Sunday, October 02, 2005

October 2 Sermon, World Communion Sunday

What are some of your first memories of communion? As early as I can remember, I always went to the altar after the service was over and did what I could to finish the bread and grape juice. I would tear off piece by piece and say, “this is the body, broken for me.” “This is the cup of salvation, shed for ME!” I suppose I was a little preacher in training. Sometimes my dad would tell me that I needed to hold off on the bread on particular Sundays so he could take what remained of the loaf to the shut ins. Knowing I’d get my fill, or perhaps just to whet my appetite for my post service feast, it always seemed that my dad would break me off a tiny little snippet of bread. Some of you have commented on the large pieces of bread that I typically break off for you during our communions here, and have politely requested smaller pieces so that you can actually chew them up and swallow it in a timely manner! Well, perhaps now you have a little insight why I blundered on the side of too much instead of too little. I never did stop going up to the altar after the service. In seminary, I was on the worship planning team who was in charge of setting up our Tuesday morning communion services on campus. After the services, I would go up to the altar and get the bread and share it with whatever other brave souls decided to give into the call of their taste buds. If I didn’t have to be at the back greeting you after the service, you can guarantee that I’d be up front here rejoicing in the scraps with our regular plate cleaners.

This past General Conference, the United Methodist Church adopted a survey and study on the theological importance of Communion in our church. In this study, titled “This Holy Mystery,” a survey found that we as United Methodists have a strong sense of the importance of Holy Communion in the life of individual Christians and of the church. Unfortunately, there is at least an equally strong sense of the absence of any meaningful understanding of Eucharistic theology and practice. United Methodists recognize that grace and spiritual power are available to them in the sacrament, but too often they do not feel enabled to receive these gifts and apply them in their lives.

With this in mind, I thought I’d share with you some of what communion means to me. I remember as a kid seeing my mother cry during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I was always perplexed about this reaction from my mother. I wasn’t quite sure what it was about eating some bread and drinking some grape juice that could stir my mother to tears. About 10 years down the road though, sitting with the woman who would one day be the mother of my child, I was given an experience of the Eucharist that would clue me in to my mother’s experience. Lara and I had volunteered to be camp counselors at a Jr. High summer camp in the Oklahoma conference, Camp Egan. One night at camp, we planned a communion service for the youth at the outdoor chapel. During the service, amidst the sounds of acustic guitars and illuminated by candlelight, I noticed that the elements looked radiantly perfect. In that tabernacle at Camp Egan, the communion elements stood out to me as a bridge between humanity and God. I had not yet studied the sacramental theology of Jeremy Taylor or the Wesley’s understanding of the Spirit’s involvement with Holy Communion. In fact, I had never put that much thought into the Eucharist. But that night the Light of God was shining forth from the simplicity of the common loaf and cup. I was sitting beside the person I would eventually marry. She was looking down at the floor. I said to her “Lara, look at perfection!” When she lifted her eyes, she saw what I saw, and began to cry. I looked around and noticed the trees and the sounds of night (the chapel was an open tabernacle) and felt the uncanny sense that we were surrounded by all who have participated in this celebration throughout the history of our faith.
A year later, I had an opportunity to take a retreat with Brother Aidan, an Eastern Orthodox hermit monk who painted icons and re-forested the barren hills on the border of England and Wales. When I recounted the experience to him, he exclaimed that I had been involved in the communion of saints. The chapel he built and painted on the grounds of the hermitage conveyed this same theological principle. When I joined him for early morning prayers and readings, I saw that surrounding us on the walls of the chapel were the icons of saints. As we celebrated God’s Word together amidst the regal smell of incense candles and the sound of the language many early Christians spoke, the communion of saints were also present in a tangible way. When I stood in that chapel, I was reminded of sitting in that camp tabernacle in Northeast Oklahoma.
Through my experience at the hermitage, I fell in love with a spiritual world that engaged all the senses. While we Protestants are historically insistent on conveying the “Word” of God with our mouths, Christians throughout history have acknowledged the presence of Christ through the visual communion of the icon, the regal smell of incense, the tender touch of the kiss of a fellow worshipper, or the taste of the Eucharist ingested among the communion of saints who are visually represented on the walls surrounding the celebrants. My experience of Protestantism was enriched by my experience with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which through its worship conveys the deep truth of God found in the Psalms, “O Taste and see that God is good!” (Psalm 34:8).

If you read the September newsletter, you already know a little of the history of what we call “World Communion Sunday.” World Communion Sunday was put into practice first by the Presbyterian church, and then during the 1940’s, it was adopted by hundreds of denominations as an effort to show solidarity and peace to a world that was becoming embroiled in a War that involved the majority of the nations in the world. One thing that strikes me about our particular denominational celebration of Communion is that we give special credence to the idea of a “worldwide communion” because any Christian in the world would be able to take communion at this altar. Our open communion is not even limited to those people who profess to be Christian, but instead we as a denomination extend the invitation to all who seek a closer relationship with Jesus Christ. We do require that participants in the Holy Communion make an earnest confession of their sins before partaking, but this is not a test—instead it is more akin to washing our hands before coming to the table. It is something we do for our own benefit, so that we may feast in fellowship without harboring grudges or guilt or greed. Instead, we come to the table, seeking Christ. If you want to drink of the water that will eternally quench your thirst, you are invited to the table.

In the letter to the Philippeans, we hear Paul’s emphasis on Christ being the central aspect of his own sense of self. Though he places a high value on his own heritage as a Jew, these aspects of his identity pale in comparison to what he has found in the personal relationship with Christ. In the act of communion, we express our belief in the nearness and tangible identity of Christ in our midst. Christ is as near to us and as part of us as this bread and juice that we ingest in the ritual of communion. As the blood of the man Jesus delivered his breath to all the cells of his physical body, in the practice of communion, we believe that his blood continues to bring his Holy Breath or Spirit to us—the cells of his spiritual body. The meal propels us into the present moment. Two thousand years ago is made right now by our remembrance of a simple meal with friends. This observance of sacrament does not promote hollow nostalgia for days when Christ was among us, instead it should tap the reservoir of Christ in the now, and enhance our vision of Christ leading us forward. As Paul says, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

As we come to the table today with the majority of our Christian brothers and sisters in this world, let us envision Christ in front of us, leading us toward a greater unity that celebrates our diversity. We may celebrate in different ways, but we enact the same meal. We are truly one loaf, and on this day, we all observe the breaking and sharing of that one loaf. I thank God that Jesus gave us a tradition that communicates so clearly, so tangibly to my soul. As we partake in this meal together today, let us give thanks and pray for the restored unity of the church as we struggle to really be the Body of Christ! Amen.


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