June 2, 2013
Rev. John Watts
I Corinthians 11:23-34
It takes courage to come to church for the first time. Those of us who are here every Sunday forget that. Church buildings are foreign and intimidating to a lot of people. People drive by every day wondering what in the world goes on inside. Many of them never find out. But some of them do. And those who do may enter our front doors with a pulse rate a little higher than normal. It’s scary. Fear of the unknown is a powerful fear.
Imagine that first time guest who was not raised in church and who has come to church for the very first time. There are some things that would make them feel right at home, let’s hope. The friendly greeting at the door. That’s really important, by the way. And the coffee and cookies we have prepared for them. Once they get into the sanctuary, the music is probably something that draws them in. Whether just listening or joining in the singing. Most people like music. And the praying. You expect that in church. Same with the reading from the Bible. Then there’s the sermon. I hope that part of the service is understandable and interesting and relevant to their daily lives. I hope God is able to use me to help the truths of the Bible come to life for us. So far so good.
And then once a month we have something called communion. And suddenly those fears that we just might do strange and frightening things in here are reinforced. Everyone else seems to understand it and be comfortable with it. (The truth is many don’t and aren’t, even those who have gone to church their whole lives!) And even when the pastor makes it a point to especially include any first time guests in the invitation to participate, it doesn’t make it any less scary. What we are doing and why we are doing it and how they are expected to participate without drawing attention to the fact that they have never done this before — these are all unanswered questions that I’m sure cause that pulse rate to go up even a little higher.
Which is why I thought it might be a good idea to spend some time this morning just talking about communion. And being careful not to make this into an advanced course on the finer points and technicalities that few people care about except preachers. This is specifically for that first time guest who has never been in church before and who doesn’t even know what the word “communion” means. And I hope at the same time it might be helpful to the rest of us as well.
The place to begin is the Bible. Communion is not a modern invention. It comes to us from Jesus. It’s in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the four books that tell the story of Jesus. So why didn’t we read from one of them? Why did we read today from I Corinthians? Because I Corinthians was written before Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. I thought it might be good to start with the oldest and earliest record we have of communion. This is as close as we can get to a record of the actual first communion.
Paul begins, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.” Paul got this, not by looking it up in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. He got it from the source. He got it from Jesus. Probably what this means is he got it from the oral tradition that went directly back to Jesus and that pre-dated any written records. So this is about as early and as reliable as it gets.
Paul then describes what happened the night of the first communion. If it sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve heard pretty much these same words every time you receive communion. “The Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this is remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'”
The most important words here are, “Do this”. Jesus says it twice. “Do this in remembrance of me.” This is why we take communion so seriously. Because communion is something Jesus expressly told us to do.
Communion is called a sacrament. We often define a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” It’s something you can see and touch. In this case, bread and juice. But it’s more than just bread and juice. The bread and the juice are like a port of entry into a whole new world. A spiritual world.
Don’t ask me to explain how this works. The Catholics have a very complicated way of explaining how this works called transubstantiation. Protestants tend to be less specific about how it works. We just take Jesus on faith that when he told us to do this he must have had a good reason. And we Protestants also differ with Catholics on the number of sacraments. Catholics say communion is one of seven. Protestants say it is one of two. The other sacrament is baptism. We limit the sacraments to these two because these are the only two Jesus expressly told us to do.
One thing that is interesting about the scripture we read today is why it was written. It wasn’t written to give us a good, basic understanding of communion. It was written because the Corinthian church needed to be set straight in their practice of communion. Apparently communion was like a big wild party for them. Plenty to eat, plenty to drink. Nothing particularly spiritual about it at all.
That’s what’s behind the whole section about receiving communion in an unworthy manner. Paul is talking to those early Christians who even way back then had allowed the sacrament of communion to stray so far from what Jesus had in mind. We think of the early Church as being pure and true because they hadn’t had time to stray. In this case, it hadn’t taken much time. Just a few short years after Jesus sat at that upper room table with his disciples, the Corinthian Christians had already managed to turn communion into something that bore no resemblance at all to what Jesus had told us to “do in remembrance of [him]”.
That should serve as a warning to us. We too can easily stray. We need to stay grounded in scripture. We need to remember our tradition. We need to be careful not to turn communion into something it was never intended to be. And that’s one reason we have a rule that only ordained clergy preside over communion. Not that clergy aren’t perfectly capable of getting it wrong too, just that we have been given some training so we really should know better.
One unfortunate thing about Paul’s scolding of the Corinthians for their misuse of communion is that people down through the ages have read these words and thought Paul was talking to them. It has scared them. It has made them afraid of communion. After all, if communion taken in “an unworthy manner” can cause you to become weak or sick and even to die (I Cor 11:30), why not just stay away from it? Why take the chance? Kind of like that old saying: Hard work never killed anyone, but why take the chance? And so church attendance has been known to actually go down on communion Sundays. It should go up, with followers of Jesus so eager to do what he commanded and to receive the blessings he promised. But people have been known to stay away. Or to wish they had stayed away because it’s the part of the service that makes them the most uncomfortable.
I have several things to say on this. First, Paul’s warning to the Corinthians was for them, not for us. Unless we’re planning to hold a drunken party and call it communion, we’re OK. We don’t have to worry. And when Paul uses the word “unworthy”, he’s not talking about people who feel unworthy. None of us is “worthy” of God’s grace. But that’s what grace is. It means God still loves us even though we aren’t worthy. Even though we don’t deserve it. And Paul is certainly not saying we need to wait until we are sin-free before we come to communion. We wouldn’t have anybody here at all if that were the rule!
We should prepare for communion. I encourage you to not wait until Sunday morning. During the week, devote some prayer time to getting ready. Talking things over with God. Let God know where you know you need to do better. Invite God to open your eyes to areas of your life where God knows you need to do better, but maybe you haven’t quite figured it out yet. We all have blind spots. Ask God to forgive you and pray that communion might help you make a fresh start.
In the Catholic tradition, they have something called confession. This is one of their seven sacraments. It’s a sacrament to prepare you to receive another sacrament — holy communion. In the Protestant tradition, we don’t have such a formal way of confessing and being forgiven. But that doesn’t mean we think it’s any less important. When we use the long, traditional ritual for communion, making confession and seeking forgiveness is right there. And also, we have a custom that goes way back of “passing the peace” before communion. This comes from the teaching of Jesus that if we are at the altar with a gift to give and realize there that our brother or sister has something against us, we should first do all we can to heal that rift and then return to the altar with our gift (Matthew 5:23). Again, this is part of our preparation for communion. Not to make ourselves “worthy”. None of us is worthy. But to do the tilling of our spiritual soil to make us as receptive as possible to the blessings God wants to give us in communion.
In some traditions this question of “who is worthy” is given a lot of emphasis. There are strict rules about who may or may not receive communion. In our tradition, what we call open communion is very important to us. The invitation is extended to everyone present. We believe this is consistent with God’s grace. God’s grace is extended to everyone, no exceptions. And so little children are perfectly welcome to receive communion. Why leave them out? I think Jesus said something about letting the children come and not hindering them. Erma Bombeck told the story of a little boy whose mother told him he wasn’t old enough to have communion. Then when the offering plate was passed, his mother nudged him and reminded him that he had been given a dollar that needed to go in that plate. The boy said, “If I can’t eat, I won’t pay.” Children are welcome at the communion table!
And on the other side of the age spectrum, sometimes we forget those who can no longer come to church. A pastor brought communion to an elderly nursing home resident. At the desk, he was told, “You can go ahead if you’d like, but it’s really useless to serve her communion. She hasn’t understood anything in months. She never says a sensible word. She doesn’t even recognize her own children.” The pastor went ahead anyway. It seemed like a waste of time. The patient was staring out a window and she received the bread and the juice with a vacant look in her eyes. Then, just as he was getting ready to leave, this woman looked at the pastor and said, “You know, God really does love us, doesn’t he?” (Baptism, Lawrence Hull Stookey, page 84).
Some traditions have communion rules that would exclude those who have not yet been baptized. Why serve a Christian sacrament to those who are not yet Christians? But in the Wesleyan tradition, those who are not yet Christians are especially welcome. Because John Wesley taught that communion has the power to convert nonbelievers. There’s something in this sacrament that can touch hearts and change lives far more effectively than any sermon.
I have just one more thing I want to stress about communion. It has to do with the expression on our faces as we come forward, Long, sad faces are not required! I’ve served communion to a lot of people over the years and I have noticed that most of them have an expression on their faces that looks like someone just died. Well, it’s true, Jesus did die. But there’s more to the story, you may have heard! It does say in our scripture that, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” But the Lord’s death is not the end of the story. The Lord rose from the dead so that we too can live. Especially those of us who have been just kind of sleepwalking through life. So that we can come back to life, spiritual life, even while we live! As Paul said in another place, “You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11).
There’s a wonderful communion story in the Bible that comes after the resurrection. Two followers of Jesus are walking on the road to Emmaus. They have long faces. They have heard about the crucifixion. But they haven’t yet heard about the resurrection. A stranger meets them on their walk. They walk together all the way to Emmaus. They invite this stranger into their home. They share a meal. And here’s what it says that stranger did. “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them” (Luke 24:30). Does that sound familiar? That sounds like communion! And in that moment they recognized the stranger. He was Jesus. He was not dead. He was alive. And I’m sure their faces went from being sad and long to being jubilant and filled with joy!
That kind of an expression, by the way, is acceptable as you come to the communion table this morning!
I’ve explained a little about what communion means. I’ve left a lot out. Some of this may have been review. Some of it may have been new and you may be wondering why I haven’t told you this before. I apologize. It’s easy to assume that the people in my church know the things I know and to forget that part of my job is to teach. There is a lot of information about communion that is important to know and to understand. But communion is way more than what we can know and understand. It’s called a “holy mystery” in our ritual. Which means it’s what often is referred to as a “God thing”. Expect the unexpected each time you receive communion. Expect to be surprised as you approach this port of entry into the spiritual world. Expect to have your heart touched and your life changed by the abundant grace of God.
We pray dear God that some of the mystery surrounding communion might be removed from us. We want to come to your table because we want to, not out of guilt or fear or misunderstanding. But God, we also pray that some of the mystery might remain. For communion is far too big and too wonderful for us to ever control or contain. Because you are at work through communion. May what happened at Emmaus long ago, happen once again today, that we will recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread and that our lives will never be the same again. In his holy name, we pray. Amen.