Leading up to the actual musing you will find below a couple of personal snap shots from my faith journey that have heightened my sensitivities when it comes to celebrating communion.
For a number of years I have felt saddened and frustrated by the plight of the communion service in our churches. Last month when I wrote Theology and Me Part 2 (see the ‘food for thought’ section) it stirred up some of those feelings. Please understand that my goal is not to demean churches but merely to express the angst I feel about the current state of communion in many of our churches, with the hope that this might inspire individuals in churches to give more thoughtful reflection on the importance and place of communion in the life of the Church.
My feelings surrounding communion are a byproduct of two communion atrocities I witnessed first hand, as well as a general sense of non-importance I have observed as communion was celebrated in different churches and venues of which I have been a part over the years of my journey with Christ.
I remember one Sunday morning in particular when I was expectantly and eagerly awaiting the monthly celebration of communion (we had communion on the first Sunday of the month) that my church always placed unceremoniously at the end of a ‘normal’ service. As I waited for the celebration of communion, I noticed that the time was getting precariously close to 12 noon. In our church it was a great service if you get out before 12 noon, a good service if you ended at noon, and a bad service when you went over the noontime marker. Well, this Sunday it was evident that we were not going to have a great service and a good service was seriously in doubt. However, in a moment of inspired brilliance the pastor rose to his feet and announced that we would not have time to celebrate communion and would close with a song and serve communion the following Sunday, thus assuring a good service. In the interest of time we jettisoned communion so people would consider this a good service and be able to get to Marie Callenders as close to noon as possible in order to beat the crowd from other churches. This choice of postponing communion was unthinkable to me.
There was another occasion when the pastor, desperately seeking to have a good service but once again running late on a communion Sunday, came up with the inspired idea of passing the two plates together (one with tiny wafers and the other with tiny plastic cups of grape juice) so as to save time yet still be able to “celebrate” communion and make it to Marie Callenders before the other Christians.
It was these two communion services in particular, and my experiences in other venues in general, that communicated to me a disregard if not out right disdain (overstated) for communion and its nuances. These have created in me a hypersensitivity to the way communion is celebrated. I share this with you to help you know that I am passionate about the communion service and have strong feelings about how communion should be, yes, should be, done.
Please be aware that I do realize that the following flows out of my own traumatizing experiences with communion and is thus somewhat slanted in its view and perspective. I do believe that these days I am now more understanding and have been able to appreciate the intentions and ethos of others who may not celebrate communion the way I think is best. However, I do think the thoughts that follow raise important questions, questions at which the churches need to look and ponder.
NOW, on to the actual musing!
"Look What They Have Done (are doing) to Communion"
As I was growing up a song came out entitled, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song”. The chorus of the song said, “Look what they’ve done to my song. It was the only thing I could do half right and now it has turned out all wrong.” I would not be surprised if this is the sentiment Jesus has as He looks at the landscape of the churches in America when it comes to the topic of communion.
As I have visited various churches and checked out numerous other churches via their web sites I have discovered that most churches seem to see themselves as alive, relevant and dynamic with practical messages, small groups, excellent childcare, children's programs and inspiring music. However, none of this really excites me. What I am really looking for is a place to worship, adore, give thanks to, reflect on, and interact with God. For me, one significant way for all the above to take place is through the corporate celebration of the Lord's Supper (communion). Yet, when I scour the web sites and the church bulletins I discover that communion does not really have a central place or focus in most churches. Communion seems to have gone the way of dinosaurs, overhead projectors, organs, hymnals, lava lamps, pews, stained glass windows, eight track tapes, foot washing, silent reflection and crosses. Communion is disappearing from the worship service and becoming relegated to some less noticeable and well-attended occasions (Sunday night or midweek services).
I admit that I have been somewhat perplexed by the trend in churches to push aside the celebration of communion. Historically, communion was the showcase of the worship gathering (and still is in Catholic and Episcopal churches) and rightly so, for it speaks of the life, death and resurrection of Christ as well as the character of God (grace, mercy, holiness, righteousness, love…). Communion was the foundation upon which all else was built, a reminder of who we are and what Christ accomplished. But sadly, communion now appears to be the black sheep of the worship service and is treated like the odd family relative who is kept out of sight and often spoken of guardedly and frequently in hushed embarrassed tones.
As I have spent some time pondering this over the years a number of explanations for this seem plausible:
The celebration of communion has become subservient to the gods of efficiency, time management and political correctness.
Sunday morning is about the proclamation of the word, the sermon, from which communion takes precious time away. This emphasis on preaching is in part a result of the reformation when church services began to be more word centered. The pulpit has usurped the communion table’s place of prominence.
We have chosen not to offend our church visitors who may be perplexed by the passing of barely edible wafers and tiny plastic cups filled with minimal amounts of grape juice or wine and may be confused by words that speak of the body and blood of Christ in connection with the bread and cup.
The symbolism and mystery that surrounds and infuses communion seems antithetical to the sophistication and intellect of the 21st century person, or at least it seems that our church leaders fear this is the case and thus have pushed communion to the periphery of the Christian experience.
There may be a unconscious fear that those in our congregations might have the same reactions to the talk of eating flesh and drinking blood as those who were following Jesus had when He said,” Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is real food and My blood real drink”. (John 6:54-55) It goes on to say that the disciples responded, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (6:60). And it then says, “From this time many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him”. (6:66)
Even those who choose to celebrate communion more regularly have fallen victim to the desire not to offend, confuse, or seem foolish to those who enter their church doors, so when they celebrate communion it is sanitized, domesticated and its importance and mystery are downplayed.
Finally, I think the pushing aside of communion may also be a result of the Enlightenment when the intellect and mind were elevated and truth was seen as that which could be scientifically proven and verified. Those things that could be tasted, seen and touched were real, while mystery and religious experience were deemed as superstition and indicated the ignorance of an individual. The heart was gutted out of Christianity and was replaced by a cold, calculating, and analytical mind. All that smacked of emotion was viewed as unreliable, not trustworthy and something to be ignored.
As a result of the reasons listed above, I guess the place communion now has in the Christian experience should not surprise me, but it does sadden me. We have not handled communion with the reverence and respect it deserves so it has become something of no account in the life of the church. And when it is celebrated it is promoted as a memorial to a historical event, a reenactment of sorts of Jesus at the Last Supper with His disciples, while the mystery of eating the flesh of Christ and drinking the blood of Christ are ignored, as is the oneness and unity that communion originally communicated through the one loaf and one cup.
We have lost sight of the importance of communion and have moved away from many of the truths that were captured in what I would call the true and right celebration of communion:
The one loaf that was broken and spoke of the body of Christ, as well as the unity of the community celebrating together, has been replaced by individual wafers.
The one cup from which all drank, recalling the blood of Christ shed for us, which also spoke of unity, has been replaced by tiny plastic individual cups.
The coming forward together, women, men, children, poor and rich, which again spoke of oneness, that all are equal before God, and reminded us of Jesus’ invitation to come, come to me and I will give you rest and refreshment.
Communion has been gradually disfigured over the years, becoming a privatized, mostly passive event gutted of all that once made it transformational.
But communion is not merely some religious jingle of a bygone era that has served its purpose and whose once catchy tune and clever lyrics are no longer able to reach its target audience. No, communion is something much more than that. Communion is a place of encounter with God’s grace, mercy, holiness, righteousness, love…and mystery…an encounter that is able to feed our soul, sustain and enrich our faith, and fortify and strengthen our spirit. During the celebration of communion we are invited through that which we can touch, taste and see, the bread and the cup, to enter into mystery and heart to heart fellowship and communion with God and one another.
Now, thankfully communion is not dead but it is in desperate need of resuscitation. Its vital signs are growing weak. We, along with God’s help, need to help bring life back into the communion service. We need to apply CPR and get the elements of mystery, encounter and oneness breathing and beating again. When communion is revived it will once again be a place of transformation, encouragement, strengthening and unity manifesting the mystery, grandeur and glory of God.
Look what they have done to communion. It was the only thing I could do half right and now it has turned out all wrong. But it does not have to remain this way. As we have opportunity to be involved in the planning and leading of communion services we can seek to recapture that which has been lost.
As we celebrate communion we can bring back the wonder, reverence, and joy of the service by fully entering into all that is contain within the communion service. Communion is not about a tiny wafer and a plastic cup but about celebrating the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It is about remembering what Christ has done for us and who we now are as followers of Jesus, brothers and sisters in Christ, united by the Spirit of God. It is about experiencing the character and person of God.
The Lord’s Table (communion) is a place of encounter and enrichment where we are spiritually nourished and ministered to by the living and loving presence of Jesus. To make communion out as anything less is to do a disservice to the body of Christ, the person of Jesus, and to those who are hungering and thirsting after something more than this world can offer.
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