This sermon ends my sermon series on worship called “Acting Out.” In this sermon, we look at the act of communion, a regular part of every Disciples worship service.
SCRIPTURE – I Corinthians 10:14-17
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
Acting Out sermon series
#4 – Communing Together
June 27, 2010
Today we conclude our sermon series on worship by focusing on the peculiar act of communion. Communion has been a central focus of our denomination every since our beginnings in the early 1800s. But we also run the risk of neglecting the deep meaning in communion because it is something we experience so regularly. One of the objections I often hear to weekly communion is that it could become too routine, too familiar. Is that the case? Is communion just one more thing we do in worship?
The theology behind breaking bread has deep biblical roots. In the Hebrew scriptures, sharing a meal with someone meant sharing your nourishment, your sustenance, thereby acknowledging the inherent worth of the other person. It’s like saying, “I value you enough to share my life-giving food with you.” Of course, we know that God commanded the Israelites to share a meal on the night before the left Egypt, which became known as the Passover meal. And God provided bread from heaven for the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. “Give us this day our daily bread” has both spiritual and physical significance.
In the Hebrew scriptures, the bread represented the gift of God’s provision, but do you know what represented God’s anger? It was the cup. In Isaiah, God says to the prophet: “”Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it.” In Jeremiah, God says to Israel: “”You will drink your sister Samaria’s cup, a cup large and deep; it will bring scorn and derision, for it holds so much.” The cup was the symbol of divine anger and judgment.
Even in Jesus’ time, the cup symbolized pain and suffering. When he is praying in Gethsemane, Jesus asks God: “”My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” But at the Last Supper, Jesus transforms the cup from one of wrath to one of grace. The cup, which used to symbolize judgment, now symbolizes new life. I think of Fiddler on the Roof, when they raise their cups and sing, “L’Chaim”! To life! When we raise the cup to our lips each Sunday, we are also raised to new life through Christ.
The New Testament models for modern communities the importance of sharing meals together. The feeding of the 5,000; the meal in Emmaus with the risen Christ; the sharing of the fish on the beach at the end of John’s gospel – all of these are significant events in the gospels which have as a central element the sharing of a meal. What did Jesus do on the last night of his life? He shared a meal with his closest friends in the Upper Room. Acts 2:42 tells us that one of the main functions of worship for the early church was the breaking of bread together.
Our Disciples of Christ founders sought to reclaim that early view of the importance of communion in their worship. Not only did they believe in the weekly observance of communion, but they also believed that everyone who made their confession of faith through baptism was welcome at the table, regardless of their denominational affiliation. This idea of communion being open to everyone flew in the face of many denominations, and was one of the reasons our founders left their churches to start their own movement, which would eventually grow into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
The idea of open communion fit nicely with another of our founding tenets, and that was the idea that we are all followers of Christ, regardless of the earthly divisions we have created for ourselves. Unity is our polar star, or as we might say this Sunday, we’re all in the same boat. The root for the word “communion” is the same for the word “community” and “communication.” Through communion, we communicate that we are a community, united together by our belief in Christ as our Lord and Savior.
That’s a message we need to be reminded of weekly, because we live in a world that elevates individualism and self-service. We are a united, forgiven people, but it’s so easy to forget that in the midst of the chaos and craziness of life. Communion is our divine Post-It Note. We know that regardless of what happens for six days, regardless of the conflicts, the disharmonies, the brokenness, the shortfalls, on that seventh day we will gather once again around a table to hear God’s merciful word and taste God’s gracious goodness. If our faith suffers from short-term memory, we don’t have to wait long to be reminded of God’s love for us and the forgiveness so freely offered to us. Communion is not a magical elixir that magically wipes away our problems; it is simply a reminder that God is with us always. Communion’s reliable presence in our worship mirrors God’s reliable presence in our lives.
Another reason the weekly regularity of communion is so important goes back to what I said about the words we use in worship. No word we speak in this service can begin to express the extent of God’s love and grace. Without communion, the whole responsibility of communicating God’s Word falls on the sermon, and every sermon will fall short of that goal. But with communion as a part of every worship, that weight is lifted from the sermon and the sermon deliverer. Regardless of how well or poorly the sermon proclaims the Good News, I know that at another point in the service, God’s message will be communicated, not through our words, but through the tangible action of eating and drinking. As Paul Scott Wilson notes, “Communion depends on words but also exhausts all words, its meaning and significance never being fully enclosed by those words.” In this sense, the word of preaching and the act of communion share in the proclamation of God’s words.
During communion, that proclamation happens through actions. In fact, I like to think of the service of communion as a re-enactment. We are acting out again the actions of Jesus that night in the Upper Room. Therefore, communion is meant to be an active engagement. Catholics believe that through communion the bread and cup become the actual body and blood of Christ, a process called transubstantiation. That belief led to a funny scene in the book Angela’s Ashes. The author, Frank McCourt, tells about celebrating his first communion in the Catholic church. Shortly after church, he became ill and vomited outside his grandmother’s house later that day. His grandmother was horrified and exclaimed, “Now you’ve gone and thrown up our Savior all over my backyard!”
As Disciples, we believe the bread and the cup remain the bread and the cup, but that in the act of communion, in the act of sharing a meal together, Christ becomes fully present with us. In a sense, the bread and the cup re-present Christ to us each Sunday, and we are once again reconnected to our Savior by actively remembering his sacrifice for us.
The act of communion. Ask yourself this: would communion be as meaningful, as spiritually nourishing, if all we did was look at the break and cup, not partake of it? Communion is meant to be a sensual experience, meaning that it engages all our senses, not just our ears. There is something about actually seeing the bread broken and hearing the cup being poured and smelling the juice and touching the bread and tasting the elements that makes us participants in the celebration and actors in the re-enactment. Far beyond the reach of words, communion makes Christ’s presence with us tangible.
In our communion celebration we are adding a few elements that will hopefully make communion more of a sensory experience for us. We actually tear a loaf of bread and pour grape juice into the chalice, much like Jesus would have done (although his grape juice tasted a little different). We’re also going to start taking the loaf we break and putting pieces of it in each bread tray that is passed out so that you will have the choice of either taking a wafer or pinching off a piece of the loaf to use during communion. In this way, the one bread that is broken becomes nourishment for us all. We all will have the choice to eat from the same loaf, united together through the broken body and shed blood of Christ.
That’s one of the blessed paradoxes of communion. While it unites us together as a community, it also symbolizes the individual gift we each receive through this meal. I first fully realized this during a chapel service at my seminary. For communion, we all came forward, tore off a piece of bread and dipped it into the cup, a method known as intinction. As I did so, the person holding the bread looked me in the eye and said, “Kory, this is Jesus’ body, broken for you.” The person holding the cup said, “Kory, this is Jesus’ blood, shed for you.” That experience made me realize the intimate nature of communion. That body, that blood, it was broken and shed – for me.
When we raise our cup each Sunday, we raise it to honor the Lord of Life, and to offer our lives as servants. When you put that bread in your mouth, when you touch that cup to your lips, remember: The body has been broken – for you, the blood has been shed – for you, a life has been given – for you. And because of it, you are offered this amazing gift of forgiveness and new life through Christ. If you forget that this week, that’s OK. We’re human. Just come on back next Sunday. Another meal will be prepared, another loaf will be broken, another cup will be poured out. For you. And once again, you’ll have the opportunity to receive the gift and taste and see that the Lord is good. Thanks be to God.