Communion Sunday, 2002 (10/6/02)
University Congregational Church
Rev. Gary Cox Wichita, Kansas
Today is Communion Sunday, the one day of the year when almost every church in the world celebrates the sacrament of bread and wine instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper. It’s been a few years since we took a close look at communion itself, and I thought this would be a good time to revisit the subject.
Communion intrigues me. In my personal faith journey, I’ve managed to settle a great number of theological issues in my heart, or at least come to an understanding that sets my mind at peace. There are other issues with which I continue to struggle. And communion…communion lies somewhere between my settled faith issues and my ongoing inner struggles.
Communion is still working on me. It’s an area where my theology continues to evolve. Frankly, when I attended church before I went to seminary, I never cared much for communion. When I arrived at church and realized that the congregation would be taking communion that morning, my general attitude was, “Well, that’s okay, but I’d really rather hear a full-length sermon or perhaps and extra choir number. I know many of you feel that way, because you’ve expressed that honest sentiment to me.
For others, communion is something they wish we would do much more often. Again, some of you have told me that you find communion very meaningful—that there is a place deep within you that is spiritually nourished in a unique way by this ancient sacrament.
In many Christian traditions, such as Catholic, Episcopal, and Disciples of Christ, communion is the centerpiece of every worship service. Other traditions, such as the Quakers, never take communion. Here at University Congregational Church we have decided to have a communion service four times each year, and I think that is a good number. It is often enough to keep communion as an integral part of our faith, but infrequent enough for the sacrament to remain special.
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One of the reasons I am so fond of Congregationalism is the fact we live together in a covenant, and not through a set of creeds. Creeds are the way most denominations define themselves. One denomination will say that to belong to it you must accept the Nicene Creed and some 16th Century Protestant confession. Another denomination will say that to belong you must accept the Apostles’ Creed and some 17th Century catechism.
As Congregationalists, it’s not that we don’t believe in any of the creeds. It’s simply that we leave it up to the individual member to determine what creeds best define the way he or she understands the relationship between God, Jesus and the world. And that’s what creeds do. They attempt to explain the unexplainable. They are like signs along the highway that point us toward God. As Congregationalists we don’t insist that one sign is right and another sign is wrong. You pick your own path, your own road, and simply live in this faith community by a covenant—an agreement.
The agreement for this congregation is pretty simple, and it’s printed on the front of the Sunday bulletin each and every week. It reads, In the love of truth, and in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ, we join with one another to worship and to live that peace, justice and brotherhood may prevail in the world. Believe me, that’s a lot simpler than having to memorize the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession; and it causes a lot less arguments.
One of the things I am most frequently asked by prospective members is to explain our theology behind communion. For those who have been raised in more rigid traditions, they sometimes find my answer disconcerting: we don’t have one. But before they walk out thinking we must be a bunch of theological lightweights, I explain that the reason we don’t have one is because we have four. There are, generally speaking, four theologies in the Christian faith behind the sacrament of communion, and just like we don’t insist on what particular creed a person who belongs to this church accepts, neither do we insist which theology of communion they believe.
Because this is one of my favorite subjects, many of you have heard me explain these four theologies before. However, it’s been two years since we examined them, and I think this is an important enough subject that it should come up at least every few years.
The problems arise in interpreting the words of Jesus. What did Jesus mean when he took hold of that bread and said, “This is my body.”? The statement about the wine being his blood holds the same problem. What did he mean when he said the wine was his blood? For this discussion, we will use the bread as our primary example, because with all four Christian theologies of communion, the same principles can be applied to both the bread and the wine.
For over a thousand years, the church accepted the literal notion that once the priest said Jesus’ words from the Last Supper over the bread and wine of communion, those elements-the bread and wine—actually turned into the very body and blood of Jesus. It was a mystery that could not be explained, but it was real, in the truest sense of the word.
By the time the 13th Century rolled around, there were those in the church who wanted an explanation of how it was that the words of the priest could have this magical effect on the bread and wine. While the western world had turned its back on Greek philosophy after the fall of Rome, it had remained alive in the Muslim world. And by the 13th Century, with the spread of Islam, Greek thought, especially logic, began filtering back into western society. Many of the more brilliant scholars of the church were faced with a dilemma. If the Bible was true—and the assumed it surely was—then the bread of communion really did become the Body of Christ. But what was the logical explanation for such a thing?
Enter what many believe is the greatest mind in the history of the church: St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was determined to use Greek philosophy to prove there is a logical truth behind the sacrament of communion, and he called on the philosophy of Aristotle to do so. The theory he came up with is called transubstantiation, and it remains the theology of the Roman Catholic Church to this day.
Transubstantiation is a very misunderstood idea, because it makes no sense whatsoever unless one understands Aristotle. What we hear is that the Catholics believe that after the priest says the words of institution—Jesus’ words from the Last Supper—the bread really becomes the very body of Jesus, and the wine becomes his actual blood. That’s not quite right, even though many Catholics will tell you that is exactly what transubstantiation means.
Be patient, while we dip or toes into the philosophy of Aristotle for a few moments. Aristotle said the universe is made of two basic things: substance and accidents. Now forget everything you’ve ever associated with the words “substance” and “accidents,” because what they mean in the philosophy of Aristotle has nothing to do with the way they are used in the world today.
Aristotle said that everything we see in the world is a series of accidents. Take, for example, a cup. One of the cup’s accidents is its height; another of the cup’s accidents is its width; another its circular shape; another the handle on its side; another the fact that is can serve as a container. We may see cups of various configurations, but we need to classify things in our minds, and so we recognize something in each of them that we might call cupness. Cupness is the underlying reality that makes a cup a cup, regardless of its unique configuration—its accidents—in the physical world. This underlying reality—this cupness, or treeness, or wheelness, or what have you—Aristotle called substance.
Enter the bread of communion. When the bread is set down on the communion table, it has all the accidents of bread. It has the height, width, smell, and texture of bread. And before the priest says the words of Jesus over the bread, its substance—its underlying reality—is breadness. And then the priest says the words of Jesus—this is my body, broken for you—and something changes. The bread’s accidents remain the same. It still has the height, width, smell and texture of bread. But now, now, the underlying reality is no longer breadness. The underlying reality—the substance—is now Christness. It is just that the Body of Christ is reflected in the physical world in the form of bread.
That is the meaning of transubstantiation. Look at the word itself. Trans—changed, substantiation—substance. Changed substance. Changed underlying reality. That is the Catholic theology behind communion, although it is safe to say few in the Catholic Church, outside the clergy, have an understanding of the philosophy behind it.
About 400 years after Aquinas applied the philosophy of Aristotle to communion, the Protestant Reformation came along. Considering that there seems to be about a million different Protestant denominations in the world today, it won’t surprise you that right off the bat the Protestants could not agree on a theology of communion. In fact, arguments over the true nature and meaning of communion became one the most bitter and divisive battles in the church, and it is a battle that still rages today.
However, pretty much every idea about communion can be traced to either the Catholic view of transubstantiation, or one of three ideas that came out of the Reformation. Those three ideas came from Martin Luther, Huldrich Zwingli, and John Calvin. And they are pretty simple compared to what we have already examined.
Here is Martin Luther’s idea. Yes, that bread really is the Body of Christ. It is the Body of Christ because the Bible says it is the Body of Christ. But it is a mystery. Any attempt to use the philosophy of Aristotle to explain God’s mysterious sacrament is misguided.
Zwingli took exception to that notion. Oh, he agreed that the Catholics had it all wrong, but he claimed Martin Luther also had it wrong. Zwingli said that when Jesus took the bread in his hand and said “this is my body,” he was speaking symbolically. What he was really saying was, “This bread represents my body—remember me when you eat the bread together.” I should probably mention that the primary reason he took that position was not because he didn’t take the Bible literally in most cases, but rather because the Bible specifically says that after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, he took his place at the right hand of God. He asked Luther directly how it was Jesus could be in that piece of bread and in heaven at the right hand of God at the same time.
And then comes John Calvin. He looked at it this way, trying to find a middle ground between Luther and Zwingli. For the Catholics and for Luther, Christ really is in the bread. When the bread is swallowed, you are physically taking Christ into your body. For Zwingli, Christ is not in the bread. When you swallow the bread, you are simply remembering Jesus—the work he did on the cross, and everything that he did and stood for.
Calvin said that when you swallow the bread you are indeed swallowing bread. But as you physically swallow the bread something spiritual happens. You do indeed take in the Body of Christ, not within the bread itself, but within the spiritual nature of the celebration of the sacrament. The priest or minister acts with the congregation in the material world, and God acts alongside us in the spiritual world.
Those are the four theologies of communion: Aquinas—the underlying reality of the bread changes to the Body of Christ; Luther—the bread becomes the Body of Christ mysteriously; Zwingli—bread is bread, and we remember Jesus in the sacrament; and Calvin—the bread remains bread, and God acts on us spiritually.
I guess you know me well enough to realize I’m not going to tell you how you should think about communion. Like I said, communion is still working on me. I will say that for many years I was strictly Zwinglian—bread is bread, and Communion is a time to remember Jesus. As time has passed I’ve leaned more and more toward the deep spirituality within the sacrament. I wish Aquinas were alive today to reflect on the work of modern quantum physicists. They all seem to be pointing to that mysterious place where the accidents of time and space dissolve into the idea from which they spring forth. I think a person with Aquinas’s mind could have a lot of fun with that. And Calvin, with whom I most often disagree, seems to me to be dancing pretty close to the truth when he says that something special, something spiritual, happens, or at least can happen, when people gather to celebrate communion.
But enough talk! Communion isn’t about words; it’s about experience. Somehow, someway, the experience of communion has touched people in a variety of meaningful ways for two thousand years. Today, we take our place among those who went before, and who, like us, opened themselves to that mysterious place within, where past and present, material and spiritual are united in the eternal now of God’s love.
As we begin, I remind you that at University Congregational Church, we celebrate “Open Communion,” meaning all present are welcome to partake, whether they are from a Christian faith tradition, or some other faith tradition. Our feeling is that Jesus welcomed everybody to his table, so we certainly welcome everybody to ours.
Let us go forth into the world to serve God with gladness; being of good courage; holding fast to that which is good; rendering to no one evil for evil; supporting the weak; helping the afflicted; and honoring all people as we love and serve God, through the spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.