Message from 01-13-08… Communion

January 28, 2008


This is a long one, folks… sorry. These last weeks I’ve been sharing more from the heart during our message times. I know “where we’re going,” but I’m not locking into a specific route to get there in the message time. My hope was that we’d have a more conversational feel and you’d hear me less “scripted.” But that also means that I don’t really have notes that are easily blogged. Hopefully we’ll be pod casting again soon and this will be far more streamlined as a process.

Talking about communion today we weighed two ideas: the sacramental view of communion and the “shared life” view.

The sacramental view has a lot to recommend it. You can see and hear the concept of the “sacred” in the word sacramental. And it’s the sacredness that we’re going to hold onto as tightly as possible.

I really faced the question of teaching about communion first when I had began starting new churches in East Africa. What would I teach? I was fully armed with devotional thoughts and scriptural references for the meaning and essence of communion, but what about the practice? I was raised in a church fellowship that severely circumscribed communion… we had a specific day and a specific type and bread. We had an authorized number of prayers to use and a fixed time to be able to sing. To deviate from those parameters was to toy with the future of your very soul.

Then, having helped form a new community of faith, what would I teach them about such parameters and practicalities? My response was a combination of the history of church practice, but on a foundation of thoughtful engagement of scripture. I was intrigued by moving some of those familiar passages from my childhood context and trying to squeeze them back into context of Jesus’ impending departure and an explosive initiation of the earliest church.

Let’s start at the “Last Supper,” that Passover meal shared by Jesus and his closest group of disciples. The context is an annual feast, a yearly celebration of God’s graces and deliverances. The elements are familiar and at hand as a part of the feast. The innovation that Jesus brings is not in the elements at the table, a date or recurrence of the feast, not even in the basic point of the feast, which is “to remember.” The innovation is in what those gathered are there to remember.

Paul picks this up later in another discussion of keeping feasts when he sanctions the keeping of feasts but cautions Christians to remember that Jesus has now become our Passover Lamb… there is an intended shift in how God’s deliverance is to be recalled at the table. By all that we have recorded in the Gospel accounts we can’t see even a hint that Jesus expects the disciples to remember him in those elements any time other than the annual occurrences of the Passover. He simply says, “when you do this…” and then heads to the garden.

Now, the explosion of followers in Jerusalem in Acts chapter 2 occupies their time with several things: the apostles teaching and “breaking bread.” The breaking bread part is one that stumps us a bit. I was taught while growing up that there are two breakings of bread here, one simply refers to a shared meal and one refers to a sacred remembrance of Christ. How do we tell the two apart? Well, there’s a vague way to infer from the surrounding text. But the fact remains that Luke did not choose to differentiate these two events in any explicit way.

So, the earliest followers began by taking the community table very literally, very often. Christ was the host who would literally “prepare a table for me.” (That’s my own allusion to Psalm 23.)

Then came the persecution when those same Christians are wholesale driven from Jerusalem. How did this affect the table? By chapter 20 of Acts we find Paul visiting a group of followers in Troas, and they have settled into what seems like a weekly meeting at the table. Again the “breaking of bread” language is used and a congregation’s practice seems fairly well solidified: they met at the table weekly, on the first day of the week.

We have an annual feast, a daily gathering and a weekly meeting. And then there come the centuries, the varieties of practices. Churches have met daily at the table, weekly, monthly, and in a few instances not at all.

Back in our years of student ministry in Alabama I spent some time mulling over the sacramental view of communion versus the shared life experience of the table. See, the sacramental practice views communion (more fairly called the Eucharist in a sacramental discussion), as a tangible expression of God’s grace that is distributed by the Church. It’s one of many ways that God’s saving grace is communicated directly to people through the vehicle of the Church. Literally, the Eucharist as a sacrament is the handing out of God’s grace. I don’t think I can buy into a full sacramental view.

I desire to always honor and participate in the sacredness, but not the mitigating role of the community. Can we find another way, a way that holds to the sacred and yet participates instead of mitigates. I want a sacred, shared life way.

In Alabama our family had a Sunday tradition. Every Sunday after worship we went to the same restaurant: The Blue Burrito. (If you’re ever in Montgomery, Alabama, check it out!) And every Sunday we tried to invite folks from our church family to join us. We’d invite folks we knew and loved connecting with, and we’d invite those we didn’t know as well to get to know them better. We loved it. I often called it “my true communion.” I talked about how those Sunday meals satisfied the need for shared life… until. There was a person at our church who I am ashamed to say that I really didn’t like that much. That person picked up on our communion tradition and invited their self right along with us, week after week after week.

Have you ever noticed that you can’t eat with a person you don’t like? The stomach tightens up, etc. I thought this was proof positive, the kind of experiential reality that authenticated my commitment to the shared life and not the sacrament… the shared table was wise, the shared table was truth.

After all, you could sit in a worship service and share pass some plates without pause while hating someone sitting across the room from you. Things at the Blue Burrito were cool until that person invaded my weekly sanctum and my words were thrown right back in face. Suddenly I realized that shared life must be under sovereignty, the sacred must also have its place.

I was expected to love that person, the one who had come uninvited into our meal. Not loving was not an option left to me. What I was learning was that our guest list must always include the divine, and that is also sacred and also truth. The two ways must come together to be one way.

So now we gather together weekly to share life, to worship, to commune, and we do our best to keep God at the top of that guest list. If we don’t, then every other name on the list suffers. Our communion each week includes the breaking of bread. We are not handing God’s grace out to one another, but plunging in together to remember, celebrate and revel in that grace.

Most Sundays we celebrate communion by intiction, which is dipping the bread into the cup. Weekly we walk forward together, we hold the elements and they pass between us. We share words of hope and blessing while sharing the gifts of the table. All senses engaged as we move, taste, smell, speak and listen. On the first Sunday of each month we remember other roots of our heritage and pass trays between us and hold the elements to take them together in unison. All this is to hold onto the active sharing while keeping the sacred front and center.

Plan on variety coming into our midst… one Sunday we may have multiple tables to share in smaller groups. On another Sunday we might pass trays. Regardless of the method we use on any day, our goal is the same: we gather around the table to love one another, and under God’s sovereignty to present a table to the world at which all may come and feast on the most soul-satisfying fare to be found.

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