Why Christian–Communion?

October 4, 2015


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Oct. 4, 2015
World Communion Sunday

“Why Christian… Communion?”
John 6:35

It began last night- as you were going to bed—World Communion Sunday.
Asian Christians shared the bread and the wine. Churches in China met in secret so that they would not be arrested. Christians in the Middle East, some of whom were saved only by having dreams of Jesus, met under the watchful eye of the government as they celebrated the Eucharist. In Europe, Christians gathered in churches that used to be much fuller and celebrated the Lord’s Supper. In African the sacrament was celebrated in great numbers by a growing number of Christians, many of whom bare scars of persecution as they commune together.

Those celebrating today include Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Baptists, Congregationalists, thousands of other denominations, and even those without denominations.

Christ followers met both in public and in secret. Some met in freedom while others gathered under threat of persecution and death. Some take the sacrament today with organ music, others with simple singing, and still others in quiet so as not to be arrested.

In wealthy churches and in desperate poverty the sacrament is observed. In churches, homes, huts, and in God’s creation this seal of the covenant was experienced. The bread is given to people that could overeat all day and to people who had no idea what they would eat or where they would get it today.
The one thing we have in common- We all come to the same table.
Jordan Rimmer

In one church I served, making or purchasing the communion bread was almost a competition. Each week, we had something different:
• Jalapeño cornbread was one of my favorites
• Cinnamon buns were a close 2nd
• I made braided bread with dyed Easter eggs in it – like a wreath
• We had Christmas stollen bread
• Green bread and beer was served on more than one St. Patrick’s day
• Once, there was a very pungent garlic and dill bread that had me washing my hands in the kitchen afterward. The person who brought the bread that week was there and noticed the strong odor. She said, “I always think that when you eat the communion bread, it ought to be memorable!”

What exactly is the meaning of communion? It’s been central to the worshipping life of Christians back to the very beginning. Yet, what are we really doing? Communion literally means “sharing.” It’s breaking bread together. The word “communion” comes from King James Bible translation of the Greek word for “sharing” which Paul used.

In 1936, when the world was deeply divided by the conflict that later be known as WW II, World Communion Sunday was established. The purpose was to help Christians all over the world affirm their unity. It was at the table Christians in all nations, of many ethnicities and languages, could remember their kinship.

The Latin root is com-mun’-is, meaning participation by all. The same root is used for the words – common, community, and communicate. It’s supposed to bring everyone together as one body. As Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians,
when speaking of sharing bread as the body of Christ, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

The larger Christian church subsequently formalized communion and made a small ritual meal part of worship services. What remains absolutely central to the ritual, however, is the concept of community, the idea of overcoming distinctions
and barriers, the coming together as one body to share in the one bread. Jesus came with a clear understanding of human solidarity, which he symbolized again and again in the face of fierce criticism, by breaking bread with tax collectors and sinners and outcasts, by breaking bread with the multitudes.

Why do I think communion is an essential element of our Christian faith? It has to do with the research done by my mentor, Dr. Dennis Smith, who is the premier expert on ancient banquets. It is thought that these banquets were the ones where Jesus ate and perhaps spoke. There is a social element to these banquets that is a key piece of what communion today can mean.
• Social Bonding. The meal creates a special tie among the diners; it is the primary means for celebrating and enhancing community ties. We eat with our friends.
• Social Obligation. The meal creates a special tie among the diners that leads in turn to an ethical obligation of each other. Quarreling or mean behavior, or anything that caused factions were out of order at the table.
• Social Stratification. Those who ate together were known by “the company they kept”. Jesus was known as one who ate with tax collectors and sinners.”
• Social Equality. Meals such as communion tend to break down social barriers.

These banquet traditions were the foundations of early Christian communion. The ideology of the ancient banquet still applies today. When we eat together, especially a sacred meal, we have responsibility to, with, and for one another.

You may or may not know that in a church I formerly served, we housed the Islamic Annoor School. This was before the Mosque was built on K96 and Woodlawn. That’s right – 65 Islamic children met in a Christian Church for 5 years every day of the school year. They learned the Quran under the shadow of the cross. Because of the connection between these two communities, we also occasionally worshipped together. On Thanksgiving, we held a joint service and decided to use corn bread and cranberry juice to acknowledge our common heritage as Americans. For the Muslims there, it was an American symbol of unity. They believe that communion is like cannibalism and would never eat the elements of Christian communion. For me, it was a beautiful symbol of our common story and the community we share.

Communion is not just a matter of ingathering in unity. It should also nourish us for an outpouring of love in the world. Jesus always did both. He gathered people to break bread together, and then he sent them out to feed and clothe and comfort others: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Just as you did it to the least of these [my brothers and sisters] …you did it to me.”

As Scotty McLennan wrote, “Soul food is an act of love… Bread and wine are the soul food of the Christian. They come from a time of trial, [and] they are invested with love.”

On the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, the African Church of the Holy Spirit begins
their worship service by marching through the streets of their village singing and
dancing with instruments in order to rally more believers into their church. After
the sermon, an elder of the congregation stands to pray and drive out the evil

In Basel, Switzerland, the ecumenical patriarch blesses a new Orthodox Church
and pours holy oil, over the altar. This oil is a visible sign of the gifts of
the Holy Spirit, and it is also used in worship to anoint the newly baptized. After
the space is blessed, the community gathers together to celebrate Holy Communion.

In Seoul, South Korea, the Yoido Full Gospel Church packs six different worship
services each week with roughly 25,000 people in each service. As men and
women leave worship they are greeted by elders from the church who bow as a
way of thanking them for coming. The church is the largest Pentecostal church in
the world, and their services are watched around the world on television and
the internet.

In eastern Syria, the worship of the Syrian Orthodox cathedral in Hassake includes
ancient liturgy and the practice of the sacraments. Many of the Christians living
there can trace their roots back to the time of Jesus, and some of them even still
speak Aramaic, the ancient language of that time. In the midst of violence and war, they draw together to witness to the love of Jesus.

In Seattle, Washington, in the middle of the financial district, the Church of Mary
Magdalene is an ecumenical congregation comprised of former and current
homeless women. This church provides social services and counseling as well as
worship where all of the women are able to take part. They provide “a safe
environment to build relationships, experience hope and love, and explore faith.”