Sunday, October 4, 2009
Teaching at the Table - Matthew 26:26-28, I Corinthians 10:14-17
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it, he broke it, gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one, for we all partake of the one bread.”
Len Traubman, a dentist from California, threw a dinner party. During the holidays, he and his wife, Libby, invited 16 people to their home for supper. What’s the big deal? Listen to the guest list. Four of the guests were Arab foreign exchange students who had no place to go for the holidays. Four other guests were Israeli born Jews now living in their community. Two of the guests had been born in Palestinian refugee camps. One of the guests was a Holocaust survivor. Picture this group seated around your dining room table – Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Palestinians, Arabs, Israelis, Jordanians, and Americans. Someone asked Len Traubman, “Why are you doing this?” and he quoted the 23rd Psalm: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” And what a table they prepared.
Did you know that the Prophet Mohammed’s favorite dish was yogurt with butter and nuts? The Traubmans served it that night.
Did you know that Potato Kugel is a traditional Hannukah dish? The Traubmans served it that night. Calling the party recipes for peace, the food itself generated discussion about their traditions, their holiday memories, and it began breaking down barriers. Before the night was over, they had all tasted each other’s culture, and these people, as different as they were, connected around the table.
Said Libby Traubman, “There is something powerful about sharing a meal.” I couldn’t agree more. May we pray.
Today is World Communion Sunday. There is something powerful about sharing a meal, and every time we gather at the Lord’s table but especially on this day, we share mystic sweet communion with Christians from around the world and in all times.
There are several aspects of Holy Communion that I would like us to focus on today. The first is that it is a meal of remembrance. You will often see these words on Communion tables – “In Remembrance of Me.” Recall that when Jesus first celebrated this meal with his disciples, it was during the context of a Jewish Passover meal. On the night of Passover, Jewish families gather to share a meal to remember how they were once slaves in Egypt, but how God saved them.
In the context of this Jewish meal of salvation, Jesus takes familiar symbols from the table and reinterprets them. Just as the Passover meal is a way of dynamically remembering God’s salvation of the Jews, so Jesus reinterprets it to make it a meal of salvation for his followers.
We sometimes hear the words, “In remembrance,” and we think of this as some sort of pleasant memory, a nice, sweet, nostalgic feeling. Yet, this phrase is what is referred to as dynamic remembrance, meaning that something happens at the table. We don’t just have pleasant thoughts about a meal that Jesus shared with his disciples once upon a time, in some way, every time we gather at this table and take this bread and cup, we participate in the very same meal as if we were there. It’s not just a pleasant memory that we each have somewhere in our inner selves, Christ is really present to us in ways that are just as real so many years later as they were in that upper room in Jerusalem.
Or, sometimes we hear the words of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and we approach the meal as if we’re coming to a funeral. Quiet, somber, sorrowful – it’s as if we’re gathering on the anniversary of his death to say goodbye to a dear departed friend, to keep his memory alive in our hearts, so he may live on in our memories. It’s as if someone stands up at the front here and says, “We’re here to remember poor old Jesus, who couldn’t keep his mouth shut and got himself killed.”
But the one who we come to remember is still very much alive. The crucified Jesus is also the resurrected Jesus. On that night in Jerusalem so long ago, the disciples ate this meal on one side of the cross, we eat it on the other side of the cross – knowing that Jesus was resurrected. This meal is not a funeral meal – quiet, reflective, sorrowful. This meal is a great celebration – a statement of God’s victory over anything and everything that would separate us from God, a reminder that even the seeming finality of death was not enough to keep us away from God’s love. Holy Communion is a celebration! It’s a party! It’s a reminder that the resurrected and living Jesus continues to eat meals with us. That’s why we Christians use regular, leavened bread in our celebrations of communion. The bread has been raised, a constant reminder that Christ is risen.
But while it’s a celebration, it’s not a free-for-all. It is a time to celebrate in the midst of Christ’s radiant presence, but make no mistake about it – it is a holy time. It is an event like no other. It is not a time to chit-chat with our neighbors about idle gossip, or last night’s scores, or what the kids are going to be up to this week. It is a time to pray, a time to give thanks, a time to sing our songs of praise, a time to receive God’s grace in our lives as we receive the bread and wine, a time to rejoice in the fellowship of our brothers and sisters, but all this is to be done with an eye toward God, respecting the holiness of the moment, and providing an environment that is free from distraction for the Spirit to work among the congregation.
There is another aspect of this word “remember.” Think of it as the opposite of “dismember.” As Christians, we are described as members of the body of Christ. Every time we come to this table, we “re-member” Christ. That is, we get the body back together. Every time we come to this table, we declare our allegiance to God and to each other, that we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, we are one in the bond of love, that because there is one bread, we, though we are many, are one, for we all partake of the one loaf.
This meal is countercultural. This meal brings us together in a spirit of unity and peace when the world is throwing everything else at us to divide us. Several years ago, the Mennonite World Conference put out what it called A Modest Proposal for Peace. “Be it resolved: that the Christians of the world stop killing each other.” In other words, that the very people who gather at this table and declare their unity with one another not take up arms against each other when they have left worship. Weapons, you know, come in many different forms. If you gather at this table, you are making a strong declarative statement of your allegiance. You are proclaiming that the bonds of Christian unity are stronger than all the other ways the powers of the world would divide you. The love of Christ is stronger than all the armies and governments of the world. It is stronger than tribal differences and racial divides. It is stronger than partisan politics and family feuds. It is stronger than our theology or preferences in worship or petty fights over the budget, the carpet, or the programs. If we are going to be a witness for peace and unity in the world, then we must first be at peace and unity with one another.
Have you heard the story about the two blind men who were healed? One day they were talking in church about how wonderful it was to be able to see. One of them said, I remember the day that Jesus reached down and made some mud and put it on my eyes. I went and washed and I could see.” “I know,” said the other. “I was sitting outside Jericho when Jesus walked up to me and said, ‘Receive your sight,’ and I could see.”
“Wait a minute. He didn’t put mud in your eye? He didn’t tell you to go down to the pool and wash? I hate to break it to you, but you haven’t been properly healed.” The other man said, “What do you mean? I can see.” “Perhaps that is true,” said the other, “but it wasn’t done the right and proper way, and is therefore not Christian.” The two kept arguing and finally broke fellowship with each other. They went home and told their families, and their families started arguing about it. The Church ended up splitting up. One group went and founded the First Mudite Church. The other went and founded the First Anti-Mudite Church. And since that day, the Church has been fighting and arguing over things that are about as stupid as mud.
St. Augustine wrote, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” John Wesley expressed it this way: “In matters that do not strike at the heart of scriptural Christianity, we are free to think and let think.”
Friends, we must have the freedom to explore and develop our faith. Our table needs to be set broad enough to include people with whom we may not agree. It is not our place to bar from the table those who are not exactly like us. The kingdom of God is like a great banquet, one to which all people are invited – one that is for all the people of whom God is especially fond, even the ones we ourselves are not particularly fond of. Not all Christians think exactly the same thing, or vote the same way, or have identical opinions on anything. That’s okay. If our faith is going to be real, we must have the freedom to formulate our beliefs. Christ calls us to unity, not uniformity. Christ calls us to solidarity, even with those who are radically different than ourselves. Every time you come to this table, you make the countercultural declaration that you belong to Christ, and not to any of the petty and small-minded dividing forces of the world. If you come to this table and take its meaning seriously, you come united to every other person who ever has and ever will partake of this meal.
We Christians call this meal by a number of different names. For some, it is the Lord’s supper, reflecting that it was Jesus who presided at this, his last meal with his disciples before he journeyed to the cross. Others call it Holy Communion – “holy” meaning “of God,” “sacred” and “communion” meaning “sharing” or “fellowship.” Holy Communion is literally “sacred fellowship.” The Eastern Church – the Orthodox – call it the “Divine Liturgy,” indicating its sacred and holy nature found in the prescribed pattern of words between priest and people. Others call it the Mass – a celebration as well as a mysterious reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Many have come to call it the Eucharist – literally “thanksgiving,” not just for the gifts and mercies received, but for the gift of salvation in Christ.
It goes by many names, but whatever we choose to call it, Christ is present in this meal, mysteriously present in these elements of bread and the fruit of the vine. Christ is represented in these elements, but get your pencils ready, because I’m going to redefine this term, as well.
The elements of bread and wine represent Christ, but they do more than just remind us of him, or stand in for him, or are a symbol of him. These elements of bread and wine re-present Christ – that is, they present Christ to us yet again. Christ comes to us in this meal – we are assured of his very real presence in ways that are more acute and tangible in this meal than at any other time. That’s why we call this meal a sacrament – it is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and the means by which we receive that grace. That’s one of the reasons communion is so important, because every time we celebrate it, Christ promises to be in our midst, and fill us up with his grace. It is a place Christ promises to meet with us, and such a meeting is something of which we ought to take advantage at every available opportunity. It is not something that is optional in the calendar, or something that should be tacked on in a sloppy or hurried way to an already crowded worship service. On these Sundays when we gather around the Lord’s table, it remains the central and focal point of our worship service, everything we do pointing toward it, the grace of God radiating from this table into every heart present.
Turn with me to page 12 in your hymnals, where you find our liturgy for Holy Communion. There are some things I’d like to point out to you about the way we celebrate Communion.
The first has to do with the word “liturgy.” Liturgy means “the work of the people.” What this reminds us is that worship is our highest and noblest thing to do. Indeed, the Westminster Catechism states that “the chief end of [hu]mankind is to glorify God and enjoy [God] forever.” There is nothing more important that we have to do other than glorifying God, and this liturgy before us provides us a common language when we come together to the Lord’s table.
When we come to the table, we always come at the invitation of Christ. He calls us here. He is the host of this meal. He seeks fellowship with us long before we are even aware of his existence and bids us come and dine. We confess our sin before we come to the table to rid ourselves of any distractions or barriers that would stand between us and God, or between ourselves and our brothers and sisters, so that we can stand together in the spirit of Christian unity for which Christ prayed on the night before the cross.
The Great Thanksgiving is one great prayer, led by the ordained pastor, with the congregation offering appropriate responses at various places throughout. It begins with an introductory dialogue where we name the presence of God among us and declare our hearts to be an offering of praise. It is a thoroughly Trinitarian prayer, recognizing the work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. First, thanks is offered to the Father for the marvels of creation, redemption, and sanctification. This pattern follows an ancient Jewish tradition. Next, at the top of page 14, Christ’s words of institution as recorded in the New Testament tradition are shared. These are powerful words – words with the ability to shape us. The present work of the Holy Spirit is then invoked upon the gathered congregation, and upon the gifts of bread and wine.
This liturgy is not something that we simply go through by rote. You have heard me say and I will continue to say that this is called liturgy, not lethargy, so let’s respond together in ways that are life-giving and not life-draining. Indeed, these very words are life-giving – Christ’s very grace-filled life is offered freely and abundantly to each of us at this table. I will continue to give you big chunks of bread in our celebrations, a reminder that God’s grace is abundant and rich. Around our Lord’s table, there is no place for stinginess, for pride, for our own self-will. Christ is the host, and we are the guests, and there is more than enough to go around.
If you decide to throw a dinner party where you invite different people from across different cultural lines, invite me because I think that’s a great idea. But before we do that, I want to invite you to a meal where we are one with Christ, where we are one with Christians around the world, and perhaps most significantly, where we are one with Christians around the room. Peace begins with the presence of Christ in each of us, and as it spreads from heart to heart, the world is changed. I invite you to join Christ, to join me, to join each other, and to join Christians around the world at our Lord’s table, that we might reach out to the whole world in his name.