Nov. 1 (All Saints’ Day) Sermon based on John 6:53-58 and 1 Cor 11: 27-32, 12:12-13
Our fellowship and communion—what we are doing right now and what we are about to do—is a mystery of the faith. It is not just us being friendly and sharing some rather unsatisfying snacks. It is not even us; it includes the invisible presence of those in Christ everywhere and at all times. It’s wonderful to recall that when we receive communion, we are sharing a meal with all the saints, living and dead. But not only all the saints—our faith tells us that God is present in these acts, and that gives them an unfathomable quality. It is God’s union with us in the Lord’s Supper, as Christ and through the Holy Spirit, that makes it impossible to pin down what is happening in the meal. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Christians throughout history have been all too eager to do; and when they try to pin everything down, they are usually trying to prick the folks they don’t like with that same pin.
It was in fact disagreements about how Christ is present at the Lord’s Supper that drove apart Protestant Christians in the 16th century—and these divisions are still with us. Each faction put down it’s own teaching in creeds and works of theology, and they all had pretty good reasoning on their side. But God’s presence exceeds our categories, and so everyone would have done well to recognize the limits of his own thinking.
One reason I’ve begun my pastorate here with this series on mysteries is to defuse the conflicts that might lie buried in our complicated relationships. Conflicts often center on a difference of opinion, the aftermath of our or our attempts, or our ancestors’ attempts, to pin down this or that. But with the mysteries of the faith, we really don’t know what we are talking about. It’s hard to conclude, “You must be wrong,” when you are talking about something that is unfathomable.
Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist, is a case in point.
We can profit from having some basic statements about such a mystery set out in a creed or statement. But the best creeds of church history do not try to pin down the divine mysteries. Rather, they help pry them open from the narrow grasp of our minds. The great creeds show a both-and pattern, rather than an either/or pattern. So we have God who is both three persons and one existence—the Trinity. We have Jesus Christ who is both fully human and fully divine—and fully impossible to pin down, let alone “nail down.” There’s us: we are the good creation of God and we never stop being that; and we are really fallen, distorted, and lost in sin. And we sinners are already reconciled with God and perfected in Jesus Christ. And, as people of faith, considered in our own right, we are being redeemed and restored and made anew. And yet we are destined for a future perfection like Christ’s that we will share with all humanity and all creatures. You can’t pin that down and simplify that whole package without violating our faith. And so we live it, week to week, season to season, life stage to life stage, and we revel in the fullness of the life of faith. It’s never one-dimensional. And so we can’t master the mystery of communion, but we can begin to identify what the mystery is.
Communion is essential to Christian faith. The Bible, Acts especially, gives us evidence that “breaking bread” was from the start a standard practice in Christian meetings. But there are few sustained reflections on the breaking of bread. There is a John version of communion and fellowship, and a Paul version.
Each of the four gospels is different, but let’s face it: John’s Gospel places us in a strange world all its own. Written in a time of Jewish-Christian conflict, John’s Gospel includes many surreal and protracted disputes between Jesus and the “Jews”—a misnomer, since Jesus and the Disciples were Jewish.
As uncivil as John’s gospel can be, his theology soars. Unique to John’s gospel, Jesus is the one who was with God from the beginning—“The Word was with God.” The Word descended into the flesh where it was manifested to us. John’s gospel is the most Trinitarian: Jesus is one with the Father in an eternal love, and bequeaths the Holy Spirit of love upon the Disciples. John’s theology comes to a kind of climax in 17, during Jesus’ prayer for the disciples: “I ask..that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Where is Jesus when he is in the Father and the Father is in him; and where are we when we are in this mutual in-ness of Jesus and the Father? My guess is that we are in a very deep mystery. And maybe even the author of the Gospel does not completely know what he is talking about. But let’s just say that when we are one, we are participating in the love between the Father and the Son that has existed from all eternity. Now, just try to picture a Father and Son loving each other in all eternity, and this is the one God. I will be in good company if you find that scene difficult to picture.
But this theology underlies our passage from John about communion. Once again baiting the stereotyped, literalistic Jews, Jesus has said “I am the bread of life,” and “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We can see John’s overarching theology here: Jesus lives in the Father, and by making Jesus our real food and drink, we abide in him (and also in the Father). But this passage does not explain why bread and wine. It only contrasts the bread of the eucharist to the manna that God gave to the Israelites, which was only a temporary fix. John does not connect the bread and wine to the Passover, which is puzzling because the original last Supper was surely a Passover Seder or meal, commemorating the Israelite’s liberation from slavery. So if you wonder why we use bread and wine or juice, it’s because these are crucial elements in the Jewish Passover.
But the overarching point of communion is consistent with John’s whole theology. More than anyone else, John in his Gospel merges together the love the disciples have for one another with the love that is God’s own being as Father and Son, and eating the bread and wine is participating in this love. John is all about love within the church; this is Jesus’ great command in John 13. Notice he doesn’t have Jesus say, “Love your enemies,” or love you neighbor even if he is a low-down Samaritan. John speaks most powerfully to our theme this week: the mystery of Christian fellowship, / but I’m glad we have the other three gospels.
Paul’s reflections in Corinthians on eating unworthily have always troubled me. While I was getting my Masters, I attended a church that was a wonderful community but in the conservative Church of Christ tradition. Every Sunday they would await communion with heads bowed, brows furrowed, looking almost morose. I didn’t like thinking of the Lord’s Supper as some kind of bitter medicine. After all, the ancient liturgy of communion exclaims, “Lift up your hearts! We lift them up to the Lord.” And if we are communing with the risen Lord in the same act as communing with each other, we should not be buried in our own internal struggles and anxieties; we should be turned outward, participating together in the joyous feast. After I receive, I enjoy watching others take the elements, and imaginatively feeling what my friends are experiencing as they partake. Well, those troubled consciences at the Church of Christ had certainly read Paul’s words to the Corinthians carefully: they were discerning whether they were eating unworthily. As I see it, of course they were eating unworthily! We are do; we are all unworthy.
Of course, Paul well recognizes that our communion with Christ does not take place only deep in our consciences. “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into the one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—” black or white, blue collar or white collar, gay or straight, we would say today—“and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Did you catch the subtle reference to communion there? For Paul the church is not an assemblage of individual Christians, it is as a whole the one body of Christ.
But set alongside John, Paul bequeaths us something very important. For John, the Christian fellowship is all love and light, and outside there is nothing but darkness and evil. Paul also recognizes that the Christian communion is holy and distinct from the world, true. But for Paul, to participate in Christ brings not only the blessings of Christ but also the critical judgment of Christ upon the believer. Because we are Christ’s body, the stakes are higher for us, the standards are more demanding; the winnowing wind of God blows right through us, separating our chaff from our good grain. The Spirit indeed baptizes us with fire, burning away our chaff. It’s a very helpful corrective to the all too Johnish tendency of Christians to think that God loves and is merciful to Christians, but to those outside the church, God pours out fiery judgment. Maybe we should think of it the other way around: only Christians, because we participate in Christ, come to know God’s judgment; and that judgment, believe it or not, is a blessing.
Paul is absolutely unsparing toward the Corinthians throughout the letter—aside from the warm greeting, 16 chapters of correction and criticism is what they got in this letter. But Paul’s beefs with them show a very similar orientation to what we find in John’s gospel and letters. The Corinthians, considering themselves spiritually exalted persons, “puffed up” in Paul’s colorful language, have taken to starting factions and disregarding other members of their church family; and that’s precisely how Paul knows that they are unspiritual—infants in Christ, as he puts it in chapter three. Slightly different from John, Paul sees Christian love as a participation in Christ’s self-giving—the same self-giving that came to a head on the cross. Our self-giving translates directly into caring regard for others: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way.”
So what is this communion with bread and cup, and why do we do it? The classic Congregationalist answer is that it’s a memorial meal / that helps us recall Jesus and what he did. It’s a very mental thing, and it looks back in time. But that’s only one side of this mystery. We should remember that as a Passover meal, communion can be a celebration of liberation from bondage; Christians should reclaim this Jewish side of communion. But it also looks forward to Jesus’ heavenly banquet, and reminds us that Jesus is yet to come. And between the remembrance and the looking forward, this is a meal of Jesus’ ongoing presence to the disciples, as in the Emmaus story. Is Jesus physically present in the bread and wine as Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians believe? Well, focusing on the physical elements can be a way to demonstrate that God’s grace precedes our actions and our willing, like a plate shoved in your face.
But, taking a cue from John, Christ can be present in the act of sharing a meal, in the familial love that is so inherent in that act. Communion enacts the love we share that is Christ and is the mutual love between the Father and Jesus. We must never forget what a wondrous thing it is that we love one another.
And taking a cue from Paul, communion not only enacts Christ’s loving presence, but also recalls us to how far we yet are from Christ. How needy and dependent on God for sustenance. How still so much a part of the sinful world that broke Jesus’ body and spilled his blood. That’s all at least as real and undeniable as any physical object we can see and taste.
Communion works on so many levels as long as we cultivate a taste for it. But sometimes it fails. You will, seldom or often, find that communion means nothing at all to you. It will be just a ritual. It happens to me. The other mysteries of the faith likewise will seem, from time to time, meaningless or implausible. That’s ok. Look around you, here or on the other side of the globe. These are your people, and many are encountering God in this ritual. Thank goodness we are not only spiritual, but not also religious; we are not spiritual souls devoid of a vast enveloping body. We are members all of one body, and when the Spirit leaves us dry, we are sustained by the whole body, which drinks of the same Spirit and shall do so until all are quenched.