(a sermon for June 5, 2016, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-32)
Early on in our marriage, my wife Lisa and I made the decision that when we had children, we were not going to have them baptized… that is, we weren’t going to have them baptized as infants!
This was out of respect for the Baptist tradition in which Lisa was raised – where it is understood that baptism ought to happen when those children are old enough to able to know and to profess, on their own, a faith in Jesus Christ – and also understanding that this is also a stance affirmed in our own United Church of Christ tradition (and in fact, the way I was baptized as well!). So we opted instead to have our children “dedicated to God,” which in many ways is the same kind of service; in that we celebrated God’s bringing those children into the world and our lives, and Lisa and I, as parents, were charged with raising each of those kids in a Christian manner. But for them to actually decide to take on the Christian faith as their own and to be baptized would be their decision “in their time” when they were old enough and ready to make such a confession.
Now, for the boys this was fine; both of them were content to wait and be baptized around the time of their confirmation, Jake in the church where he’d grown up, and Zach by full immersion (!) in the waters of Pleasant Lake. Sarah, on the other hand, was a different story; she actually started asking to be baptized around the age of three, and quite frankly, never let up from that moment on!
At first, we chalked this up to the fact that she’d seen so many other little children baptized in the church where her father was the pastor that she couldn’t understand why she wasn’t able to have that, too! But soon we realized it was more than that; and as much as her parents tried to explain to her that she needed to be older, that when she learned and understood a little about God and Jesus and baptism, then we could talk, Sarah would not be dissuaded. And so, finally, at the age of nine, Lisa and I agreed that she was ready to make this decision (!); and she was baptized alongside of her brother Jake.
But lest I ever thought that the celebration of this wonderful sacrament would signal a pause in any discussions of faith in our house – I’ll never forget it – barely a day had passed when my daughter snuggled up to me on the couch and said, “Daddy, I have a question… now that I’m baptized, does that mean I can take communion now?”
I should have known that was coming, because Lisa and I always took the same point of view regarding children and communion as we did baptism: that when they’re old enough to understand something about the meaning of communion, then they can certainly participate! But all these years later I must confess that I wonder a bit about that; because wouldn’t you agree that in many ways it’s a stretch for any of us to say we fully understand “the meaning of communion?” Truly, it’s amazing how something as simple as a small meal of bread and wine becomes layered with so many levels of meaning, laden with so much symbolism and theological interpretation that it ends up bigger than most of us can begin to comprehend for ourselves, much less express to others (especially to a nine-year-old!).
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that we don’t know what communion is: any of us who have put any time into Christian worship understand that it’s a remembrance – a reenactment, really – of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion. We know that it’s a tradition of Christian worship that dates back to the earliest days of the church; and that what we do here together on the first Sunday of every month is at Christ’s invitation and in Christ’s presence.
But beyond that… well, simply to put some explanation of it into words is a challenge! Poets, preachers and theologians, they try, of course: they speak of communion as the touching and handling of things unseen, of grasping with firmer hand eternal grace; they regard this meal of carefully cut bread cubes and tiny glasses of juice as the representation of a heavenly banquet spread for you and for me. When we talk of “the meaning of communion,” we tell of a “holy mystery,” in which the Spirit of Christ our Lord is not only with us in this sanctuary or at the table elegantly set before us, but also present in the bread and wine, which are the very symbols of his body and his blood that we bless in his name. And then, with the meal set before us, we take, eat and drink; we talk of a shared act of worship that, in Jesus’ own words, assures us that we will always remain in him and he in us. As Christians, we proclaim that receiving Sacrament of Holy Communion is a means of grace: through this shared celebration, Christ comes to us, ministers to us, and assures us above all that we are not alone.
Such a thing looms very large in our hearts and minds, and it’s no wonder that we in the church spend so much time seeking to discern what it all means and why it matters so deeply. For instance, I remember reading years ago (and I don’t know who decides these things) that there are some fifty “official” and proper ways of administering the Sacrament of Holy Communion: from the passing of trays of bread and wine from one to another, to communion shared by intinction where the bread is dipped into the cup (as we do during our services at Havenwood, and also here on Maundy Thursday); and so many other types of liturgy besides. The styles of worship vary widely from church to church, and tradition to tradition: and it all basically all comes down to the deep desire we have that this Eucharist, this deep and holy communion we’re to have with the Lord and one another be done right, and be done well! After all, if there’s 50 proper ways of doing communion, who knows how many wrong ways there are of doing it? Like someone holding a dinner party for an honored guest, we wouldn’t want to inadvertently dishonor that guest, especially when that guest is the Lord himself!
That’s the problem, you see, with our trying to wholly grasp the meaning and the practice of communion; because so much of what we’re trying to figure out about this “Lord’s Supper” ends up distracting us from what has drawn us to the table in the first place! But the good news is that we are not the first to struggle with this, and that there is a simple way to approach this table of grace.
Our scripture reading this morning comes from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, a group of Christians dealing with (or more accurately, not dealing with) a great many divisions among their people. Apparently these divisions were reflected in how the Lord’s Supper was being celebrated; for some, sharing the bread and wine had become little more than an excuse for eating and drinking to excess, and moreover, excluding others from the meal by virtue of their own gluttony! For all their talk of faith in Jesus Christ, there was precious little consideration for the meaning of the sacrament, and even less acknowledgement of the Lord’s presence in the midst of it: this was just a party with food and wine!
So Paul comes down rather hard in his condemnation of this behavior: “What should I say to you?” he asks. “Should I commend you? In this matter, I do not commend you… [for] whoever… eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”
Have you all forgotten, he asks them. Don’t you remember what this meal is all about? “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” You do this in remembrance of me! You do this because Jesus did it first; you do this because it represents what Jesus did for us, which was to give his life as a ransom for ours so that we might know life abundant and eternal! It’s not something to be taken lightly, or done casually or as an afterthought amidst everything else; likewise, it’s not to be considered some sort of technical or liturgical requirement of faith. You do it as a way to remember Jesus: who he is and what he’s done for you. And you do it because “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
A friend of mine from years ago used to tell the story of how one of his professors taught him the “meaning of communion” by handing to him and everyone else in the class a “buckeye,” which, if you’re not from Ohio, you might not know happens to be the large brown seed that comes from a horse chestnut tree. And as all the students wondered what buckeyes could possibly have do with communion, the professor reached into his own pocket and pulled out a buckeye of his own; or at least a small, brown, shriveled-up version of one.
The professor explained that he’d been carrying that particular buckeye since 1942. It had been given to him by his son who was going off to fight the Second World War, and he explained that his son had told him to put it in his pocket and keep it there until he came home. That way, the professor said, “each time I reached in my pocket I would always remember him. Well,” he went on, “I have been carrying that buckeye in my pocket [ever since], and I am still waiting…” waiting for that time someday when I will see my son again. But for now, “each time that I reach in my pocket I remember my son.”
Friends, when we take away all the theological discourse and debate over how, when, where and how often, in the end our sharing communion in this place is simply about waiting and remembering. Every time we, as a family of faith, gather around this table to share in the bread and the cup we are remembering our Lord Jesus, and proclaiming to ourselves, each other and the world that we are waiting for our Lord to return: as we say every time we come to this table, we proclaim the mystery and wonder of our faith: that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.” But there’s a miracle in that waiting, friends; and it’s in the discovery – a divine reminder – that in the sharing of this holy meal, Christ is in fact with us as we wait for that time to come!
I dare say it’s a reminder we all need.
If you’re like me, I’m sure that there have been moments when you’ve been caught dreaming while waiting for the light to change: maybe you’re listening to a song on the radio; perhaps you’re lost in thought or in the midst of a conversation (and hopefully NOT texting or playing on your phone!); but suddenly the light’s turned green and immediately horns are blaring at you to get moving!
Well, think of that as a parable for our spiritual life; so often are times and situations in our lives when we find ourselves distracted and pulled away from who we are, what we believe and how we live as persons of faith! It’s all too easy, even in the midst of our life together as the church, to let ourselves become somehow isolated from the core of our faith. That’s why it’s so for us to have this incredible meal set here before us; because in the simple sharing of a little piece of bread and small swallow of juice, there is the sound of a trumpet awakening us from the daydreams of daily life unto to the way, truth and life of Jesus Christ; and of who we are as God’s own children: the recipients of salvation and renewal at the hands of a crucified and risen Lord, and the people of a sure and certain promise of a kingdom anchored in eternity and blossoming even now in our very midst.
Let’s remember today, friends! Let’s remember Christ who has died for us and who gives us life! Let’s remember the new life that is ours as his disciples! Let us remember and, in his love and mercy, break bread, “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, [we] proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry