Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 7, 2007

2007.10.07 “Church at the Passages of Life: Holy Communion”


“Church at the Passages of Life: Holy Communion”

1 Corinthians 11: 23 – 26

Pastor David L. Haley

October 7th, 2007

Of all my childhood memories, few stand out more clearly or more fondly than when my family gathered around the dining table. 

In my family, that was primarily my grandmother’s table, and it happened almost every Sunday, when we gathered after church. 

The food was wonderful: I don’t want to talk about it too much, because it makes my mouth water:  chicken and dressing, fresh vegetables from the garden, all made unhealthy by overcooking and the addition of the three primary Southern spices: fat, sugar and salt.  There were yeast rolls made as only my grandmother could make them, and of course, dessert, my all time favorite of which was blackberry cobbler.  For me, it became the standard by which I have measured “good food” ever since.

But perhaps even more memorable than the food, was the feeling of family. Like all families, some of us were strange, and didn’t always get along, but we all had a place around the table. The more important the occasion; the more important it was that everybody be there, if at all possible. 

Wherever you grew up or whatever culture you come from, I expect this was the case with you as well, because the importance of family tables and family meals is universal.  Did you ever see the 1994 Chinese movie “Eat Drink Man Woman?”  The same movie was remade in 2001, in Mexican culture, under the title, “Tortilla Soup.”  There’s just something about families, tables, and eating that’s universal.

Today we gather around the table for the holy meal of Christianity, variously called, according to your tradition: The Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Mass.

It’s good timing for the second sermon of my sermon series, “Church at the Passages of Life, thoughts on the major ways the church impacts our lives at some of the most important times of our lives.  Today we look at how our lives are touched by this holy meal, at the time when we gather as God’s family around God’s table. 

        In the United Methodist Church, we’ve come a long way regarding the Lord’s Supper, have we not?  Growing up as a kid in a United Methodist Church, one thing I remember is how deadly boring communion was, always eliciting a groan when it was Communion Sunday.  Consecration seemed to go on forever, full of beseech and bewails.  Somehow I think this may have had something to do with the fact – along with the sporadic visits of circuit riders – that some United Methodist churches only celebrated it quarterly, at most, monthly. 

        Even if you came from other traditions, you may have had a similar experience. For example, the Roman Catholic Church changed everything with the Second Vatican Council, 1962 – 1965, under one of the most progressive popes of the century, John XXXIII.  Universally, the language of the mass went from the dead language of Latin, to the language of the people.  The priest no longer stood with his back to the people, but facing them as he (and it was a he) offered the prayer of consecration.  Some loved it, feeling for the first time that the mass was accessible; others hated it, believing that this de-mystified the mass, that the priest now felt more like Julia Child leading a cooking show.  For them the current pope, Benedict XVI, has only recently permitted the mass to be celebrated again in Latin. 

         Like – I expect – many of you, you will find that I am somewhere in between.  I like that phrase coined by Robert Webber, “ancient/future.”  There are parts of the ancient ritual that I love: the mystery, the symbols and the gestures, and especially the multisensory elements of communion: the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. I agree with worship expert Robert Webber, when he said: “Stingy symbols, stingy God.  Lavish symbols, lavish God.”

        But as a theological progressive, there are also some ancient understandings that leave me cold. 

        For example, I have become more uncomfortable with the ancient sacrificial underpinnings of the rite.  I don’t believe the God Jesus taught us about is a God who needs to be appeased by blood sacrifice, whether the human sacrifice of Jesus or any other.  In the ancient near east, it actually included the abhorrent practice of child sacrifice; later, in Judaism, animal sacrifice, and as civilization progressed, fruit and grain offerings.  It’s true that many of the early Christians, including those who wrote the New Testament, thought about Jesus in that way, because they were Jews and the sacrificial system was the only conceptual framework they had for understanding Jesus’ death.  But that sacrificial system is what Jesus abolished, and the Lord’s Supper becomes a “metamyth”, transcending what went before.  Therefore I am less and less comfortable with “blood” imagery, and prefer rituals of institution more accessible to modern sensibilities.

        And through the centuries, all those confusing theological arguments about HOW Christ was present in the elements, about whether the bread and wine actually “became” Christ’s body and blood, whether through “transubstantion” (the Roman Catholic view) or “consubstantion” (the Lutheran view).  All those arguments leave me cold.  Personally, what I think is that they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

        Because what got lost in all of the theology was the fact that most basically, by whatever name you call it — the Mass, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper — was and is the kingdom meal first presided over by Jesus.  Yes, it is a reenactment and yes it is a sacrament and yes it is a symbol, but most of all, it is the kingdom meal given by Jesus.

What would YOU do if you learned you only had 24 hours to live? That’s the question Jesus faced, and this is how he answered it – he threw a meal and invited all his friends.

         In fact, Jesus did no less that night than what he did every night: he invited people to eat with him.  He invited his friends; he invited Peter and the others who would disown him; he also invited Judas, the man he knew would betray him. He gathered friends and enemies, righteous and wicked, and those in between, broke bread with them, and offered them wine.  He ate with them, as he had countless times before.

      When Jesus broke bread, everyone — the Pharisee and the leper, the rich and the poor, righteous and sinners — experienced welcome at God’s table. When Jesus broke bread, the hungry were fed.  When Jesus broke bread, people experienced what real power, God’s power, does: it breaks down the barriers that divide us, and gives even the unworthy and unlikely a seat at God’s table.

      Do you have to be worthy to participate in Holy Communion? Who’s worthy? Do you have to understand what’s going on?  Who understands?  And yet who’s invited? All of us!

      Our dear daddy, the 18th century founder of Methodism, John Wesley, believed that communion was a “converting” sacrament as well as a “confirming” sacrament, meaning that it was for those on the way to faith, as well as for the faithful, and that therefore, everyone is welcome, including children. That’s one thing about our Methodist tradition I’m especially thankful for. Because if you’ve ever been excluded or turned away from communion in another tradition, you know how that feels.

      What Jesus did at that supper is the same thing we do today:  He TOOK the bread . . . he BLESSED it . . . he BROKE it . . . and GAVE it to his disciples.

      And that’s what we still do, in various forms and ways. We can do it in a formal mass; or in an informal communion at camp, with kool aid and crackers.  We can do it in the pews or at the altar, we can do it with little cups or one common cup.  We can do it with bread we have made, or “styrofoam” wafers.  We can do it while singing or we can do it in silence.  I hope we will do it in anticipation and joy.

      Because as Eugene Peterson rendered the last line of 1 Corinthians 11: 23 – 26 in his translation, The Message:

      “You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt.”

      But there is one further dimension, another invitation, inherent in this breaking of bread.  Did it ever occur to you, that when Jesus broke bread, and said to those gathered, “This is my Body”, he might not have been referring to the bread?  What if he was not referring to the bread, but to his disciples gathered there?  For as he was, so they were to become, and we now are: Jesus’ Body — Taken, Blessed, Broken, and Given — to the world. 

      That’s right.  You think it’s me up here, consecrating this meal.  No, I’m just standing in for the substitute host: Jesus.  It’s his table.

      You think it’s the bread and wine we’re talking about as the Body of Christ?  No, it’s us — taken, blessed, broken, and given, — invited to be now in the world the Living Body of the One who gave himself for all.

My grandmother is gone, a part of that heavenly host. The house and table are gone, the family scattered far and wide; but the memories of food, table, and family remain. 

Jesus may no longer be bodily with us, but the table he set in God’s name remains: teaching us not only about holy food, but about God’s table and about God’s family.  

And the best thing of all:  there is a place for YOU!


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