On the Bread, and Cup, and Communion
I do not remember the first time I ever took communion. Seems I should as my spiritual upbringing was obviously important to my family, my father was a United Methodist minister, my mother a devoutly raised Presbyterian. But either due to the lack of ceremony which surrounded first communion in that church, or because my memory is poor, or a combination of both, there was not any formality drilled into my brain about receiving the eucharist. Instead my mind has morphed the memories of perhaps hundreds of communion services when I was a child seated next to my mother in the pew and the hazy memories all paint a picture like this: a small little girl with blonde braids having to wait patiently while holding that little square of white Wonder bread in her sweaty five-year-old palm antsy as she waited until all were served to eat. And then that same child savoring that sweet grape juice taste on her tongue, a juice she wasn’t usually allowed to have at home because it might stain the carpet. These are the pictures my mind conjures as I think back on what communion meant when I was young, mostly just snacks in church, snacks which we ate solemnly and reverently, but the mystery and sacredness of the ritual was often lost on me then.
I invite you to think back now as you recall the memories you have of your first communion, or perhaps your earliest ideas of what it meant to take the bread and the cup. Perhaps you were in a Cathedral celebrating your first communion in the first grade with a priest pressing the wafer onto your tongue. Perhaps you were at a youth retreat at a beloved church camp gathered around a fire with a groovy youth pastor who played folk music on the guitar (come on, you know the one…). Perhaps you were even here in this sanctuary in the same seat you occupy now. Or perhaps, like me, there is no one particular pivotal moment when you experienced the grace of God in this way through these means, but it is hazy and the call to the Lord’s table is a timeless tradition which is simply a deeply entrenched part of your faith.
This week as I pondered the importance of sharing communion with you for the first time, as I talked to others in the congregation about your ways and your practices of receiving this sacred meal, I again remembered that whenever we partake of this feast, we are embarking on a journey together as followers of Christ. Communion is all about the power of intimacy and community and vulnerability with God and with our sisters and brothers. And didn’t want this day to pass without remembering the gift of that kind of communion.
Scriptural understandings of the Eucharist vary, and I sort of like this. We know that in the gospels of Matthew and Mark and Luke, Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples. He broke unleavened bread, and poured wine as part of the Jewish meal but he added his own distinct touch. His invitation to eat and drink was cloaked in solemn reverance, and was probably misunderstood by those gathered around for who could have conceived of what would happen later, let alone how this meal would be remembered for thousands of years afterward. The theme of the Eucharist is reiterated again with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, those verses we heard earlier, and that we will hear again as invitation and reminder to remembrance. As call to commitment.
And just as there are many scriptural interpretations of this Eucharistic meal, this meal of thanksgiving if we look at the Greek translation, there are a whole host of different understandings of what it means. There are questions over who can partake (Is it for all or only those who are baptized? Is it for church members or for guests as well? And what about children are children included? ). There are questions over who can serve (Only ordained priests? Only men? Only deacons? Anyone?) There are questions over what is eaten (Is it leavened or unleavened bread? Does it have to have wheat? Does it have to be consecrated by a priest beforehand? Can it be purchased at Kroger or is Aldi an appropriate location? Does it have to be made with a five-tined fork? Does it have to be broken by hand?) And then the questions keep coming. For instance, what exactly is in that cup (is it real wine? And if it is, is it between .5 and 2% alcohol as some denominations specify? Or is it instead Welch’s grape juice, a byproduct of the temperance movement? Or maybe it’s just water?). How often do you take communion? And how is it administered? And where exactly? And what happens to the left-overs? As you can see the questions can roll off the tongue for hours.
There have been councils and encyclicals and annual meetings, pow-wows and conversations in church parking lots after worship to discuss these important details, and some churches continue to have the debate even today, and I suppose if you tend toward the legalistic nature of life, as I admit I sometimes have done, than perhaps you have the energy for these discussions, but I wonder perhaps if all of that arguing and deciding and proclaiming might not be better spent somewhere else.
The fourteenth chapter of Luke seems to offer us some wisdom. As Jesus sat in the home of a leader of the Pharisees he told a story. And, as we know, Jesus usually told stories for a purpose. They were deliberate. And not only was what Jesus said deliberate, but where Jesus said it also might tell us something. And this story was told in a specific place. In the home of a Pharisee. One whose religious tradition was all about rules and regulations, the legalisms of dotting “I’s” and crossing “t’s.” The ancient equivalent of the IRS. And the story Jesus told was this: there once was a master who wanted to have a lavish feast, and when it was prepared he sent his servant out to invite his guests and for one reason or another, his guests declined. One had a new piece of land he needed to assess, and one had some new oxen he needed to harness, and one was a newly-wed, and well, he had other plans. And so the master instead opened his doors and invited in those who were deemed the least worthy, those who were the most vulnerable, the poor and the lame, the lowest in the pecking order, the neediest and most forgotten.
And then…the parable ends. Abruptly. Or at least Luke’s account of it does, for the next verse begins a new traveling tale of Jesus off to see others on his journeys through the countryside. There is no tidy summary of why it told, no moral of the story to tie up the details. The common lectionary does not cover this scripture in its rotation, and there are not often sermons preached on the text. But the exegetical detective in me has to wonder if perhaps in Jesus’s choice to speak those words at the table within earshot of one who was, oh, a little bit anal retentive and legalistic there might have been a message to others of us who tend to err on the side of rules rather than the side of grace.
The master had invited some, but they had no time for him. Those invited guests who were preoccupied and absorbed with the thousand details of their own lives could not see the invitation and promise of offered. I can’t help but wonder if Christianity’s legalistic interpretations haven’t, at times, kept us from the true feast. If our own preoccupations and obsessions don’t sometimes keep us from true communion with Christ, either as a church or as individuals. If we are holding ourselves back from experiencing the intimacy and vulnerability of a meal offered by Jesus, the master, and shared with our brothers and sisters, and with our God.
In an article for the Christian Century, Samuel Wells once wrote, “when the Eucharist is served, a reshaping of human society begins.” And so I imagine what Jesus’s parable would mean for us today. Are we willing to leave the confines of our beautiful sanctuary and invite in the homeless man standing off the exit at 69 and 24? The young Burmese refugee, clenching the hand of her child who speaks no English as can’t understand the pharmacist at Walgreens? And let’s face it, the person driving in the car in front of you through downtown whose bumper stickers speak in phrases and jingoisms which are exactly the opposite of everything you hold true to your heart? Can we reshape human society to be both accepting and welcoming and tolerant? To be both loving and forgiving? And can we open ourselves to be that vulnerable and intimate with the stranger and with our God?
The United Church of Christ reminds us that all people of faith are welcome at Christ’s table. Our communion is not just the memory of a meal long ago, but an actual ceremonial meal that we eat with the risen Christ in and among the gathered body. It is a foretaste of the heavenly feast, where we will sit at the lavish banquet of our God, brushing elbows with all of God’s children, whoever they are, as we lick our lips savoring each juicy morsel.
This morning I invite you again to the table of the Lord. And I invite you as you take the bread, and the cup this morning to ponder what it means to open yourself to the radical movement of God’s grace. And as you bump shoulders or lock eyes with the person next to you, may you see the love of Christ beckoning you into ever widening vulnerability in your own journey of faith. You are all called to the banquet. May we each hear the invitation anew.