I am finishing up the “What we believe” series with a talk about one of the most sacred times in the life of a Congregation. That time when we gather around the table for the Supper of the Lord. I want to say right the outset that I do not hold the traditional view of the Reformers concerning the Lord’s Supper. In fact, I lean very Anglo/Catholic in my belief, but let us save that until later.
Communion, Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper as it is commonly called traces its origin to the Last Supper in the Upper Room with Jesus and his Disciples. After the meal, as they were sitting around the table, Jesus blessed bread and wine and passed it around to those with him. It is at this point there is divergence among Christians.
Some, like many reformers, believe that what happens is a reenactment of sorts. We gather around the table and reenact the event that took place on that night in the Upper Room. What we do is merely symbolic in nature and has no spiritual component to it at all. Others believe that a transformation of the elements of bread and wine takes place, they become holy, they become sanctified, they become, through the power of the Holy Spirit, joined with Christ himself and become his body and blood. The elements do not change; they become sanctified; they become holy.
The order of the service for communion is as ancient as the Church is and has been in the same form for millennia. There is a welcome of sorts and a thanksgiving; some traditions refer to this time as the Great Thanksgiving. This is when we call to mind the deeds God has performed the miracles if you will. We are reminded that God sent his son to show us the way, including what we are doing.
Next comes the words of institution adapted from the Gospel and from Paul’s Letter to the Church in Corinth. He took the bread, gave thanks, blessed it, broke it, and gave it. He does the same with the cup filled with wine, please know I am using wine, and I fully understand that we use grape juice in our modern practice. And he says this is my body and this is my blood, and we are to do this in remembrance of him.
After this comes the epiclesis or the calling down of the Holy Spirit. We ask God to send his Spirit upon us and upon the gifts set before us and make them holy. We are asking God, through the power of the Holy Spirit to change the simple bread and wine, and through them us, into something sanctified and holy. We then become spiritually joined with Jesus in his ministry to the world.
I believe, and I am not asking you to accept this, that what happens on that table is a mystery. A change takes place, and the presence of Jesus is real through the Holy Spirit’s power. That simple bread and wine, the fruit of the vine and work of human hands, becomes something other than itself, and it is given to all of us so that we might become holy and sanctified.
But I am less concerned with what happens to the bread and wine and what happens to us after receiving it.
When we gather as a community around the table, or in this crazy time we live in around our computer screens, it is a sacred and holy moment. I would go so far as to say this is an intimate moment that we are sharing. We are coming together to share in the miraculous work of Jesus in the world; we are sharing in the Union.
In ancient times, when a couple wanted to be joined together in marriage, they would come to the Church not to recite vows, they would come to the Church and receive communion together, which would seal their covenant in the eyes of the Church.
We come together and pray for each other. Hopefully, we are in communion with one another at that time, but regardless we are joined in prayer. The Holy Spirit comes and dwells with us as the Holy Spirit did in the Upper Room at Pentecost. Yes, it was the same Upper Room, by the way. We are invited to come to the table that us before us not out of privilege but out of a sense of longing and desire to be transformed.
Jesus says to do “this” in memory of me. What is the “this” he is referring too? Communion, sure but I believe it goes further than that. This is the last night that Jesus will have with those that have been with him from the start, including Judas. These men, and yes, I am sure there were women there as well had been with him for three years watching and listening as he taught them the way of love. This meal, this Last Supper, was his capstone project, his final exam his last lecture. We truly are to be in communion with each other but, if we are going to eat the bread and drink the cup, we have to do all of the other things he did to include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, loving everyone, caring for those who are marginalized, have a preferential option for the poor, giving voice to the voiceless and sacrificing it all for someone else. The “this” that Jesus wants us to do is all of it, just as he taught us.
All of this is why I struggle with this idea of virtual communion, as we will celebrate today. We may be joined in spirit, but we are not joined. And what about those that watch at a different time? Sure, there may be more than one of you present right now and partake of communion together. Still, the very notion of communion is that it is communal, the entire community gathered together, praying together it is not merely the work of the minister that sanctifies and makes the bread and the wine holy it is the work of all of us, gathered together that does this.
I am sure the Holy Spirit can use whatever means she wants to make things holy, but that misses the point. Remember, so holy was this sacrament that the reformers thought receiving every week was a bad thing, that receiving communion that often watered it down so it would be meaningless. I am not saying I am going to stop; I am saying I struggle with it.
Shortly we will gather, virtually around the table. I will have before me bread and wine, well grape juice, and you will have similar elements in front of you. We will say the words together, and we will consume the elements together. I pray that you allow the transformation to take place in you. Let the Holy Spirit come upon you, fall afresh on you as the song says, and allow that spirit to begin making the necessary change.
That is my prayer, and that is my hope.