By Rev. Joan Kessler
Luke 24:13 – 35
This morning, I invite us into some reflection around Holy Communion. In this United Church of ours, it is one of two sacraments we celebrate, the other being Baptism. These were the two instituted by Jesus. We were invited during Jesus' life and ministry to go and do likewise: to share in the Living Presence of the Spirit with everyone you met by the sprinkling of water and laying on of hands in baptism and the breaking of bread and sharing of cup in Holy Communion.
I grew up in a small southern Saskatchewan village with a population of 300, if everyone was home. There were surrounding farm families that would have bolstered that number by a few hundred more. But, needless to say, I came from a small town where we knew one another, cared for one another and looked out for one another. During the 70s and 80s, there were five churches in my town. And a popular topic of conversation that would inevitably come up during my school days was “what church did you belong to”? In my class, there was a fairly even split between those who were Catholic and those who were United, but I also had Anglican, Lutheran and Pentecostal friends too. And I should tell you that this survey population I speak of was anywhere from 10 to 12 students in any given year, so it is highly accurate and representational of the population 😊. This conversation amongst kids gave us a sense of identity and belonging. We would talk about our practices and what set us apart from one another. We would talk about Sunday School and Catechism.
But it was Communion we discovered was the piece that separated Catholics and Protestants with their having Communion or Eucharist every Sunday. This was fascinating news to us as Protestants who would perhaps only celebrate this sacrament a few times a year. As I grew up however, the United Church evolved its practices of Holy Communion. I remember our family sitting together on a Communion Sunday and us kids were not allowed to take Communion in those years. So, my parents would share their portions of a small cube of bread and thimble’s worth of grape juice with us kids. In those days, we didn’t celebrate Communion more than a few times a year, but I remember how special this meal was sitting on a wooden pew in Pangman, Saskatchewan, in a place where I was loved and belonged.
Other times, my sister and I would arrive home from Church after a Communion Sunday and set up our own version of the Last Supper at our coffee table, complete with crustless bread cubes and my Mum’s best crystal glasses with grape juice. I played the minister as I recall and presided over our home version of this sacrament. And now decades later, on a World Communion Sunday, I am grateful to my parents for creating space and opportunity to explore the sacramental nature of my faith and cultivating my sense of belonging by not just taking those crumbs of bread and drops of grape of juice but through active participation in my congregation. My Mum pointed out to me just this week that I have been involved in the church my whole life. And I hope my little story has you thinking about your earliest recollections and experiences of Holy Communion also. What was it like for you? Who was there? What did you take with you over your journey?
The United Church celebrates Communion at an open and inclusive table, just as Jesus did. Jesus ate and drank with anyone who wanted to eat and drink with him. We do not exclude children any longer, we have no special membership or education requirements, but instead invite all to experience Jesus’ life and teachings. And when we share in this special meal together, we remember him, and this draws Jesus close to us.
World Communion Sunday was the idea of a Presbyterian congregation in Pittsburg, PA back in 1933. The congregation sought to demonstrate Christian unity regardless of denomination. In 1940 the World Council of Churches recognized the first Sunday in October as World-wide Communion Sunday. Today we celebrate with Christians around the globe sharing in Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. Some will receive cubes of bread. Some will tear from a common loaf. Some will receive a wafer. Some will drink from a common chalice. Some will dip a piece of bread into the cup. Some will have individual glasses. Some will use wine, some juice. Some will offer both. A variety of liturgies will be shared in many languages. Clergy will dress traditionally, formally, and casually. Despite the differences in our denominations and traditions, we celebrate our unity in Jesus Christ.
Our sacramental theology around Holy Communion in the United Church is broad in understanding. Some of us view the elements of bread and drink as Living Presence of Jesus, the essence of his being; and some see the bread and juice as just those physically, earthly elements and share in a meal of inclusive and love, remembering Jesus doing the same. Whatever our belief, we share in this meal thoughtfully and longingly, looking to the things that unite us rather than divide us. That ordinary things become extraordinary; that bread and drink strengthen us for the journey to fullness and restoration of God’s Shalom for all the world, regardless of theology or denominational understanding. Communion moves us outside the boxes of limitation and join us together in the spirit of the Universal Christ.
I draw us now to the words from our church’s most recent statement on all these things…A Song of Faith. Adopted in 2006, this statement attempts to create a verbal picture of what the United Church of Canada understands its faith to be in the historical, political, social, and theological context of the early 21st century. This Song has also provided a means by which we as the Church can continue to reflect upon our place and mission in local and global community. This is what we sing of when we consider what Holy Communion means to us and our understanding:
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 as 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 who 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.
The Road to Emmaus story is a favorite of mine. It contains all the elements of what Communion is to my faith journey. Two companions make the long walk home, back to Emmaus, after the events surrounding Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. But they notice that they are not alone, for someone is walking alongside them and wants to engage them in conversation, to know what is on their hearts and minds… what are they discussing? They share their hurt and disappointment with this stranger over the turn of events in Jerusalem. They share their grief that Jesus, the one who was to be their Messiah is now gone and they left not knowing what to do next.
As the day draws to a close, the two men invite their new friend to a share a meal with them. It is in that moment, where the guest broke bread, blessed it and gave it to them that the disciples share being in the presence of the risen Jesus. It lasts only for a moment and then it is gone. The two are left to carry onward with a story of their own experience of the Living Presence, the risen and universal Christ. Jesus came to them in the ordinary moments of life, in a time of their deep need to eat and share in fellowship.
We can’t explain away this story, or it dismantles all the mystery that is part of it. We draw nearer to the memory, the life and teachings of Jesus and the peace that this brings. And for me it is the experience of Holy Communion. The journey of life, the joys, the disappointments, the sharing together with others on the way. Today we join in this special meal with others around the globe. Through the breaking of bread and the drinking of the fruit of the vine and by remembering Jesus’ ministry of justice, inclusion, and unconditional love, we celebrate our continued hope for a Christian unity that works more cooperatively together. One where we can have conversations about not just the things that unify us but also respectful discussions about the ways exclusion still is rampant in the Christian Church and how we can learn and share with people from all faiths.
I hope this story resonates with you on some deep and spiritual level this morning as we gather at the table again. May our hearts be opened to the things that divide us and may we find strength to heal the brokenness of our world from the inspiration of Jesus…one cube of bread, one thimble of juice at a time. Peace be with you this World Communion Sunday and always. Amen.