[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…