Communion: The Poetry of Faith

April 21, 1996


Communion: The Poetry of Faith

The religious ceremony we celebrate this morning has a curious and complex history. From very simple beginnings, it has evolved like the branches of a spreading tree, with different names for the branches and different notions about exactly what the branches mean. Like most Protestant churches we call what we are about to do “communion” or “The Lord’s Supper,” but some Lutheran and Episcopal churches call it “The Eucharist” — from the Greek word for gratitude. Roman Catholics refer to it as “Mass” and distinguish between High and Low Mass, while their separated brothers, the Eastern Orthodox church, call their ritual “The Divine Liturgy.” Beneath the names there can be profound differences about what happens in this ceremony. According to Catholic teaching, each Mass is a true sacrifice in which the bread and wine on the altar are transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ, offered up over and over by the Church as an atonement for our sins. But according to Protestants, communion is the simple but sacred act of recalling the Last Supper when Jesus invited his disciples to remember the love that cost him his life.
Churches differ not only in the names they give this ceremony, and the meaning they attach to it, but also in how and how often they choose to celebrate it. My own childhood church insisted that the Lord’s Supper be observed every week, and made it clear that doing it less often put one at serious risk of eternal punishment. We marveled at the wrong-headedness of our Methodist neighbors who observed the Lord’s Supper only four times a year, and if we had known a Congregational church like this one which celebrates communion only twice a year, we would have marveled even more. Quaker churches would have left us speechless, because the Quakers use no physical elements at all — no bread, no cup. They seek communion with their Lord silently, in spirit. It requires some training and some discipline, but for those who grew up that way, it works. And for further variety, there is our local Unitarian Church which has what they call a “flower communion,” once a year, in which members are encouraged to bring flowers from their gardens to to a table up front
This bewildering variety among Christian believers will help you understand, I hope, why in my sermon title I speak of communion as “the poetry of faith.” I could not have called it that when I was 20 and claiming from the pulpit that this ceremony had to be done exactly as my church did it. My religion had no poetry in it in those days; it was entirely prose. We had as many fine and decent people as any church, but our religion was highly judgmental in its legalistic approach to faith. And, since not everybody is familiar with the word “legalism” as a theological term, I think it might be instructive to define it. It means rigid, inflexible adherence to the law… the letter rather than the spirit. To see it in action is better than any abstract definition, so here are a couple of case histories fom my own double life as a professor and a preacher. The first story is a favorite, so if I have told it before I beg you to remember that repetition is an essential element in learning!
For about a year, during my first tour of duty as an English teacher, I went off on Sundays to preach in a small Arkansas town called Beebe. When communion was served after the sermon on my very first visit I beganto hear some odd snapping sounds as a pair of deacons passed the bread tray, starting from the back of the room. As they came closer I realized that the flat little pieces of unleavened bread had been baked as hard as peanut brittle and were popping noisily as people broke them. Sometimes, in their struggle, they would send another piece skittering across the floor of the church like an errant tiddlywink. Some body, I thought, must have left the loaf too long in the oven last week, but it was exactly the same on the next Sunday when I saw one elderly woman give up in despair when she lacked the strength to break bread as hard as a piece of shale. Well, twice in a row is strange, I thought, but I don’t want to ask about it and hurt someone’s feelings. But when it happened again on the third Sunday I asked after the closing prayer if I could meet briefly with the men of the church (women were not invited to business meetings in that church, on the grounds that early Christian worship was controlled by men — another examle of our legalism). The dozen men who gathered up front after church that day were shy farmers and ranchers who looked studiously at the floore as I suggested that the brittle loaf created some awkwardness, even irreverence, and that perhaps we might consider some way to have it a little softer. After a long silence, one of the men explained that the bread was baked that way on purpose. These, believe it or not, were his exact words:
“Our last preacher told us that Jesus broke the bread. He said Jesus didn’t bend the bread, he broke it. And our preacher said that the way to make sure we followed the Scripture and broke the bread like Jesus did, was to make it hard enough that we could hear it pop.” I explained gently that this was stretching literalism a bit far, and that Jesus would doubtless approve of a quieter and more easily managed communion. They were good people who wanted to please their latest pracher, so they nodded silently in agreement and went home to dinner. The bread was breakable from then on.
But legalism dies hard, so I knew it would show its face somewhere else. Several years after that, amazed to hear that two churches of that same persuasion were holding a debate on whether it was scripturally legal to use individual communion cups instead of a single chalice, and to use several pieces of bread instead of a single loaf, I drove 200 miles just to hear how the champions each side would torture the Bible to prove their point. For a person with my peculiar interests, it was an exhilarating spectacle and I wanted to stay over for the second night but my gracious companion who had agreed reluctantly to humor me in the first place said one night was all she could take. So on the way home I told her about the small rural church in West Texas which split once over whether it was Scriptural to use those little paper communion cups with the fold-out handles. Some of you will remember those cups, with the handles pressed flat against the cup until you bent them out. Some of the good people thought they were convenient, but the more legalistic ones argued that they “smacked of modernism” and looked too much as if they were drinking tea. So — handles, no handles… cup, many cups…..hard loaf, soft loaf….once a week, once a year….even when the peripheral issues seem ridiculous you have to remember thatpeople divide over such things because they feel so strongly about the importance of communion.
Our own infrequent communion service is very simple, which does not mean for a moment that it is better or more effective than the more formal ceremony favored by some of our religious neighbors. We happen to like simplicity because it’s a vital part of our 350-year-old heritage. Our Congregational ancestors broke away from the Church of England because they preferred a plainer worship, but they knew that all ceremony fails to work unless people put their imaginations to work and see behind symbols to reality. The truth, of course, is that whether it is elaborate or simple, all ritual fails us at time. Something distracts us, there was a quarrel last night , we have a cold, we are not in the right mood — so that despite the earnest words and the lovely music, nothing happens. What has worked for me may not be useful for some of you, but I think of it now because it’s the way I know it best.
When communion is offered, I make a conscious decision to remember the simple reality that gave birth to what came to be known by all the different names I have mentioned. I roll history back 2000 years and put myself in a room with an extraordinary but exhausted man who has been trying to turn some ordinary people into the messengers of a new way of life. I do not imagine a romantic place, but a room typical of the time — crude and cramped, with a rough table and crude benches, smoke-darkened from winter fires and smelly from a crowd of hard-working men who have never seen a Maytag or taken their clothes to Courtesy Cleaners. We idealize their meal, as we do so many other things in the Bible. These were outdoor men; they did not eat delicately. You would have heard them, and more than one would have wiped his mouth with his sleeve. None of them, my imagination tells me, would really have understood what it meant when Jesus said the customary Jewish thanks over a rough loaf of bread and then said something different from anything they had ever heard: “This is my body which is broken for you.” These were not poets, not men on easy terms with symbolism, and I can hear one of them mumble under his breath: “Looks like bread to me.” Too much anxiety that night for exercises in theology. They were scared half to death for fear of what might happen in the next few hours — it was hardly a time for them to ponder the mystery of how a loaf might be a body and how poured wine might stand for a spilled life.
It is one of the strangest things in human history that whether those simple men understood it or not, the ceremony that sprang from that poignant supper has by now been a part of church life for 2,000 years — and whether it is simple or elaborate, it only works if you and I make it work. A few words about its history and meaning, a thoughtful prayer, some quiet music — these may help, but ultimately an act of will is required from us, in which for a few quiet moments we reflect on the life we are remembering and on the blessed life it has created in places like this. Otherwise, what is for some people holy communion becomes for others only an interruption which they tolerate but about which they have no deep or useful feelings.
So, whether what happens next is prose or poetry depends, I think, almost entirely upon how well our imaginations work. We welcome anyone who is willing with quiet reverence to be a part of this ceremony, and we do so in the hope that these moments of meditation will make some difference in the way we live tomorrow.

Go with us, Eternal God, from this time of worship and this
table of communion, into a world of service where — because
we have been here together — we more gladly seek to make
love and justice prevail in the world around us. Amen.