World Communion Sunday, 2004 (10/3/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Christianity is divided into almost countless factions. We can argue over just about anything, and there are people on all sides of every issue who are so convinced they have cornered the market on Christian truth, they are willing to draw lines in the theological sand and boldly declare who is and who is not in the grace of God because of the way they practice religion.
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We draw no such lines in this place. Some might think that is because we lack conviction, but that’s not really true. It’s just that our convictions are different from most churches. We are convinced that since intelligent and faithful people cannot agree on what constitutes the proper practice of faith, it is unlikely that we can sort through things and come up with all the right answers. And so we believe faith is a matter of personal conscience, and we live by a very simple rule. The person beside us in the pews has the right to his or her beliefs. And we will discuss everything, but we will argue about nothing.
There is, however, one thing that the worldwide church pretty much agrees on. Every year, on the first Sunday of October, churches celebrate communion. Many churches celebrate communion every Sunday, some celebrate it monthly, some quarterly, some only once or twice a year. But every church that accepts communion as a sacrament of the Christian faith will celebrate communion today. This is World Communion Sunday.
That’s the good news. The bad news is, those churches will argue vehemently over the meaning of communion. Every couple of years I like to talk about the differing theologies behind communion. That’s a very Congregational thing to do. Most churches explain what their particular tradition believes about communion. Here, we explain what all those other churches are arguing about, and let people sort things out in their own minds.
The church believes that the sacrament of communion was instituted by Jesus himself at the Last Supper. We find the story in the Synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke. The Gospel of John, as usual, is stubbornly different. John tells us that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper—a detail not found in the other gospels—and leaves out the story of communion. But there is general agreement that on the last night of his life Jesus ate with his disciples, and during that meal he said something to the effect, “This bread is my body; this wine is my blood.”
For the first 1500 years of Christian history, church authorities told Christians the meaning of communion, and except for occasional arguments and discussions within the church hierarchy, whatever the church stated publicly was taken to be the literal gospel truth. And what the church told the people was this: Once the priest says the word of institution—once the priest takes the bread and says the words of Jesus from the last supper, and once he holds up the cup and says Jesus’ words about the wine—then the bread is no longer bread and the wine is no longer wine. They become the body and blood of Christ.
This was the accepted theology of communion, and was seldom questioned, especially during what some call the Dark Ages—that 500 or 600 year period following the fall of Rome in the late 5th century. The church suppressed critical thinking through the Dark Ages. But fortunately for humanity, the great thinking of the Greek philosophers was kept alive in the Arab world. And early in the second millennium, the Western world was re-introduced to higher mathematics, science and philosophy.
Great thinkers—critical thinkers—started to emerge within the church. Brilliant and faithful people such as Anselm and Thomas Aquinas started thinking about the Christian faith in ways it had never been examined before. And it was only natural for them to ask the question: If, after the priest says the Words of Institution, we say this bread is actually the Body of Christ and this wine is actually Christ’s blood… what does that mean? How can that be true? I hear what the priest says, but this bread still looks like bread, and this wine still looks and tastes like wine.
It was Thomas Aquinas who came up with a theory that explained all this, and he applied the philosophy of Aristotle to communion in order to do so. Philosophy—you either love it or hate it, and it you fall into that latter category, feel free to daydream for the next few moments while we take a short, but necerssary detour through the philosophy of Aristotle.
In the modern world we have a scientific worldview. There are certain things we accept about reality. The modern worldview grew out of the enlightenment, and it holds that the physical world is the primary reality. When modern people think about the world, we begin with the physical universe. We study it, and measure it, and assume that it is the basic stuff of reality. We think of our minds as being organic—our minds exist because of the activity in our brains. Our spirits come into existence through our physical lives. That is the scientific worldview.
That wasn’t always the way people thought about the world. And interestingly, that is not the way modern physicists think about the world. The great quantum physicists of the 20th Century—Einstein, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Jeans, Planck, Pauli, Eddington—they all reached a point in their study of the universe that lead them to the conclusion that the so-called “scientific” worldview is wrong. Matter—the physical world—is not the ultimate reality. The physical world comes from someplace else—someplace, dare I say it, spiritual. To put it in the language of the Greek philosophers, ideas do not evolve out of the material world. The material word evolves out of ideas. (By the way, if you are interested in this subject, I would suggest a book called Quantum Questions by Ken Wilber, which contains the spiritual writings of those great physicists.
I bring this up so we won’t dismiss the philosophy of Aristotle too quickly. Aristotle said that the world is composed of substance and accidents. Forget what you think those words mean—they meant something else to Aristotle. In his philosophy, everything we see can be called accidents. Consider this pulpit. It is comprised of a series of accidents. It’s height, its width, its color, its shape—Aristotle called all of those things accidents.
But he said this pulpit has an underlying reality—a substance. We see the accidents in the physical world and call this thing a pulpit. It’s how we make sense of the world. But there is an underlying reality—something we could call puplitness—that makes this pulpit a pulpit. That substance—that underlying reality—is what every pulpit in the world shares in common.
Thomas Aquinas applied Aristotle’s theory of substance and accidents to communion. Thomas said that when the priest holds the bread in his hands, it is indeed bread. Its accidents are bread—it smells like bread, it has the shape of bread, it has the color of bread, it has the feel of bread. And its substance—its underlying reality—is bread, or, to use the world we’ve invented, its underlying reality is breadness. But once the priest says the Words of Institution, something changes. And not the accidents. Oh, it still smells like bread, looks like bread, and feels like bread. But its underlying reality—its substance—is no longer bread, or breadness. Its underlying reality is now the Body of Christ.
And there is a name for this theology of communion. It is called transubstantiation. What that means is changed substance—trans—changed; substantiation—substance. And transubstantiation remains the Catholic theology of communion, although you would be hard pressed to find a practicing Catholic that really understands it.
Okay, time to come up for some air. If you tuned out a few minutes ago, you are probably one of the lucky ones! But there is simply no way to explain the Protestant views on communion without first understanding the notion they rejected, namely, transubstantiation. There are four basic theologies of communion. The first is transubstantiation. The other three can be explained in a couple of sentences, once one understands that Catholic view.
The Protestant Reformation began in the 16th Century. The funny thing is, the leaders of the Reformation didn’t agree on anything, other than the fact the Catholic Church had been doing things wrong. One of the key arguments in those days was over communion. Nothing sparked the anger of the reformers more than the fact that the church did not allow the people in the pews to drink from the cup at communion. The church authorities believed that the wine, because it truly became the blood of Christ during communion, was too precious to be handled by common people. What if they spilled some on the floor? What is they slopped some on their shirts? Unthinkable! That was the very blood of Christ. And so the priest drank from the cup on behalf of the people, who were permitted to watch from a distance.
Martin Luther held that communion is a great mystery that is not meant to be philosophically explained. It is the last will and testament of Jesus, the promise of the forgiveness of sins Jesus gave to believers through his death on the cross. Martin Luther did believe that the presence of Christ in the bread and wine of communion was real, but he thought it vain of humanity to try to explain Christ’s presence with the philosophy of Aristotle. It is God’s great mystery, to be accepted with faith.
Huldrich Zwingli disagreed with Luther. Whereas both the Catholic Church and Martin Luther believed communion was an actual means of God’s grace, Zwingli said it was simply a sign of people’s acceptance of God’s grace. For Zwingli, Christ is not present in the bread and wine, because Christ is at the right hand of God. Communion is a remembrance, a communal celebration and profession of faith.
Luther and Zwingli were never able to reach agreement on this issue. It was John Calvin who sought a middle ground between these two very different theologies. Calvin agreed with Zwingli that the bread and wine remain bread and wine throughout communion, but he believed communion was much more than the mere remembrance of Christ. Calvin agreed with Luther that Christ was indeed present in communion, but unlike Luther, Calvin thought that presence was purely spiritual. When one eats the bread, one receives bread into the stomach, and Christ into the spirit.
So let’s simplify and summarize the four theologies of communion. The Catholic view is that the bread appears to still be bread, but its true reality becomes the actual Body of Christ. Luther said that the bread becomes the Body of Christ, and that fact is a mystery to be embraced, not a riddle to be explained. Zwingli said bread is bread, and communion is a celebration of remembrance. And Calvin said that the bread remains bread, but we spiritually receive Christ when we eat the bread.
Who is right? I have no idea! What is real? Again, I’m not sure, at least not when it comes to the nature of this amazing universe of which we are all a part. But I know what I believe. I believe that God’s love is holding this whole universe together, and that God’s love is calling you and me forth from the dust, and that there are times, even in this place where head and heart are equal partners in faith, when we just need to turn off our minds and open ourselves to the mystery. And communion is one of those times. We’ve thought it through. We’ve wrestled with all those great thinkers and their different ideas. But the one thing they all agreed on, and which we also can agree on, is that Jesus did not institute communion for the sake of mental gymnastics. Communion is something to be experienced. And it is now, with our minds open to the possibilities, that we open our hearts, and celebrate communion.