It seems appropriate with my family here today that I should tell a story from my childhood.
When I was a young child, we attended the United Methodist Church in our town of Shady Spring, W.Va. The church was a typical church in a rural community. We had great singing, some great pastors, and amazing times of fellowship.
Like any church, we would partake in communion on a regular basis. I can’t remember it being all that regular, but from time to time we would celebrate this grand sacrament. You never knew when it would happen – at least that was what I thought in my young mind. You only found out that it was a “Communion Sunday” when you opened the bulletin, and at the end it said “Communion.”
I will admit I dreaded those moments. At that time, communion meant several things to me, none of which was what the pastor wanted it to be. For me, communion added an extra 5 to 10 minutes of church, which meant the Baptists down the street were going to get on the road first and clog the only road back home. Sunday lunch would be delayed by a few minutes and we would not make it home in time to watch the start of whatever game I wanted to watch instead of doing my homework.
Thankfully, my opinions have changed over the years. Where once I perhaps had an unknowing relationship with communion, today it is one of the places where I experience and feel the presence of God the most in corporate worship. Communion is a central part of who I am as a Christian, a pastor, and a leader in the church.
We have all had various experiences with communion. You may look forward to this time of bread and juice as an important moment in your spiritual walk with Christ. You may look at it as something you don’t quite understand, but recognize it is important. Or, maybe you just don’t understand why we do what we are preparing to do in a few moments. As I said, we each come to this time with different experiences and memories of this sacrament.
On this World Communion Sunday, a day set apart to celebrate the unity of Christians across the globe as one body in communion with one another, I believe it is appropriate to examine why we celebrate communion. What does communion mean? What does the bread and juice represent? How are we to live in response to celebrating communion?
Our text for today gives us a glimpse into an early celebration of Communion, which is also known as the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.
Paul is writing to the church in Corinth and discussing some of their worship practices. As is the case with many of Paul’s instructions, he had received word about the practices of the Corinthian church, practices Paul could not support. In those days, communion was celebrated in church members’ homes. It was only later that worship existed in buildings that we have come to call “churches,” and that the sacrament of communion was separated from a fellowship meal. Christians would come together to share meals with one another, and part of the meal would have been a communion celebration of some sort. In this passage, Paul is not criticizing their practice of the sacrament, but how they came together in the first place. Most likely, divisions would have been created in where people sat in the homes. The rich – and closest friends to the home owner – would have sat in the dining room, while the poorest in the church’s community would have been outside in the courtyard. Paul criticizes the people for this practice, because they were not really interested in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but were more interested in their own desires.
What Paul is telling us is that in celebration of communion, we are brought together in unity in Christ. At the center of the celebration is the recognition that we are all one in Christ. When we partake in the bread and the juice, we do so as one body not just here in Mackville and Antioch, but together with all the Christians throughout the world and the saints in Heaven. Communion is a communal act, and fellowship is one of the central feature of this sacrament. Together, we come to the table and experience the presence of the Lord as a unified body.
Communion also helps us to recognize our daily need of Christ in our life. At communion, we remember that we have all fallen short of the glory of God. We are in need of God’s forgiveness in our lives. Paul writes to the Corinthians about not eating “this bread” or drinking from “this cup of the Lord” in an unworthy manner, because to do so would make one “guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” Paul warns us that our celebration of communion should not provoke divisions or disregard for others. When we celebrate, we must do so as one body together. We must not take the sacrament in a way that disregards the presence of the Lord.
There is also another aspect here that is worth consideration, and it is based on Paul’s command to “examine ourselves” before we take this meal. In this, we are called to look in the depths of our soul and prepare ourselves, both individually and corporately, for communion. We prepare ourselves for communion by asking God to cleanse us of our disobedience and sin, and forgiving us of any inequity that stands in the way of true and deep relationship with the Triune God.
This is one of the central aspects of communion, and many have focused on this in different ways. John Wesley, who was the founder of the Methodist movement, would prepare for communion several days before the service. Some Amish communities will focus on forgiveness a month in advance of a community celebration, and will even postpone communion if they believe the community is not fully prepared to partake in the sacrament. We should prepare ourselves for communion prior to coming to the table. Communion is a means of grace that brings us closer to Christ. Do not allow a false sense of unworthiness prevent you from experiencing the depths of God’s love for you at the table. In partaking in communion, we are taking a “step of obedience,” as Steve Harper writes. However, there may be times when we are living against the will of the Lord without a desire to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. In those times, it is best to perhaps skip communion. I would encourage you to contact me, so we can talk about it.
Communion also reminds us of the words of Christ, which play a special importance in the sacrament. We know that the Lord’s Supper gets its root from the meal Christ shared with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. In the Upper Room, Christ took the bread and the cup and instituted this sacrament.
The first thing Christ did was to take the bread, broke it, and said “this is my body, which is given for you.” What does Christ mean by this bread being our body? To answer that, we have to look at this issue of the Real Presence of Christ that exists in the sacrament. Some believe that at communion the bread is transformed into Christ’s body. Others hold that Christ exists with the elements, while others say it is just a memorial symbol.
None of these gets to the heart of what Christ means in this passage, I believe. When we celebrate communion, we recognize that Christ is really here in our midst, but it is not in a bodily way. Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father as we share in this meal. Christ’s body is with us in a spiritual presence that is revealed through the Holy Spirit. Christ is truly here through the Spirit as we celebrate, and as we come and eat the bread, and drink the juice, we can feel and experience the living presence of the Lord. It is a presence that can touch us in the depths of our soul, and transform us in living our lives in reflection of Christ working in us and through us. It is why we celebrate open communion, because we believe a person can come to the table, experience the living presence, and be transformed to live for Christ for the first time, or renew their life for Christ.
After eating of the bread, Jesus took the cup, gave thanks to the Lord, and said “this cup is the new covenant between God and his people – an agreement confirmed with my blood.” What is Christ saying, here? Christ is pointing us to the cross, and his self-sacrificial act of dying on the cross for the forgiveness of our sin. It was on the cross that Jesus became the atonement offering for humanity’s sin, and it was by his blood that we are forgiven and set free from our sin. Christ’s act took away the wall of a relationship between the Father and humanity, and allows us to live in a new relationship with God.
This act inaugurated the new covenant, the new relationship between God and humanity, one that is brought about by Christ’s blood. We are called to live as a people of the covenant, to be in obedience to God and to be in communion with other Christians, both locally and across the world. When we share in the cup, we are recognizing that we are all together in Christ.
In the eating of the bread and the drinking of the cup, Christ says we are to do all of this “in remembrance of him.” When we share in communion, we remember all that Christ has done for us. Communion calls us to remember Christ’s dying on the cross for our sin. It is a memorial that calls to mind the depths of Christ’s love – to freely die the death that we deserved to die. But, communion is also a remembrance that transforms us to living witnesses of Christ’s love each day, and in every place we go. As we leave this table, we are transformed and called to live our lives as a living remembrance of Christ’s love. We recognize that the spiritual living presence of Christ doesn’t just exist here at the table, but goes with us through the love of the Holy Spirit throughout our lives. Communion reminds us to be a people in communion with one another, and to live as Christ’s people in this world. So, when we eat of this bread, and drink of this cup, we are not only remembering Christ’s death, but we are also remembering Christ’s call be disciples in all aspects of our lives.
Christ’s presence is wrapped in the majesty and simplicity of this meal. It is a special meal that we celebrate together as a community. As we celebrate communion, I invite you to experience this meal and the depths of Christ’s love living through this meal. May you experience the love of Christ working in your heart, and may you be transformed to a witness of Christ, to be a living remembrance of the love of Christ, wherever you go and whatever you do.