Friday, October 10, 2014

Taking a Good Look at Our Communion Liturgy

This is the sermon at the South Stormont United Churches on World Communion Sunday, October 5, 2014.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
1 Corinthians 11:23-29, English Standard Version

At the Last Supper Jesus tells his apostles to remember him whenever they break bread and share the cup. Soon the church began doing this as part of worship, as a sacrament, a symbol and sign of God’s grace. It was called Communion, or Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. And it’s good to talk about what we do in Communion, so that it is truly meaningful for us and not just a ritual we do without really understanding its significance.

We have a whole theology around Communion. If you look back at the statements of faith of the United Church of Canada, the 1940 Statement of Faith has this to say:

We believe that the Lord’s Supper perpetuates the fellowship between Christ and his disciples sealed in the upper room, that at the table he is always present, and his people are nourished, confirmed, and renewed. The giving and receiving of bread and wine accompanied by his own words signifies the gracious self-giving of Christ as suffering and living Lord in such wise that his faithful people live in him and he in them.
A Song of Faith, our latest faith statement, also speaks of Communion:
Carrying a vision of creation healed and restored, we welcome all in the name of Christ.
Invited to the table where none shall go hungry, we gather as Christ’s guests and friends.
In holy communion we are commissioned to feed as we have been fed, forgive has we have been forgiven, love as we have been loved.
The open table speaks of the shining promise of barriers broken and creation healed.
In the communion meal, wine poured out and bread broken, we remember Jesus.
We remember not only the promise but also the price that he paid for what he was, for what he did and said, and for the world’s brokenness.
We taste the mystery of God’s great love for us, and are renewed in faith and hope.

So our faith statements tell us that in Communion we have fellowship with Jesus, remembrance of Jesus and his life and death, promise, renewal, commissioning, mystery. But our Statements of Faith aren’t printed for us in the hymn book – well, the New Creed is, but not the others – and they aren’t in a booklet in the pews. They are printed in the United Church Manual, but we don’t have copies for each person. However, all of these meanings of the sacrament, and more, are present in the words and actions of Communion itself. The Lord’s Supper has been a very old way for the church to tell the story of salvation, to share together, and to send us out as disciples of Jesus. In fact, Communion prayers are pretty similar across denominations and have been much the same back to the ancient church. Some churches use the same prayer each time they celebrate Communion; we vary the language but keep the structure roughly the same.

Let’s have a look together at how we share in the Lord’s Supper and what this tells us about the sacrament and our faith.

We start off with a Prayer of Confession. The Second Corinthians passage we read has some of the most ancient words about Communion we have. In it the Apostle Paul talks about examining yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup, and that’s what we do in our confession (This prayer was written by Catherine Tovell, Dundas Street United Church, London, Ontario, and is used with permission from Gathering, Summer/Autumn 2012, page 51).

O God, in our daily life we gather many times around tables. We sit at tables to eat, to talk, to do business, to weep, to comfort. Yet too often our tables are places of exclusion and pain, rather than reconciliation and support. We use tables to divide, to set rules of who’s in and who’s out.

You call us to one table, an open table, where all are welcome, all are equal, and all are valued. Forgive us when we try to close your table, to claim it as our own possession, to misuse it. Amen.

Then we have the Invitation to the Table, just as A Song of Faith says: We welcome all in the name of Christ, invited to the table where none shall go hungry.
All are welcome at this table. It is a table where everyone is a guest. You may never have been here before, or you may have been coming to a table like this all your life. It doesn’t matter. You are welcome here today. This is not the table of this congregation or the United Church of Canada; it is the table of Jesus, who invites us to come and eat, to fill our hunger and quench our thirst, to find new life in him. So come, because you are welcome here.

Now we come to the Great Prayer. It starts off with these responsive words:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.
In Latin these are called the Sursum Corda, and go back at least to the third century, so we are saying them with generation upon generation of Christians before us.

Then the prayer has words of thanksgiving:

Thanks and blessings to you, Holy One, who summons galaxies into being.
We bless you for our world.
The diversity of our planet amazes us, from the prairies and forests of the Americas to the deserts of Africa and Asia, from the majestic mountains of Europe to the vast outback of Australia.
We give you thanks for the multiplicity of humanity, with our complexity of colour and culture, yet called into oneness of being through Christ.

Jewish prayers would tell what God has done, and the church perpetuates that in this prayer:

We give you thanks that through the waters of the sea you delivered your people from slavery;
On your sacred mountain you called us to truth and holiness;
In the words of your prophets you called us to justice and compassion.
Yet we turned away from you.
Finally, you sent Jesus, the newness of your promise to us.
One of the most important things we do as a church is to tell the Biblical story – so here is the story of creation, then the story of God’s action saving the people of Israel, how Israel turned away from God, and God’s response in sending Jesus. This brings on the Sanctus and its words from Isaiah and Revelation:
So, with those who trembled at the foot of your holy mountain, with all who have gone before us, with the angels of the heavens, and with all who will follow us in the community of faith, as we join our voices in praise to you:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

So this prayer is packed full of meaning. And it continues in the Post-Sanctus, which carries on the story of salvation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, so we will remember this story.

Holy are you, God of all creation, and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.
Yearning for us to know you, he came to be your face of love and compassion for all.
Hungering for reconciliation between you and your children, he became the broken Bread of Life.
Witnessing to your holy teachings and fulfilling your holy law, he suffered on the cross. Yet he was raised from the grave to lift us all up from death and sin into freedom.
He is known to us in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup.

The Institution Narrative which follows is based closely on the description of the last supper in the Gospels and Second Corinthians, as Jesus breaks the bread and shares the cup at that last supper and commands us to remember him in this way.
On the last night he spent with his friends, Jesus took an age-old tradition of his people and transformed it into something new.
He took bread, staple food of his land, blessed and broke it, and gave it to those around him, saying ‘Take, eat; this is my body, broken for you. Whenever you do this, remember me.’
After supper he took a cup of wine, common drink of his people, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink this, all of you. This is the new promise of God in my blood. Each time you do this, remember me.’
And these are not just words. The church learned long ago not to rely only on the spoken word, but to engage all of the senses. We hear the words of Jesus, we taste the bread and the juice when the supper is served, and we see the last supper acted out. Some churches have incense, so there is smell too. So we reenact, not just retell. As celebrant I repeat the actions of Jesus, taking, blessing, breaking and giving, and in recreating the original event we somehow experience again the reality of Jesus himself being present with us.

We than have a Memorial Acclamation together, proclaiming the mystery spoken of in A Song of Faith, God’s love in Jesus who died, rose and will come again:

By remembering Jesus in this way now, we claim our common heritage as we proclaim the mystery of faith:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

And now we move on, to the Epiclesis. This is a prayer for transformation, calling on the Holy Spirit to transform the gifts of bread and juice, and transform us, to do what the 1940 statement says Communion does, make this a sacred meal which nourishes, confirms and renews us:

Send, O God, your Holy Spirit upon us and what we do here, that we and these gifts, empowered by your Spirit, may become signs of peace and justice to each other and to all peoples of this earth.
As this bread, once scattered, was brought together and made one, it is our hope that your people will be brought together from the ends of the earth into your reign of justice and love.

And we conclude with the Doxology, praising God in the Trinity of Creator, Christ and Spirit:

Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ,
In the unity of the Holy Spirit,
All glory is yours everywhere, now and forever.

So there’s a lot in these words and actions: Self examination. Welcome in the name of Christ. Thanksgiving. The story of Israel. Praise. Retelling, reenacting and remembering the story of Jesus. Mystery. Renewal. It’s as if our Communion liturgy is a mini-course in our faith. It’s one of the ways we tell each other and the world what we believe and whose we are. So let’s listen and watch as we celebrate this holy meal that means so much to us.

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