Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Breaking Bread

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The passage was 1 Corinthians 11:23-26:

One day a four year old girl accompanied her aunt to visit her church, and received communion. Now in this particular congregation, when young children received the elements, the minister said “God be with you.” Apparently this made quite an impression on the girl, and when she was eating her lunch, her mom asked her what she thought about church and what she had learned, and so she told her mom to cup her hands, and the girl tore a small piece of bread from her sandwich and as she placed it in her mother’s hands, she said, in her most angelic voice, “mom, God will get you.”

Today we continue with our sermon series on what Christians believe with the second part of our set on the sacraments. For those who were not here last week, or who might not remember, a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. That is sacraments are vehicles in which God conveys God’s love to us. The grace happens inside of us, but we have accompanying outward signs which mark this grace.

In baptism we are reborn into Christ, given eternal life, forgiven our sins, given the Holy Spirit, that is the inward and invisible grace we receive, and the outward sign of that is the water. In the protestant tradition we have two sacraments, baptism and communion. For those who might have been raised Roman Catholic, or who are familiar with their practices, you might be aware that they have seven sacraments, so what’s the difference?

In the 13th century the church said that a sacrament was something that conveyed God’s grace and had been instituted or commanded by Jesus and they came up with a list of seven sacraments, baptism, communion, marriage, ordination, penance, confirmation, and extreme unction, or what is commonly referred to know as last rights.

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther said that if a sacrament was something which was instituted and commanded by Jesus, then he could only find two in scripture, baptism and communion, and so Luther removed the other five. It is not that protestants do not practice the other five, nor is it that we don’t also think that they can convey God’s grace. The difference is that Jesus did not command that we do them as he did for Baptism, he tells us to go baptize all the nations, and communion, which he tells us to do in remembrance of him.

As Protestants, communion is the only sacrament that we can participate in on a continual basis. Baptism is a one-time event. But, like baptism, communion is rooted in ancient Jewish practice. The passage that we heard this morning from Exodus tells of the creation of and reason for the Passover meal, which is what, according to the synoptic gospels, Jesus is celebrating with his disciples when he institutes communion.

The Passover meal was a celebration of God’s redeeming actions for the people, and it was remembered not as a thing of the past but as a present tense event. The Passover meal also had eschatological dimensions to it. Now eschatology is one of those big words that deals with end of time events. For Jews, the Passover meal brings with it the expectation of the coming of the messiah redeeming the Jews not just from the slavery of Egypt, but from the bondage of the world and returning Israel to the preeminent place in the world as God’s chosen people.

But Jesus radically changes the Passover meal, because now it is no longer about the expectation of the coming of the messiah, because Jesus is the messiah, but it still has eschatological expectations as we say each time during the liturgy “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.” That is an eschatological claim. Jesus also changes the nature of the covenant by taking the cup and saying “this is the blood of the new covenant.” This too taps into ancient Jewish understanding.

After the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, Moses calls the people of Israel together for a meal, and he takes the blood of the lamb and sprinkles it over the people and says “this is the blood of the covenant.” Jesus takes the Jewish story, traditions and their covenants, and he changes them to a new reality, a reality that recognizes that the messiah has come, that God has come in the person of Christ. There is a new covenant with the people.

What we learn from Paul’s writings is that in the early church when people came together they would celebrate a communal meal including more than just the sharing of the bread and the cup, but instead of bringing people together it was instead dividing them because of the difference between what the better off and the poor could bring to eat and drink. It was incidents like this that caused these two meals to separate and for communion to become a meal separate and different from any other meal the community shared together. But the breaking of the bread, were extremely important from the earliest days. In Luke’s story of Emmaus, one of the first interactions that some of Jesus’ followers have with the risen Christ is when they recognize him only after they break bread together.

There are lots of terms used for this meal. Communion, which means sharing, is one. It is a reminder that this is a communal event, in which we all come together as the body of Christ. Eucharist, which means thanksgiving, is another. In a reminder of this meaning, the liturgy we use is actually called the Great Thanksgiving. It is also called the Lord’s Supper, which reminds us that Christ is the host and the inviter, and that Christ owns the table. In Roman Catholic churches it is called Mass, which comes from the Latin word for “sending forth,” indicating that the service is coming to a close and the people are being sent out with God’s blessing. So technically, mass has nothing to do with the rest of the worship service, but only with the sacrament. In the Orthodox Church it is called The Divine Liturgy. Occasionally you might also hear it called the last supper, which reminds us that it was, again according to the synoptic gospels, part of the passion story, but that term is actually an incorrect one, because that limits it in its scope and time.

There are many ways in which communion can be received and served. In the Methodist church we use grape juice instead of wine because of the church’s historic position against the use of alcohol. It was Dr. Thomas Welch, who was communion steward at his Methodist church in New Jersey, who first pasteurized grape juice so that the church would not have to use wine at communion. You can receive the juice or win in little cups, but you can also receive by dipping the bread in the cup, which is called intinction, or you can also receive by drinking directly from the cup. We can receive by coming forward, or we can also receive by remaining in our seats and having each element passed. We can receive kneeling or standing, and lots of different types of bread can be used, including using wafers which sometimes are hard to believe are bread at all. All of these are accepted ways of serving and receiving communion.

Now that’s all the easy things that can be said about communion, but its other issues that people tend to fight over. The first issue is who is welcome to receive. By the beginning of the first century, it had become standard that only baptized members were welcome to receive. This did include infants and children. The worship service would actually stop and those who were not yet baptized would leave and only those who were baptized could remain not only to receive communion but even to hear the words of the liturgy.

As Christianity became the standard religion, and nearly everyone in western society was baptized this became less and less of a big deal, until the protestant reformation. Then the issue of how you were baptized and who baptized you became very important for whether you could receive communion or not. Of course in Roman Catholic churches, non Catholics are not welcome to receive, although how stringently this is enforced now has a lot to do with who is presiding. But Roman Catholics are not the only ones to limit access to the table, because plenty of Protestant churches also practice a closed table.

Now in the United Methodist church we practice an open communion table. That means that everyone is welcome, because we believe that Christ is the host and the one who makes the invitation, not us. In intra-denominational dialogue this has often become an obstacle because we are the only denomination that I am aware of that welcomes even those who are not baptized to partake, and we do so for one simple reason: John Wesley believed that communion could be a converting sacrament. That is, in receiving the bread and the cup, you could be moved to accept Jesus Christ as your savior, and Wesley did not want to try and place any limits on how God could or could not work in the world. In addition, Wesley had been denied communion by other groups at several points in his life, and did not believe that God’s grace could be limited or controlled by us.

One of the other things that is argued over is what, if anything, happens to the bread and the wine when the words of institution are said, that is when the priest says “may these be the body and blood of Christ.” At the fourth Lateran council in 1215, the church said that during the liturgy that the elements literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and although they still appeared to be bread and wine, this was merely an accident of appearance. This is called transubstantiation. At the beginning of the Protestant reformation, one of the things that the reformers wanted to do was to change the theology of the Eucharist. Martin Luther rejected the idea of transubstantiation, and instead said that the elements were both body and blood of Christ and also bread and wine. This is commonly referred to as consubstantiation. Another reformer at the same time, whom you have probably never heard of, was Ulrich Zwingli, who said that communion was only a remembrance of Christ’s actions on our behalf, and he rejected both transubstantiation and consubstantiation. But the reformers also wanted people to receive communion much more often, and reintroduced weekly communion.

Now the official position of the United Methodist Church is closer to that of Zwingli, which is that it is a meal we celebrate in remembrance, then it is to the other positions. Wesley believed that in trying to say what happened to the elements was to try and quantify the mystery of communion, which couldn’t be done, and he also believed that emphasizing the elements was to place the emphasis on the bread and the wine, rather than on God’s transforming power. That does not mean that Christ is not present for us, because he is. Wesley’s position has been called “receptionist,” Christ is present for us in communion, not through the elements, but through the act of joining together as the body of Christ and participating in an act which conveys “pardoning and transforming benefits.” We receive Christ simply through the partaking of communion in its entirety.

Zig Zigler tells a story about early in his career when he when a ham in a sales contest and brought it home to his new wife. She promptly cut off the end of the ham and threw it in the pan to fry it. He asked her what she was doing and she told him that before you cooked a ham you cut the end off. He told her that in fact that was not how you cooked a ham, and she said, “well that’s the way my mother did it.” so they call her mother to find out why she cooked it that way, and she was told, well that’s how my mother did it, and so they get on a conference call with the grandmother, and told her that they cut off the end of the ham before they cooked it, just like she did, and wondered why she did it. And she said, “Well, I don’t know why you’re doing it, but I did it because my pan wasn’t big enough.”

Sometimes things that we do or don’t do, have nothing to do with the proper way to do things but are simply accidents of history, accommodations that have been made, and that’s the way it is with communion. John Wesley commanded that Methodists communion as often as they could and even wrote a sermon entitled, The Duty of Constant Communion. John and Charles also published a hymnal which contained nothing but communion hymns. In England receiving communion at least once a week was easy to do since there were so many parish churches, but on the frontier of America that wasn’t possible because of the reality that there were not enough clergy, and so it became the practice to receive it whenever the clergy were in town. That might be monthly, or it might be quarterly, or even less often, and so the practice of the church became something less than what was ideal not because it was what was preferred, but because of simple practicality, and then the practice became institutionalized, like cutting the end off the ham, and everyone assumed this was the way it was supposed to be.

Now I often hear from people say that taking communion more often would make it less special. While I understand that statement on its face, when you go a little deeper it doesn’t really make much sense to me because would we apply that to anything else in our lives? Would we say, we shouldn’t read scripture or pray daily, or weekly, or even monthly, because that would make it less special? Would we say to our loved ones, don’t tell me that you love me very often because that would make it less special. Or would we say to our spouse, let’s have marital relations only once every quarter so that way it will be really special? But we do want to say to God, don’t remind my how much you love me and the fact that I am forgiven very often, because that would make it less special.

There is a scene in the movie Phenomenon, in which John Travolta’s character has an apple and he is explaining how when you eat an apple that it becomes a part of you, that in taking it into ourselves we are combined. Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” That is what communion does for us, every time we eat the bread and take the cup, we allow Christ to enter into our lives, to abide in us as we abide in Christ.

Communion is a remembrance of what Christ offered for us. One of Charles Wesley’s most famous hymns is called Come Sinners to the Gospel Feast. It is the celebration of the new covenant of the forgiveness of sin given to us, poured out for us. It is our sign that God is more willing to forgive than we are ready to ask. This meal is a remembrance of that. It is God’s offer to us to partake of God’s grace, this is not something which we should be saying once a month is too much, it should be something about which we are saying, once a month is too little. That we want to be partaking and remembering Christ’s gift for us all the time.

This is our altar call. This is the time in which we say, “Yes Jesus, I want to follow you.” It is the time in which we say “Thank you God for your grace and your mercy.” It is the time in which we say “Jesus, please come into my life, I need you and I want you in my life.” And it is the time in which God again says to us “You belong to me. I love you. You are mine. You are my child. Let me abide in you and you in me.” Communion is a time in which we again reaffirm our baptismal vows, it is the time in which we offer ourselves to Christ and remember Christ’s action on our behalf, and it is the time in which we are re-membered with all the saints of God, for we don’t just partake with those around us, but we also partake with all those who have gone before us.

We not only remember what Christ has done, but we are re-membered as the body of Christ. There might be times in which communion is not as meaningful, just as there are times in which worship is not as meaningful, but I would say that the answer is not to take it less often, but instead to take steps to help us to refocus our hearts each time we receive in order to remember, to receive Christ’s forgiveness and God’s love into our lives. We come to the table “out of our hunger to receive God’s gracious love, [and] to receive forgiveness and healing,” and this is the meal which “sustains and nourishes us in our journey of salvation.” (This Holy Mystery).

In the year 225 Hippolytus, wrote a document and he said “this is the prayer we use before we have communion,” and so I invite you to take out your hymnals and turn to page 9 where you will find this prayer preserved. For more than 1800 years this prayer has been offered by the church. Millions of people will pray this prayer today in thousands of languages all around the world as they call Christ to be a part of their lives. They will be praying it just as we are praying it, and when we pray this prayer together our voices join with theirs and with all the saints who have gone before us as we pray The lord be with you…

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