Why Church? Communion

October 6, 2013


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
October 6, 2013

Why Church? Communion
Mark 14: 22-25

A friend of mine was saying that the time she finds most peaceful and meaningful in her life is early morning, sitting on her deck, as the autumn weather brings cool, crisp morning air blowing through her hair. She sits and drinks hot coffee with her husband before they have to go about their business that day. It is a time of reflection, peaceful tranquility and intimacy.
A Jewish mother wrote that it was their family tradition to pick a flower for the Sabbath table in their home. If it was fall, they brought in crinkly fall leaves for the centerpieces but on the Sabbath day, they tried to always find a gift from God’s creation to use on the table. Many of you agree with her and bring fresh flowers for our table on Sunday.
Some families join hands before eating. Others light candles for the evening meal. There are people who gather at mealtime to have a conversation. Friends often schedule some kind of food when they gather. Food is a constant presence at celebrations-birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, even football games aren’t quite the same without a hotdog. Food is much more than something we feed our bodies.
When we eat with others, we are feeding our souls, perhaps that‘s why anyone would eat in their car. It simply doesn’t make sense. Eating requires more than feeding one’s stomach. It is an activity to be enjoyed, taking time to share life with others while breaking bread together.

Today is World Communion Sunday. Once a year, Christians around the world all receive communion on the same day. Baptists, who may only receive communion every 3-4 months, gets out the policy manual and figure out how to pour the juice in the little cups. Methodists, who share the Eucharist once in a month or two months, agree to be late to the restaurant where they have lunch, and stay an extra 15 minutes for communion. Small churches and large churches; Anglican and Congregational; European and Australian, children and the elderly, all God’s children come to the table this day.

I thought it would be interesting to explore what other traditions believe about table and eating together. It seems to me that much of our focus lately has been about our differences and our intolerances. Yet, because we are all human, we share much more than separates us.

So, what are the traditions of table and food for others?
In Islam, every celebration is a way of thanking Allah, the One True God. And so, any chance to celebrate is good: going to parties, visiting friends, having clean fun, eating with others; all of these are ways that the faithful thank Allah. To a Muslim, even taking a bath, putting on clean, or new clothes or wearing perfume is a ritual of thanksgiving to God. Imagine, then, what a sacred activity of thanksgiving eating is to a Muslim. From the meal preparation to the laughter around the table, each and every part of the gathering is a celebration of the gifts Allah has given. None of these tasks are seen as insignificant –they are all part of a Thanksgiving ritual.

It will come as no surprise that bread is a significant part of any Jewish celebration. The bread served on the Sabbath day has a different name that bread served on other days of the week. Sabbath bread is called challah. This is the Old Testament word for “new dough”. Traditionally, a Jewish mother prays for each member of the family as she stirs the dough, kneading in her love. No wonder they say there is no guilt like that of a mother!

Jewish Sabbath challah is often braided or twisted in the shape of folded arms. When your arms are folded, you are at rest. You can’t work. This is why challah is special. The bread itself tells the story of rest, relaxation, re-creation.

The other significant ingredient for Jewish Sabbath celebration is wine. And like the bread, the wine has special meaning. On the Sabbath, the wine glass is placed in a dish and filled to overflowing as a visual sign of the fullness and completion of the week. Jews celebrate their Sabbath meals in a gentle and quiet mood. This ambiance should not be confused with sadness or stand-off-ish-ness. They approach the Sabbath table as if it is an alter: a place where God is always present and a place where blessing abounds.

To a Buddhist, life and health are important. The secret of health, according to ancient teaching, is the well-being of the five organs. Each organ has a food preference; the liver likes acid food, the lungs appreciate pungent food, the heart bitter, the spleen sweet, and the kidney salty. Among the organs, the heart is sovereign. If the heart is weak, all the organs suffer. It is thought that the best food for the heart is tea. If one drinks tea, the heart will be strengthened and freed from illness.

In Buddhist thought, poverty and hunger, unless undertaken for a worthy cause, are looked on as unmitigated evils, leading to sin. It stands to reason, then, that food which is given to a hungry person is true charity. “Those who give food, give life”

Each week we gather around this table. It is probably the most symbolic and esoteric ritual we have. Holy Communion, The Eucharist, The Lord’s Supper-these are the words that describe what we do here. Yet, the true essence of this table is a mystery.

What really happens here?
It isn’t the food that is served. You can eat macaroni and cheese and still experience the love of a child. You can order pizza and find friendship. Around the table, basic human life is shared. Seldom in our lives do we sit down together, quieted and prepared to listen to one another. That’s why the dinner-table in every home is a sacred place. Like the Jew, we recognize what happens at the table as sacred event. The table is our alter-a place of holiness; a place of blessing; a place where we meet God. This is the table which facilitates our sharing as a family of faith.

It isn’t the words we say. There is no magic formula that brings a spiritual nature to this place. You can read the words from any of the gospels…even from some of the epistles-they all describe the “Lord’s Supper” in different ways. Around the table, all are equal and welcome. This tradition is shared with our Jewish brothers and sisters. Thousands of years ago, there were rules governing the Hebrew people protecting each person (male or female; slave or free) when they gathered for the Passover meal. “Even the poorest Israelite should not eat until s/he reclines at the table. And s/he will be provided with no fewer than four cups of wine, even if the funds come from public charity.” (Mishnah Ppsahim 10:1) This is a table where everyone belongs and is equally welcomed.

It isn’t a singles event. We don’t come alone. God always does things in the plural. By eating the bread and drinking the cup, we declare solidarity with the church and each other. We don’t take communion by ourselves. It is a community event. Communion leads to community. Both words start with the root; commune. This literally means to “converse intimately.” So when we take communion, we are participation in a joint event-a community event. At the end of the word community is other word; unity. Like the Buddhist, we realize that food is essential for health; the gift of food is a gift of life. We come to the table as individuals. But we are transformed into a community where we converse intimately with each other. At this table, declare our unity with one another. This is another answer to the question “Why Church?” Because the sacraments of baptism and communion draws us into communion—something bigger than ourselves.

Today, let us give thanks for the table. It is a place like no other in our world. It is a place of thanksgiving, intimate sharing, and divine grace. In a time where humanity is divided, let us seek opportunities to commune around the tables of the world in a spirit of love.

Bible References

  • Mark 14:22 - 25