yet.
You and I come forward and dip the bread and we arrive at the thin spot – where heaven and earth touch, and God is leaning close, and the divine and human brush, and “the hopes and fears of all the years” are met – and there is no distinction between us anymore.
And so we leave this place having partaken of the feast – and we are agitated so to live – holding up the vision and living the dream where all God’s children are welcome – and we can make it happen through our hospitality. And you are called to offer your best for God’s highest service. And so we work for equity, and for sustainability, and for justice, for the children, for our communities – because we caught a glimpse of what it can be.
The Lord can be found here and now – so seek after him with all your might.
Call upon God – and hear your name called – and sometimes just recognition is enough, almost better than success – because what carries you through the failures, and the disappointments and the disasters – is knowing that somebody knows.
It is a time for trying again, for turning from temptation, moving away from wickedness, forsaking it in your life and in the world and saying: “I am going to try to do it differently starting now.”
Return to the Lord. Trust that God will abundantly pardon. We are invited to this mystical but practical reality. You and I are lifted into the heavens and the heavens brought close.
Now I don’t know if we will ever serve communion weekly here. At some level I don’t know if that is necessary. We serve communion once a month and then on Ash Wed. and Maundy Thursday and 9:00 a.m. on Easter morning and at reatreats and special gatherings.
But now, today, listen and delight and come forward and receive and know you are named and claimed and loved and empowered – take and eat, do this in remembrance of me!