Communion rediscovered (Part 3)…

I promised to conclude this series with some significant personal experiences of ‘the breaking of bread.’ Let me tell you how it all started, and then conclude with how things have developed since (in a 4th and final blog). I guess it started during a visit to NW and Central China two years ago. I was part of a small leadership team of 5, on a learning curve. The very first book I read after conversion as a teen was Hudson Taylor’s classic, The Man Who Believed God. In more recent years I had researched the House Church movement in China for a master’s degree – now I would be able to witness things first hand.                                                                                                                           

 

  • While in the Tibetan mountain city of Xiahe, we gathered one morning for informal communion in a tiny hotel room – two South Africans, an English/Polish couple and our Australian team leader. Let me explain:  Xiahe is the birthplace of the Dalai Lama, and hosts the second most important Buddhist monastery in Tibet. The monastery also includes a university. Coming back to the communion:  someone sensed ‘prophetically’ (?) that Jesus was truly in our midst and  delighted by our fellowship with him. I read from Ps. 24, which emphasises the LORD as King. This truth became very real as we explored the city and particularly the monastery – that day I met up with a young teenage Buddhist monk (in typical saffron garb) and his little brother. We seemed to bond instantly, and I embraced them both and silently prayed for them while chatting and taking their photograph. 
  • On the Sunday morning we met up with an intercessory team of 14, comprising a host of nationalities, young and old. We shared in communion and experienced that mystic bond we have with Christ and his children all over the world. This was followed by a silent ‘prayer-walk’ around the monastery circumference with its thousands of rotating prayer-wheels, spun by Buddhist devotees hoping to earn better ‘karma’ for their next incarnation. One picture, indelibly imprinted in my mind, was of a scrawny, weathered old lady prostrating herself meter-by-meter around the monastery perimeter of 3 and a half kms. She would drop to her knees in the heat and dust, lie flat on her face with arms extended forward in obeisance, stand up and repeat the process until she had encircled the monastery. I had never been so visibly impacted by the graciousness of our salvation in contrast to the need of so many to somehow try to earn acceptance with a deity over the period of a lifetime. 
  • In the light of the impact of Ps. 24 at our first communion, we agreed to meet (as unobtrusively as we could) at a lesser-used university gateway, a heavy and very old wooden door, and there to break bread and prophetically declare Christ’s story. I recall the remaining bit of wine being splashed on the door while inquisitive passers-by looked on. Crazy? Not when we recall Paul’s words in correcting the Corinthians’ practice of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11:26 (NIV), ‘For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ ‘Proclaim’ in the Greek is ‘katangello,’ meaning to ‘herald,’ in this instance the story of Jesus, crucified and alive. Communion is not only a celebration of Jesus but a public proclamation of his saving act, looking forward to his return. In other words, we were corporately and publicly declaring that, through the gossiping of the good news and the intercessory prayer of many around the world, people from every nation would ultimately confess Christ, including Buddhist Tibetans. Had not Jesus himself declared, in talking about the signs of the end of the age (which began with his incarnation) (Mt. 24:14/NIV), ‘And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.’ The celebrated NT scholar F.F. Bruce has commented, “There may be a suggestion of purpose in until he comes, in addition to the primary temporal sense; the eating and drinking would in that case constitute a ‘prophetic action’ helping to ensure the fulfilment of the prayer Marana-tha.” (compare Is. 61)
  • We moved on to the ancient city of Xian, famous for its magnificent display of Emperor Qin’s ‘Terra Cotta Warriors,’ today a bustling university metropolis of many millions of Han Chinese and a significant community of Hui Muslims. A high and fairly broad wall encircles the ancient city, measuring some 22.5 kms. Three of us hired bicycles and pedalled around the city in an hour (sore bums and straining legs, but otherwise it would have doubled the price!), with a brief communion at two significant points. Above flew Chinese bunting, we passed statues of the infamous Emperor Qin, a magnificent Chinese band (in ancient military costume) rendered a stirring drum display. It was truly memorable to fellowship with Jesus and one another and fellow-saints around the world in that rather unique setting!  

 

We’ll finish the story next time round…

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Communion re-discovered (part 2)…

 I have always believed that communion should inspire life and hope. After all, Christ encouraged us to break bread ‘in remembrance of ME’ (1 Cor. 11:23ff), i.e. in remembrance not only of his dying but his PERSON. This is good news! This good news (1 Cor. 15:13ff) embodies Christ’s death for our sins, his burial, resurrection on the third day, post-resurrection ‘bodily’ appearances to Peter plus the apostles plus a crowd of 500 plus Paul himself, and the promise of resurrection beyond the grave for all ‘in Christ!’ (1 Cor. 15:20b, NLT, ‘He has become the first of a great harvest of those who will be raised to life again’). 

 Contemporary Anglican theologian Tom Wright in Surprised by Hope points out how, in between the quasi-magic ritual of the eucharist (e.g. the Roman Catholic mass – my example) and the bare memory on the other (e.g. the Swiss Reformers) there is a more historically grounded view. The latter would remind us of how Jewish sacred meals, not least the Passover from which the eucharist takes its point of origin, were thought to function. To this day, when Jews celebrate Passover, they repeat ‘This is the night when God brought us out of Egypt.’ Within the sacramental world, time and space telescope together. 

 What happens in the eucharist (communion) is that, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the future dimension is brought more sharply into play. For a moment we as modern-day believers become one with the disciples around the table at the Lord’s Supper. But we also celebrate ‘the arrival of God’s future in the present.’ I.o.w. we do not remember a long-since-dead Jesus; we celebrate the presence of the living Lord! The Jesus Who gives Himself to us as food and drink is Himself the beginning of God’s new creation. At communion we are like the children of Israel in the desert, tasting fruit plucked from the promised land. 

 Wright then points us to Rom. 8, where creation is groaning as it awaits redemption. But one part of the old creation has already been transformed, has been liberated from decay viz the body of Christ, the body which was crucified and is now alive with a life death can’t touch. In the communion this Jesus comes to meet us through the symbols of creation, the bread and the wine, which are caught up into the Christ-story, the event of new creation itself. Thus, ‘every eucharist is a little Christmas as well as a little Easter.’

 Don’t know about you, but Wright’s perspective inspires me amid the nitty-gritty and the wear-and-tear of life. It also  emboldens me as a herald of the Kingdom. I’m reminded of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread…’ (Mt. 6:9ff, NASB).  

 My seminary principal insisted that any worthwhile truth had to work on a cold winter’s morning, having to shave, etc.  Here’s the story of a couple for whom communion worked.Brennan Manning includes their letter in his autobiography, All Is Grace (the author is a recovering alcoholic and former Franciscan priest – need a tonic? dip into ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ and his other books). John writes to thank Brennan for his near-miraculous help to him and his wife Lolly, a chronic alcoholic. Brennan had been kicked out of a Catholic speaking venue in Providence and on the spur of the moment went to spend the weekend with John and Lolly. They would never forget Brennan’s celebrating communion at their home. Lolly had been drinking for over 25 years, had been in and out of ‘rehab,’ seemingly destined to die of the disease. They got her into an institution for ‘detox.’ Just before admission she had asked Brennan, who had made a huge impact on her, to ‘consecrate’ 30 tiny pieces of bagel for her to celebrate Holy Communion in her room each day of her treatment. They couldn’t forget the miracle God had performed when the left-over bagel in John’s box filled with green mould, while Lolly’s 30 pieces remained soft and fresh for a month. More than 25 years on, Lolly was still sober – in John’s words, they had been ‘years of heaven for them as a couple and for their children!’ 

 Makes you hungry and thirsty, doesn’t it? 

‘Communion’ re-discovered… (part 1)

[just to clear the ground – I am using the word ‘communion’ to refer to the biblical practice of ‘the Lord’s Supper’]  

I read somewhere that a goldfish in a goldfish tank re-discovers its environment every time it circles the tank and any features within it. I like that thought of ‘re-discovery.’ So it has been with my understanding and experience of communion over the past few years – it really has been quite dramatic. 

 For those new to my blogs, remember that over a lifetime of pastoral ministry in a mainline denomination I ‘conducted’ well over a thousand communion services. During the latter years of my last pastorate we introduced much more direct participation by the congregants, and some of these were memorable and at times remarkable. As for the rest… 

 I also need to explain that in my denomination communion was seen purely as an ‘ordinance,’ something to be obeyed because our Lord said so. It was more often than not fairly emotion-less, quite often suitably morbid, unimaginative, uninspiring and hardly transforming. During my student years I loved to visit other churches where there was it least some sense of communion being ‘a means of grace,’ i.e. imparting something of God’s grace and mystery to the participant. In my denomination, the emphasis usually was mainly on the vertical, i.e. the individual’s relationship with God, to the neglect of the horizontal, i.e. our relationship with our fellows and the wider world. 

 Let me in this blog share with you some insights gained into communion through my more recent reading. In a future blog I will share some personal, unforgettable and transforming experiences of ‘the breaking of the bread…’ 

 Dorothy Day in Finding God (1897-1980, American journalist, activist and missionary to inner-city poor) wrote, ‘We cannot love God unless we love one another. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet, and life is a banquet too, even with a crust, when there is companionship.’ Rich!! I could relate to this, working among the poor myself. 

 Here are the words of the anabaptist Hans Schlaffer, just before he was beheaded for his beliefs in 1528, ‘The body of Christ on the earth is the Gemeinschaft (community) of those who believe on him. Whoever eats the bread of the nighttime meal expresses his desire to live in Gemeinschaft with this body and to be a part of it in all things – to stick with the Gemeinschaft through joy and sorrow, riches and poverty, honour and shame, mourning and rejoicing, death and life. He expresses his desire to give everything he has, both body and and life for his brothers even as Christ gave himself for us.’ 

 John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, tells the story (in God Lost and Found) of Sarah Miles, a war journalist, raised as an atheist and ignorant even of the Lord’s Prayer. One winter’s morning she found herself walking into a service. It was all pretty peaceful, but then something happened that completely changed her life. “We gathered around that table. And there was singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me. I still can’t explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced:  it felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening (I was eating a piece of bread); what I heard someone else say was happening (the piece of bread was the ‘body’ of ‘Christ,’ a patently untrue or at best metaphorical statement); and what I knew was happening (God, named ‘Christ’ or ‘Jesus,’ was real, and in my mouth) utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry!” (This was start of a complete personal makeover for Sarah Miles. Within a few years, among other things, she started nearly a dozen food pantries in the poorest part of her city) 

 How about the early Church’s experience as reflected in Acts 2:41 ff (MSG), “That day about three thousand took him (Peter) at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. Everyone was in awe – all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exhuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw as God added those who were saved.”  [Note: in the book of Acts communion was more often than not part of the normal meal. These occasions became known as ‘agape,’ i.e. ‘a love feast.’)

 Makes you think and thirsty, doesn’t it!? More next time…