Why I . . . Value Communion – 7/4/21

Whenever there is a birthday in our family, we get together for a meal.  I was hoping some of this would diminish as we got older.  Going out to eat or cooking every time my parents, my sister, her children, her husband, me, Kathy, or Pax got another year older started to feel like overkill.  And there are those inevitable annoyances when you gather with your family.  For one thing, there is a certain member of my family who is not a very good cook.  Kathy and I still talk about some of the dishes that have been served at these meals – pies made with beans or salads of carrots and pineapple.  And then there is the family member that chews with his mouth open very loudly – so much so that I always try to sit a few seats away from him to keep the noise down.  The table conversation is sometimes painful as well.  Certain members of my family have very different political views than I have.  Rather than engaging in heated political arguments, I just bite my tongue and roll my eyes.

But there are those redeeming elements as well.  My mother is a great cook and I always look forward to her desserts.  I enjoy seeing Pax play with his much older cousins.  I get to see the latest music video by my nephew’s band.  And we are reminded that even though there are significant differences between us, even though all of us don’t always get along, even though we all have our annoying traits, we are bonded together as family.  And simply by gathering together and sharing a meal, we demonstrate our commitment to that bond.

Today we continue our series with Why I Value Communion.  Growing up, communion scared me. When I grew up we took it only occasionally.  I never knew when we were going to take communion, and I never knew if I should be taking it.  Prior to communion being served, the pastor would warn us of the dangers of taking communion if we were not worthy to take it.  He would recite the words from 1 Corinthians, “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.”  Prior to communion being served, we were given an opportunity to confess whatever sin we may have present in our lives.  And we were encouraged to immediately go to anyone in the congregation we may harbor ill feelings toward and seek reconciliation.  This was the time when everyone’s eyes started to wander around the sanctuary – looking to see who allowed the elements to pass by because they apparently held such sin in their lives that they could not partake.

But these words from 1 Corinthians which were used to instill fear were not fully understood.  These words were written in response to abuses which were occurring within the Corinthian church.  This is not something you will hear me say often, but I think there is something we can learn from Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church.  At the time, the sharing of communion involved a large meal that the church shared together.  But Paul was addressing a situation where the church did not sit down for this meal as a community.  There were many divisions which existed – divisions related to loyalties to different leaders, divisions related to social class.  Some groups would come early, eating and drinking to excess, while others received little.  In so doing, they were accentuating the differences which existed within the church.  The rich were being distinguished from the poor.  Rather than serving as a means of reinforcing the importance of community, reminding those partaking of the meal of their bond together, the meal was becoming a divisive force.

This passage is meant to be a reminder that communion is for the entire community to share together.  And it is not to be subject to the conditions and preferences of a few.  To do otherwise is to denigrate the memory of the person they were celebrating.  Taking communion unworthily does not relate to the idea of personal sin, but of greed, of seeking to keep the bounty of the table for ourselves, of acting in a way which prevents others from fulling sharing in this meal.

For me, the sharing of communion is in a large way a remembrance of the ministry of a Jesus, a way to remind us of his work for inclusion, for justice, for compassion, for love.  It is a powerful reminder of the worth of everyone and our connection to each other, the way we are all bound together, our futures and well-being interconnected.  And, as Paul reminds us, it is a place to put aside our divisions, to put aside our own personal self-interest as we remember the importance of community – the beloved community which Jesus began to build.

This is why the open table is so important to me and has always been one of the defining aspects of my ministry.  No one is excluded from sharing this meal because to do so undermines the work which Jesus began in his life.  Regardless of the faith tradition you identify with, or whether you have a personal connection to the Christian practice of communion, no matter our ethnicity, sexual orientation, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, all come to one table to share a meal and commit to the values it represents – of inclusion, of equality, of the worth of all people.

Communion is particularly significant to me as a minister in the Disciples of Christ.  Perhaps more than anything else, what defines Disciples of Christ is our emphasis on this meal we share.  We are called “people of the table.”  The symbol of our denomination is a chalice, the cup from which one of the elements of communion is served.  The communion table is a central element in our sanctuaries.  And partaking in communion is the central element of our worship service each time we gather.

Many churches have different views on what happens when we take communion.  Some of you who are from Roman Catholic backgrounds are familiar with the concept of transubstantiation – the idea that the bread and wine are actually converted into the body and blood of Christ when we take communion.  But for most of us, communion is viewed as an act of remembrance and hope.

This idea emerges from the words of institution, “Do this in memory of me.”  But this word for “memory” has a much richer meaning than many of us recognize, because this Greek word implies both a recollection and a reenactment.  We are invited to remember the event as a past occurrence, but in doing so to move that past occurrence into the present by making it a part of our own personal history.  Communion is not just a recollection of something long gone and remote from us, but a new presentation which makes what is past a reality for us here and now.  When I take communion, I see it as a commitment to living the way Jesus lived, loving the way he loved, serving the way he served.

We also remember that he one table and one loaf symbolize the oneness of the church.  When we are conscious of its meaning, it functions as the glue that holds us together.  In taking communion, we are reminded of the way in which we are related as members of one body.  And that reminder connects us in ways beyond those gathered in this room.

I see communion as not something that we share just with those living, but also with those who are departed.  When I take communion, I am reminded of those I have lost.  I am reminded that the connection I have with them, the love I share with them, has not ended but continues on.  I am reminded of my grandmother whose deep commitment to her faith shaped my own.  I am reminded of the woman who became like a grandmother to me when I served as her hospice volunteer.  The woman whom I grew to love who spent one of the last days of her life making a meal for me.

Here at NCC, we also recognize that the table does not belong to us.  That is why we do not bar anyone from this table.  When the church claims ownership of the table, communion can represent division.  It represents those who are in and those who are out.  But when we remember that the table was instituted as a place of inclusion, the table becomes the gathering place for the one community following the example of Jesus.

There are certain things that I know will happen at the celebratory meals I share with my family.  If it is someone’s birthday, my mom will make her famous red velvet cake.  If it is Thanksgiving, I will make my sweet potato casserole.  We will retell stories that bind us together as a family.  And we will recognize that even though we may be annoyed with other people sitting around the table, there is a bond that we share.  There is a love that we feel.  There is an identity we claim as family.

Just like those family meals, I see communion as a meal I share with family.  It is symbol of the divine love shared by all who gather to break bread and share the cup.  When we view the table in this way rather than a place of exclusion, it can be like that kitchen table we heard described in our second reading – a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun, a place where we sing with joy or sorrow, and a place we give thanks for the bonds which connect us to one another.