The Rev. Dianne O’Connell
March 3, 2013
Maltby Congregational Church
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Good morning. Today is the first Sunday of the month, Communion Sunday. I understand that this will be only the second time that you, as a congregation, have used this particular Order of Service for Communion. So if everything goes smoothly, we’ll thank the Lord, and if not, we’ll smile and do better next time.
What’s so important about coming together over a bite of bread and a sip of wine, anyway? Sermon after sermon has been written about the significance of communion, some of the focusing on some pretty insignificant aspects, to my way of thinking. Great debates have raged over what the bread and wine represent or become, how they are presented, who may serve it, how it is served, the frequency of it, what is said and by whom, in what state of mind the person receiving communion must be, and what it actually means to the individual Christian as he or she partakes of the bread and the wine, or grape juice or water. The one thing that all Christians do agree on, I think, is that we all set aside a portion of our worship time to share in this ritual meal in some manner. Why? Because our Lord said do to do! "Do this in remembrance of me!"
There are seven sacraments in Roman Catholic tradition, but in the Protestant way of worship, only two: Communion, also called the Lord’s Supper, and Baptism -- both rites conducted by Jesus himself. Both are designed to bring us closer to God and to recognize us as members of the Family of God.
Christians, at least a good many of them, I think, find so much comfort and strength from Communion that without it, they feel lost and disconnected. We speak of being "fed at the table, fed a spiritual food" that carries us along the next leg of our life journeys.
The Psalmist expressed some of this emotion in the reading this morning: "God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you…Your steadfast love is better than life… My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast..."
The Lenten Season, the weeks leading up to Good Friday and Easter, is a good time to reflect on the origins and meaning of our most central worship practices. The Christian communion service, for instance, is a weekly, for some daily, re-enactment of what the Gospels tell us happened at the Last Supper – “the night before Jesus was betrayed and crucified.”
Remember that Jesus was Jewish. He was in Jerusalem with his disciples, in part, to celebrate the Passover. Therefore, it is highly probable that the Thursday evening (Maundy Thursday) dinner that he shared with his friends was a Seder, the Jewish ritual meal served in remembrance of the Hebrew people’s deliverance from Egypt and from Pharoah.
“Let my people go,” Moses had commanded Pharoah. And Pharoah did not. In punishment, God passed through Egypt taking the firstborn children of both men and animals. But God had earlier directed the Hebrews to paint the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a sacrificed lamb. Homes with such blood, were “passed over” that night, their children spared. Jewish families have gathered generation after generation to remember and give thanks for the Lord’s protection that night. They break bread and drink wine and pray in remembrance of their deliverance in the sure knowledge that God will continue to travel with them and protect them.
Jesus and the men and women who gathered with him the night before Jesus was arrested and killed were also facing down Pharaoh – only this time not an Egyptian Pharaoh, but rather a Roman one. Jesus knew that if he persisted in challenging the political and religious authorities in Jerusalem, they would eventually get him, kill him. But tonight, he and his friends would eat together one last time; they would share stories of their time together; and he would reassure them that he would be with them always, no matter what happened.
The Jewish people had been coming together over ritual meals – or sometimes all out feasts– for generations, perhaps for all time, to mark special occasions. The passage from Isaiah this morning, gives us a glimpse of how those occasions were supposed to be:
“Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price… I will make with you an everlasting covenant…Let the wicked forsake their ways, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”
Do some of the ideas sound familiar? Everyone who thirsts, regardless of economic standing, may come to the table; God is making an unbreakable promise, an everlasting covenant; sinners must forsake their ways, in other words, Repent; and God will forgive abundantly.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 10, the Apostle Paul attempts to make a connection between the Old and the New Testament understandings:
“I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.
Then in Chapter eleven, Paul addresses first century issues around what had become communion. For one thing, he admonishes the Corinthians to clean up their act a bit. Apparently, they’ve been sharing sacred meals together, all right, but there has been a lack of etiquette at the Lord’s Table, and perhaps, a lack of spiritual preparation.
“Wait for one another, if you are that hungry, eat at home before you come,” Paul counsels.
“A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup,” Paul adds. “Do not participate in an unworthy manner.”
Confession is good for the soul, somebody’s grandmother once said. The Roman Catholics had institutionalized the process when we Protestants came along and said, “No priest need stand between us and God. We can handle our own Confession, thank you very much.”
I believe this is true, we can, but do we? As we prepare to “take communion” perhaps we should take this confession part, repentance, if you will, more seriously. Each reading this morning speaks not only of God’s abundant grace and love, but also of the need for us to come clean and own up to our own shortcomings.
Let’s listen to the Parable of the Fig Tree from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus say6s:
“Unless you repent, you will all perish.”
Thien he tells a story: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?
But the gardener loves the fig tree. He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
We aren’t told if the fig tree comes through the next year, but we assume so. Whole sermons are written on the “God of Second Chances” based on this Scripture.
The idea of second chances, repentance, forgiveness, was not new with the Jews and the Christians. Anthropologists would remind us that the Pagan community had traditions which were, on the surface, similar. Ceremonial meals involving real and symbolic blood, death and resurrection rituals welcoming spring were familiar to everyone. But Jesus, and the Apostle Paul, were not celebrating spring – they were Jews, steeped in the traditions of their forefathers. And the Jewish way of worship almost always included self-examination, repentance, forgiveness, prayers of thanksgiving, and special foods prepared in special ways.
The early Christians had a special place for food in their gatherings, as well. The Christian gathering almost always included a potluck, in fact, the potluck or “agape, love feast” was the worship service – also serving as a social action program. The program provided both religious fellowship as well as charity for the poor and the widows of the community. Guests, you see, were encouraged to take home the leftovers at the end of the meal.
The early Christian agape meals looked a lot like the traditional Jewish family formal dinner, frankly. The family or group of friends would gather for supper, before sundown, at home or other suitable house. After preliminary hors d’oevres, including wine, the company reclined or sat at a table for the main meal.
The head of the group formally began the meal by praying over the bread which was then broken and distributed, giving thanks to God. During the meal, conversation, though possibly upbeat, was devoted to religious topics. The Last Supper of Jesus may have been much like this, if not an actual Passover meal.
But by the second century, the agape meal had pretty much been superseded in the church by the Eucharist, a memorial to the Lord’s Passion during Holy Week. Eucharist is Greek for “thanksgiving.” Here, in the Roman Catholic understanding, the bread of life becomes the real body of Christ, and the wine becomes the actual blood, symbolizing the Blood of the Sacrificial Lamb of the Exodus and the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God of the new covenant. Protestants, on the other hand, see and understand these things as symbols.
The concept of the Communion of Saints also grew in the early church. This is a way of looking at Communion that, for me, brings a lot of spiritual meaning. It’s not just us, those sitting in this particular sanctuary, who are about to remember our Lord through the breaking of bread and drinking the wine. It’s all Christians, perhaps all people, the living and the dead, those on earth and in heaven, those who are yet to come – the whole “mystical body” of Christ through time – sharing at the Lord’s Table. Christ is with us at this moment and so are they. It’s a joyful, yet solemn, time together.
Each of us experiences the Lord’s Supper a bit differently, I suppose, based on our religious upbringing and our developing understandings. But I would offer today that as we prepare to break bread together, we recognize our need for repentance, a desire to make amends, do better, love our neighbor and our God, to live lives worthy of being members of the Family of God.
And, as we drink the wine of the New Covenant, let us also recognize that God is a God of Love. A God of Grace, a God who offers abundant second chances, a God who presides over the family table, calling us all, each one of his prodigal children, to join in the family feast. Amen.
Would the Servers come forward, please?