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Weekly Communion

June 27, 1999 / 1 Cor. 11:17ff

One of the most moving communion services of my life was in a Moscow apartment with eight people in 1991. Three Christian women, two Christian men, and a man who was my interpreter had met for worship in the flat of a graphic artist. When the women learned I was a teacher, they asked me to present a lesson from Scripture. I immediately agreed to do so and asked that everyone get a Bible and turn to Philippians 2:6-11. Just as we were turning pages to my text, two more women knocked and came inside.

There were introductions by one lady whom everyone in the little group knew to her first-time visitor. She was a dancer who had once performed at the famous Bolshoi. She was no longer dancing professionally and recently had been having serious talks with her Christian friend. She had come that night to ask a question of the members of that little all-female church. "May I be baptized and join your group?" she asked.

They were all overjoyed and began to hug Galina. Tears were flowing. Our hostess suggested that I proceed with the lesson I was preparing to teach, and she would begin running water into the oversized tub in her bathroom. So I taught a simple lesson about Jesus and explained how God became man in order to save lost humanity. Galina listened more intently than anyone in the room and cried as I explained the event and meaning of the cross.

I closed my teaching by affirming the decision she had announced to the group and leading a prayer for God to give her spiritual strength for the journey before her.

Seven of us then crowded into the bathroom to see an eighth person immersed in water in the name of Jesus Christ.

Shortly we gathered again in the living room. A plate with bread crust torn from a loaf of bread and a decanter of wine were set on the table, and the lady in whose apartment we were distributed both to her guests.

We ate ó and our hearts were filled.

That winter night in Russia was like many experiences of the Lordís Supper across the centuries. Only a few people were present, yet we sensed we were part of a fellowship of saints that circled the globe and spanned the centuries. We ate and drank very small amounts of bread and wine, yet we understood that we were being nourished by the shared experience of Christ. In that precious time, we were neither male nor female, Russian nor American, for we were keenly aware of being one in Christ (cf. Gal. 3:28).

Today I will eat bread and drink wine with hundreds of you in this place and sense our fellowship with all the saints, be nourished by our sharing of Christ, and affirm that we are one in him. It is "holy communion" we share at his table.

Coming to His Table


Did you ever wonder why the lunch counter became such a focal point for and symbol of the civil rights movement in the 1960s? It was because sharing food with others has always been understood as an act of acceptance, inclusion, incorporation within the group. Similarly, to be denied the right to eat with someone is to be excluded, disenfranchised, shut out.

Scripture reflects the view that sharing a meal affirms friendship and often reflects the custom of ancient cultures that covenants were concluded and affirmed at a table fellowship (cf. Gen. 26:30; 31:54, et al.). The beloved Psalm 23 offers this climax of blessedness to those who know and walk with the Lord: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies" (Psa. 23:5a).

One of the metaphors used in the New Testament for the final destiny of the redeemed is a picture of them sitting with Christ at a great banquet table. Thus the words of Jesus: "I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 8:11; cf. Luke 14:15; Isa. 25:6).

The discipline the early church was to inflict on its unruly and rebellious members included refusing to eat meals with them. In the midst of a crisis of immorality among them, Paul ordered the Christians at Corinth: "But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat" (1 Cor. 5:11). Refusing to eat with these recalcitrant rebels in their midst would signify to them that they were no longer accepted and approved by the believing community (cf. 1 Cor. 5:12-13).

Precisely because table fellowship was understood to mean acceptance and inclusion, one of the most radical things Jesus did during his personal ministry was to share meals with "outsiders" to the religious Establishment of his day. For eating with them, his Establishment critics correctly judged that he was accepting them into his fellowship. So they murmured, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:1). They patronized him and insulted him for it. Jesus knew of their criticisms and said, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ĎHere is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."í But wisdom is proved right by her actions" (Matt. 11:19).

Remarkably, there is no indication that the people Jesus invited to his table ever thumbed their noses at the people who were critical of them or of Jesus for receiving them. They seem to have been totally absorbed with his presence. Neither did they take their acceptance by the Lord Jesus as permission to continue with whatever there was in their lives that was outside Godís will. Their time in his table fellowship became the occasion of opening themselves to be fully revealed in his presence. Unfeigned and exposed before his perfect holiness, their time of self-examination gave them the opportunity to refocus their own futures.

Eating and Drinking With Jesus


There are so many things about the Lordís Supper that are "accidental," that donít really matter. Use wine or grape juice. Let the bread be unleavened or pieces from an ordinary loaf. Serve the bread first, or the wine. Use a single container of wine, or distribute the fruit of the vine in individual cups. Have separate prayers for the two elements, or have one prayer and pass both simultaneously. Have the worshipers come to the bread and wine, or distribute the elements among the worshipers. I have participated in communion in all these ways ó without ever feeling "cheated" of its content or meaning. Details such as these are not of the essence of the event.

Then there are other features of the Lordís Supper that have been debated among Christians. For example, although the Lord Jesus instituted it on a Thursday night, most Christians today hold that it is especially associated with Sunday ó the day of the resurrection and the day on which the church was established. But does anyone have the right to restrict its observance to Sunday and to say that its celebration on another day of the week is sinful? The Bible itself makes no such declaration. By what right would we presume to do so?

There is the controversy over the frequency of communion. Scholars of all backgrounds agree that the textual and historical evidence point to regular weekly observance of the Lordís Supper by the earliest believers. Their plenary assemblies on Sunday were not principally for preaching and teaching but for the eating of the Lordís Supper (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:17-22). Again, however, one is hard pressed to make a case that one sins by monthly or quarterly observance of this communion rather than weekly participation. Where is the biblical precedent for such a judgment?

In the Middle Ages, the communal and body-affirming event of the Lordís Supper was transformed into the personal and private Mass. On the one hand, that unfortunate move turned the Lordís Supper into a "power event" for the clergy. One person chose to give or deny the presence of Christ with an individual wafer set upon or withheld from another individualís tongue. The New Testament calls for self-examination, not other-examination in communion. "A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup," said Paul at 1 Corinthians 11:28. It is not my prerogative to decide to admit you to Christís table, nor yourís to exclude me. Christ alone is the judge of us all.

The church of the Middle Ages further denied the unity of the body of Christ that is affirmed in the Lordís Supper by separating "clergy" from "laity" in the altered and corrupted event. By reserving the cup to the clergy alone, the body of Christ was dis-membered rather than re-membered in communion.

One of the significant assertions of the Reformation was that the Lordís Supper was to be returned to its more inclusive, more biblical form. Communion would again be a time for self-examination at a communal meal before the Lord. As to frequency, both Calvin and Luther pleaded for the practice of regular weekly communion. Zwingli argued instead for quarterly celebration of the Lordís Supper, believing that the meal would become too commonplace and ultimately trivial if taken every week. Although I grant the legitimacy of Zwingliís fear, experience since the Reformation tends to argue the reverse ó that churches observing communion less frequently tend to value it less.

In our own Restoration Movement heritage, there is a high value placed on the Lordís Supper. Moving even further than the Reformation Movement had, its early leaders insisted that communion was not the possession of the clergy. They would not tolerate making it into a private Mass. Neither would they hear to the "examination of candidates" to decide who would come to the Lordís table. They protested the use of tokens that insured a closed communion (i.e., closed to all but those who had been examined, approved, and granted a physical token that gave admission to special communion services) that reserved the Lordís Supper to a local churchís members only or to those of oneís own denomination. All who have been born again of water and the Spirit, they insisted, should be welcome whenever the table of the Lord is prepared for the communion meal. And that is true here today and every Lordís Day. This is Christís table to which we have been invited by grace, not our table to which we admit or from which we exclude you.

Conclusion


You and I have been called to the table of the Lord today. This means that we have been invited to rejoice in the acceptance and fellowship such an invitation entails. Responding to that invitation, let us take off our "masks" and stand revealed in the pure light of divine holiness. Unfeigned and exposed before our Lord, we examine ourselves in penitence and leave the table cleansed, nourished, and reassured that we have been accepted in him.

Keeping the communion event alive, fresh, and meaningful in a tradition that observes the Lordís Supper weekly is a challenge. In the Woodmont Hills Church, we try to vary the setting for it constantly in order to keep it from becoming predictable and stale. Some weeks we frame the bread and wine with simple readings from Scripture ó perhaps the account of Jesusí original instruction to his apostles (Matt. 26:17ff; Mark 14:12ff; Luke 22:7ff) or Paulís recounting of that event as delivered to him (1 Cor. 11:17ff). On other Sundays we invite people to share their personal testimonies about Christ or their place in Christís body signified to us in the bread and wine. At still other times we use music as the primary means to carry us into the meaning of communion.

As we have reflected today on the practice of weekly communion in our heritage, I have chosen to lead you to the table of our Lord with a responsive communion service that has its theological roots in the New Testament and historical precedent that traces all the way back to the second Christian century. My hope is that it will help make this dayís experience of the bread and wine significant in these few moments together and give you a sense of being nourished by the Lord for the challenges that lie ahead for you this week.

So please follow the readings that will appear on the screens before you, reading in unison the sections marked with the word "Church" . . .

Please stand together as the assembled Body of Christ for these readings.

Leader: It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn to the glory of your Name:

Church:

Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest!

Leader: Lift up your hearts.

Church: We lift them to the Lord!

Leader: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

Church: It is right to give him thanks and praise!

Leader: Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself. And, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.

Church:

He stretched out his arms upon the cross,
He offered himself, in obedience to your will,
A perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

Leader: On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread. When he had given thanks to you, Father, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

After supper he took the cup of wine. When he had given thanks, he gave it to his disciples and said, "Drink this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you. Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me."

Therefore we join to proclaim the mystery of faith:

Church:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen!
Christ will come again!

Leader: We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we humble ourselves before you.

Sanctify the bread and wine by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the body and blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of our new and unending life in him.

Church:

Sanctify us also
That we may faithfully receive this Communion
And serve you in unity, fidelity, and peace.
At the end of life,
Bring us with all your saints
Into the joy of your everlasting kingdom.

Leader: All this we ask through your Son Jesus Christ ó in the unity of your indwelling Holy Spirit and to your glory, now and forever.

Church: Amen.

Please be seated, as the servers prepare to pass the bread among us.

Leader: In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, we accept the bread of heaven. We take it and eat it in remembrance that Jesus has died for us. And we feed our spirits on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving, as we eat this bread. Amen.

The bread is passed and eaten by the church.

Leader: In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, we accept the cup of our salvation, the blood of Christ. We take it and drink it in remembrance that our Saviorís blood was shed for us. And we are thankful. Amen.

The cup is passed and drunk by the church.

When all have been served, ask all to stand and to pray in unison . . .

Church:

Eternal God, our Father in heaven,
You have graciously accepted us
As living members of your Son,
Our Savior Jesus Christ.
And you have fed us with spiritual food
In the Communion of his body and blood.
Send us now into the world in peace,
And grant us strength and courage
To love you and to serve our neighbors
With gladness and singleness and heart;
To do the work you have given us to do;
To bear faithful witness to our Savior,
By both word and deed.
Through Christ our Lord,
Amen.

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