All posts tagged Communion

Remember Who You Are: Practices That Sustain Reform

2 Kings 23:21-23; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

We have come to the fourth stage of King Josiah’s reform this week, which we read about in 2 Kings 23:21-23. It’s a few short verses but some of the most powerful in the story. In this stage, Josiah re-institutes the Passover festival as an ongoing practice for the whole nation of Israel.

It’s an important step, especially given how Josiah’s reform had unfolded to this point.

Remember that we began by saying that reform usually launches when someone is encountered by God and begins to see that something is wrong with the world around them and that something is wrong with themselves. Josiah’s reform began when he encountered the Word of God written in an old dusty scroll discovered in the temple. That set him on a road to personal transformation which, in turn, would lead to reform for the whole nation.

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Sunday Dinner: The Case for Weekly Communion

I Corinthians 11:23-26; Luke 14:15-24

The old bridge to Tunnelton, PA.

The old bridge to Tunnelton, PA.

In a couple of weeks, many of you will be heading over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. When I was a kid that’s what we actually had to do to get my grandma’s house—travel through the backwoods of Indiana County, PA and over a rusty and rickety steel bridge to finally arrive at their little farmhouse to burst in an smell the aroma of roasted turkey and the best stuffing on the planet.

Grandma always set out the good china for Thanksgiving, just like she did for Sunday supper most weeks. Her table was a wonder—ever expandable with multiple leaves, always room for another place setting. Old creaky dining room chairs surrounded it and an assortment of others that folded out quickly in case of extra company. Various serving utensils, bowls, and platters filled ever space not taken up by someone’s dinner. On holidays grandma made what she called her “special drink,” which tasted exotic and sophisticated when served in a glass goblet that matched the place setting. Actually, I found out later, it was just cranberry juice and ginger ale—but to an 8 year-old it was as fine as any wine one could imagine.

tableThat table had seen some 60 Thanksgivings and thousands of meals over the years. It was at that table that I ate Captain Crunch for breakfast (which I wasn’t allowed to have at home, but grandma kept a secret stash) and ate bacon with my grandpap like a real farmer. It was in those chairs by the table that I got skinned knees patched and kissed, where I listened to old stories about people long dead, and where we mourned the passing of both grandparents a few years later. That table, in many ways, was the center of my young life.

You probably have some table stories as well. It’s interesting that in most homes we have a lot of rooms for people to sit in and entertain themselves, but invariably everyone always gravitates toward the table. When we moved here we spent a lot of time picking out furniture, but the one piece of furniture that Jennifer cared about the most was the table. Having grown up in a large family, she knew that the table is the most valuable place in the house.

Some recent studies have confirmed this. The statistics reveal that when families eat together regularly it dramatically lowers the rate of obesity in children. In fact, kids who eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol later in life; they eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than children who eat at the table with family less often. Turns out that we gravitate to the table for a reason. It’s really the center of life and health for the family.

Jesus at tableIs it any wonder, then, that Jesus also saw the table as the most important piece of furniture in the house? It’s tough to read the Gospels on an empty stomach because it seems that somewhere in most of the chapters Jesus is pausing to eat a meal with someone. He ate with despised tax collectors and other assorted sinners as well as dining with the religious elite. He was clearly a popular guest at any table, and his dinner conversations were always interesting and occasionally provocative. Even some of his stories were about tables, like the one we read earlier in the Gospel of Luke—stories about inviting everyone and setting up extra places where people could enjoy the food and the special drink.

And then, of course, Jesus hosts the most famous meal in human history—his last supper with the disciples. That meal was, of course, an echo of the Passover meal—another special occasion that celebrated Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. The Passover meal was a reminder to the family of God that God had done something powerful for them, and the foods on the table all symbolized God’s provision. At his last meal with the disciples Jesus took those symbols and reinterpreted them. This would be a meal that announced to the whole world that God was doing something even more powerful—another liberation meal, but this time is was the liberation of all of humanity from slavery to sin and death. The sacrificial lamb of the Passover feast was still the main course, but this time he was also the host of the meal, and as he broke the bread and shared the cup he told his disciples these were the signs of what God had done for the world—the grace and love of God expressed not so much in words or concepts, but in a meal at a table.

That’s why, like at home, the centerpiece of our sanctuary is the table. It’s here that we gather as the family of Jesus for Sunday dinner each week. The good china is laid out, the white linen cloths washed and bleached to a gleaming shine. Extra places are set for visitors. Everyone is welcome.

A couple of years ago we went to having communion every week in our worship services and people have asked a lot of questions about that. After all, it’s not something that most United Methodist churches do. Most of them offer it once a month, some even as little as once a quarter. Most Methodists expect a sermon every week but some people are surprised and maybe even a little put off we have the table set every week as well.

For example, some people think that having communion too frequently will lessen its impact—that it won’t be “special” if we do it all the time. That was the argument I heard once on another trip to Israel, when my group was traveling with folks from another church in a different denomination. We had been out touring on a Sunday (which is Israel’s Monday) when, before we got off the bus, I invited anyone to come to a service I’d host that evening where I’d be sharing Holy Communion. From the back of the bus I heard a stern voice. “You can’t do that,” the pastor of the other church said. Really, why? “Because we’re having communion at the Garden Tomb on Thursday and if you have it now it won’t be special then.” Apparently, in their context, communion was only reserved for special occasions, which usually also involved crying vociferously, as we found out on Thursday at the Garden Tomb!

communion42Some cite the logistical problem of doing communion every week (it’s a lot of work). Others object to how long it takes. In one church I served, our attendance went down every communion Sunday because people thought church would run over and they’d miss the crucial two hours of pregame shows before kickoff or be late to Sunday brunch (I’ll pause while you consider the irony of that last statement—we don’t want to eat communion because it will make us late for a meal!).

But what all of these folks miss is that the table is the center of the church’s family life. It has been that way since the time of the early church. The table was the most important part of their worship together—it was where they broke bread each week to remember, which is why Paul is so concerned about instructing the Corinthians on the practice. Paul writes to them because they’ve been doing it wrong—the wealthy were getting there before the working people and eating up all the food, so Paul says to them—hey, this is Christ’s meal and he’s the host. You’re not eating this meal in order to pig out, but as a remembrance, a re-embodying, of what Jesus has done. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” It’s a meal with a message!

Paul also reminds the Corinthians that this table fellowship was the tradition received from the Lord who said, “Do this…” Indeed, this was John Wesley’s primary reason for pushing the early Methodists to weekly communion. In his sermon The Duty of Constant Communion he puts it like this:

“It is the duty of every Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper as often as he can. The first reason why it is the duty of every Christian so to do is because it is a plain command of Christ.”

Why do we do this so often? Because Jesus said so!

Wesley, like those in the early Christian church, believed that communion is a vitally important means of grace. He goes on to say that this grace “confirms to us the pardon of our sins, by enabling us to leave them. As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty and leads us on to perfection. If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, the we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord’s Supper.”

If daily meals are important not only for our nourishment but also our fellowship with family, then regular communion is vital for our spiritual nourishment and our cohesiveness and love as the family of the church, the family of Christ. I’ll ask you the same question I asked my pastor friend on the bus that day: “Do you eat dinner every day?” Is it always special? Then why do you do it? You eat because you need it! And from the beginning the Christian church has said, we need this—which is why Jesus commanded it. We “do this” because it’s the family meal that nourishes and sustains us in the grace of God revealed in the broken body and shed blood of Jesus.

I am convinced that a lot of the dysfunction in our denomination and in much of the Protestant world today is the result of failure to eat together regularly at the table. If regular family meals prevent obesity, substance abuse, truancy, and bad grades in children, then regular communion prevents consumerism, narcissism, absenteeism, racism, sexism, and bad theology in the children of God! Here at the table we’re reminded that we’re all sinners saved by God’s grace alone. Here at the table we discover not a list of things we have to do but rather we are confronted again and again with what God has already done. Here are the table we discover that no matter what race or gender, no matter whether we’re rich or poor, no matter if we’re full of faith or barely hanging on, that there’s a place for us. Jesus is the host and we are his guests. There’s always more room at the table.

intinctionIf you pay attention to the liturgy of communion you’ll hear again the invitation to the meal. After the giving of the Word, we move toward the table in response to what God has said to us in Scripture, sermon and song. We hear the invitation—that Christ invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and who seek to live at peace with one another. It’s an open invitation, but we must get ourselves washed up for dinner, first. We pray together the prayer of confession, where we expose the dirt of sin and brokenness on our lives and allow God to wash it all down the drain. We hear the words of assurance that when we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

And then we pass the peace of Christ. It’s an opportunity for the family to solve our differences and acknowledge each other before we come together to the table with clean hands and pure hearts. Imagine if we practiced that in our homes before every meal! How might things be different?

The liturgy of the Table is called The Great Thanksgiving. Notice how it flows. It begins by pointing us upward, into God’s presence. We “lift up our hearts” and we lift up our praise for what God has done in creating us and loving us in spite of our sin. We join the whole church on earth and “all the company of heaven” in praising God’s holiness, which is seen most clearly in his Son, through who’s suffering and death created a family of people redeemed by his blood.

And then we reenact the words of institution, just like Paul reminded the Corinthians. We remember what Jesus said and did at that last supper. We break the bread and lift the cup—these are the signs that point to his sacrifice on our behalf. We remember God’s “mighty acts in Jesus Christ” and proclaim the mystery of the Gospel: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Past, present, and future all collide and collude when we come to the table.

Then we invoke the work of the Holy Spirit to consecrate these common elements and make them uncommon in their meaning. As Methodists, we believe in Christ’s real presence at the meal—that the elements remain as they are, but that Christ’s presence makes this meal holy and powerful every time we share it. And then we pray that the Spirit will make us one as the family of Christ and one in ministry to all the world. It’s here that we join in the great mission of the Body of Christ and see the elements as a common language of grace and peace. And then we are sent out into the world to embody that grace until the day when Christ returns and we feast with him in person in his kingdom as people redeemed and made whole again.

It’s been said that there are three sentences that every human being wants and needs to hear the most in order to live a full and abundant life:

I love you.

You are forgiven.

Dinner’s ready.

I heard all three of those sentences at the table at grandma’s house. But even more, we hear them in the liturgy of this table. We hear how much God loves us. We hear that we are forgiven. And we are invited to dinner again, no matter how far away we’ve strayed.

That’s what Sunday dinner means here, and that’s why we share it every week. We not only hear the Word of God, we can touch it and taste it. We come with a hunger and thirst to receive he special meal and the special drink, which reveal to us the fact that God has prepared the table. It’s a means by which God conveys his grace and love to us. We can take it into ourselves and convert it into energy for spreading it to others. We proclaim the Lord’s death for us and we go to embody his life for the world. It’s thanksgiving, each and every Sunday.

God loves you.

You are forgiven.

Dinner’s ready.

Let’s eat!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Week: Thursday

The First Supper

Mark 14:12-25

Thursday of the Last Week finds Jesus at table with his disciples. His actions at the table that night still speak to us of the meaning of his death and the promise of the new creation. 

A special meal at the Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya with my Beeson colleagues John Whitsett and Chris Howlett.

A special meal at the Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya with my Beeson colleagues John Whitsett and Chris Howlett.

One of the most common human impulses, no matter the culture, is to mark important events with meals. Birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, holidays—all of them call us to the table, and it’s the memories of those meals that stick with us over time. When I was a kid, for example, Thanksgiving at my grandma’s house was always something to look forward to. It was always a feast, but what I remember most is that we always had special hours d’oeuvres before the meal—peanut butter in celery sticks. My wife gets a kick out of the fact that I get so excited when we have them at our house. The taste reminds me of that special time in my childhood with people who are mostly now all gone.

I’ve had a memorable meal with a Korean family in Seoul where very few words were spoken and I could not identify what was on my plate (but I ate it with enthusiasm out of respect for my quietly dignified hosts). I’ve eaten goat in a Maasai village in Kenya, which was a rare feast for those tribesmen offered in honor of guests. I’ve had Turkish coffee and biscuits with an Arab trader in Jerusalem and, most meaningful of all, I’ve spent many family birthdays at Chipotle with Jennifer and the kids. Such meals say more than we could ever put into words. They not only feed our bodies, those special meals actually say something in and of themselves and they do something within us—these are the meals that mark us, give us a sense of belonging, and open the world to us.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Regular Communion

“The day of the Lord’s Supper is an occasion of joy for the Christian community. Reconciled in their hearts with God and the brethren, the congregation receives the gift of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and, receiving that, it receives forgiveness, new life, and salvation. It is given new fellowship with God and men. The fellowship of the Lord’s Supper is the superlative fulfillment of Christian fellowship. As the members of the congregation are united in body and blood at the table of the Lord so will they be together in eternity. Here the community has reached its goal. Here the joy in Christ and his community is complete. The life of Christians together under the Word has reached its perfection in the sacrament.” (from Life Together)

Think of weekly communion as a rehearsal for life in the Kingdom!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Regular Communion

The Case for Weekly Communion

Communion1Beginning September 9, Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church will offer Holy Communion every
Sunday at all three of our worship services. As part of our movement toward
becoming a church focused on “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the work of
his kingdom,” regular weekly communion provides us with an opportunity to hear
the Word of God read, preached, and sung, and then respond by coming to the
Table to open ourselves and receive the gift of God’s grace, love, and
forgiveness through the Sacrament.

Here
are some Frequently Asked Questions about instituting weekly communion at
TLUMC:

Why are we beginning
weekly communion?

            The
early church partook of the Lord’s Supper when they gathered together, as in
Acts 2:46 where the community “broke bread” in the fledgling churches meeting
in homes. Luke gives us this image earlier in his writing when he says that
Jesus was made known to two of his disciples after his resurrection “in the
breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:28-35). The early church believed that the
sacrament was a means of communing again with the risen Christ, proclaiming his
saving death and anticipating the coming of his kingdom (1 Corinthians
11:23-26). The sharing of the Lord’s Supper (which was actually part of a
larger meal) was the centerpiece of the worship life of the early church along
with the teaching of the apostles and prayer.

            In
our own Methodist tradition, John Wesley understood this pattern of the early
church and urged the early Methodists to hold fast to communing weekly.
Wesley’s primary reason for doing so was because Jesus himself commanded it
(“Do this in remembrance of me.”), but there were other reasons as well. Wesley
believed that the practice of weekly communion reminded people what Christ had
done for them in a tangible way and also gave them a tangible way to receive
the grace of Christ himself for the forgiveness of their sins. As Wesley put it
in his sermon The Duty of Constant
Communion
:

 As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our
souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our
souls: This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection.
If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire
the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey
God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord's Supper; then
we must never turn our backs on the feast which our Lord has prepared for us.
We must neglect no occasion which the good providence of God affords us for
this purpose. This is the true rule: So often are we to receive as God gives us
opportunity. 

            To
put this another way, Holy Communion acts, in effect, as our weekly “altar
call”—an opportunity to respond to the Word, to deal with our sins, to rejoice
in the free grace of God offered to us in Christ, and to remember that we are
part of a community gathered around the table of Christ. We come to the altar
broken and hungry and we leave filled with the grace and assurance of Christ’s
love for us. We rise from the table strengthened for the task of following
Christ as his disciples. 

           In
2004, the United Methodist General Conference approved a study called This Holy Mystery which urged, but not required, United Methodist
Churches to consider reinstituting the practice of weekly communion as part of
the Service of Word and Table. Many churches are rediscovering that this
regular practice adds a depth of meaning and response in worship that preaching
and music alone cannot give.

            I
truly believe that weekly communion is an essential part of growing disciples
who seek not only to have knowledge about Christ but who also seek a regular
opportunity to receive again the grace of Christ.

How will we physically be able to share
communion each week with such a tight time window between our services?

            We will be adding two stations to our
regular communion service for a total of four stations. We will also adjust the
timing of the rest of the worship service to accommodate for weekly communion
(including a more concise sermon!). We also see this as an opportunity to get
more people involved in leading worship with the addition of more communion
servers, including some of our senior high youth. We will train our servers and
ushers to facilitate the process while allowing ample time for people to pray
at the altar after they commune if they feel led to do so. We will also add a gluten free option at one of the stations for those who need it. 

If we serve communion every week, won’t
that make it feel less “special?”

            Most
people eat supper every day. Sometimes that meal is a special occasion,
sometimes it feels pretty ordinary. Whether it feels special or ordinary,
however, we recognize that the primary purpose of supper is nourishment! We eat
meals because we need them and because we also see them as an opportunity to
gather with others around the table whenever we can.

            Holy
Communion nourishes us weekly with a diet of God’s grace, which all of us
desperately need. Sometimes the meal will feel quiet and solemn, sometimes it
will be eaten in the mood of celebration. Sometimes we’ll be communing beside
old friends and sometimes we’ll share the meal with people we are meeting for
the first time. As we commune weekly, I believe that you will begin to see it
as something to anticipate all week as you spend time with God on your own. As
we come to the table on Sunday, we come anticipating the promise of God will be
made known to us in the breaking of the bread once again: Christ has died,
Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

Who is allowed to partake of
communion in the United Methodist Church?

            Our
communion liturgy tells us up front: “Christ invites to his table all who love
him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one
another.” To put it another way, anyone—regardless of their age, their status,
their church background—is welcome at the table so long as they come out of love
for Christ and with a repentant heart that seeks God’s grace and forgiveness
through Christ. John Wesley believed that the sacrament was an opportunity for
those who may be seeking Christ, even for the first time, to come and
experience his saving grace in the breaking of the bread, thus we do not
exclude anyone who seeks Christ. In this sense, again, communion is a weekly
“altar call” that extends an invitation to all to receive Christ and all his
benefits. It is an “outward sign of an inward grace” that reminds us of what
Christ has done for us, what Christ
can do in us, and what Christ will do
for the world.

As we
begin weekly communion, I want to urge you to come to the table each week
expectantly, seeking Christ and his grace. This small article is by no means
the entire witness about weekly communion, but I hope it will provide you with
an opportunity to consider how you will approach the table each week. I will
share more about the theology and practice of the table each week as we gather
together.

            May
we know Christ through the breaking of the bread!

Sources:

You can
find a copy of Wesley’s full sermon The
Duty of Constant Communion
here.

You can
read the full text of This Holy Mystery,
the United Methodist study on Holy Communion, at this link