The Apostle Paul called it “the Lord’s Supper,” Catholics call it “Mass,” Protestants call it “Communion,” and how it’s done, and how often, change from church to church, but on this first Sunday in October, all around the world, Christians are celebrating what is known as World Communion Sunday. Like many of our special days, this one grew out of the inspiration of a single man, Dr. Jesse Bader, who came up with the notion during wartime that it would be good for American soldiers in farflung corners of the earth to know that on one Sunday of the year all their friends, family and fellow countrymen back home would be joining them in a communion service. The idea caught the imagination of Americans, and began to spread slowly around the world.
No single understanding of the Lord’s Table is required to observe worldwide communion Sunday. Diversity in how it is done ranges from the elaborate liturgy of Eastern Orthodox churches to the Mass to Roman Catholics to the almost severe simplicity of our Congregational way, but one idea is held in common: it is seen as a way of remembering the night when Jesus in his last supper with his disciples did something quite typical of Jewish meals at the time. He broke bread, witha prayer; and later he spoke a blessing over the wine….none of it in the least odd or unfamiliar to his friends who had done such things before. But this time he says, realizing he will not be with them much longer, “When you do this, do it in memory of me.” Quite simply, he asks to be remembered. It’s impossible to know whether he imagined even for a moment that his poignant request would be transformed into an elaborate ritual which would be observed in thousands of churches over the next twenty centuries. My personal opinion is that he did not, that he simply wished to be remembered for his life and teaching whenever his friends had their customary prayers over bread and wine in the future, but that when the church came into existence and his life and words were ransacked for special meaning, such a moment at an ordinary meal took on more and more sacred significance.
This is, of course, the most natural thing in the world. Some of you will remember reading, as I did, about two old veterans of World War 1 who met in Oklahoma City to remember their buddies by drinking champagne together. The bottle was bought years ago by a few survivors of their unit, with the undersanding that the last survivor would drink in memory of all the others. But when only two were left, they decided they did not want to drink alone, so at 89 and 94 they met for the ceremony. I’m sure they drank not only to their buddies, but to the country for which they fought, and their doing it made me think of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. To do that ceremony “in memory of me” must mean more than calling to mind a person. It is remembering and sharing in an event, bringing back to mind the cross and the victory of life over death and all the millions who have lived and died in the faith that the way of Christ is the way of life.
Before we join others around the world in this moment of memory, I would like to share some reflections with you on this most famous of all Christian ceremonies. I mentioned to you that it must have grown quite naturally out of the customs of Jewish meals, where a special thanksgiving would be offered at the start and again at the end, and where, if the meal had a more-than-usual religious meaning, thanksgiving would be said over a “cup of blessing” of wine mixed with water and passed around to everyone. Since Jesus and his disciples gathered around the table as Jews, and since the first Christians came out of Jewish backgrounds, you can see how easily this ritual could be translated by and by into a Christian ceremony.
There is evidence that these first Jewish Christians, soon after the death of Christ, began observing his request to be remembered by making a part of their ordinary daily meal sacred. Luke describes the first few days of the church: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” They were in a state of great excitement, convinced they were living in the “last times,” that Jesus would return quickly from heaven to usher in a new age. The earliest Christian writings we have, from Paul to the Thessalonian church, show clearly that he and others thought this end of the world would happen soon, in their own lifetime.
When it did not, and when the church began to spread out beyond Jerusalem, it became less urgent and less practical to have these frequent fellowship meals. We can’t trace the evoltuion but before the apostles were all dead it seems the regular time of meeting was on the first day of the week, Sunday, or as Christians called it, “The Lord’s Day,” because that was the day on which they believed his resurrection took place. We have to guess at the process by which this particular day became the accepted day for the corporate worship of the church, and for the celebration of the sacred meal. While the church was still made up of former Jews, they apparently kept meeting on the Sabbath in temples and synagogues….Christians now, but still very close to their Jewish roots. Some think that at sundown on the Sabbath, which marked for Jews the close of the Sabbath and the beginning of the first day of the week, those who had become Chtristians would gather for their own special time, including a breaking of bread in memory of Jesus. As the church spread away from Jerusalem and took in more and more Gentiles, and as even Jewish Christians separated more and more from their traditions, the meetings on Saturday evening, often lasting into the early hours of the morning, would remain as the primary occasions of Christian worship. At some point in their eating together, someone would break a loaf of bread and say a prayer of thanksgiving for the life of Christ, and later do the same with a jug of wine, with still relatively little distinction between the sacred and the secular parts of the meal.
When non-Jewish Greeks and Romans began to pour into the church, they brought with them their own traditions of sacred meals in which people communed with their gods. Unfortunately for the early church, these meals all too often degenerated into gluttonous eating and excessive drinking that went far beyond decent behavior. In the new little Christian church in Corinth, this caused a scandal so embarrassing that Paul wrote a blistering note about it. In modern language, they were doing something like this: the wealthier churchmbmers, who did not have to punch a timeclock, arrived early with choice wine, baked salmon and fresh fruit salads, to meet their social equals. Without waiting for the workingclass to arrive, they began to eat and drink, and by the time the bluecollar Christians got there with their hotdogs and hamburgers, the people at the preferred tables were already pretty far along in their cups. “Drunk” was the word Paul used.
Now this was a real dinner, obviously, but it was also an occasion during which there was to be a celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I have wanted for years to have this happen sometime at a church fellowship dinner, where at some point we all pause for a moment, give thanks for our food and drink in the name of Christ, and acknowledge that we are remembering his life and our gratitude for what he taught. You can imagine how offensive it would be at such a moment if the dinner had gotten so wild that some were drunk, but this is exactly what had happened at Corinth. “If you can’t do better than this,” Paul says, “then stay home and eat in your own houses.”
This whole ritual has changed so much over the centuries that there is not much chance we will act like the Corinthians. The Lord’s Supper is not celebrated anymore as part of an actual meal, and we are very solemnly sitting in pews rather than around a table filled with talk and laughter, and what we still call “wine” is really only grapejuice served in a thimble cup that wouldn’t make anyone drunk if it were wine! We don’t know when all these changes took place over the centuries, but we do know that what began as a very simple act at an ordinary meal grew more and more complex in the organized church until the Reformers of the 16th century set out to make it more simple once again.
This is why, in the classical Congregational view, there is absolute equality among all who meet at the Lord’s Table. The idea of an altar set against a wall, where only a priest can stand and officiate, is all wrong for Congregationalists; they speak of a “table” but never of an “altar.” In some of the earliest American churches, long wooden tables were often put down the center aisle of the church so that the entire congregation could actually sit facing each other. Lacking room for that, we have to imagine that we are seated around a table. Imagination, in fact, is the most important single element in what we are about to do. I remember the day when I was about ten and whispered a questions during communion into my mother’s ear. “Why do they call it ‘supper,'” I asked, “when we’ve all just had breakfast?” She told me to hush, partly because I had no business whispering just then, and partly because she didn’t know the answer. She could not have said it to me, but we were dealing at that moment not with reality but with symbolism. Symbols are rooted in some kind of reality, but they go past it to other levels of meaning. My father’s tombstone is for me a memorial; it represents personal experience and calls up a host of intimate memories, but if you were to go look at it, without those experiences, it could only be useful to you as a symbol….a symbol to suggest, say, the brevity of our lives, the inevitability of death, the fragility of human life. For the earliest Christians, who had actually seen Jesus break bread and our wine and laugh and talk, they were remembering, but for us the Lord’s Supper is less remembrance than it is symbolism. The little piece of bread, and the tiny cup, are no more than trivial objects until we invest them with meaning. There is a wedding cake in my freezer, over a year old now because the kids weren’t able to come back to eat it on their first anniversary. I doubt it’s much good; I’d throw it out in a minute to make some room, except that for two kids I love it’s a symbol of something: first just a cake, made of sugar and flour and whatever goes into cakes, but more, much much more, to them….and the “more” is the only thing that counts now.
Some people do not need symbols, they tell us, and I can believe them. They live almost as disembodied spirits without such mundane assistance as symbolism. I think Henry David Thoreau was such a person, and Emerson and Coleridge, who all felt that even though they were Christians they felt no need to commune by the help of such simple tangible objects as bread and wine. Our Quaker friends, whom I admire very much, picked up on that idea and commune without physical helps of any kind. But most Christians feel it helps them, just as those two old World War 1 vets felt drinking the champagne helped them imagine their lost buddies again.
We speak of communion as a sacrament, meaning that it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. The simple truth is that we live by such things. Someone frowns, and we read the wrinkled brow and the dropping mouth as an index to the spirit. Or someone smiles, and we hear laughter from the heart which makes no real sound waves at all. Two thousand years ago, sitting at a rough-hewn table in an upper room, a man spoke words that turned eating bread and drinking wine into a sacrament. If we have imagination, and are willing, we can recreate that moment and honor him whom we call the Lord of life.
For 2,000 years there has never been a year, nor a month, nor a Sunday when people were not sitting around or before this table, thinking together of that radiant life they profess to follow. This morning is one more link in that unbroken chain, a reminder that when we sit together in love at this table it becomes a feast of the heart and the place where we meet Him in the banquet hall of promise. We exclude no one who is willing to be with us in quiet reverence at this table of holy communion. You are welcome to join us.