“Eating At His Table”

Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21

Communion is serious business.

I have never seen my fellow pastors, normally kind and patient folks, get quite so upset as when there’s a Facebook fight, not even debate, but always fight, over communion.

People who I normally really respect get downright mean and nasty when there’s any question concerning communion. And most of our disagreements aren’t over matters spiritual, but physical, about process. 

Our fights about communion almost entirely center on what might seem like the least theologically important questions about communion, centering mostly around process- intinction, small cups, or common cup.

More mean and nasty things have been said about the fact that I find intinction to be a bit gross than any other theological opinion that I hold.

Upon reflection, I believe that although the questions surrounding communion are manifold, the form and process do matter.

They matter because one of functions of communion is that it acts as foretaste of the kingdom of heaven.  It is what we call a “sign”- a visible foretelling – of the heavenly banquet.

Because of this, everything from who can participate in communion, what happens during it, and what effects it has on us, matters.

The question of who should partake in communion is a particularly thorny one, and I’ll outline three views.  In many churches, communion is only for members of the denomination, or sometimes, the particular local church or parish. The priest or deacons will act as gatekeepers for communion, determining who can participate.

The congregational churches used to be like this, and currently, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and many conservative protestant groups.

On the other end, Christians, especially Methodists, but more and more progressive protestant churches no matter their heritage, have a different view.  They see communion as a “converting” sacrament, and that communion should be open to all people, whether or not they are baptized. They believe that the grace of God will work through communion to change the heart of the unbaptized, and make them want to become baptized.

They look at stories like our gospel story, the feeding of the five thousand, and note that none there were baptized, even though there’s some connection to be made there- the words that the Gospel writer uses to describe what happened –

“Jesus, therefore, took the loaves and, having given thanks, distributed them”…echo or are the same as the ones used to describe the last supper- indeed, they’re supposed to remind us of the last supper accounts we’ve read in the other gospels and help us to foreshadow and reimagine this miracle story in that same vein.

Our church takes a more moderate view: we celebrate what is called “open communion”, welcoming all baptized Christians to partake in the feast of Christ.

Baptism being a precursor to communion is part of the earliest traditions of the church; we have documents going back to the first and second centuries that tell us of this movement, from the fount to the table. 

The reason we do this does make sense, but it takes a little bit of explaining.

We need to go back to John Calvin, the protestant reformer who is most influential in our Reformed theology.

In his view, sacraments, those visible signs and public acts of God, are seals of the grace of God that already lives inside of us.

The grace must already be here, Calvin says- taking communion without faith is at best ineffective- eating a piece of bread and drinking a sip of juice.

The best metaphor for this might be cilantro.  To me, cilantro is fantastic- however, to those who don’t have certain genes, cilantro tastes like soap.

But to those who do have faith, communion causes us to remember and grow even closer to God and to each other, forging new bonds of love. This is why John Calvin called for weekly communion- just as Sunday dinners draw us closer to one another, so to does Communion draw us closer to Christ and to one another.

What actually happens during communion to the elements is another question that we have, and I suspect that if you ask five congregationalists, you might get 7 different answers.

Partly that’s because many of us grew up with different religious backgrounds: there’s an estimate that something like 40% of the United Church of Christ is formerly Roman Catholic. But even within folks who trace their theological heritage back through Protestantism there’s a variety of views.

The divergence in doctrine is something we can best understand thanks to former President Bill Clinton: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”

More specifically, in the words of institution, Jesus picks up the bread and says, “This is my body, given for you.”

The Roman Catholic church believes in what is called “transubstantiation”.  Basically, it says that the bread and the wine of communion become essentially- and this important- essentially- the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t mean that the bread actually turns to meat, or the wine becomes filled with hemoglobin. In that system, none of the physical properties of the bread and wine change- but the internal essence does.

If this seems nonsensical to us, that’s because it kind of is to us now.  Back when this theory was formulated though, it was based on the teachings of Aristotle- the best science of the day.

It would be like us using the works of Neil De Grasse Tyson and Quantum physics to describe how communion works.

In the protestant reformation, some folks decided that this was not necessarily the best way to think about theology. Unfortunately, however, we couldn’t come up with one way to understand communion: if we did, there might be a united protestant church today. 

The two major views held by reformed Christians were set out by Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin.

Zwingli and his followers looked at the words of institution, “This is my body, given for you…Do this in remembrance of me”, and said that the “is” was completely metaphorical.

For him, it is the second part of the phrase- Do this in remembrance of me- that tells us what we need to know about the first part of the phrase- This is my body.

This view, because it emphasizes the remembrance, is called “memorialism”, and in this view, we do communion in order to remember Christ, his sacrifice on the cross, and the love he has for us.

Calvin steers a middle course between these two definitions of is. 

He calls the Roman Catholic doctrine “superstitious” it’s belief that the bread and wine “become” the body and blood of Christ. 

Calvin says the key to understanding what happens at communion is for us to read not only the first part of the words of institution, but the second as well- Not only “this is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me,” but also “this cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.”

Calvin says that this is not a pure metaphor, nor is it to be read literally.  Instead, he identifies this as metonymy.

A Metonymy is a figure of speech that we use to substitute one thing for another in speech.  For example, We might say “The White House said today…” when speaking about the actions of the President or his staff making a point about something.  It doesn’t mean that the house itself spoke. It’s a stand in for the staffers.

A Christian example would be, that Jesus is the lamb of God.

We don’t actually think that Jesus is a sheep. Or at least I hope we don’t. But rather, that Jesus does take away the sin of the world, just as the sheep does.

Thus, when Christ says that the body is given for you and the blood is the new covenant shed for you for the forgiveness of sin, it doesn’t mean that the bread is the body or wine or juice the blood.

It means that when we partake of communion, we receive with them those gifts that Christ promises to us.  

Christ becomes present to us, not literally, but spiritually, strengthening us in faith, for the journey ahead.

I think this strength for the journey is important. 

I think it’s why the story of the disciples floundering in the stormy sea happens right after the feeding of the five thousand.

They sail and struggle through the treacherous waters, unable to reach the opposite shore until Christ appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and they soon find their way across.

Christ enables us to have strength for the journey.  Whether you find him in the bread and cup, in the words of God in scripture, in prayer, through the blowing of the holy spirit, or in the strains of music, Christ is with you.  How you receive him, however, is up to you.