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Sunday, October 3, 2010

What is Communion? (Matthew 26:26-29)


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. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

As a pastor, one of the things I get to do is eat meals with many of you. Meals in my home, meals in your homes, fellowship meals, meals after worship, power lunches where we’re looking at strategic plans for the church, coffee in the middle of the morning or at the end of a long workday, meals in restaurants where it’s one-on-one, meals celebrating some great family occasion.

Every time you turn around, we’re eating together. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the afterschool program where the students were each asked to bring in a symbol that represented their faith. The little Jewish boy brought a Star of David, the little Catholic girl brought a Rosary, the Buddhist boy brought a Lotus flower, and the Methodist girl brought a covered dish.

Eating is an important part of who we are and what we do as Christians. Jesus was eating with people all the time – tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees (aka: stuck-up religious snobs), his disciples, people he had just met. But through those meals, people were changed. Their hearts were changed. Their minds were changed. Their attitudes were changed. Their relationships were changed.

When we gather around the table and eat a meal, we are changed. And that’s what we’re going to spend some time talking about today. May we pray.

Today is World Communion Sunday, and perhaps you’re wondering, “What difference does that make?” Today’s celebration is really no different from other celebrations of Holy Communion in theology or practice. What makes today different is our awareness. World Communion Sunday is a day when we pause and remember that we are connected with Christians throughout time and around the world. We pause and remember that we are united as brothers and sisters in Christ when we gather around the Lord’s table. This meal is a meal of fellowship and unity. We are united not only with the brothers and sisters we can see here in the room today – we are united with brothers and sisters who have lived and will live in times different from our own, we are united around the world.

Communion is a Sacrament, which we understand to be an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace and the means by which we receive that grace. Belton Joyner, a United Methodist pastor in eastern North Carolina, says that a Sacrament has three basic characteristics: 1. Jesus asked his followers to do it, 2. There is some physical symbol (bread and wine), and 3. God promises to give grace, to which the response is faith. And you’d better believe that’s exactly what happens! John Wesley, in his sermon entitled “The Duty of Constant Communion,” encouraged the early Methodists toward frequent Communion. He wrote, “Every Christian should do this as often as he can because the benefits of doing it are so great to all.”

There are several aspects of Holy Communion that I would like us to focus on today. Communion binds us together with Christ. Communion also binds us together with all those who are bound to Christ. Break down the word Communion. Common union. The word common has the following usage – belonging to or shared by two or more people or groups. Union is defined as “the act of joining together, the result of joining together, agreement.” Therefore, Communion is an act that joins together multiple people groups around what they share – Christ.

We find our identity in this simple truth: our lives belong to God through Christ. Most importantly and most fundamentally, first and foremost, we belong to God. And on World Communion Sunday, we declare our union with everyone else who belongs to God. We declare that our bonds with them through Christ are stronger than the other labels we live under. Our unity in Christ is more important than our political party. Our unity in Christ is more important than the color of our skin or the language we speak. Our unity in Christ is more important than our national origin. Our unity in Christ is more important than our socio-economic status, more important than the system of government we think is best, more important than our age, more important than our philosophy on life. None of these things are as important as unity we share in Christ, and on World Communion Sunday, that is exactly what we are reminded of.

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.

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.” Weapons, you know, come in many different forms. If you feast at this table, Jesus expects you to stop doing things that kill your brothers and sisters. If you feast at this table, stop doing things that kill their spirit. If you feast at this table, stop doing things that kill their faith. If you feast at this table, stop exalting your own personal will against what’s best for everyone. Stop doing things that harm the body of Christ. 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.

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, 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 – even the people we don’t like. Not all Christians think exactly the same thing, or vote the same way, or dress the same way, or act the same way, or have identical opinions on anything. Christ calls us to unity, not uniformity.

I don’t want you to think that celebrating Communion together is somehow a magic wand that’s the cure to all interpersonal conflict within a church. But I do want you to consider the implications of coming to this table together, and realize that if we really take them seriously, then our approach to differences might just be tempered a bit.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the Scripture passage from 1 Corinthians 11 in which Christians are warned against eating the bread and drinking the cup in an unworthy manner, for those who do drink to their own judgment and condemnation. Has that passage or that concept ever caused you to worry? It sounds pretty scary, pretty harsh, doesn’t it? I mean, who among us is worthy to come to the Lord’s table? Who among us is worthy to receive?

Well, none of us are worthy. And that’s precisely the point. None of us are worthy, and it’s only by the grace of God that we are invited to this table, which is why we call this meal a means of grace. This meal is food for the Christian journey, it is a constant and ready supply of the grace of God. Jesus told us that he did not come for the well, but for the sick. And friends, we are all sick. We are all weak, but as we eat, we gain strength.

This meal is a means of grace; it is a channel God uses to bring grace into our lives, and grace makes it possible to live a life in relationship with God and other people. Grace makes it possible to put up with the idiosyncrasies and foibles and annoyances of others, grace makes it possible to consider the needs of others above our own, grace makes it possible to look in the eyes of the person we most despise and see there a precious child of God.

I think the breakdown in the worthiness question lies in our perception about oneself and others. Because sometimes, we begin to think we’re entitled. We begin to think we’ve got our stuff together pretty well. We know how to act, we follow all the right church rules, we know a lot of Bible verses – and we can begin to feel pretty good about ourselves. If we’re not careful, we can honestly begin to think we’re worthy – not even worthy through the grace of God, but worthy completely on our own.

And then, to complicate matters, we sometimes begin to view others as unworthy. I’m telling you, any time we set up a dichotomy where we perceive ourselves to be worthy in the eyes of God and others to be unworthy, we are already well over the line and have missed the point completely. Anytime we do that, we have become like the Pharisees for whom Jesus had so much contempt. Anytime we do that, we are failing to perceive others as fellow travelers on this journey called “Being a disciple.”

And that brings us back to this idea of receiving Communion in an unworthy manner. This passage in 1 Corinthians 11 goes on to say that all who eat and drink without discerning the body drink judgment against themselves. Discerning the body – that’s the key here. And we’re talking about the body of Christ. Look around the room – WE are the body of Christ. When we talk about receiving the Lord’s Supper unworthily, we are talking about doing so in a manner that completely disregards our brothers and sisters. The Christian walk is not and never has been a private road with just me and Jesus. There are others on the road, and we need to discern their presence with us, and recognize that we are all in this together – that’s what we call discerning the body.

And you know what? Sometimes I’m a bonehead and I do things or say things or think things that hurt other members of the body of Christ. And that means I have to admit places where I was in error. Does anyone here like doing that? But whether you like it or not, do you recognize how important those things are to our relationships with others? Conflict, disagreement, hurt feelings – all of those things are going to happen where humans are involved. I wish I could promise you that none of that would ever happen in church, but look around – we are very human in here, so we’re probably going to let each other down sometime. But we are called to discern the body, which means we should always seek to edify and build each other up.

You will often see these words on Communion tables – “In Remembrance of Me.” Think of “remember” 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.

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, and this meal is a celebration of the resurrection! The resurrected and living Lord dines with us each time we receive these elements of bread and wine, and I can think of nothing more joyful than that realization. Every time we celebrate Communion, I want you to come forward in an attitude of celebration and joyful praise. Too often and in too many places, people come forward for Communion like they’re on a death march. Friends, this is a life march! This is not the time to stare at your shoes, to go through the liturgy in rote monotone, to mumble the words to the hymns, to look sad and serious and mournful.

When you approach the table of our Lord, it’s a time to celebrate. But I want to be very clear, while Communion is a celebration and a joyful time, it’s not a free-for-all. It’s not the time to chit chat with your neighbors, to check your plans for next weekend, to make your to-do list, to finalize your fantasy football picks, to check your email on your phone. Yes, we celebrate and rejoice in the fellowship of our brothers and sisters, but we do all of this with an eye toward God that respects the holiness of the moment and provides an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work and move among the congregation.

Worship is always a celebration of the presence of God in our midst. And as such, it is joyful. I can hardly understand churches and church people who want church to be boring – the celebration of God in our midst is hardly a boring thing! It’s a time to sing praise at the top of your lungs. It’s a time to be joyful and thankful. You know the song we sing at the end of worship every week? I’m so glad Jesus lifted me? Tam Thompson likes to dance and clap to that song, I know many of you do as well, and you know what, I think you should! And that joyful exuberance is just the attitude with which we should approach the celebration of Holy Communion. Church should be a party every week, church should be fun, church should be celebratory, church should be joyful – especially on a Sunday when we are invited to the Lord’s table in order to feast on God’s grace.

And so I invite you to the Lord’s table – to be reunited with Christ and deeply connected to Christ’s people in all places. I invite you to receive a big hunk of God’s grace so your life may be transformed in big ways. I invite you because Christ promises to meet us here, and sure enough, every time we break this bread and share this cup, he is present in our midst.

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