Tag Archives: 1 Corinthians 11:23-32

FAQ’s of Faith: Why the Bread and Wine?

(a sermon for March 4, 2018, the Third Sunday in Lent; third in a series, based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-32)

She was a dearly loved member of the congregation who was in the final stages of an incurable cancer, and had just arrived home from a lengthy hospital stay out of town; and she’d asked if the associate pastor and I might come out to see her.  And while certainly we were both very glad to do that, we were also more than a little concerned about it!  After all, this woman was still very weak from her latest round of chemo therapy, her trip home had to have been exhausting and besides, we knew there was already this long list of family members, neighbors and friends who had prayers, best wishes and casseroles to bring to her; so maybe, we suggested, another day might be better for us to visit.  But she was insistent; and so that afternoon we headed out to a farmhouse on the edge of town to make this pastoral call, deciding that whatever else happened, we pastors would be sure to make out visit brief!

However, as we should have expected, this woman would have none of that!  In fact, every time we’d start to rise to leave, she’d have another question about something going on in the life of the church, or else she’d ask about our families.  And this would inevitably lead to another story about her growing up; about the trials and tribulations she and her husband faced raising their own children, or what was happening now with her beloved grandchildren.  And I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that nearly every story, spiritually and joyfully speaking, had us in stitches.  There was a lot of blessed laughter in that room, to be sure, and it went on and on.

But then, almost an hour later as we made yet another attempt to take our leave, she says, “Can we have communion before you go?  Since I haven’t been able to get to church lately, I’ve really missed communion.”  The associate and I looked at each other quickly; though a great deal of our ministries had involved bringing communion to shut-ins, for some reason this possibility had never occurred to either one of us!  “Well, we’d love to,” I answered, “but we neglected to bring the elements, so perhaps when you’re feeling better…”

“Oh, we can find those,” she interrupted, and quickly dispatched her husband to locate what we needed.  Okay, then… but soon we hear the husband wearily calling back from the kitchen, “You know, I don’t think there’s any grape juice; not much bread either!”   “Just improvise,” she calls back, rolling her eyes in no small manner of exasperation.  “My land, Dean, anything will be fine!”  And a couple of minutes and the rattle of cupboard doors later, he emerges from the kitchen with our “holy feast” set before us on the coffee table:  a not quite day-old hamburger roll on a dessert plate, and a wine goblet literally filled to overflowing with… orange juice!  “Not exactly what we’d have on a Sunday morning at church, but it’ll do,” he said, and his wife nodded in agreement.

Not exactly, indeed!  I thought to myself, quietly wondering if this could actually even be considered “official” communion; after all, we were just about to break every sacramental rule in the book!  Where was the wine (or in our case, the grape juice) poured into little glasses?  How about the carefully cubed pieces of bread placed ever so carefully on a silver tray?  A leftover hamburger bun and some orange juice might – might (!) – suffice as a last minute mid-afternoon snack; but as elements in the reenactment of the Lord’s Supper, in a worshipful remembrance of the events of the last night of our Savior’s earthly life?   This seemed at best altogether too casual and flippant, and, well, at worst sacrilegious; I remember thinking that my seminary professors would be aghast at the very thought of such a thing!

You see, in a situation such as that the question becomes, when is communion… not?  And by the same token, how does such a simple, utterly basic little meal as this become a sacrament, imbued with the presence and power of our Lord?  And why the bread and wine; why does that even matter?

What’s interesting about our text this morning, taken from Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth, is that Paul seems to be addressing much the same kind of an issue. It seems that the Corinthians, who were pretty much of a factious and divided people anyway, were letting those divisions affect their celebration of the Lord’s Supper; for some, sharing the bread and wine had become little more than an excuse for eating and drinking to excess, and moreover, an opportunity for excluding others from the meal by virtue of wealth and their own gluttony!  For all their talk of Jesus Christ, there was precious little consideration amongst the Corinthians as to the true meaning of this particular table-gathering; in fact, just prior to our reading today Paul says to them, “when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” (11:17) Basically there was nothing at all worshipful, much less sacramental, about what they were doing.  Rather than an act in which Christ is remembered, their coming together existed as little more than a private dinner party, and a very exclusive one at that!

And so, in light of all that, here is Paul now to remind them of the true meaning and reality of the Lord’s Supper: “that on the night when he was betrayed” – or “handed over,” which is probably the better translation – Jesus (and likely at the beginning of what we know to have been a Passover meal) “took a loaf of bread… broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is broken for you. Do this is remembrance of me’” And then after supper as the wine was being poured, he took the cup, saying to his gathered disciples that “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Do this in remembrance of me, says Jesus… Do this to remember me… do this!  And that’s what Paul was seeking to convey to the Corinthians in the midst of their partying: that more than some small, offhanded and soon to be forgotten ritual in the midst of an evening meal (or, for that matter, as simply one more thing that happens in the middle of a worship service) this particular partaking of bread and wine is no less than a sacred act, for it acknowledges in a palpable way what Jesus has done (or, on that first Maundy Thursday, what Jesus was about to do!).  I love how The Message both translates and actually expands this admonition of Paul to the Corinthians:  “What you must solemnly realize,” he writes to them, “is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master.  You will be drawn back to this meal again and again,” Paul goes on, “until the Master returns.”

Why the bread and wine?  It’s because when Jesus broke that loaf of bread and said, “This is my body,” it was so we might always remember that his body was broken, and that he died for us; for the sake of our salvation and a life abundant and eternal with God.  It’s that ongoing reminder each time we break the bread that we participate in the broken body of Christ; because it’s our sin for which his sacrifice paid the cost, and which brings us new hope forged in forgiveness.  And that’s why the wine: because when Jesus shared the Passover wine with them, calling it the “new covenant in his blood,” he was proclaiming a brand new life for all who would believe; a life of fullness and holiness that starts here and now, but will come to its fruition at that “heavenly banquet” in the Kingdom of God at the close of history.

Now granted, it’s hard for us to wrap our minds and hearts around something so personal and yet so utterly cosmic as this with something as simple as a sharing a tiny piece of bread and a little cup of unfermented wine (!)… but that’s we “do this” as often as we eat the bread and share the cup; that’s the reason for the sacrament we share!

I’m reminded here of a story from Martin Copenhaver’s book To Begin at the Beginning, in which he tells the story of the great dancer Martha Graham, who had just completed an inspired performance and was approached backstage by an ardent admirer of dance.  “Oh, Miss Graham,” he said, “that dance was wonderful.  Can you tell me what it means?”  “Honey,” Graham replied, still out of breath from the dancing, “if you I could tell you, then I wouldn’t have to dance it.” Copenhaver goes on to say that “the same could be said of a sacrament.  If words alone were sufficient, the sacrament would not be necessary.  The nature of a sacrament is such that nothing can convey its meaning as well as the sacrament itself.”

In other words, I can speak to you theologically or historically or biblically about what we’re doing here today in celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion, but what’s really important is the experience that each one of us has in sharing this sacred meal; it’s in partaking of the broken bread and the cup of blessing in the same manner that Jesus himself gave it and as so many over the generations have continued to do; and it’s in knowing the wonder and the deep, deep love of Jesus’ presence in it; in the anticipation of what our Lord Jesus will be saying and doing in our hearts and lives as we “do this” today in remembrance of him.

How it all happens and why, well that’s a mystery of grace.  All I know is that every time we gather in this sanctuary and come to feast at this table we come into the presence of the Lord who can and does turn our lives and our world all around; and I also know that when the elements are as “non-traditional,” shall we say, as a hamburger bun and orange juice something sacred and miraculous is bound to happen.

I remember that day at the farmhouse when I finally decided that this wasn’t going to be your run of the mill communion service, the associate pastors and I began repeating those familiar words of institution… do this in remembrance of me… take this, eat, and be thankful… the same words we’ll share together here in just a few moments, words not totally dissimilar to those that have been spoken at countless other celebrations of the Lord’s Supper over the centuries.

And yes, that man was right: this was certainly not the kind of communion you’d likely find in a church sanctuary, the prayers certainly weren’t as formal as you might speak them in a traditional worship service, and, trust me, sharing the bread and cup certainly didn’t taste like communion as you’d receive it on a typical Sunday morning!  But then, in the midst of it all, I looked up and realized why none of this mattered:  the husband and wife had joined their hands and were deep in prayer, most certainly sensing the presence of a loving, caring, healing Lord who had already been with them through so much and would remain close in whatever was yet to come.  Truly, in the breaking of the bread and in the sharing of the cup, the remembered him and his peace… and his hope… and his comfort… and his healing… and his love.  By any measure, I can tell you that it “worthy” of the sacrament, and it was a sacred moment indeed.

As the song goes, “there’s grace to be found in the bread and the wine.”  I hope and pray that as once we again come to this sacred table that we’ll remember; so that we might truly experience all that our Lord has to give us by his presence and love.

So might it be, and may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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“For As Often As You Eat This Bread…”

communion 2016a(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!


c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry



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