Sunday, October 6, 2019 – World Communion Sunday
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© The Rev. Dr. James Campbell
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal. When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
It was one of my first Communion Sundays as Senior Minister of Broadway United Church of Christ in Manhattan. And I really wanted it to be special. And so, I polished the church’s silver, embossed with the words “Broadway Tabernacle, 1859.” I laid the communion table with flowers and fruit and an antique lace tablecloth. I prepared those who would assist me, with how to serve and what to say. And then the moment arrived. And then they came down the aisle – the beloved people of that congregation who had trusted their future to me. They came, to receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. And it was all so beautiful and so moving that I was on the verge of tears the whole time. One of that congregation’s most venerable members approached me. And as I prepared to hand her the bread, she leaned in, looked me dead in the eye, and said: “I find this whole thing distracting!” To which I replied, “The body of Christ, given for you.” Communion stories.
Here’s another. About six years ago, Marcos and I were in Cuzco, Peru preparing for a trip to Machu Picchu. One evening, we wondered into the Cuzco cathedral, the oldest part of which was constructed 60 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. We were there to see the architecture. But suddenly people started to gather and it was clear that Mass was about to begin. And so, we sat down in the back of that cavernous sanctuary and listened to the service. When it came time for the Eucharist, I started to stand to go forward. But Marcos touched my arm. “You’re not Catholic!” he whispered. “I know that!” I replied. “But the priest doesn’t know that and I don’t think Jesus cares!” And so up the aisle we went. Now Marcos, having been raised a Catholic in Brazil, knew exactly how to receive the body of Christ in a Catholic Church and how to cross himself and be reverential. And I, having been raised a Baptist in the Midwest, tried to fake it, and did a pretty good job, if I do say so myself. Even so, that priest gave me a sideways glance that let me know he was on to me. Communion stories.
And one more. There were lots of things I did as a young minister that I wouldn’t do today. For example, one Pentecost Sunday during a Children’s Sermon, wanting to make the Upper Room a reality, I set a bowl of newspapers on fire to demonstrate the flame of the spirit and then turned a fan on that flame to demonstrate the rush of a mighty wind – sending acrid smoke and burning embers wafting through that great church! I would definitely never do that again. But this I might: I worked with the youth groups, among my other duties, and I was teaching them about Communion and trying to get them to understand it in its original context. You know, we make the bread and wine so special, so out of the ordinary - but the truth is that for Jesus and his friends, that was their everyday food, the most common things imaginable. And so, to make that point – that Jesus made common things holy and ask us to remember him in the midst of our common, everyday lives - we celebrated Communion using potato chips and Coca-Cola. And those kids, now in their 40s and my Facebook friends, have never forgotten that. And their parents, now in theirs 70s and 80s, and my Facebook friends, have forgiven me, and have never forgotten that.
Communion stories. Everybody has them. Everybody struggles to attach some kind of meaning to this thing we are about to do. So what does it mean for you? What are we really about to do here? And what is it that we actually believe about this thing called Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist?
Well, ask couple of hundred people in a Congregational Church and get a couple of hundred answers! That story is as varied as we are – because we’re a varied lot! -- In the United Church of Christ, it is estimated that 40% of our members come to us from the Catholic tradition. And people from that tradition bring one kind of story to this table. There are folks in this church from the Orthodox tradition. And that’s another story, another angle. And then there are you Episcopalians and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Unitarians and Pentecostals and Baptists and Methodist and cradle Congregationalists. And don’t forget those among us who don’t come from any religious tradition - each and all coming to this Table telling a story about what it all means, shaped either by a religious tradition or popular culture or literature or art or history. And the marvelous thing about a church like ours is that all of those opinions live side by side without any one of them taking preeminence.
So, whose communion story is the right story? Who knows? Probably the best we can do is to look for the truth in the midst of all of the stories by looking for some common denominators; those things that bob to the surface in all our stories. That’s usually how we find the truth, you know.
So what is it that we can know about this mystery we call Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist? Well, first of all, we need to get comfortable with the idea that we can’t really know much about it at all. And that’s OK. Think about it: those first disciples, who were actually there, understood little to nothing about Jesus or his plans or what he was even talking about at the Last Supper. And one would deny him, and one would betray, and they would all desert him before that night was over. And still, Jesus sat down and ate with them. So the idea that we need to understand this meal or have the right theology about this meal before we partake of this meal is all backwards. This meal itself is the teacher.
The great founder of Methodism, John Wesley, once said the sacrament of Communion was not only a confirming sacrament, but it was a converting sacrament. In other words, it not only warms the hearts of the saved, it saves the hearts of the sinners. And that’s the best reason I have ever heard to practice an Open Table, where absolutely everyone, without exception, is welcome!
Secondly, whatever else might be happening up here, receiving communion is one of the few ways we actually use our bodies intimately in worship. Last Sunday when I met with the children in Church School, among the many other things we talked about, we talked about the words we use during Communion. And when I asked them if they thought it was weird that Jesus talked about the bread being his body and the cup being his blood, one of the boys said, “Yeah, like Zombies!” He’s right, you know. It is weird. And it’s shocking. And it’s all on purpose because it’s meant to get our attention about this: Christ desires intimacy with us. That flesh and blood talk – it’s about incarnation- which is the unique message of Christianity. It’s about God, in our flesh and bones. In Communion we invite Jesus into our very selves. It’s corporal and earthy. And if you get just a glimpse of that, it will shake your world.
So, we don’t need to understand it. In fact, we can’t. And, it’s a way for us to use our beautiful human bodies to worship God intimately. And finally, I think we can all agree that no matter what stories about it we tell, every story we tell about it comes to this inevitable conclusion: there is something holy here – something beyond words. We may not ring a bell. We may not bow down before the bread and cup. We may not cross ourselves. But there is something holy here.
I have often wondered exactly what it is. Maybe it’s the power community – a group of people concentrated toward God and one another. Maybe. Or maybe it’s the presence of the Holy Spirit as Alison and I invite her to come and bless this simple bread and common cup. Maybe. Or maybe it’s the promise of Jesus, that wherever two or more are gathered in his name, there he is in the midst of them – not as some esoteric idea – but actually here, now. As the great theologian David Lowes Watson once put it: at this table “…we are as close to Jesus Christ as ever we can be.” And that, it seems to me, is the best communion story of all. Thanks be to God. Amen.