Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 5, 2008

2008.10.05 “Worship: We Gather at the Table of the Lord”

Central United Methodist Church

“Worship: We Gather at the Table of the Lord”

Pastor David L. Haley

October 5th, 2008

The story is told of a little girl whose parents took her forward to receive communion.  Disappointed with the small piece of bread she was given, the little girl cried out for all to hear, “I want more! I want more!” While embarrassing to her parents and amusing to the pastor and congregation, this little girl’s cry accurately expresses many of our feelings about Holy Communion. More! We want more! More than we have sometimes received from the sacrament of Holy Communion as it has often been practiced in church. (This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion, Gayle Carlton Felton, p. 7)

This is the fourth of six sermons about worship, continuing the conversation that we began last spring.  As we have learned, there are four essential acts of worship: we enter God’s presence, God’s Word is read and responded to, we gather at the table of the Lord, and finally, we are sent forth to serve.

Today, on World Communion Sunday, I want to deal with the third – and perhaps most important act of worship, “We Gather at the Table of the Lord.”  My point in doing this is not so much to talk about the theology of it, as to have a conversation about the way we do it, and how we might do it even better.  More! We want more!

        Perhaps the most amazing thing about Holy Communion in the United Methodist Church is that we have come such a long way, from where we used to be. 

        Of course, from the beginning, Christians have celebrated The Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, or the Mass, as it is called in various traditions. In the Gospels we read how Jesus instituted it, and in St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians we read how he passed it on to the Gentile Christians.

        Around the year 150, a Christian named Justin Martyr described what happened during early Christian worship: how, after the sermon and prayers: “they kissed each other,” a sign of brotherly and sisterly love, and then set apart bread and wine. The leader gave thanks to God in a prayer of thanksgiving, and then the bread and wine were shared with all.

        From that time on, for about 14 centuries, the theology of what happens in the Lord’s Supper, or Mass, took off, and became more profound and more carefully regulated and ruled, about who could do it (only a man?), how it was done, and who could commune.  I don’t know if you know this, but the words “hocus pocus”, came from the Latin words for the institution of the Mass:  “Hoc est corpus meum.”

        At the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, those who became Protestants threw out many of the accumulated rules, and “picked-and-chose,” according to their theologies, about how it was to be done, who could do it, and who could commune. That’s why the various forms of Protestant Communion vary so much; in fact, I’m sometimes confused myself.  Depending upon what part of our tradition we could choose from, should I wear an alb, and vestments; a black preaching gown, a frock coat, or a Hawaiian shirt?  Does it matter?

Even more confusing are all the theological explanations of what goes on.  Do the bread and wine actually “became” Christ’s body and blood, through “transubstantion” (the Roman Catholic view), present with, (“consubstantion” in the Lutheran view), or is this only a symbolic memorial which we celebrate of Christ’s sacrifice?  Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that it was instituted by Jesus himself, who told us “to celebrate it in remembrance of Me.”

        How often should we celebrate it? John Wesley, the 18th English founder of Methodism, was a believer in frequent – even daily – communion, as an important means of grace which Christians ought to celebrate as often as possible. Dorine (our communion steward) will faint to hear me say this; but personally, I wish we celebrated it every Sunday.  More! I want more!

        Wesley’s practice, however, was not to be the case with Methodism in America. Remember that most Methodist churches began as part of a circuit served by a single circuit rider, who might make it to your church once in every 3 months, to serve communion.  So, since, in the church, practice tends to solidify into tradition, that was why many Methodist churches only celebrated communion quarterly.

        Even when we did experience it, the way we experienced it was in a ritualistic, even penitential form. Growing up in a small United Methodist Church in western Kentucky, one thing I remember is how deadly boring communion was. To me as a child, consecration seemed to go on forever, full of beseech and bewails.  It fact, when it was communion Sunday, a lot of people chose to skip it.

        What changed everything was the wave of liturgical renewal (I have mentioned before) which began in the sixties, both in the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches. There was a return to earlier forms of the tradition, less penitential and more joyful. If you’ve sat through an Lutheran or Episcopal service, or even a Roman Catholic Mass, you’ll know that all are very similar to what we Methodists do during Holy Communion on Sunday morning. 

        The parts can be shorter or longer, more elaborate or more simple.  But most important is what is at its core. And what is that?

        There is an Invitation and Confession, sometimes fulfilled through the first part of the service, sometimes extended before Communion.  I confess, in the interest of time, I have sometimes omitted these.  (See, even I’m learning something . . .)

        I confess to you is that I’m not a fan of confession.  Yes, I do have sins, which I do confess before God. But so often in the history of the church, confessions were used by the church to keep people dependent. And, so often in the Church, I find myself confessing other people’s sins.  In terms of making ourselves worthy to receive holy communion by confession, who is worthy?  Isn’t this what the whole thing is about, that in this, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven?

        The Invitation and Confession are followed by the Passing of the Peace.  In the worship survey, many of you said this was the one thing that you most disliked.  So let me say a little more about it.

        Remember how, in the year 150, Justin Martyr described the “kiss of peace?” It was not, as we often think it to be, “greeting each other and saying hello”, at the beginning of the service, as much as it was an expression of peace and reconciliation, before we partake together of holy communion.  Literally saying, from the highest to the lowest person present, “The peace of the Lord be with you.”  “And also with you.”

O.K., maybe we don’t do the kiss. (It’s hard enough for some of us to shake hands!) Maybe that’s too bad. As you know, that’s an ancient European custom, practiced for millenia, still practiced now, sometimes once on each cheek, sometimes three times on each cheek, depending on where you are. (I saw it last spring in Spain.)  But it’s only shared among those who are close; you don’t do it to strangers.  What does that say about the “kiss of peace” in Christian fellowship?

        Now maybe you think I’m a little crazy, but I’ve experienced this to be an awesome, even emotional moment when I’m visiting churches. Even when I’m visiting European cathedrals, it’s sometimes at that moment when the universal fellowship of Christ comes alive, when Christians who are strangers extend their hand to me and say, “The peace of Christ be with you.” I’ve come to believe that of all the parts of the worship service, it may be the greatest measure of the sincerity of their faith. Think about that the next time you “pass” the peace.

        After the peace there is the Offering, where we not offer ourselves and our financial gifts, but also the gifts of bread and wine, to be consecrated. 

        For those gifts, should we use wine or grape juice, real bread or styrofoam wafers?  Did you know that Methodists used to use wine, until prohibition, and a certain Bishop Welch. (Yes, that Welch.)  But what about those who are recovering alcoholics?  As a young girl once said to her mother as she went forward for communion in an Episcopal Church, “Mom, just say No.”  We might say, more!  I want more!

        And if there was anything we all agreed on in the worship surveys, it was how much we hated those styrofoam wafers.  Well, if you’re willing to work with Dorine on “fresh bread”, we’ll try to get away from it. Certainly the symbolism – not to mention the taste – would be greater.  Remember what worship expert Robert Webber once said:  “Stingy symbols, stingy God.  Lavish symbols, lavish God.”

        After the Offering comes the Prayer of Consecration, the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic Prayer.  I know it sometimes seems long, but as you’ve heard, The Prayer of Thanksgiving is so ancient, I’m almost afraid not to do it.  It consists of thanksgiving to God, a reminder of salvation history, the consecration of the elements, the invocation of the spirit, and joining in Jesus’ Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer.  At it’s heart we still do what Jesus did: We TAKE – we BLESS – we BREAK – we GIVE.  Even more amazing, in doing it, the same thing happens to us:  We are TAKEN; we are BLESSED; we are BROKEN; and we are GIVEN to the world.

        At this point, I usually make that Invitation that it a distinctive – something I appreciate – about our United Methodist tradition.  In our tradition, Holy Communion is offered to all. As I always say, you do not have to be a United Methodist, you do not have to be a member of this congregation, you do not have to be only an adult, that understands (Who understands?); children are welcome.  The only affirmation required of you is that you accept Christ’s gracious invitation, to his table, which it is.

        When we distribute the elements, – as you know – we do that in our congregation in two ways.  The most common Methodist way – reflecting our Anglican roots – is to go forward to commune.  In some churches, it is possible to kneel and pray, as you so desire.  I would like to see us get back to that, by having a place to kneel and pray.

        The most common method of communion that we use when we come forward is called intinction, where we take the bread and dip it into the cup. Personally, I think the symbolism is strongest in this method of communion.

        The other way we distribute the bread and wine is what has traditionally been the “free church” form of communion, when we are served individually in the pews.  I personally dislike those little plastic cups – as American individualism run rampant – but in the worship survey, most people said they liked celebrating communion both ways.

        As we partake of the bread and cup, there are various ways to make it more meaningful; in fact, perhaps a variety of ways is the best. We can do in silence, as instrumental or choral music is performed, or through the singing of hymns. I personally love the singing of hymns, and hope we can do more of that.  It’s easier when there is projection, because you can have the words of the hymns before you, and be freed from having to carry and sing from a hymnal. I confess I am often a deficient officiant, because as we sing hymns, I love to sing the hymns, rather than say, over and over, “the body of Christ, given for you; the blood of Christ, given for you.”  Sometimes, during the singing of hymns during the receiving of communion, I feel we come closest to holy “Communion” with a capital “C.”

        After communion, after a brief prayer, we are sent forth to serve, to be – as the service reminds us – “Christ’s Body in the world,” which I’ll talk about in two weeks.

        Yes, we’ve come a long way in the United Methodist Church, and all of us, having experienced meaningful and inspiring communion services, now want “more.”

Frankly, on any given Sunday, you never know just how meaningful, just how important it’s going to be.

            I can never think very long about the meaning and importance of Holy Communion before a memory comes to mind. 

When I was at Berry Memorial UMC, two congregations ago, near Lincoln Square in Chicago, a young man named Gary, from the apartment building across the street, begin attending church. 

        The only problem was, he was often drunk when he did so (WUI – Worshiping Under the Influence?). He always sat near the front, and sometimes he sat when we were standing and stood when we were sitting.  At the passing of the peace, he didn’t wait for me to come to him, he joined me in the pulpit.  I can still see him now, passing to me the peace, during Holy Communion.

        And then one Sunday morning he didn’t show. The news finally got to us, that the weekend before, Gary had been stabbed fatally, and had died at Ravenswood Hospital. 

        I keep in my pastoral “cheer up” file, a note Gary passed to me, written on the back of a prayer card for priest:

“Thanks for your encoredgment – All my love. Gary”

May it serve – not only to me but to all of us – as a reminder of the importance of what we do here, and what happens here, as we gather at the table of the Lord.   Amen.

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