Sermon Preached on June 19, 2016 following the Orlando Nightclub Shootings
I Corinthians 11:17-34
At the last session meeting, session voted to continue the practice of celebrating communion (the Lord’s Supper) every Sunday. This was after quite a discussion about the pros and cons, and how people feel about communion as an every Sunday part of the service. I said that maybe it was time to talk about communion and why I think it is a good idea to continue the practice of a weekly observance of this sacrament. I was going to talk about the observance as a way of being hospitable: hospitable to those who see it as an important part of their faith journey and hospitable to those who might not be able to attend worship on a regular basis.
The danger of considering how we observe the Lord’s Supper based on hospitality is that we can get bogged down by personal preferences. If we are hospitable to one person’s desires, we may be in danger of being inhospitable to another’s. Some find weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper an important part of their faith journey. Others say that weekly observance lessens the sacrament’s importance.
Hospitality is an important part of the Christian life. Our primary role, in hospitality within the church, is to be hospitable to God’s redeeming presence. Our hospitality to each other and to strangers flows from our being hospitable to God. So, I think to wrestle with communion, with how it is we practice and observe this sacrament, we need to look beyond ourselves. We need to ask not, “What do I want?” but, “What might God want us to do? How are we to observe this sacrament? What is its purpose and intent?”
I grew up with celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a rare event. I think the normal practice in Presbyterian Churches was to have it four times a year. That was the requirement in our Book of Order, the Directory for Worship. When I went to seminary, thinking about the way we observe this sacrament was beginning to change. There was interest in making this sacrament a more regular part of the life of the church. So, I have been accustomed to a monthly observance. Some have pointed out that there is nothing special, however, about the first Sunday of the month, and that monthly observances often have little to do with the liturgical life of the church. Now, the Book of Worship, suggests that it is appropriate to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday.
The Lord’s Supper is a, if not the central rite of the Christian Church. It has been acknowledged since the earliest days of Christianity. (Although calling this sacrament The Lord’s Supper is a tradition that developed centuries later.) The gospels, which were written after the church had existed for some time, reflect an awareness of the centrality of this communal act. Paul’s letters also reflect its importance.
Perhaps because it is so important it has contributed to division and even abuse throughout the church’s history. The selection from I Corinthians that I read includes what Protestant liturgy refers to as the “Words of Institution.” I read a larger portion because it points to a reality in the early church. Paul was concerned that the church in Corinth was abusing this important way of remembering Jesus. Communion was, at the beginning of the church, a shared meal. It was the Love Feast. Yet, in Corinth, some people were bringing their meal and eating it without sharing. So, divisions in the community were evident – particularly along economic lines. Those who had, ate. Those who did not, went hungry. Paul challenged this individualistic approach to faith. “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”
That’s a powerful critique that we need to hear in this modern age of individualism. It’s not about “me.” Communion is about the Body of Christ – it is for the community of believers.
The practice of having a communal meal ended as the church grew and moved from house gatherings to chapels and churches. Instead of an entire meal, just the bread and the cup remained. In the Roman Catholic Church, the meal began to be seen as a re-enactment of the sacrifice of Jesus. The bread and the wine were (and are) understood to be the actual body and blood of Jesus. The rite of the sacrament brings about the change in the elements. Since the bread and the wine became flesh and blood of Jesus, there was concern about the laity’s involvement. First, the cup was denied to laity, because of the danger of spilling the “blood.” Over time, the bread was offered to fewer and fewer people – primarily to the sick. The Lord’s Supper became a mystery that the faithful watched.
The Protestant Reformation began, in part, because of fundamental disagreements over the understanding of the Lord’s Supper. One point of contention was the denial of the cup to the laity. Another was over the theological assertion that the bread and cup became actual body ad blood of Jesus. The Protestant tradition has maintained that we celebrate the real presence of Jesus in the bread and the cup, but that the bread remains bread and the wine or juice remains wine or juice.
Since the participation of the laity had become rare, reformers suggested a more regular observance of the sacrament. Calvin wanted the church to observe every Sunday. As a compromise, he agreed to let it be celebrated in different churches each week.
“Do this in remembrance of me,” we’re told that Jesus said, as he offered his disciples bread and wine. “Do this in remembrance of me.” I think it’s odd that through the centuries, we’ve found all sorts of reasons for “not doing” this. We limit our observance. It is for good reasons. We want to remember that this commandment is something special. So, communion is to be a “special” observance – perhaps quarterly or monthly.
“Do this in remembrance of me.” James White in his book Introduction to Christian Worship says that there have been major changes in Western Christianity in its understanding of the sacraments. “The emerging recovery of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) as the norm for Sunday worship …is the gradual shift away from regarding worship as an intellectual experience of instruction or as an emotional outlet to the realization that worship encompasses our total being – body, emotions, and intellect.”
The leader of a workshop on worship suggested that worship is to “tie broad lines” to our everyday lives. Baptism should remind us of our daily rituals of bathing. The Lord’s Supper should remind us of our need for nourishment.
I think he’s right – but, I would suggest, we need to see that in reverse as well. Our daily rituals of bathing should remind us of our baptisms. Our meals should remind us of the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. The ordinary and the sacred come together. The sacred infuses the ordinary with the very presence of God.
White defines the sacraments as something God does and offers us – not something we do for ourselves. “God acts in the sacraments….The sacraments depend upon what God makes of them….God acts in the sacraments to give Godself to us. God takes the initiative….Through the sacraments, God gives Godself to us as love made visible…We need to be shown. (So God feeds us!)..God’s self-giving as love is made visible through relationships of love in community.”
I’ve heard church described as the place where we break the bread and tell the stories. It is like a family gathering around a large table. We’re nourished by the food and by the stories that inform and bind us together. How does it change our understanding if we begin to think of this sacrament as God’s gift to us to nourish and shape us and bind us to one another? How does it change our perception if accept that something might happen here that we don’t control or even understand?
Years ago, as I was driving, I was listening to a radio program that ended with a quote. “A dinner invitation, once accepted, is a sacred obligation. If you die before the dinner takes place, your executor must go in your place.” I had to pull over and write the quote down. We, God’s people, have received the dinner invitation. God wants to meet us. God wants to feed and nourish us – knowing what’s best for us. God is the loving parent who says, “You need to eat – and this is what you need.” What we need is God’s very presence, Godself given to us in love. Why would we put a limit on that?
I was thinking about this sermon as I reflected on the horrific news out of Orlando – news that was beginning to unfold as we gathered last Sunday. The question reverberates, “Why?” It is so tempting to have answers – answers that barely touch on true messiness of the human condition. We can speak of hatred – that may include self-hatred. We can speak of international conflicts. We can speak of gun control in our own nation. None of the quick and easy and divisive answers put forward really touches that deep lament that shouts, “Why, O God? Why?”
“The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” On the night he was betrayed, he offered this meal – nourishment for those who would struggle to make sense of what was going to happen.
We partake of this meal because God wants to draw close to us – and this meal is God’s gift in that through it God reaches out to us, to feed us with God’s very presence and love.
I am learning to be a child of the sacrament – a child waiting to be fed. I am learning that to worship God means being willing to offer my whole self – and recognize that the ways of God cannot always be easily understood. I am learning that there is a powerful witness in our coming together to break the bread – sharing the grace that has brought us together in this place. The willingness to share the bread is a powerful witness in this world that focuses too often on divisions.
This table is not ours. It is the Lord’s table. And we are invited to come and be his guests.