I had a chance to do the communion message today. I wasn’t sure what to talk about, though, since I hadn’t really thought about communion for some time. I’ve participated in it, sure, like I have nearly every week of my life as a baptized Christian, but I’ve struggled with its significance and its impact on my life (not the necessity for it, just how I need to approach it, because I feel I had not been taking it seriously for years).
Communion is very important in our particular “faith tribe”, and is performed every Sunday, but only Sundays. Evening services were created back during WWII so those who worked Sunday mornings could go to church in the evenings and take communion then. If you missed communion, it could be brought to you, or you could partake in a small group setting. I grew up with the impression that if you missed communion for any reason other than sickness, you’ve messed up somehow. You showed up on Sunday to take communion.
On one hand, this mindset is okay. It says, I take this new covenant very seriously, and I desire a weekly memorial of why Jesus came to earth for me and why I am a part of this congregation of believers. The early Christians desired this, too, and, according to Acts, came together weekly to break bread and pray together, Jew and Gentile alike.
On the other hand, if you’re not careful, it becomes just another church ritual that you check off every week. I’ve felt like this for a long time, and even though I was happy to be asked to bring a communion message (me, or my husband, or both of us — however we wanted to do it), I was a little terrified that my message would be fraudulent, spoken from the mouth of someone who’d merely been going through the motions for years.
But maybe I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. So, I figured, why not get down to the nuts and bolts of it? This little morsel of bread and sip of juice that we do every week is a tiny remnant from Jesus’ last Passover feast with his apostles. I’ve heard 1 Cor 11:23-32 repeated verbatim every week in one congregation we attended years ago. Don’t get me wrong; that’s an important passage. It makes you think. I also used to almost have my dad’s communion reading memorized. I know the story from years of hearing it read or repeated from memory over the plates before they were passed, but when was the last time I really thought about it?
So, I did what comes easiest to me: I wrote a story and read it aloud. Here it is:
Once upon a time, a certain Jewish man and twelve of his dearest students and friends sat down to eat a meal that they had participated in once a year, every year for most of their remembered lives. These twelve friends had been traveling with this man, their Teacher, for months, enduring hardships of all kinds. He taught them a new way to treat people, and a new way to view God and His Law. At first it was difficult to believe that this lowly man was more than another prophet sent from God to predict the Messiah, but hearing him speak and seeing his signs made the truth undeniable — this man was the Savior.
And he was going to die.
He had told them this, himself, several times leading up to this meal. They knew from the prophets. But they still had so much to learn! Surely the Father would let him stay around longer. He had said he was to be crucified. Surely he was speaking figuratively again. How could God allow his Son to die in such a cruel, humiliating way? Wouldn’t that just discredit everything he had taught? Crucifixion was for criminals.
As their Teacher spoke to them while they ate this ritual supper, he changed some things. He wouldn’t drink the wine, instead telling them to share it amongst themselves. He broke the bread, gave thanks as was customary, handed it to them, and said, “This is my body.”
Wait, hadn’t they heard him say this before? The Pharisees had fits over it. Those literal perfectionists weren’t used to his figurative speech.
“Broken for you.”
…Because he had a habit of speaking figuratively.
“Do this in remembrance of me.”
For decades they had participated in this meal. It was a pinnacle of their religion. But their rabbi was asking them to change the focus of their ritual.
Do this, my friends, not to remember something God commanded your ancestors to do, but someone who is with you right now. Someone you will miss. Someone who loves you and who has been patient with your tempers and slow understanding, who has spent nearly every waking moment with you while we traveled all over and preached new, wonderful, dangerous things to a needy world. Listen up now, my dear friends. This is an important moment.
How silent might they have been at this point, waiting for what comes next? After their supper, Jesus picked up a cup and said in his familiar, figurative speech, “This cup represents a new covenant, established in my blood.” Not the blood of the sacrifice on Mt. Sinai, when Moses sprinkled the people standing before him, sealing the covenant making them God’s people. “It is shed for the forgiveness of sins. For many. For you.”
Not a week would pass before they would understand these words fully. They would see their friend die in the worst possible way. They would see his followers, even his dearest friends, betray him, desert him…deny him. Terrible signs would mark his passing, as if Creation, itself, were grieving. But they would not see him fly off that cross and make a show of forgiving the world. No angels came down to retrieve his body and take it up to heaven, to show these unbelievers how wrong they were to kill him. This was a disaster.
And then, a short time later, it wasn’t. He showed himself to few, and then to many — risen, resurrected, just as he and the prophets foretold.
Passover would never be the same again.
And then I read Jeremiah 31:31-34:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
I said a few more things, and left out some things I wanted to say, but overall I think it went well. It sure was harder to read than to write. My voice was already wavering in the first paragraph. But it helped me get back to basics, and remember why our teeny little version of the critical covenant ritual is so crucial to our religious lives. It’s a faint shadow of what it used to be, and possibly of things to come. It’s a moment of grief and rejoicing, not just rote doctrine, not just cerebral reflection. There are some “big feelings” attached to it that I can barely handle if I think about it too deeply — and that may be why I just never thought about it too deeply. I’m thankful I had the chance to dig into it and share it with others in my church family when we met together for that reason.
I didn’t know what I would feel like bringing an actual message to the congregation, up front, like someone with some form of authority on the subject. That opportunity had never been extended to me before in such a venue. I’d often wondered what it would be like to do such a thing, and whether I could remain humble. How I felt was similar to Paul’s feelings in 1 Cor 2:1-5. Not that I equate myself to Paul, or even think I wasn’t trying to be wise on the subject, but the only “eloquence” I managed was written beforehand. Anything I said outside of that fell out of my mouth in an understandable way only by the grace of God. 🙂 Fortunately, my husband was doing the praying and the offering thought. God blessed me with a great partner. 🙂