Sermon Title: Communion: Why Do We Do It?
(Preached at Martin Luther King Community Presbyteerian Church, Springfield, MA)
(Preached at Martin Luther King Community Presbyteerian Church, Springfield, MA)
Before I get started on the text this morning there are a few things I want to share with you, so those of you who time the sermon don't start yet, I'm just talking right now. I have been retired now for 3 ½ years and two months ago at Valley Presbyterian was the first time I preached since retiring. After preaching over 2000 sermons, and being responsible for leading worship more times than that it has been a real blessing to be able to sit in the congregation and participate in worship in a very different way than I experienced as the worship leader. I realized after preaching at Valley that I was ready to preach again, not every Sunday, but once in a while, and so I was glad to accept Rev. Sylver's invitation to bring the sermon this morning. I do want you to know that it has been a very special blessing to worship in this congregation. I spent the first 23 years of my ordained ministry as pastor of an African American Presbyterian Church and in the 19 years since I have missed the unique experience of participating of soul filled, spirit filled worship without the tyranny of the clock. When I was asked to preach at Valley I asked what time the service began and the worship chairwoman told be we worship from 10 to 11 am. It was quite clear that Church didn't expect to finish at 11:05, much less noon or after.
It has been a special blessing to be a part of this particular congregation, there is a real spirit of love, welcoming and caring here. You have one fine Pastor in Rev Sylver and I have seen major growth in his preaching and leadership in the time he has been here. I have told her personally many times but I want to say it publicly today: Evenus and the spiritual voices have been a huge blessing and to me and to the entire congregation. I have worked with a great number of musicians over my ministry, some classically trained in universities and some self taught, a few have been as good as Evenus, but no one has been any better. Evenus has the holy ghost in her hands and in her voice and in her soul and she has really raised the worship in this congregation to a new level of spirituality. I have been blessed to be a part of this fellowship for these last 3 ½ years and I hope this morning that I can be a blessing to you.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the mediations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer, AMEN.
Today is World Communion Sunday, a special time when a large number of Protestant Churches celebrate communion on the same Sunday as an expression of our unity in one common faith. It seems on this occasion it is appropriate to spend some time considering the meaning of the Communion, or the Lord's Supper as it is also called. We know that we do it every first Sunday in this and many Presbyterian Churches, many Churches, including some Presbyterian Churches celebrate the Lord's Supper every Sunday, while there are Churches that celebrate this sacrament only a few times a year. The question however is not how often we celebrate the sacrament but why do we do it? What does it mean? What blessings can we receive by participating in the sacrament? How did it start in the first place?
Although we usually think of the communion in terms of the Last Supper I believe that the true origin of the sacrament can be found in the feeding of the multitudes. We read Mark's record of on of these holy meals in the wilderness and we see that Jesus took bread and gave thank to God, and broke it and gave it to them. This is exactly the same thing that he did at the Last Supper, and which he did repeatedly with his disciples in a variety of settings. These meals they shared together were fellowship meals, they were a time when those who ate enjoyed communion with Jesus and with one another. They came closer together because they ate together, because they broke bread together. So we say this is the family meal of the people of God, the Joyful feast of the people of God, anticipating the time when people will come from east and west and north and south to sit at table in kingdom of God.
Eating together is a holy thing. In our modern times when we seem so busy that we can't find time to sit down together for family meals we are missing something terribly important. There is scientific research to show us that children who regularly sit down with their families for dinner are better adjusted, do better in school and have better and more stable families and relationships in later life than those children who missed this opportunity.
Sitting down together, Breaking bread together, brings us together in a different way that simply meeting together for a meeting or conversation. There is a certain intimacy that develops when we share a meal together. If you want to develop a deeper relation with some one, either a friendship relationship or a romantic relation isn't it common to do so by eating together. Lets have coffee together, lets get together for a drink, lets go out to dinner, or most intimately, would you come to my house and we will have dinner together. This seems to be true across cultures, meal hospitality is almost universally a means of establishing deeper relationships. When Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested for breaking into his own home there was such a great uproar nationally about the racism involved in this incident that the president invited professor Gates and the policeman who arrested him to come to the White House, not just to talk, but to have a beer together and to experience reconciliation
At First Church Hartford we had dinner groups of eight or ten people would come together six times a year and have a potluck meal in one member's home. This was done to promote unity, fellowship, within in the small group. I asked one of of our African Members why she never signed up to participate in one of these groups and she told me that with her background as an African American of her generation she couldn't imagine going into a white person's home for dinner. She had gone to school with white people, she worked with white people, she went to Church with white people, she was able to eat with white people at Church or even to go out to lunch with white people but she said, “I have never put my feet under a white man's table.” Well we remedied that before too long because she simply could not refuse her pastor's invitation to have dinner with us and a few other friends at our home and that broke down the barrier and she was able then to enjoy participating in other meals in the homes of Church members. That is how intimate it can be to break bread together.
These meals in the wilderness and on other occasions as Jesus broke bread with his followers were not only fellowship meals, but they were also holy meals, they were worshipful meals. In some mysterious way they were holy sacramental meals. They not only brought people into a relationship with one another and with Jesus who hosted the meals, but somehow they brought the participants into fellowship with God. In these meals in the wilderness people were lifted into the presence of the holy, the almighty, they knew they were in the presence of a loving God. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus spoke about one of these wilderness meals and said: “I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “Those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty.”
The resurrection Church continued these fellowship meals as a substitute for the sacrificial temple worship which they had participated in before becoming Jesus people.
It is important then for us to remember that what Jesus said about worship. In the sermon on the mount Jesus warned his followers that it was not possible to truly enter into worship when you are not in a right relationship with your fellow worshipers. He said in Matthew 5 (23) So if you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, (24) leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God.
That was the problem with the Corinthian Church. They came together for worship and the Lord's Supper but their fellowship was broken by divisions and factions. There were hard feelings and resentments in the congregation, and when they ate it was not a common meal they shared, but each family or friendship group had their separate meals, so some were well fed and even drank too much, and others were hungry. It wasn't a family meal, but it was more like a tailgating event when one group is grilling steaks, another is having ribs, while some others are having hot dogs, and some nothing but a peanut butter sandwich. There was no true fellowship in the place.
Now I have had enough experience in Churches including this Church to know that we are not all united with one another, all of us are not of one heart and mind. I don't know who I am talking about but I am sure there are at least two people here in this sanctuary who are not speaking to one another. I want to make a suggestion to you this morning that can revolutionize your experience of communion. If there is some one here this morning whom you have hurt in some way, some one whom you know has resentment in their heart toward you I think before you come to communion you should go to that person and apologize to them. You could do it during the invitation this morning, not some day, not tomorrow or next month, but this morning during the invitation you could go to that person and apologize to them. And if there is some one here who has hurt you, some one you hold resentment toward you could go to that person and offer them your forgiveness. I'm not saying you have to, but you could even come together to the altar this morning and let the preachers and elders pray for you together, right now, this morning, before you come to receive the bread and the wine.
That is the first thing I want to say about communion this morning is that it is a holy fellowship meal, the joyful feast of the people of God, the family meal of God's family.
But secondly at the Last Supper Jesus made this last fellowship meal that he had with his closest friends a teaching occasion. This was the time of the passover, the first three gospel writers say it was a passover meal, while John says it was the night before the passover and that Jesus was crucified at the same time that the lambs were sacrificed for the passover meal. Which ever it was it was the season of the passover, they were in Jerusalem for the passover and the passover was on every mind and heart at the table. It the passover meal the foods on the table have symbolic meanings that help people to remember that night of nights when Israel went forth from slavery into freedom. The bitter herbs remind them of the bitterness of slavery; the salt water reminds them of the tears they had shed; and the lamb reminds them that on that night of the exodus every family sacrificed a lamb which they ate that night. They marked their doors with the blood of the lamb and when the death angel came sweeping through the cities of Egypt striking dead the first born of all the families of Egypt the death angel passed over the homes and families whose doors were marked with the blood of the lamb.
So Jesus took bread and used it as a new symbol to teach those present that night, and to remind those who like us who participate later the meaning of what was going to happen the following day. Jesus knew that he would be betrayed that very night and that on the next morning he would be tried and condemned to death. He knew that they would beat his, slap him in the face and take out the cat of nine tails and whip his back until it was raw and bleeding, he knew that they would take a crown of thorns and press it onto his head until the blood came flowing down his face. He knew they were going to take him out to Golgotha and nail him to the cross and hang him up to die, bleeding from his head and hands and feet, and when he died he knew they would pierce his side and the water and the blood would flow mingled down. He knew that when his disciples saw his body literally broken, and his blood shed they were going to look on what they saw as the triumph of evil, the destruction of everything that had been accomplished by his ministry. He wanted then to understand, and he wants us to remember that his death was a willing sacrifice he was making for the salvation of the world. He said this is my body, broken, my body broken for you. Eat this in remembrance of me. He took the last cup of wine and said this is my blood of the new covenant shed for you, and for many for the remission of sins, drink this in remembrance of me.
We celebrate the Lord's supper to remember Jesus, to remember his life, to remember his sacrificial death and to remember his glorious resurrection. Yes to remember his resurrection, for death could not hold him captive, the grave couldn't hold hold him prisoner but on the third day he rose again from the dead. And on that afternoon, and on several other occasions as he appeared in his resurrection body he broke bread and his friends had their eyes opened and they recognized him in the breaking of bread. In the Lord's supper we experience a holy fellowship meal, we remember Jesus, his life, his death and his resurrection.
And that brings me to the final significance of the Lord's supper: that when we break bread together we experience the real presence of the risen Christ. Communion is a time when by God's grace, if we allow it to happen, our eyes can be opened and we can recognize the presence of Jesus in the breaking of the bread, just as the two did who walked the road to Emmaus. Communion is a fellowship meal, but it is more than a fellowship meal, it is a meal of remembrance but it is more than a meal of remembrance; it is both of those things, but it is also a time when we can be lifted into the real presence of the risen Christ. It is a time when we can feed on Christ in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. Jesus told us that whenever even two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of you. But communion is this multiplied. In a powerful way Jesus in present in the Lord's Supper. The majority of Christians are in agreement that Christ is present in the Lord's Supper what we cannot all agree on is how he is present. The Roman Church and many others would locate the presence of Christ in the bread and the wine, while I believe with many Protestants that Christ is present in the occasion. Christ is our host, Christ is our food, Christ is present in the sanctuary, Christ is present in our fellowship, and Christ is alive and present in our hearts so that we can say with those who met him on the Emmaus road, did not our hearts burn within us when he spoke to us and opened the scriptures? May our eyes be opened to Jesus Christ this morning.
The doors of the Church are opened, and we invite those who desire to unite with this Church, or those who wish to draw closer to the risen Christ, and those who desire prayer because they have been reconciled with estranged brothers and sisters to come forward as we sing together.