Why do we celebrate communion? Dave RogalskY
Scriptures: Exodus 17:1-7; And Psalm 78:1-4, 12; Or Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; And Psalm 25:1-9; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32, Matthew 26:17-20, 26-30 (not lectionary)
Theme: To explore what communion means today.
Communion is one of those things which the people of God in the Christian church have done everywhere and always through the 2000 years of our history. But what does it mean? For some it is the celebration of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice, repeated every time that communion is taken. Some add to that communion as a remembrance that Jesus was the perfect blood sacrifice to pay for the sins of humanity before the perfect and angry God. Some celebrate communion as a unity of the gathered community, with those near and far, and with those past and future. What do we believe? My guess is many different things. This week I get to tell you what I believe. I invite you to talk to me afterward and discuss, “Why do we celebrate communion?”
Emmanuel Swedenborg taught that “The Holy Supper, or Communion, signifies the regeneration of one's will in accordance with God's commandments, which causes the Lord to commune closely with a person in their heart. Thus everyone should examine his or her life before partaking in the Holy Supper, in order for the ritual to fulfill its purpose.”1
The Catholic Church celebrates the Mass which is a repetition of Jesus’ original sacrifice. This is repeated every time a priest celebrates the sacrament. In the process of the rite the wine and bread become the actual blood and body of Jesus. These elements are from then on always the blood and body, meaning they have to be retained as if they were actually Jesus, and may be venerated as if they were God. These elements then are distributed in communion which may be immediately connected with the mass, or the elements may be retained and distributed at other times and places.
Lutherans and most Anglicans believe that the bread and wine only become the body and blood of Jesus when they have been consumed. Until then they are only bread and wine.
Mennonites believe that the bread and wine, or juice since many of our churches only serve juice, are always bread and wine, or juice. It is the inner person who communes, or becomes one with, God. As a faithful person, faithfully eats and drinks on Jesus’ command, they become one with God. Mennonites also believe that as they eat as a group they also become one with each other.
All these groups practice, or celebrate some kind of communion. We all do it because it is a command of Jesus. At the last supper:
19 Then Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. Luke 22:19-20 (NRSV)
We do this because Jesus told us to remember him and what he did.
But what is it that we remember? We remember that Jesus was God who came among us.
But why? To somehow free us to be in relationship with God.
Why did we need help? And what did he do that freed us?
At this point we move into the realm of theology. The word theology is made up of two Greek words. Theos – which means a personal god. Deos means a god who is out there, but really has no contact and little care for human beings. Theos is a god who has contact, and who cares for human beings. Logos means word, topic, or the understanding about something. Theology is human understanding about God. Since theology is the human understanding no theological position is ever the final word. Every theological idea is up for discussion, debate, and disagreement. There is a long history of this process going on from generation to generation. Scholars and people in the pews continue this conversation with each other and with previous generations through the writings which previous generations created. We – you and me – continue this today.
With this definition of theology we can look at the Bible and see that it is actually part of this long history of a developing understanding of God. I don’t have time today but I’d love to have a chance to teach how the Bible shows a development of how people understood God, who God’s people are, and what God expects of people. Internally the Bible is not always in agreement – from time to time, or even in one time. There is an active discussion in the pages of the Bible. That means we can’t just pick out a verse and say that it is true for always. As part of a discussion it may be that later writers recorded further understanding. And the learning through experience, of followers of God since the Bible was finished, continues our understanding about God, God’s people, and God’s hopes and expectations on humanity.
So, we believe that Jesus was God among us, both because of what he said to us in the Bible, and because we have experienced this through the centuries after Jesus. The Almighty God, the Creator of all that there is, the One who holds all things together, the One who is in all places at all times, the One who was there before time was, and who will be there after time and space have ended, this One, chose to become a limited, finite, human being. God came among us in the flesh and was Jesus. We remember this in communion.
Our reading from Philippians 2 points to God setting aside what made God more than human and came and lived and died among us as Jesus.
But why did God do this? Some believe that humanity, beginning with an actual Adam and Eve, disobeyed God (See Genesis 3). Since they disobeyed they could not be in relationship with God. Disobedience and God are like oil and water, they reasoned. They cannot be mixed. So human beings made sacrifices of repentance to God. They said they were sorry, beginning with Cain and Abel (See Genesis 4). Cain gave a sacrifice of fruit and grain. Abel gave one of a dead animal. Cain’s sacrifice was rejected but Abel’s was accepted. So people believed that God demanded blood sacrifices in order to be placated for human disobedience. Interestingly there was no teaching before this story that sacrifice of any kind was needed.
But it seemed to people that no animal sacrifice was good enough. They had to be repeated over and over again. Some people decided to offer up other people as sacrifices. Even Abraham was going to offer up Isaac or Ishmael but God stopped him from doing so (See Genesis 22). Remember that story? Isaac was on the altar and the knife was in Abraham’s hand when God told him to stop. Instead Abraham offered up a deer that was caught in a bush nearby. Many of the peoples around the Jews offered human sacrifices. It might even be that King Solomon did (See 1 Kings 11:7). But if animal sacrifice wasn’t good enough and human sacrifice was refused by God, then were people dammed by God with no solution?
The people who hold to this theory of the atonement, a theory of how humanity can be made right enough to be in relationship with God, believe that it had been God’s plan from the beginning to come and offer Godself as the sacrifice that would pay for humanity’s sin in such a way that God would be satisfied. They believe that as Jesus died he took all of humanity’s disobedience and paid for it on the cross, with his blood. They do this through the process I just described.
But this is theology – a human understanding of God.
I actually believe that some people in Jesus’ time, most people in fact, believed too that the angry God needed a perfect sacrifice, and that Jesus voluntarily was that sacrifice . But that doesn’t make them right. I think that God saw that human beings believed that they could never be right with God, that they couldn’t erase their disobedience or the disobedience of their ancestors. I think that seeing that some people would not be convinced until there was a sacrifice which fulfilled their thoughts, ideas, their theology, that God came and became that sacrifice. God did this, not because God thought it necessary or desired it – think of Abraham and Isaac. I think that God did it because humans thought it necessary. And God willingly gave them what they thought they needed.
In communion I remember that God loves us so much that God was willing to become one of us and to suffer a horrible death, to convince us of God’s love. In communion I become one with this God who loves me exactly as I am. I celebrate communion to remember that love. As I take the bread and the wine with my body, my soul and spirit connect with God. God is always present, like another person in the room. But when we pay attention then communication can happen. That’s the same with communion – I’m paying attention to God, using a rite or practice which Jesus himself suggested for us to us.
In doing this I make myself available for God to continue to change and grow me into the person God wants me to be, both for God’s good, and my own. And as I do it I connect spiritually with all those who have, who are, and who ever will be, one with God.
On World Communion Sunday today we join with all Christians who desire oneness with God.
Emmanuel Swedenborg taught that “The Holy Supper, or Communion, signifies the regeneration of one's will in accordance with God's commandments, which causes the Lord to commune closely with a person in their heart. Thus everyone should examine his or her life before partaking in the Holy Supper, in order for the ritual to fulfill its purpose.” When we take communion we are opening ourselves up to God. What God wants to do is to be in relationship with us, to love us, to be friends with us. God loves us exactly the way we are. And God loves us too much to leave us with all the bad experiences we have that have shaped us into unhelpful or unloving ways. So when we open ourselves up to God, in communion and many other ways, we invite God to come into us to heal and to make right our inner being. When we examine ourselves we find things that need healing and being made right. We come to God knowing we aren’t perfect, but also knowing that we are loved by God.
We take communion because God loves us.