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By Stuart Grant in Sermons
A sermon preached on Sunday, July 4, 2010.HOLY COMMUNION.
Luke 22: 1 - 23
Today being a Communion Sunday, I decided to spend this time sharing some thoughts with you about this ritual meal we will share together later in the service: the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, as it's called. (Eucharist means thanksgiving).
Once a month in Methodist churches we gather around the communion table; we pray a prayer of thanksgiving, we hear the words of institution (I prefer "the story of the last supper). And we share a ritual meal: little pieces of bread, a sip of grape juice, or sometimes actual wine.
We do this to bring to mind what happened, according to the New Testament accounts, on the night Jesus was betrayed. As our reading this morning we have heard St. Luke's version of the story, which was probably the last of the three to be written down. Mark and Matthew came first. John's Gospel doesn't have the story at all. And the very first reference to the Lord's Supper in the New Testament is to be found in Paul's first letter to the Christians at Corinth, Chapter 11.
I chose the rather long passage from Luke's Gospel in order to set the story in its context of the plot to kill Jesus, and the preparation of the Passover meal. The Passover was, and of course still is, the major festival of the Jewish religion. As they partake this ritual meal, Jews recall, - that is, they bring in to the present, the story of the how their ancestors began their long journey out of slavery in Egypt, and on into the promised land and freedom.
There are strong connections between the Christian Holy Communion and the Jewish Passover. In the Communion, we too try to recall, bring into the present, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.
As I thought about the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and as I read from various sources, I was reminded that it has many strands of meaning, - more than we could possibly cope with in the short time we have available in this brief time of worship. So I will offer you a few thoughts, - and you will hopefully be able to take from them what is most meaningful to you.
First, then, - what do we mean by a Sacrament?
The word itself, - sacrament, is significant. It comes from the Latin "sacramentum", meaning an oath of allegiance that Roman soldiers swore to the Emperor. So when we partake of Holy Communion we are effectively swearing allegiance to Jesus Christ.
A Sacrament is some thing that is filled with special meaning, - something that acts as a bridge or door to the sacred. It points beyond itself to something more. So this bread and wine which we can see and touch and hold in our hands, which we will eat and drink, are a means of making Christ present to us; a means of summing up his life and the meaning of his life, a means of nourishing our life and faith. There's a mystery about this ritual. In fact, in the early days of the Church it was called a mysterion; only later was that translated into sacrament, with its meaning of oath of allegiance.
And what about "Communion"? Let's think back to the words of our call to worship:
Living God, host and guest,
we await you in the household of hope.
Come to us, commune with us, connect us;
and, as we break bread together, make us true companions (that is, those who break bread together) with all who seek for meaning and truth, beauty and love.
So, very clearly, what we do when we gather at the Holy Table is something we do together. You can't celebrate Holy Communion alone. That would be a contradiction in terms.
Of course we are each of us individuals, - but our faith and our discipleship as Christians can never be just an individual, personal, private thing. We share life in Christ together. And I think there is something very moving about the way we come together, around the table, completely equal one with the other.
And we might well observe that in a society that in some respects seems to be growing increasingly individualistic, (What was it Mrs Thatcher once said: "There is no such thing as society"?), such things as communion with God and each other, companionship, connectedness, - these things really go against the tide. In some societies, gathering together for communion, offering allegiance to Jesus Christ might even be seen as subversive!
Let's remember too that the Holy Table around which we will gather is an open table. In the Methodist tradition, and in the tradition of other churches, but not all, - we say that Jesus himself is the host. As a church I believe we have no right to deny anyone the opportunity to come to the table.
That is why I sometimes use words of invitation like, "Come if you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more; come if you serve the Lord a little and want to serve him better."
Let's remember too some of the Gospel stories where Jesus shared meals with all kinds of people, particularly those who were regarded as being on the edges of polite society. Our fellowship is inclusive!
This is also in keeping with the tradition we inherit from John Wesley. In the 18th Century, contrary to the practice of the time, Wesley received communion frequently, - every few days. Anglicans of the time, - and he was of course and Anglican clergyman, - received the sacrament usually only at Christmas and Easter. Wesley saw the sacrament as an important means of communicating God's reconciling love. For him it summed up the whole Gospel. It was also important for him that no-one who wanted to receive should be excluded, because it could happen that someone might receive a powerful assurance of the love of God in the very act of receiving. This was the experience of his mother Susannah.
Each on our own way, we come to the table seeking communion with God, and we seek it through this sacrament following the tradition passed down to us by the earliest of Jesus' followers. We follow the command of Jesus, "Do this in remembrance of me."
It is not something we do in a holy huddle, something that remains within these four walls, something we forget about when we leave. Or at least it shouldn't be. The only pre-requisite of partaking should be that we are hungry. And having been fed, we're ready to go out to take our place in the world, as companions on the journey of life and faith.
And come back to "Do this in remembrance of me". On the face of it, this seems quire straightforward. We take part in the ritual meal in remembrance of Jesus. But it has been suggested that there's more to it than that. When Jesus took the bread, broke it and distributed it, and when he blessed the cup of wine and passed it to his friends, he was acting out how his body would be broken and his blood would be shed on the cross. The ultimate in self giving. But his whole life had been one of self giving. Could it be that he was really saying to his followers,
"Do this is remembrance of me", meaning,
"A life of self giving, a life of service, is the calling of all my followers" - so, "Do this, in remembrance of me."
And a final thought. It is not only bread and wine that can be a sacrament. Remember, a Sacrament is some thing that is filled with special meaning, - something that acts as a bridge or door to the sacred. It points beyond itself to something more. So in that sense anything can be a sacrament.
(During the service at which this sermon was first preached, a scientist shared with the congregation how his research into the human genome increased his sense of wonder at creation. Surely this could be described as a sacramental experience).
It might be something in nature, - a leaf, a flower, a tree, a rock.
It might be painting or a sculpture. It might be a piece of music - whether a great symphony or a simple tune. But we somehow experience "something more" in whatever it is, something that speaks to our sense of wonder and points us to the holy.
It might be that a fellow human being becomes a sacrament to us. Sometimes people relate the experience of seeing Christ in another person. That is a sacramental experience.
In fact, if we were to look at the whole creation in a sacramental way - that is, to treat the whole creation as holy, with reverence, - would not that be a powerful way of living?
I leave you with these thoughts as we prepare to gather at the holy table.
-- Rev. Stuart Grant.