Those of us who have been coming to church for a long time will probably have some special memories of communion services we have experienced, at serendipitous moments in our lives….
I was brought up in what is known as a ‘(Plymouth) Brethren’ assembly. Throughout my childhood I have memories of the forty or so of us sitting in a circle, and one or another (of the men!) would pray, or read the Scriptures or announce a hymn. About 45 minutes into the service someone would pray a prayer of thanksgiving for the bread, and would then go to the table and break the loaf into several pieces and it would be distributed. Then the wine – it was real wine, I remember. But my most vivid memories are the tears of gratitude that occasionally flowed down the cheeks of some of the elders as they talked about the sacrifice of our Lord for us. (And I used to wonder why those same elders would fight one another about their interpretations of various doctrines and practices!)….
A few years ago I attended a Brethren church in India, where the people got up one by one to put their tithes and offerings on the communion table at the front. I thought it was a most meaningful way to offer their gifts to Christ who had offered himself for them….
Then in Brazil, I visited a group of poverty-stricken Christians in a Rio de Janeiro favela: they were a cooperative and made and sold bread to keep themselves alive. An important part of the service, before they shared bread and wine, involved a discussion about whether they should all go hungry for a while to invest in a second bread-making machine….
Or in Papua New Guinea, where a young man dressed in football outfit leads the communion: ‘Larim mipela holim ting ting long Krais…. bai em I kam bek na kisim mipela….’ which was Pidgin for ‘Let us remember Christ…. one day he will come back and take us to be with him….’ A deacon cuts the kau kau (sweet potato or yam) with his bush knife, puts the pieces on an army plate, and hands it around: ‘This is my body broken for you….’ Then after dropping a few cups onto the ground to shake out the dust and dead flies, watered down orange juice is poured into them: ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood….’
Then (quite a contrast!) – a eucharistic service in Chester Cathedral in England: the three celebrants dressed in green cassocks were way up at the altar with their backs to us. . They swung their incense-thing, and rang bells – it could have been a thousand years earlier. It was very moving when the visiting choir sang the great Anglican communion hymn, ‘And now O Father mindful of the love….’
And so we come – also probably from various traditions – to share in Christ’s body and blood. Millions around the world on this day will do in their own way: some will be seated and the elements will be brought to them; others will go to the front of their sanctuary to receive them. They’ll be worshipping in cathedrals and little weatherboard churches, in prisons and in homes – in churches or groups belonging to the 26,000 different Christian denominations. They will all have some sort of food – usually bread – and some form of liquid – mostly wine or grape-juice – remembering what God has done for them in Christ, sharing communion with their Lord and with one another, and making their response in commitment to do in their world what Jesus did in his. In just about all these churches they will hear the words, ‘This is my body’, ‘This is my blood’. But what does that mean?
At a basic level it means that art and symbol and story are much more powerful than words and concepts to transform us, as Jung often said. When Jesus wanted to get a message of God’s love across to very religious people, he didn’t give a dissertation about a biblical theology of grace: he told a story about a father who had two sons, about a Samaritan who helped a Jew…. And when he wanted his followers to recall, remember, the event which was to be the climax of his life and mission, he gave them this memorial. It’s a very powerful symbol: and as a pastor for 35 years, I’ve often watched the children during a communion service. They seem to have an innate appreciation of the power of these symbols.
Another way of putting it: actions speak louder than words. This week my secretary was up one night until 6 a.m. updating our mailing-list for a mail-out to the people who promise to pray for our little ministry. I thanked her with words – several times. But I did something else – I sent her flowers, with a note of appreciation. She couldn’t get over that: it was far more significant for her than all my words…. Flowers weren’t merely flowers: there was a deeper message. A flag is not, for most people, simply a piece of colored cloth: it has deeper nationalistic significance….
Edwin Buzz Aldrin, one of the first two men on the moon, helped make that a giant step for humankind by opening two little plastic packages shortly after touchdown – one containing bread, the other wine. ‘I poured the wine into the chalice which our home church had given me,’ Aldrin later radioed to Houston. ‘In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. The first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements. And just before I partook I read the words of John 15:5: “I am the vine, you are the branches….”‘
In the N.T. there are five major names for this feast: it’s a ‘breaking of bread’ (eg. Acts. 2:42), eucharist (Matthew 26:27), the table of the Lord (1 Corinthians 10:21), communion (1 Corinthians 10:16) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20). So there are several images in the NT, and a fascinating study is to study the texts and contrast the two major traditions – that in Mark/Matthew, the other in Luke/Acts and 1 Corinthians….
Scholars have written millions of pages, billions of words, trying to explain what we’re about to do this morning. ‘This is my body’ are probably the most debated words in the history of Christian theology. In 1983 Christian scholars and leaders from around the world met in Lima Peru in a conference which produced the ‘Lima Document: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.’ For those of you privileged to study theology at a college or seminary, you’ll learn about the traditional Roman Catholic view known as ‘transubstantiation’: the bread and the wine become the actual flesh and blood of Christ. Among the Reformers, Luther also argued for a ‘real presence’ of Christ in the sacraments. Calvin preferred to talk about a ‘spiritual presence’ of Christ in the elements; whereas Zwingli was ‘memorialist’: these are merely symbols, he said. The most important thing we do here is ‘remember’.
If you go to a Baptist seminary, you’ll get a lecture in the Baptist History course about the conflicts Baptists have had with this. The major one was over who should be allowed to take the elements. Should we allow people not baptised to partake of communion? It’s called the open versus closed communion debate. Baptists around the world (except for some sectarian groups) have generally settled for ‘open communion’ (but not, interestingly, for ‘open membership: you mostly have to be baptised by immersion to a member of a Baptist church – see the article on my home page about that).
So if we take off all the debates of history and theology, what’s it all about?
1. First, it’s about REMEMBERING….
‘This is my body, which is given for you. Eat this as a way of remembering me’ (Luke 22:19).
Let’s, in our imagination, visit Jerusalem that evening. It’s passover time: thousands of pilgrims have come to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples among them. The celebration of Passover had to be done within the walled city of Jerusalem. The whole night had to be spent within greater Jerusalem. The tension between Jesus and the religious authorities had become acute. All week long there had been increasing conflict, and on this Thursday evening the atmosphere was electricLet us visit that upper room. You know the DaVinci painting with Jesus and the others around an oblong table? Well, he got it wrong! As practising Jews, Jesus and his disciples would have dined while stretching out on couches, reclining to the left. A lamb, not older than one year, would be roasted on an open fire, and eaten with unleavened bread, with a salad of bitter herbs. Some of the blood of the lamb would be sprinkled on the doorposts and lintel. At the end of the Passover it’s customary to sing one of the Hallel Psalms (Pss. 115-118). It was also customary to give money to the poor – which is what they imagined Judas was doing when he left the group.
In orthodox Jewish homes around the world a similar ceremony happens each Passover-time, or ‘seder’. The youngest child asks why this night is special: this leads to four specific questions: Why on this night do we eat unleavened bread? Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs? Why on this night do we dip our herbs? Why on this night do we recline? The leader of the celebration – usually the father – answers these questions as he points to the various symbols. On the table are three pieces of unleavened bread. There are bitter herbs, and a bowl of salt water – a symbol of the tears of the slaves before they were freed from Egypt. There are four cups of red wine, symbolising the lamb’s blood. Why four? It reminds Jewish people of the four words in Exodus 6 describing God’s redemptive actions – God will ‘bring out’, ‘deliver’, ‘redeem’, ‘take’. From Talmudic times a fifth cup – ‘Elijah’s cup’ was poured out: it’s contents were not drunk. The poured-out wine symbolised the questions the Rabbis could not answer, which would have to wait until Elijah came to herald the Messianic Age.
At the end of the Passover it’s customary to sing one of the Hallel Psalms (Pss. 115-118). It’s also customary to give money to the poor.
Paul calls Christ ‘our Passover’. This Supper is a memorial of the death of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We who eat his flesh and blood ‘abide in him’ (John 6:54-56).
Have you ever found out the meaning of your family name, your surname? I recall discovering what ‘Croucher’ means when I looked it up as a teenager in a Dictionary of Surnames in the public library. Its derivation is associated with two French words – ‘croix’ and ‘chez’ – which literally means ‘a home near the cross’. Apparently my forbears lived near cross-roads, and their neighbours used their home-place as their identification.
‘A dweller near the cross’. The hymn I associate with my conversion as a teenager is ‘Jesus keep me near the cross’. In a prayer-chapel in Korea 35 years later, after a profound time of prayer and renewed commitment to the One who’d died for me, I heard a Korean lady singing in her language, ‘Jesus keep me near the cross.’ The cross of Christ is the central event in history – and in salvation-history. And Jesus’ passion is commemorated in this feast of bread and wine today….
Good Friday? Yes, for three reasons: reasons associated with the three greatest needs humans have – to be loved, to be forgiven, and to find meaning in the face of their inevitable death.
(1) When Jesus died he was demonstrating that the God who was his Father entered our life and loved us even to the point of death. The death of Jesus, says Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers from Prison is the ultimate symbol of the suffering of God in the life of the world.
God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to a cross. Only a powerless and suffering God can really help us… God did not come to save us by an act of terror so that we would be cowed into belief, but by a great act of love. Abelard, a twelfth century philosopher and theologian, believed the cross primarily demonstrates the greatness of
the love of God, a love that should move us away from our sin and to love God in return. God so loved, that he gave (John 3:16). The Son of God, says Paul, loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20). Our response? Obedient love – even if we suffer too (1 Peter 2:21).
(2) There’s a theme running through the Bible which is somewhat foreign to Westerners, that of animal sacrifices for human sins. John the Baptist recognized Jesus as ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ (John 1:29,36). Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers describe how animals can ‘bear the sins’ of humans. These animal sacrifices (eg. of
bulls and goats) were repeatable, but, says Hebrews, Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many (9:28). Jesus thought of himself as the Suffering Servant (see Isaiah 53) offering his life as a sacrifice, as a ransom for others’ sins (eg. Mark 10:45). Anselm, an eleventh
century Archbishop of Canterbury argued that sin is an insult to the majesty of God, and at the cross God’s honour was ‘satisfied’. The Protestant Reformers emphasized more our sin breaking God’s holy law, we deserved to incur the penalty – death (Romans 6:23) – but Christ died in our place, paying the penalty and setting us free. We are so important to God that what is destroying us is of ultimate concern to him, and he acts to offer a way out of our misery. We are invited to repent, turn from our sins, and be forgiven, because we have been pardoned!
(3) Gustav Aulen, a Swedish theologian (Christus Victor) says the cross is mainly about a cosmic drama in which God in Christ does battle with the forces of evil and defeats them. Jesus’ death on the cross not only demonstrates God’s amazing love for us and saves us from our sins, but it also saves us from death and all the evil powers as well. Through his death he destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free us from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14,15; see also Colossians 2:13-15, 2 Timothy 1:10).
The three traditional theories of the Atonement, a demonstration of love, the bearing of penalty, and victory over evil may have had more appeal to earlier ages than our own… Australian New Testament scholar Leon Morris has suggested that today we might also see the cross addressing problems of futility and frustration (see Romans 8:20,
Hebrews 2:8-9); sickness and death (Isaiah 53:4, Matthew 8:17); ignorance (Jeremiah 17:9, 1 Timothy 2:4); loneliness (Genesis 2:18, Mark 15:34, Romans 8:38-39); and selfishness (Luke 9:23, Galatians 2:10, Romans 6:4).
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident, was working twelve hours a day at hard labour. He had lost his family and had been told by the doctors in the Gulag that he had terminal cancer. One day he thought, ‘There is no use going on. I’m soon going to die anyway.’ Ignoring the guards, he dropped his shovel, sat down, and rested his head in his hands.
He felt a presence next to him and looked up and saw an old man he had never seen before, and would never see again. The man took a stick and drew a cross in the sand in front of Solzhenitsyn. It reminded him that there is a Power in the world that is greater than any empire or government, a Power that could bring new life to his situation. He picked up his shovel and went back to work. A year later Solzhenitsyn was unexpectedly released from prison and went to live in the United States.
This year the Irish remember the terrible ‘potato famine’ that wiped out a million people 150 years ago: you can read the graphic story in Leon Uris’ blockbuster novel, Trinity. Many hundreds of thousands left for the New World, or Australia or New Zealand searching for a new life. One of these was a penniless boy who hid as a stowaway on an immigrant ship bound for America. In the mid-Atlantic the ship hit an iceberg and began to sink, but there was time enough to get everybody into life-boats. Deep down in the bowels of the ship, the boy wondered why the motors had stopped, and as he emerged from his hiding-place there was no-one around. He came up on deck just as the captain was about to step into the last seat of the last life-boat. In the highest tradition of the sea, the captain stepped back and put the boy in his place, and as the life-boat was pushed off, he said to the lad: ‘Never forget what has been done for you.’ As the life-boat pulled away, the lad could see the captain standing on the deck, and that vision never left him. He became a successful businessman in the New World, and when people asked him about the secret of his motivation, he always told the story of the captain giving his life for him: ‘Whenever I get discouraged and feel negatively about myself, I recall the vision of what has been done for me, and it gives me new courage to “keep on keeping on” to be worthy of such a price.’
The Lord’s Supper is not only a memorial, it’s also ‘communion’. It’s a celebration of the fact that we are reconciled to God, we now have communion with God, through the death of Christ. And more than that: it’s ‘sharing’ with each other. Jesus took the cup of wine at the Passover meal and said to his disciples: ‘Take this, and share it with each other’ (Luke 22:17). The early disciples ‘continued in the teaching of the apostles, and in fellowship/communion, in the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42). So the communion of Christ with us is to be a model and an encouragement of our communion with one another. Paul had to scold the Corinthians for forgetting this: ‘I’m told that you can’t get along with each other when you worship…. You argue with each other….’ (1 Corinthians 11:18,19). The Corinthian church had the habit, apparently, of partaking of the Lord’s Supper as part of an agape meal or love-feast. But it had all degenerated, literally, into a bun-fight. You must wait for one another, Paul told them.
Even directly after the Last Supper in the Upper Room, the disciples argued about who would be greatest in the kingdom. They were slow learners about this business of serving one another, even after Jesus had given them an acted parable about it all. One way of understanding communion in a Christian context is in terms of spiritual gifts meeting human needs. Each of us has come to church this morning with needs – some of us with some very deep needs. But grace can be ministered to us in our need – through one another.
So we come together this morning not simply as worshipping functionaries but as sisters and brothers. The Latin word ‘communis’ means having something in common. What we have in common is that we belong to the same family. This is a communion: we have fellowship with one another….
*** Why don’t we then move towards one another, and offer ‘the peace’, be reconciled with someone,: but also maybe offer to pray for the one you talk to each day this week. Ask one another (if you feel led to): ‘What would you like me to pray about for you this week?’
We look back, remember, with gratitude. We look around – at our sisters and brothers – with love.
But then we look within – and out to the world.
The Lord’s Supper is an event of Judgment. Simply participating in the Lord’s Supper, says Paul (1 Corinthians 10:3-4) – or even of baptism (10:1-28….) doesn’t mean you can do what you like. One of our Baptist missionaries to the Dani people in Irian Jaya, told a group I was in of a Christian of a Dani man who was not allowed to take communion, because he’d just had a row with his wife. He was told to step back. Then the pastor asked if he’d be willing to be reconciled to his wife, and they both said ‘yes’ – so then they stepped forward and took communion.
Sin is treated very seriously, but so is grace….
Did you notice Jesus shared the Last Supper with Judas. He offered the dish to Judas, even though Judas was determined to betray him. That same one now sets before us the bread and the cup. He knows all about you just as he did about Judas, yet he still loves you. To refuse to receive it because you are unworthy misses the point about his grace. Of course we are unworthy: that’s why it’s being offered to us. I like the story of the Scottish girl who came in from the highlands to the city of Edinburgh and there fell into wrong company and was soon engaged in a sinful life. Such a way was against all she had learned in Sunday School and church, and one Sunday she slipped into a church covered with shame and need. They were having communion that day, and when the kindly old deacon passed the plate, she shook her head sadly and said: ‘I can’t take it. I’m too unclean. I am unworthy.’ The old deacon, well versed in the essence of the Gospel, whispered: ‘All the more reason to take it lassie. It’s not meant for saints. It’s _for_ sinners. Not worthiness but willingness, that’s the issue.
In Peter deVries’ moving novel The Blood of the Lamb, there’s a story of a family whose little daughter is dying of leukemia. One evening the father comes to the hospital and the little girl is all excited because that afternoon she had seen an old Laurel and Hardy movie. She said to her dad, ‘the neatest part was when the little man threw a pie into the face of the big man. I was really scared, ‘cos I didn’t know what he was going to do. But guess what? He didn’t hit back! He waited for a long time and then deliberately bagan to wipe the custard from his eyes and cheeks and slung it on the floor. It was amazing. The big man just stood there and took it and did not hit back.’ The father joined in her astonishment at such a reaction, for it’s unusual to see the kind of strength than can hurt and not hurt back. They both agreed that the big man was stronger than the little man in more ways than one.
A few days later the little girl’s birthday came around, and the family planned an elaborate celebration. They got to the hospital early that morning with lots of presents and a birthday cake only to hear the nurse say that the little girl had suddenly taken a turn for the worst. As the family stood around helplessly, her birthday became her deathday, and eventually they gathered up all the things they’d brought and left the hospital. It was a Catholic institution with a huge crucifix in the lobby, and as the father walked out he was so overcome by rage and grief that he impulsively took the birthday cake and hurled it in the face of the Crucified One. But then he recoiled in horror. ‘What kind of blasphemy have I committed?’ he thought to himself. ‘How will God react?’ But after a long moment through eyes scalded with tears, the father had a sort of vision of those hands freeing themselves from the nails and move slowly toward the soiled face. Then patiently, deliberately, the icing was wiped away from the eyes and cheeks with a gentle motion. And suddenly the father realised that there’d be no retaliation. Here was another Big Man taking it from a little man and not hurting back. Here was a strength enduring pain without inflicting it. And this proved to be a turning point in the father’s subsequent reconciliation to God in relation to his terrible loss.
The way of the lamb (read Isaiah 53) is the willingness to ‘take it and not give back in kind. And the way of the lamb is the determination to take it and not give up on the evil-doer.
As Jesus came to us as reconciler, so we now go out into the world to do the same. It’s a hard world out there. It was hard for Jesus, and perhaps it’s hard for us, too. One of the inspirational stories I heard several times in my childhood, and I’m sure you’ve heard it too, is about a devout young man during World War II who was drafted off a farm in south Georgia and sent into the army. He had never been more than a few miles from his home before being suddenly tossed into this radically different context. However, he took with him the Christian faith that had been so important a part of his life since childhood, which meant he continued to read his Bible, and kneel by his bed to pray each night. Such obvious piety infuriated the rough sergeant who was in charge of the young man’s company, and he set about to deliberately humiliate the young Christian. He abused the young man verbally, subjected him to all sorts of unfair treatment and lost no opportunity to harass him. Yet the young man never returned evil for evil. He endured all the abuse without a word of complaint and again and again did helpful things to his antagonist.
Late one Saturday night the sergeant came through the barracks very drunk and exploded when he saw this young man kneeling in prayer by his bunk. He began to make fun of him loudly before all the others who were there and tried every way that he could to distract the boy. When nothing succeeded, the sergeant took off one of his muddy heavy boots and threw it at the boy from across the room. It hit him in the back of his head and so stunned him that he fell to the floor, but soon regained his composure and without a word resumed his praying. Even more upset, the sergeant took off the other boot and threw it and it too hit the lad on the head, but again he didn’t retaliate. In complete disgust the sergeant reeled off a string of oaths and stumbled into his own quarters and went to bed.
The next morning when the sergeant awoke and began to rub his eyes and shake off his hangover, the first thing he saw were his boots, cleaned and polished, sitting neatly under his bunk. This was more than he could take. With tears streaming down his face he walked into the barracks and found the young man and said, ‘What is it with you? I’ve done everything in my power to break you down but instead you have broken me. What do you know that I don’t know? What’s your secret? I want to know….’
Thanksgiving. Almost every time Holy Communion is mentioned in the New Testament it is in the context of thanksgiving. Jesus took the bread and ‘gave thanks’; the first Christians in Jerusalem observed the breaking of bread ‘with gladness’ . It’s the word ‘eucharist’….
COME TO THIS SACRED TABLE, NOT BECAUSE YOU MUST BUT BECAUSE YOU MAY; COME NOT TO TESTIFY THAT YOU ARE RIGHTEOUS, BUT THAT YOU SINCERELY LOVE OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST AND DESIRE TO BE HIS TRUE DISCIPLE: COME NOT BECAUSE YOU ARE STRONG BUT BECAUSE YOU ARE WEAK; NOT BECAUSE YOU HAVE ANY CLAIM ON HEAVEN’S REWARDS BUT BECAUSE IN YOUR FRAILTY AND SIN YOU STAND IN CONSTANT NEED OF HEAVEN’S MERCY AND HELP: COME NOT TO EXPRESS AN OPINION BUT TO SEEK A PRESENCE – THE PRESENCE OF THE LIVING CHRIST. COME…. COME….