At one of our recent worship committee meetings we started off by reflecting on communion. Matt Bye gave each of us a number of slips of paper and asked us to write down a word or a phrase that we associate with communion. After a few minutes we went around and shared what we had written and then used that as a basis for talking about the Lord’s Supper as a practice of the church.
I’ve had those slips of paper sitting on my desk ever since that meeting. They’ve managed to survive several desktop-purging efforts on my part. As a way of beginning our reflection on communion, and as a way of recycling these papers before they actually get recycled, I want to share some of what was written. Different words or phrases that we associate with communion. As you hear them you may think about how they do or don’t reflect your own experience:
Fellowship, Grace, A COMMON loaf and cup, Recommit, Cleansing/Soul-Searching, Forgiveness, Re-Member, Joyful, Non-denominational, Collective Unconscious, Making things right, Emptying/Filling, Historical, Give thanks, Marvel, Servant, Joyful rite, Union in spirit, Fellowship, Life and death, Life, Ordinary becoming holy, Relationship w/God AND your faith community, Our identity.
Seeing all these words and ideas out in front of us as a group was a way of recognizing how much is contained within this act of the church that has been known as Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.
There is good reason for all of these associations. Not only is there a rich history behind the practice of Communion in the church, but the symbolic field of scripture out of which the Lord’s Supper emerges, the narrative and the poetry and the lived experience of the people of Israel, is itself rich and full in meaning. Consider some of these connections:
The Lord’s Supper is connected to the Passover meal of ancient Jewish practice, celebrating Israel’s liberation from being slaves in Egypt, observed in the first century as a hope for Israel’s liberation from the Roman Empire, and continued today as a hopeful celebration of the liberation of all creation from all forms of bondage.
It is connected to the prophet Isaiah’s vision of what will happen in the days to come. Many people throughout time have had visions of what might take place at an apocalyptic date yet to be determined — of who might win the final world war, if anyone, and what all might be destroyed in the process. In giving his vision of the future, Isaiah imagines…a great banquet. A feast of rich food and the best wines, where God is the host and all peoples are invited. Isaiah pictures this lavish party being a time when the glaze over our eyes will be removed, and we can see for the first time. The ways of death and destruction get booted out the door with the large angelic bouncers never letting them back inside. God wipes away the tears from all faces, then hands people back their napkins and serves up another round of wine and multi-cultural cuisine. After describing this festive scene, Isaiah says, “It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God…this is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation.” This is what we have waited for, what we long for.
This image of salvation as a great banquet of all peoples no doubt had a powerful influence on the way Jesus went about his ministry. He connected himself to the tradition of Isaiah, and so another connection that we have for the Lord’s Supper is in Jesus’ regular practice of having table fellowship with those who were considered outcasts and sinners, the unclean people who would not find a welcome at a proper meal. We see Jesus literally and figuratively removing the glaze from blind eyes, and living out this celebration of the great banquet in the homes and streets of first century Palestine. He felt that heaven was too good to wait for, so we might as well live so that the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
Communion is also connected to Jesus’ feeding people. More than just welcoming the unclean, we have stories of Jesus teaching that there is enough food for everyone, with plenty left over. The gospel of John especially shows Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 as a Eucharistic act. With the stark images coming out of Gaza these last couple weeks and the high quantities of food aid being brought in, we are reminded again of the connection between daily bread and justice for the poor, and Jesus’ act of sharing with those who had nothing. When hungry people are being fed, Christ is there among them.
Communion is connected to Jesus’ last supper that he shared with his friends and followers, the night when one would betray him, the others would abandon him, and he would be arrested, tried through the night, and then crucified the next day.
It is connected to the blood that Jesus shed in his suffering and his body that was crucified.
It is connected to the remembering of Jesus’ death, and also the celebration of his resurrection. The walkers to Emmaus recognize Jesus as risen when one who was a stranger to them breaks bread and gives it to them to eat.
It is connected to the common meal that the early church shared as they gathered for worship and fellowship and teaching.
All these things make up the web of meaning that is the Lord’s Supper that add to our already full list of associations that we carry with the meal.
It’s no wonder that in the third and fourth century it came to known as a sacrament, meaning “holy mystery.” How else do you describe what’s going on here? The point of what I’m saying so far here is just that. It is a holy mystery. This is not a light meal. It is a full course that we gather around and feast on. What we’re dealing with here is the gospel in miniature. It’s all in there. First point.
Here’s the second point: Being a holy mystery, with all this meaning and rich narrative behind it, I think it’s fair to acknowledge, admit, that we don’t always experience every aspect of its meaning. Sometimes we’re doing well to enter just one part of the mystery. This is the bread, this is the cup. Liberation and justice. The bread and the cup, Celebration. The bread and the cup. Gratitude, forgiveness. Bread and cup. Grace. In a way similar to baptism, as a ritual that represents more than we can ever take in at any one time, the Lord’s Supper is an opportunity to keep expanding our experience of Gospel. The hope is that over the course of our Communions, we are able to take in different dimensions of the holy mystery that is held out to us. Here’s some stories of how that’s happened:
Marlene Kropf is a minister of worship and she shares about how much of a difference just a small change of language made for her in experiencing communion. She had been accustomed to hearing, “On the night he was betrayed, Jesus to took the bread and broke it….” And so on. Communion for her had always been a solemn occasion reflecting of the Lord’s death. But one time the person leading the service began by saying, “Among friends, gathered around a table, Jesus took bread and broke it…” She writes, “I couldn’t believe what a difference the change of a few words made. The image of Jesus gathering around a table with his friends brought immediately to mind Jesus’ intimate fellowship with his disciples, the many meals he shared with followers such as Mary and Martha, the table fellowship at Emmaus and even the Messianic banquet of the future. Instead of feeling burdened, I approached the Communion table with anticipation and joy.” (The Mennonite magazine, Sept 4, 2007, p. 9)
I had my own kind of startling experience with communion when Abbie and I were in Mennonite Voluntary Service. Every year all of the MVSers around the country get together for a retreat. There’s workshops and discussion and plenty of time for recreation, but also times of worship. At the last worship session we were led in communion and asked to form in small groups so that we could serve each other the bread and the juice. And as we served each other, we were asked to say to the person beside us, “In offering this bread and this cup, I offer my life to you.” When the leader invited us to do this, I was a little stunned at what I was being asked to do. It was the first time I had ever considered myself as the one in communion being willing to sacrifice for another. Was I willing to offer my life for this person beside me who I’d just met a couple days ago but who I knew shared a common commitment to serving God? As I fearfully shared these words along with the bread and cup with the person beside me I was aware in a deeper way than ever what was being asked of all of us, and how powerful it is when a community commits to each other’s wellbeing.
In talking with Abbie this week about communion she also had an experience ready to share that made communion take on a new level of meaning. It was during a time at seminary when I was interning at a church that met on Sunday evenings and she was attending Southside Fellowship that met in the mornings. As she walked into worship she noticed that the worship table was covered with mounds and mounds of cookies. The service was a service of celebration and eventually got to the point where the pastor invited the congregation to join in the celebration feast. Communion was served as cookies and milk, with everyone able to have as many cookies as they could stomach before lunch to taste the sweetness of God’s gift to us.
In the same essay that Marlene described her own experience with communion, she also told of a congregation that regularly carries bread and juice to the front of the sanctuary during worship, along with a grocery cart full of canned goods. During the service all the food is blessed, the congregation partakes of the Lord’s Supper, and the food is taken to their local food pantry.
What needs to happen in order to continue to enter into the depth of the meaning of this practice? Do we need to vary the words, sometimes emphasizing Christ’s death, sometimes emphasizing intimate fellowship? Do we need to be flexible with the format? Sometimes being served, and sometimes serving each other as brother and sisters committed to serving each other? If we spread a full table and mix up the elements every once in a while will we get a sense of the surprising celebration that we’re invited into? How can we connect our sharing of Lord’s supper with our mission in our community – with our support of the Oakley Food Pantry? with our work with Community Meal?
There is a trend in the Mennonite church, an encouraging nudge from our worship ministers, to deepen our experience of communion in our congregation. To have it more often. To practice it in different ways, so that we are reminded of the fullness of its meaning. To welcome it as a steady part of our worship diet, perhaps on a monthly basis. Worship committee is looking at these things and considering if this may be a direction we want to move. Today we will use our regular format, but you are encouraged to make a connection between our sharing in communion and the Moment for Mission that Elaine and Kevin will lead regarding Community Meal.
Point one – Communion is a miniature version of the gospel itself, a multi-faceted practice. Point two, different parts of this will speak to us at different times in our life, and different ways of having communion affect how we experience it.
A brief point three.
One of the significant areas of contention in different Christian traditions has been around how to understand the cup and the bread. A major argument around the Reformation was with the teaching of trans-substantiation, a belief that the elements are transformed into the body and blood of Christ as they are consecrated. Jesus becomes physically present in the bread and cup. Maybe this is true in some cosmic, mystical way.
What we prefer to emphasize, however, is slightly different. Rather than focusing on whether or not the bread and the cup become the real presence of Christ, we have preferred to ask, What kind of transformation is happening to us, the people gathered around the table, who share together in the meal of the Lord’s Supper? What are we becoming? To which we believe the answer to be, in some holy mysterious way, that we are becoming the body of Christ together, the physical presence of the continuing life of Christ. The Communion that we take here is a sign of the gospel we seek to live in all parts of our life.
So as you come, anyone clean or unclean or somewhere in between, anyone who hungers for God, come in celebration. Come in repentance. Come with confidence. Come with humility. Come to receive and be prepared to be asked to give. Come expecting to encounter Christ. Come willing to be transformed.