Bread for the Journey: Eucharist and Worship
Becoming: The Path From Here to There
Rev. Alice Kunka
October 25, 2015
Who's the most influential, charismatic, famous individual you've ever seen in person? Turn to your neighbor and tell them!
In the last couple of years, I've seen John Denver... Well, it wasn’t really John Denver, but an impersonator, the Beatles …well at least they sounded like the Beatles, and James Taylor (he was the real deal, let me tell you)!
What would happen if we told our community—or even the world—that Jesus was going to show up here next Sunday?
That's what we say we believe every time we celebrate Holy Communion.
As it says in the passage we just read from Hebrews, “Christ is our great high priest, the one who gives us direct access to God. He is holy, innocent, incorrupt, separate from the rest of us sinners, and raised high above the heavens.” Of course we believe that Christ is always present with us, here and now, but our United Methodist tradition asserts that the real, personal, living presence of Jesus Christ is with us as we celebrate Holy Communion.
We are fed with his body and blood so that we are nourished and have the strength to continue on our journey in the Christian life, which —as we all know—can be challenging. Partaking of this food for our souls empowers us to go out and live as disciples, as those who are witnesses to the love and grace and power of God through the Holy Spirit. More than that, Holy Communion is a healing sacrament, in which our minds and bodies, thoughts and emotions, attitudes and relations are lifted to God for healing and restoration.
Holy Communion is sometimes known as the Lord's Supper or Eucharist, which means Thanksgiving in Greek. And Thanksgiving is a very appropriate name because that is one of the many other strands of meaning for Holy Communion.
I'd like to share with you some thoughts on several of these meanings. I won't call them understandings because none of us—even the most astute and brightest theologians —truly understands the Eucharist. It's is a holy mystery.
But there are at least six aspects of meaning woven into this tapestry we call Holy Communion:
The first is Thanksgiving, as we’ve already noted—giving thanks for all that God has done throughout history.
The second aspect is fellowship or communion—hence the name HOLY COMMUNION.
Third, is sacrifice—the sacrifice of Jesus and our own sacrifice,
Fourth, the action of the Holy Spirit.
Fifth is what I will call “the end times,” leading up to the reign of God in its fullness,
And last, remembrance—a thread running throughout our celebration of Holy Communion.
That’s a lot of meaning packed into one sacrament, so let’s unpack some of that by starting with remembrance.
When I was a girl growing up at Sedge Garden Methodist Church in Kernersville I remember we had a communion table that had the words “In Remembrance of Me” inscribed on the front of it. When it was Communion Sunday, some women in our church would cut up loaves of sliced white bread in very tiny cubes and we’d have little miniature cups of Welch’s grape juice in round metal trays. Whenever my friend Kathy and I would enter the sanctuary and we see it enveloped in a white cloth, we knew it must be Communion Sunday, which lasted longer than most Sundays. The reason for this is that small groups of 10–15 or so people would go up to the altar and receive the sacrament. Prayers were offered for each group so it took some time.
The inscription “In Remembrance of Me” underscores our remembrance ofthe gracious act of God through Christ on the cross. But only years later did I come to realize that Holy Communion was not just a memorial to a past act, but a representation of the past acts of God: that Christ is risen and is alive here and now, and that the Lord’s Supper is not just a commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection, bur rather a celebration of Christ with us in the present and in the future.
I think we had communion about every quarter. It wasn’t until much later that I was told why we had it so infrequently: It was because in the early days of the Methodist Societies, when there were only a few ordained clergy to perform the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, the circuit riding clergy only came around ever quarter or so. And that’s what led to a lot of Methodist churches observing the sacrament of Holy Communion every twelve weeks, rather than weekly. I can imagine this practice would have brought consternation to John Wesley, who believed that Holy Communion was so necessary that he received the eucharist four or five times a week.
So back to our unpacking project…Sacrifice is another strand of meaning for this means of grace. As it says in today’s passage from Hebrews, “Christ doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day like the other high priests, first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people. He did this once for all when he offered himself.”
The concept of sacrifice also extends to us as we think about what we say in the communion liturgy: “We offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering to us…” Several years ago I observed a pastor saying something different to children when they came up to receive Holy Communion. He would say, “This means Jesus loves you.” Every since then, I’ve adopted those words as a way of conveying to children the unconditional love and sacrifice of Christ for them. I think it’s also good for us adults to think about that as we receive the bread and the cup.
Another thread in this tapestry of Holy Communion is Thanksgiving—giving gratitude for all that God has done throughout history, for creation, for God’s covenant with us, for God’s redeeming and unconditional love for us. Because we meet Christ at the this table of thanksgiving, we approach it with desire and expectation, awe and humility, celebration and always, with gratitude.
Fellowship or communion is another thread running through the tapestry. It’s the gathering of the community of the faithful, and it’s not only those gathered here at Christ Church, but also universally. I love World Communion Sunday because it celebrates that the sacrament is much more than a personal event. We say, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” When we share in Holy Communion, we are modeling the world as God would have it be—living in a community of love and joy.
Holy Communion is a powerful means of grace—a vehicle of God’s grace through the action of the Holy Spirit. In our liturgy, we say, “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.” And we ask God to “make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the Body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.” Then we add: “that the Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” The Holy Spirit unifies us, tying all the threads of the tapestry together.
Okay, I’m going use a big word here to explain this next thread of the tapestry, and also so you’ll know I have been to seminary: the word is eschatological. Holy Communion is eschatological, having to do with the outcome of God’s purpose for the world. In our service of Holy Communion we proclaim, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” I think it’s one of the most powerful parts of our liturgy, a statement of belief that asserts that this isn’t all there is: Christ did die, but Christ is (not has) risen, and more than that, Christ will come again. And here’s the most profound part: We believe that we celebrate Holy Communion not only with those who are physically present, but also with the saints of the past who join us in this heavenly banquet.
A few years ago, just a couple of months after the death of my mother, I was in an ecumenical program for spiritual formation and we had the most inspiring worship services together. This particular time we were celebrating Holy Communion and after receiving the body and blood of Christ, the pianist started playing the old familiar hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” the hymn my mother used to rock me to sleep as a baby. It was one of the hymns we sang at her memorial service. I felt as though I could sense her presence there with us, as one of the saints present with us.
The next day, one of the Quakers who was in our group gave the most beautiful description of Holy Communion I’ve ever heard—kind of a rarity for a Quaker since they do not celebrate Holy Communion in a physical sense—but he recounted a vision he had had during our celebration of Holy Communion: The gathering of saints in a circle all around the sanctuary, folks dressed as peasants from European countries, people from India and Africa. It was a great foretaste of the Reign of God, what the author and theologian Justo Gonzalez refers to as “the day of the Great Fiesta, when all the colors of creation will form a harmonious rainbow, when all peoples will join in joyful banquet, when all tongues of the universe will sing the same song.”
While at a conference at Duke Divinity School a couple of weeks ago we watched a video of a pastor celebrating Holy Communion in the memory care section of a skilled nursing center. One of the residents with advanced Alzheimers’s Disease was hunched over with her eyes closed. But when the pastor came over to offer Holy Communion, she opened her mouth to receive the bread. It was a holy moment, reminding me that no understanding is necessary: We simply receive God’s grace in this sacred moment known as Holy Communion.
So what would happen if we told our community—if we told the world—that Jesus was going to show up here next Sunday? Well, Jesus has already sent his RSVP as he does every time we celebrate Holy Communion, so come next Sunday and invite your friends! It will be a big party—a great fiesta—and you are all invited!
Questions for Discussion
- If you grew up in the church, what memories do you have of celebrating Holy Communion as a child or a teenager?
- What is the most meaningful service of Holy Communion you have ever experienced? What made it so meaningful?
- Which of the six strands of meaning of Eucharist—thanksgiving, fellowship, sacrifice, action of the Holy Spirit, remembrance, “the end times” (eschatological meaning)—resonates most deeply with you?
- Which of the meanings, if any, was new to you?
- How do you think you might look at the Eucharist in a new way the next time you celebrate Holy Communion?