World Communion Sunday: Why?
As you have noticed in the sermon title, I have put an emphatic Why? At least the why is there to encourage us to ask why we are celebrating something called “World Communion Sunday.” The first step toward an answer to the why is simply to note that in the largely Protestant Ecumenical Movement in 1940 it was proposed that the first Sunday in October in each year be an occasion in which churches from around the world not only celebrate Holy Communion on that day but search for a sense of what it is in that celebration that binds Christians around the world together as One body?
Not only were leaders of the Disciples of Christ involved in this initial proposal, but we have been known as that Christian tradition that places emphasis on celebrating what we call the Lord’s Supper as essential to our worship services. If Disciples are going to congregate for worship, then they will set and serve the Lord’s Supper. When asked why we celebrate the Supper so often, we have answered because it focuses on the centrality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our self-understanding as an ecclesial community and as individual followers of Jesus. Hence, the common name “Disciples of Christ.”
Accordingly, it is a matter of faithfulness and honesty for us Disciples, gathered here this morning on this particular day of ecumenical celebration, to inquire carefully about what we are doing and why we are doing it when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper this Sunday and every Sunday. And in doing what we do in the Supper, how does that convey our sense of solidarity with other Christians?
To launch this inquiry of faith seeking understanding, I want us to acknowledge that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a practice of the church. The concept of practice of course is not unique to the church, but plays an important role in analyzing social contexts, agreements, and interconnections. And, while it may seem initially dubious to you, it is impossible to perform a practice without a language describing and prescribing what the practice is and what it is for. Hence, I propose that a practice is an action or a set of interconnected actions that can be repeated—or performed—and that can be identified in language.
Consider how we speak of practice in the context of sports. If a person wants to play baseball, for example, he or she needs to be taught in language what it means to play baseball. There are objects called baseballs and they are hard and can be thrown or hit with a bat. If a person wants to learn how to use a baseball bat to hit a baseball well, he will have to practice hitting the ball with bat. Hence, to play baseball requires practice playing baseball, and it may take a long time—perhaps years—to learn how to play baseball well. Even more, practicing in order to play baseball well is not yet actually playing a baseball game. The activities of playing a baseball game are themselves dependent on the rules of the game and such rules are invariably expressed in language.
To call the celebration of the Lord’s Supper a practice should helpfully throw into relief how the theological description of the practice is not a mere add-on but is in actual practice the heart of the matter. No theological language, no practice of the Lord’s Supper. Drinking the cup is something anyone can do with any cup. To drink the cup of the Lord’s Supper is something one has to learn how to do. Notice I said how to do it. And you cannot learn how to receive and drink the communion cup as an act of faith without learning the theological language of the church.
Notice the difference in possible responses of Fred when we ask him what he is doing when he is drinking the cup of juice that has been passed to him in the pew: he might say “ I am drinking this grape juice” or he might say “I am drinking this juice to acknowledge Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” Might this provide us an insight into how deeply intentions are woven into our actions and thereby into our practices. Theological language is not an add-on or mere superficiality; it is the heart of the matter! At least the theological language trains us in how to perform the practice of receiving the bread and cup as signs of Jesus presence among us and with us.
I am proposing that we will continually miss the point of the practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper if we forget or deny that its theological center and rationale is the salvific significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, very God and very human. Drop out that theological meaning of the event and practice of the Lord’s Supper, we might inadvertently be reducing the celebration to being no more than a reminder of the need to be friendly and welcoming.
On the hunch that what I have just said might be puzzling to us, I want to make some remarks about the history of the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
First, aside from the agreement that the practice can be traced back to Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, tensions and disagreements emerge quickly as to exactly what the practice is and what it means. Paul is wrestling in his first letter to the church in Corinth about what the practice is and what it means to perform it. Apparently some in Corinth thought it was primarily a time to eat a meal and to bring their own food. Paul calls this practice into question by rooting it back in the inauguration by Jesus with his disciples “on the night in which he was betrayed…” [1 Cor 11.23-26]
Second, within a couple of centuries or so, the practice is characterized as a ‘sacrament’ by the rising Roman tradition of the church, and became a practice that could only be performed properly when presided over by an ordained male priest. During this time we see the emergence of the practice of naming the celebration the “Eucharist” emphasizing thereby a practice of thanksgiving for the gifts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Third, over the succeeding centuries, it seemed a common assumption that the bread and wine are, when consecrated by a priest, really transformed into being the very real presence of the body and blood of Jesus himself. When stated as a theory about the elements, it came to be called “transubstantiation.” From my vantage point today, this awkward language was aiming to affirm that in the partaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine the faithful were experiencing the real presence of Christ the Savior, and not just remembering him.
Fourth, during Reformation times, the left wing, which includes many of the predecessors of our Stone-Campbell traditions, decided that the priest was unimportant to the reality of the practice and that the transubstantiation issues were misleading. Partly due to its strong anti-Catholic bias, this tradition tended more and more to regard the celebration as a ‘remembering of Jesus’ and thereby, almost inadvertently, de-emphasizing the real presence of Jesus Christ in the bread and cup. The communion table could no longer be regarded as an ‘altar’ upon which the sacrifice of Jesus’ death could be re-enacted. So, why not just pass the bread and wine to believers as they sat in their pews?
Fifth, since the Reformation, most Protestant traditions have agreed that it is essential to a theological definition of the church that it is that unique community in which the Sacraments are celebrated and the Word is preached. Herein the sacraments being referred to are baptism and Holy Communion.
Sixth, in our own time, I might add, it can sometimes appear in the language used in the enactment of the practice that its primary purpose is to be a warm, welcoming, and reassuring event. The Lord’s Supper might then be seen as a means to the end of our feeling better about ourselves.
Having rehearsed some of the differences in the practices of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion or Eucharist or Mass, we might be wondering whether we Christians can be theologically intelligible to each other.
These are real issues and I could mention that I have spent an adult lifetime searching through the various ramifications of how the discourses and practices of the church are by their very nature theological in character and that such is a language that needs to be learned in the discourses and practices of worship and everyday conduct.
Those words may seem a bit heavy to us, so let me pause to share some memories of my encounters with the celebrations of the Lord’s Supper.
You may not know that I was raised here in Oklahoma City and attended Pennsylvania Avenue Christian Church. That congregation recently ceased existence, but I can assure you that for much of its lifetime during the 50s and 60s it sent more of its young people on paths toward ministerial leadership and Christian service than any other Disciples congregation in Oklahoma. Of course we celebrated the Lord’s Supper every Sunday during morning worship. I was the youngest of four children and my family always sat on the back row of the left side of sanctuary.
As with most Disciples congregations, there was a table below the pulpit upon which the trays of grape juice cups and the trays of small cracker-type squares were stacked. The pastor might say something from the pulpit before we sang the communion hymn, but the two male laymen called ‘elders’ on the sides of the table said a few words and then each prayed, one for the bread and one for the cup. They then passed the trays to the ‘deacons’ who then distributed them to the gathered folk, aisle by aisle, with each person consuming the elements as they were passed. That scenario was pretty common for Disciples congregations in those days.
Of course, in my congregation, as was common in Disciples congregations, only persons baptized—meaning ‘adult baptism’—were permitted to partake of the bread and cup. Baptism was never performed before the 11th year of the person’s life. I confess to you now that that exclusion did not strike me as odd or unwarranted or discriminatory. I felt no exclusion or neglect. It seemed evident to me that I was more nearly a spectator of the practice and the sort of life of discipleship that seemed connected to it.
Yet in those pre-baptism days I was a regular observer about how, seated a few rows in front of us, Mrs. Hemstead received the elements. She was a woman of substantial proportions and graced with a full head of brilliant red hair. I knew she was leader in the church and had a son going into ministry. But I was gripped by the unvarying drama that Mrs. Hemstead wept every time she received and partook of the bread and cup. To my immature mind, something really important but mysterious and deep was happening right there amidst Mrs. Hemstead’s sobs and her partaking of the Lord’s Supper. I was never quite sure whether her weeping was one of sadness or one of gratitude and thanksgiving.
When I was finally baptized as a rite of passage and was welcomed to the table, I confess that my first participation in the event did not seem to move me in quite the way it did for Mrs. Hemstead, but it occurred to me that that was my loss. But surely a loss worth thinking about.
Well, somehow I made my way through college, then to seminary, and then to a doctoral work in philosophical theology. My first professorial appointment was to Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. As you can guess, it was a Methodist seminary with a robust and intellectually commanding faculty. I thought myself especially privileged to be chosen to be a member of the Perkins faculty. Among all the formative moments for me, in addition to the wonders of teaching students, was my participation in the worship life of the seminary. Chapel services were daily through the weekly classes and Holy Communion was celebrated once a week.
Two aspects of how Holy Communion was celebrated made a permanent impression on me. First, in preparation for receiving the bread and wine, there were long recitations of the language of the faith in Scripture and tradition. Jesus was firmly rooted in Israel and the narrative of his significance could not omit those roots. But it was especially gripping for me that we regularly sang the chant: O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. The chant being sung by all, of course, was ancient in origin coming into the Methodist tradition from its Anglican roots. But that chanting seemed to me to convey wistfully the wonder of our being sinners for whom Jesus—the Lamb of God—took away from us our sins and, indeed, the sins of the whole world.
Second, we received the bread and wine individually from the ordained clergy at the front of the chapel kneeling at the communion rail with hands extended and open. There we were on our knees—needy supplicants neither proud nor triumphantly righteous. Frankly, something happened in that celebration of the Lord’s Supper that simply became a permanent dimension of my experience of the communion. I could easily imagine Mrs. Hemstead on her knees at the rail with hands extended, weeping as she received forgiveness and hope and perhaps my reaching over to help her up from the rail.
While I taught at Perkins, we were members of our local Disciples church in Richardson a suburb of Dallas. It was a wonderfully resilient and devout congregation, but we still received the bread and cup sitting in our pews. Evenso, I found myself often moved by the solemn earnestness with which we prayed and received the elements. But it was still easier to imagine that we were remembering ole Jesus—still dead in that remote and dusty past—and not really present right here in this practice and in our lives.
In 2000 Sarah and I moved to live in a cabin on Ft. Gibson Lake in eastern Oklahoma. It had been in the family since 1970 and we had gradually expanded it until it seemed commodious enough for all of our family to gather often. But we lived about equidistant from Muskogee and Tahlequah and Wagoner. Some untoward developments were happening in the Disciples churches in those towns, so we ended up attending a Methodist church in Muskogee, at that time pastored by a former student of mine at Perkins. But alas, Methodists vary greatly among congregations as to the times and the patterns by which they celebrate Holy Communion. Quarterly celebrations, not weekly, are common.
Shortly after our becoming members, the pastor was transferred to another congregation. His successor became a very dear friend and pastor to us. But, I share that we celebrated Holy Communion only quarterly and then with some urgency at the end of the Sunday service. That urgency is not an uncommon situation among Disciples. I was occasionally asked to help serve the supplicants at the rail and was moved again and again at their devout demeanor as they received the elements. But, my pastor friend worried that time was pressing, and he often rushed through the language of the service as though he was reading a ticker tape of the market. Just sounds, not quite words full of hope. The Great Thanksgiving of God’s work in Israel and in Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death, and resurrection receded into mere words, bereft of passion and faithful witness. And we never took the time to sing thrice: “O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”
Finally, gently as you can imagine, I dared to urge the pastor to slow down, say the words as though they are rich and powerful in meaning—words that we the congregation also need to learn how to say and mean.
Sometimes, dear friends, I fear that many of us ordained persons think we have to reinvent the Gospel and faith in language that fits the contemporary folk and their moods. But I propose here today, that the precious words of the church and its gospel are intended to form us to fit the language, rather than form the language to fit us congregants in our worldly dispositions. We need the liturgical rehearsals of the narratives of the faith to teach us how we might construe God and our human neighbors and even our enemies. And miraculously we might grasp what it is to receive grace and forgiveness and how appropriate it might be to weep in gratitude for such blessings.
So, today we Disciples of Christ acknowledge that many are they in other Christian traditions who are celebrating our common practice and confession that we not only remember Jesus but we reckon with the theological fact that in receiving the bread of his broken body and the cup of his risen life, we are not alone. Not only is Christ with us, but millions of other Christian friends are receiving the gifts of the Lord’s Supper and will depart from their gathering together with a new and vivid sense that they have the gift of life from the grace of God. Not a gift we have earned and now deserve. The Lord’s Supper is sheer gift. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of the world; the church knows that and is witness to the world now on this World Communion Sunday.
Might I conclude this meditation on the Lord’s Supper in the hope that it might never occur to us to say or even to feel like saying: “Mrs. Hemstead, please refrain from weeping. Just pass the trays and let us get this ancient ritual over without too much fuss. We really need to get out in time to beat the lunch crowd.”
All this dear friends in Christ, I have dared to preach in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God, and Mother of us all. Amen.
Southern Hills Christian Church
October 7, 2012