So Why Do We Celebrate Holy Communion in the Way We Do

Luke 14:7-14

Jesus told the guests at the meal a parable because he had noticed how they picked the places of honour.  Jesus said, “when someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take your seat in the place of honour.  A more distinguished person than you may have been invited and the person who invited you both may come and say “give up your place to this other person”.  Then to your embarrassment, you would have to go and take the lowest place.  So when you are a guest, make your way to the lowest place and sit there…for whoever exalts self will be humbled and the one who humbles self will be exalted.

Then Jesus said to the host.  “When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not ask your friends, brothers, relations, or rich neighbours for fear they repay your courtesy by inviting you in return.  No when you have a party, invite the poor, the disabled, and any who might not be able to pay you back because repayment will be made in the resurrection.

So why do we celebrate Holy Communion and, in particular, why do we have we adopted our particular approach and language to the sacrament of Holy Communion here at First United.

The wisdom of the Choral Anthem we just heard declares “the path is made by walking”.  This is the same wisdom expressed by the existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard when he noted that “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards” which is the same wisdom that inculcates our understanding of sacrament.  

Sacrament is something experienced first and understood second, the path is made by walking.  This principle undergirds our practice of sacrament. In other words, you don’t have to have it all figured out in order to participate.  Sacrament is mystical and not intellectual.

However, reflecting on experience deepens experience.  Understanding deepens practice.  This is why we are doing this series on “why do we do what we do…”  Walking the path of this series has been invigorating and challenging, a path that requires grasping at clarity, risking some provocation that stirs the deepest emotions, and necessitates an awful lot of humility.  There is a vulnerability when we bear the soul, and I have appreciated the conversations engendered by this process, and I warn you that there is some bearing of the soul again in this reflection.

Again I will take a quick three step dance, making quick mention of sacrament before talking about Holy Communion or eucharist by addressing who is at the table and then talking about the story we tell at the table.

4th century Christian theologian Augustine noted that sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible grace”.  I speak about sacrament in terms of being a symbolic ceremonial action to explain what already exists.  We aren’t making something happen in sacrament, we are recognizing the grace that already exists, and thereby releasing and unleashing a mystical energy.

In the United Church, as part of a wider Reformation tradition, we have two sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion.  Both of these sacraments symbolize grace, the grace of life and the grace of God’s love.  Baptism is the welcome into the community, is an initiation rite, and Holy Communion is welcome to participation into the community. 

In two weeks we talk baptism, today we talk Holy Communion through two conversations.

Our first conversation is about “who” is at the table, who participates in the community’s meal.  

In the gospel of Luke, in addition to teachings on the place at the table, Jesus gathers around the table to share a meal again and again and again.  Ched Myers notes that at virtually every one of these gatherings, the meal is “interrupted” by Jesus or by those impacted by Jesus as a “scene” unfolds.  There is a dramatic twist highlighting how the table was set, these twists focus on “who” is at the table.

In dramatic fashion the ministry of Jesus brought focus to injustice around how the resources of the earth were not shared equitably.  The setting of the table embodied social structures that separated the empowered from slaves, separated the wealthy from impoverished, separated men from women and so on.

Fundamentally, the “Christ energy” in the Jesus story and in the stories of our ancestors in the faith emphasize inclusivity at the table and that everyone is welcomed at the table, because the table is set by God, and God welcomes all of creation.  This is the gospel foundation.

Fifty years ago, The United Church of Canada struggled with its approach to communion, studied its practice and the Scriptures, and then embraced a concept of an “open table”.   This was revolutionary because the practice was the opposite.  

Some of you may remember that for many years, United Church elders would visit United Church members to deliver “communicant” cards.  These cards were an invitation to attend Holy Communion which was usually celebrated about four times a year because Communion was a special holy meal and to celebrate “too often” would result in communion being “taken for granted”.  The practice of communicant cards intended to provide connection and pastoral care between the leadership of the church and its congregants.  That was good, but the not so good aspect of the practice was the impression of checking up on you and that you had to be a member in “good standing” to get an invitation.  

Communion became a very formalized “churchy” kind of thing. This didn’t feel right, didn’t feel faithful to the scripture witness.

In addition, many in the United Church wondered about the participation of children in the community meal.  Children participate in all other meals, why not this holy meal. The retort was that children didn’t understand the meaning of the meal.  Well children don’t have to understand the meaning of a Christmas to participate in Christmas dinner so why do you have to have intellectual knowledge of Holy Communion in order to experience God’s grace and God’s meal.  

These discussions birthed the embrace of an “open table” as experience of the holy meal eclipsed having an intellectual understanding. Communicant cards disappeared and children’s participation appeared.

Now the church that I grew up in didn’t have communicant cards, that would have just been too weird, but as a child I didn’t participate in Holy Communion because I remember with profound clarity the words of my childhood ministers reminding us to make sure we were worthy to come to the table.  These ministers quoted a passage in I Corinthians which declared  “For the one that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to oneself.”  Those words so frightened me as a child, I never took communion because I knew I wasn’t “saved” and it would be a really bad thing to do and didn’t want to make a mistake and drink damnation to myself.  

These tensions of prior confession and adequate education are part of all Christian traditions and have been incorporated into the rites of many churches that require baptism, or require confession, or insist on first communion classes before participation.   Now hear me please.  I want to acknowledge that there are meaningful and profound reasons that undergird all of these practices, it would take a whole academic course for us to fully appreciate them, so in no way am I dismissing these practices.

I am simply noting that there is a lot of history, layer upon layer of tradition around who participates in communion, and for me, and for many of us re-rooting the practice of Holy Communion in the gospel stories.

For us, here at First United, the starting point is the radical welcome of God that emphasizes inclusivity and justice.  God’s banquet includes a table for all, set freely, set as gift, as grace, and that proving oneself worthy either through intellectual understanding or through purity is not necessary. 

This is why at First United we name an “open table” where everyone present is invited to participate regardless of age, regardless of “membership”, regardless of faith stance, even someone of another faith or a stranger to Christianity is welcome, and finally all are welcome regardless of whether or not you feel holy enough.  God accepts us as we are.

An “open table” means that anyone who wishes can participate in God’s banquet because God’s banquet is not owned by the church and we don’t control God’s meal. Everyone is invited.  

This is important because of the story we tell in this ceremonial meal.  This is our second conversation. 

Many of us here at First United have been deeply impacted by the work of Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker in their theological treatise titled “Saving Paradise:  How Christianity traded love of this world for Crucifixion and Empire”.  It is a big book, but I encourage you to read it, especially the first half.

In brief, through historical and academic research, Nakashima Brock and Parker demonstrate that “paradise” was a foundational image that informed early Christianity and the practices of the early Christian community, including the holy ceremonial meal.  In their chapter called “The Beautiful Feast of Life”, though the practices had exclusionary aspects to them rooted in the deep traditions that I alluded to earlier, the purpose of the sacrament was to return the senses to an open and joyous experience of the world by encountering the divine presence that is constantly infusing the physical world.  

Communion is intended to be a sensual body experience where the sacred, where the “Christ energy”, where God’s divine presence courses through our own physical being.  Mystically, we eat and we drink God, eat and drink God’s grace and God’s love.  

This sensuality uses ordinary elements that belong to everyday life, breads which comes from the grains of the earth and wines which comes from the fruits of creation.  This banquet is “real”, and about “real” presence.

Now in the time of Jesus, the concept of God’s banquet was common.  It was talked about in the Prophets and was part of the covenant promise between the people and Yahweh and hence why banquet is such a dominant motif in the gospel and why Luke focuses on meals so much.  Jesus was part of the prophetic tradition and was challenging the travesties of injustice that are “sins” against God’s banquet.

I use the word “sin” purposefully.  I recognize that the word “sin” is not one we use a lot at First because it is a “loaded” word that evokes many different and even traumatic experiences for many of us.  “Sin” is in fact an important word, an important theological concept, which we will explore more fully in a few weeks.

There are two primary aspects to the meaning of the word “sin”.  There is the notion of “sin” as missing the mark, of recognizing limits and ways that we are not all we can or want to be.  This is a reality of living as finite beings.  But there is a second notion of “sin” as “separation” from God, separation from God’s intent and that sometimes this “separation” is a deliberate choice with catastrophic consequence.  

The gospels storytellers do not avoid “sin” and actually engage in illuminating the “sins” against God’s banquet, an illumination that deepens in the story-telling when Jesus gathers those closest to him for an intimate meal, a meal which occurs just before the deliberate choices of violent separation from God which result in the catastrophic crucifixion of Jesus.  

This intimate meal is a Passover meal.  Jesus was Jewish and the Passover meal is a story-telling meal that recounts and re-enacts the Exodus journey, a journey from slavery to liberation, a storied journey that acknowledges brokenness and hardship and suffering while keeping in view the goal of arriving at the Promise of Paradise.  

At the “last supper”, the story tellers do something unique by embracing this story-telling meal in a new way.  They symbolically connect the bread with the broken body of Jesus and the wine with the shedding of the blood of Jesus as a way to remember this “sin” against paradise.  The “Christ energy” is Jesus was about life and love, that Promise of Paradise, and the experience of crucifixion was a “sin” against paradise.

In their work, Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker recognize this memorialization, but also demonstrate how early practices of Holy Communion while incorporating the last supper, also focused on other gospel meals and was rooted in the larger prophetic banquet. As I read “Saving Paradise” part of the trade was to lose the emphasis on paradise in Holy Communion with an increasing focus on crucifixion such that the meal focused more on the dying of Jesus than on the proclamation of God’s paradise banquet. 

Here at First United, we have deliberately chosen to approach Holy Communion from the starting point of Paradise, the starting point of God’s “beautiful feast of life”, God’s banquet.  While still telling the story of the “last supper” we intentionally draw upon more stories to fully capture the breadth of God’s banquet.  We use the symbols of bread and wine to celebrate the bounty of God’s feast as well as to name “sins” against God’s feast.  We name the bread as the bread of life that includes both gift and brokenness and the Wine we drink as a cup of love that includes both ecstasy and loss.

For me, I love Holy Communion, I love the mystical quality that reconnects me to the sacred vision of paradise.  And if I may be so bold, I despair, I despair when I have an experience of Communion where the meal is reduced to an understanding of Jesus being sacrificed, his body broken and his blood shed, in order to save me or the world from sins.  This I do not believe and if I may be so bold even find repulsive, repulsive that God needs a sacrifice in order to forgive, a repulsiveness also elucidated by Rita Nakashima Brock in her book “Journeys by Heart” where, utilizing the experiences of victims of abuse, notes how this emphasis presents God as an “abusive father”.  This is not okay.   

Here at First United, we use an atonement theology that promotes being “one with God”, where God is continually offering an invitation to connection as a gracious “bridging” of separation, and within our celebrating we utilize our own language in the liturgy because most of the prayers in our printed resources still focus on the dying of Jesus.

The mystical quality of communion is about a reconnection with the sacred.  This reconnection brings healing and reconciliation and forgiveness to our experiences of separation as well as nurtures us in our pains and suffering in a limited finite world. Holy Communion responds to “sin”, but responds through the gracious invitation of a life-giving and loving God who offers the bread of life and the cup of love freely and generously to any and all who want to participate.  This is the story we tell.

We are invited to reconnect not because we are worthy, but because we are, and around the table we tell a story of paradise and inclusion as we feast on the gifts that symbolize God’s life and love as well as God’s presence in times of brokenness and loss….and it is a very beautiful thing.

And now I will take a risk by telling two personal stories.  

Five years ago I was in my childhood church in Nairobi, Kenya.  It was Communion Sunday and so I sat through the same liturgy that I grew up with being reminded not to eat or drink unworthily and sang songs about blood being drawn from veins and being "spilled" for my sins.  Articulated was a theology I found repulsive.  Yet I began to weep uncontrollably.  I was in a sad space at the time, and even in a sacrament with, in my mind, lousy theology, I felt the mysticism of a connection with God.  This is the power of sacrament that goes beyond words and is alive in the deep symbolism that reverberates throughout the ceremony.

The second story reflects a struggle I have.  Sometimes, over my ministerial career, I have worried that I have not been faithful to the Christian tradition and that I actually need to use the words body and blood when doing Communion which you will notice I don’t use, and don’t use with intention.  This is why.  In my former United Church congregation, I was so worried about this that I decided I had try to tell the story differently and though I can’t quite remember exactly how I did it, I used the word blood, and the moment I did, a small child cried out in a really loud voice, “I’m not drinking blood”.  The child was the voice of wisdom reminding me of what is most important.

While I appreciate the tradition and the deepest meaning of body and blood, I find the language a stumbling block, and so without apology, we tell a story of paradise using the language of life and love and putting aside the language of body and blood for other times of teaching and conversation.

Holy Communion is a meal to remind us that God welcomes everyone to celebrate life by sharing in God's "banquet".  The foods of the earth, in particular the "grains" that create bread and the "fruits" which create wine/drink are for everyone and are a sign of God's gift of life and love for everyone.  This is why everyone is welcome and included.

We also know that in life, sad things happen, sad things like the death of Jesus, and so when we break the bread and we pour the wine, we acknowledge these sad things and find strength to help us in sad times as we eat and drink God's life and love.