Why is this meal different from every other meal? Some of you might recognize this question from the time you when you celebrated a Passover Seder. The entire Seder is an answer to that question and all the questions that arise from that question.So today, I pose this question: why is this meal different from every other meal?
From the very beginning of the church, the formation of Christian community, communion has been a central part of our worship. Over the past 2000+ years, as the church has grown and morphed and split into denominations, our understanding of the meaning of communion has changed and morphed, expanded and contracted, been used to include or exclude, but always it has been a central and sacred rite.
Good theology is important, because bad theology distorts our understanding of God. We are not saved by good theology nor are we condemned by bad theology. Christianity has never been theologically or doctrinally perfect. We hear preachers urging people to “get back to the faith once delivered.” By this, they mean the early apostolic church – and they assume those churches had a complete and uncorrupted understanding of the faith. The truth is those apostolic churches were not perfect, either. The whole of the New Testament is the story of the struggles of this new, extremely diverse, connectional community to make sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. They often got it wrong. So let’s not worry, as we think about the meaning and doctrine of Communion (otherwise known as the Eucharist).
When I was young I was mortified by the idea of being a cannibal. I didn’t want to eat Jesus and I sure didn’t want to drink his blood. But I did want to be a part of what seemed to be holy and mystical. I wanted to be a part of whatever it was that brought us to our knees, part of whatever it was that felt like Godde was touching us. Could I do that without eating flesh and drinking blood? Could I find a way to understand and experience communion without being a spiritual cannibal? Here’s the thing: there is not, nor has there ever been ‘one right way’ to understand or experience communion.
All Christians don’t experience communion or interpret communion in the same ways. Some actually believe the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. Some believe that the Spirit of Christ is present in the elements and that when we eat and drink this meal we experience a spiritual union with Christ.
Some follow Scottish reformation leader, John Knox’s understanding that we should only celebration Communion quarterly so as to give proper time for reflection and inward consideration of one’s own state and sin. So on this Sunday, I want to ask all my quarterly communicants if they have spent the last three months properly reflecting on your state of sin? Most of us, not so much.
The Presbyterian Church and other reformed churches have been considering whether to restore more frequent communion, including weekly communion. Turning away from the idea that communion is basically a memorial service at which we remember Jesus’ life and death and toward the understanding that communion is a sacrament of grace.
But back to the question: why is this meal different from every other meal? This meal is different from every other meal because it’s a meal shared by the communion of saints. When we eat this meal we sit at table with all who have gone before us and all who will come after us. This meal takes place outside as well as inside of time. I eat this meal with my mom and dad, with my grandmother, with Peter and Paul and Mary Magdala and Prisca – and with Jesus. It also means we are sharing a meal with those who might hate or despise us (or that I hate or despise) for political reasons or humanitarian reasons or just because. We share this meal with people we think are our enemies including Mexicans and Muslims. We share this meal with people we genuinely dislike. Gathering at this table means we have to lay down our weapons to pick up the bread and the cup. It means we have to acknowledge that we are all children of Godde.
Why is this meal different from every other meal? This meal is different from every other meal because it calls us more deeply into communion with Godde. Eating is sensual, it is wordless, it is experiential. We can eat without words, without understanding, without explanations. It calls us to use all of our senses: we hear the tearing of the bread, the wine poured from pitcher into cup, we smell the rich yeast and the sweet tang, we feel the texture of the bread and the smoothness of the cup. And we taste and see how good Godde is. We take Godde into our bodies. That can mean many things. One way I have expressed communion is that as the bread is shared I say to each one, “Eat and remember who you are.” Which is the short way of saying : when you experience yourself as created, alive, embodied you are called to remember that you are a child of Godde. And when I offer the cup I say, ‘Drink in the promises of Godde’. I say that because the cup is the sign of the covenant and the covenant is basically the promises of Godde. So then I say: as you take Godde’s promises into your body may you become those promises embodied in our world. Godde is in us and we are in Godde.
Why is his meal is different from every other meal? This meal is different from every other meal because it is a sacrament of grace. Years ago, when the Presbyterian church was considering whether the table should be open to people who had not been confirmed (meaning that they had an intellectual understanding of the ritual) my friend, the Reverend Erin Swenson, stood and spoke of her experience as a chaplain at the Georgia Retardation Center, an institution in Atlanta that cared for severely and profoundly disabled children and adults. There was a lot of argument about maintaining the integrity of the communion table and that those who came should understand it’s importance. She rose and spoke feelingly about her congregation, whose mouths watered at the sight of the bread and the cup. Some could not see. Some could not hear. Some could not swallow. But she took the bread to each one in the over 60 wheelchairs who gathered for worship and everyone could touch and smell the bread. Everyone met with Godde that day and no one was turned away.
Why is this meal is different from every other meal? Because at this meal we become a living communion. The church is called to be the body of Christ in the world and this meal reminds us what that means. Sometimes it means sacrifice. Sometimes it means remembering for ourselves and reminding others that we are children of Godde. Sometimes it means that we make space for peace between us in a world where it seems there is not peace.
This meal is different from every other meal because however it is that you come to the table, however your heart yearns toward Godde, however you hunger for this feeding, however you fear it, however ambivalent you are, we say to one another:
The gifts of Godde for the people of Godde.
Thanks be to Godde.