|Union University Church|
By Reverend Laurie DeMott
September 7, 2008
an American Baptist, I grew up in a church where communion was served once
a month using cubes of bread and grape juice in small cups that were passed
out to the congregation as we sat in the pews. The fact that this church
has been served almost entirely by Baptist pastors is undoubtedly the reason
that for most of its history pew communion was the norm, but some years
ago, in an attempt to acknowledge the diversity of traditions that this
congregation brings to worship, we began to alternate the style in which
we serve communion. One month we pass bread and grape juice through the
pews and the next month we ask people to come forward, as we will today,
to receive bread and wine at the altar (or in a nod to complete inclusiveness,
we do let you choose from the alternate menu and take grape juice).
Though the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is central to almost all Christian traditions, the specifics of the practice vary a great deal from church to church. The bread can come in the form of cubes or paper-thin wafers or as chunks from a homemade whole wheat organic loaf of bread. The cup can be an ornate chalice, a tiny glass, or a plastic disposable cup that comes with the grape juice sealed inside by a tear-off lid.
Every faith has a certain set of rituals, a prescribed series of ceremonial acts, that are associated with that faith. Every form of Christianity that I can think of, for example, uses the Lord’s Prayer. But other rituals are specific to denominations. Most of you probably got baptized as babies but there are some among us who had to wait until we were a bit older and then we were plunged completely underwater just to make sure the baptism really took. There are even rituals that develop as part of a specific congregation’s tradition – I don’t know of any other church that sings the Lord’s Prayer to the tune of the Navy Hymn like we do. As I understand it, that was a tradition introduced by the previous pastor and has become part of our identity.
Whatever the ritual is, it can be considered a ritual if it happens with enough regularity that the congregation experiencing it will develop an expectation of familiarity. A predictable ritual enables as to concentrate on the spiritual aspect of the service without being distracted by wondering what is going to happen next and whether you are supposed to be standing up or sitting down at any given moment. I remember once witnessing a worship service which, for some reason, had to cancel the postlude that day and after the Benediction, the congregation sat dumbly in their seats uncertain of what to do next because there was no music to signal their release from the pews. Ritual saves us from the uneasiness of self-awareness; it turns our minds away ourselves and from the worry about proper behavior in worship to the spiritual reasons for our being there in the first place. C.S. Lewis likened ritual to a dance saying that a dance isn’t much fun if you spend the entire time on the dance floor watching your feet. It is only when it becomes automatic that it likewise can become a transcendent experience.
Yet, at the same time, we all know that ritual can become so rote that it loses its meaning. A British news reporter once noticed an attendant standing at the foot of the stairway leading to the House of Commons. In chatting with the attendant, the reporter learned that the job of standing at the bottom of that stairway had been held in the attendant’s family for three generations but the young man had to admit that he wasn’t certain exactly why an attendant’s presence was necessary. The reporter, being a reporter, investigated the matter and discovered that the job originated decade ago when the stairs were painted and the grandfather of the current attendant was assigned the task of standing there and warning people not to step on the wet paint. The newsman commented, “The paint eventually dried up but not the job.”
We don’t want our rituals to become empty vestiges of functions that have ceased to exist so it is important to we ask ourselves occasionally whether our rituals are still accomplishing what they were designed to accomplish. And so I come back to the question of communion: what is it we are trying to do in this ritual of the Lord’s Supper and does it matter if we drink grape juice sitting down or wine standing up?
One method, then, of improving church goers’ ability to remember the events of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples is to encourage you to choose the wine in the chalice as you listen to Jesus’ words. Apparently that little bit of wine will help increase those neural connections in your brain. In fact, I’m considering proposing to the Elders that we offer a glass of wine before the sermon as well which would not only increase your ability to remember my homiletical points but also would probably improve attendance.
However, lab rats not withstanding, researchers in education have long known that the most effective way of improving our ability to remember facts and events is to engage a person in a complete sensory re-enactment. In Exodus 12, Moses tells the people that the events of the Passover are so important that each generation must re-enact them every year. While every generation may hear the stories of Noah’s ark or Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, God never demands that they herd their pets onto a boat or tie their children to an altar every year to re-enact those events. They are important stories with important lessons to the people’s faith but the story of the Passover is in a different category all together: here is the event upon which their entire understanding of God and their identity as God’s people rests. The story of the Passover declares that God is a God who saves and that the Israelites are the beneficiaries of that salvation, and to ensure that that story of salvation goes far beyond even their neural networks and get deep down into their hearts and bones, God commands the people to re-enact and thus re-experience that saving event every year. “Hear it in the words,” God says, “but also see it again in the roasted lamb, taste it in the unleavened bread. Take it wholly within yourself so that it is not only a memory of a past event but it becomes a living experience of a continuing present truth. I am the God who saves.”
Just as the Israelites experienced in the Passover meal that their God was a God of salvation, so too we as Christians are reminded every time we eat the bread and drink the cup that we are also a saved people. When we taste the bread and lift that cup to our lips, we taste the depth of a love that was willing to go all the way to the cross for us. Christ’s love for us is no longer just a memory of a past event but becomes in our re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper a living experience of a continuing present truth. Christ poured out his life for the people and Christ is poured out again and again in a love that saves us still today. And I don’t know about you but I need to know that the forgiveness and wholeness and peace that Christ’s death and resurrection declared to the people 2000 years ago is not a once-only kind of offer but is still available to mend my broken soul today.
And so different denominations have tried to find the best way of re-creating a living experience of that Last Supper. Some have chosen to use the chalice with wine so that each person will feel the heft of that cup in their own hands as the disciples must have felt it when Jesus placed it in their hands. Others have chosen to serve it in the pews to reenact the sense of sitting down at a table together, sharing with Christ the nourishment of the meal. It is impractical to create a ceremony that is an absolute historical re-enactment but the rituals we have should help us to transcend the particularities of our time and our place so that we can experience again the gift of forgiveness and salvation offered 2000 years ago in the first breaking of the bread.
But there is another aspect of our ritual that is actually even more important to our re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper than whether we choose to use wine or grape juice, hunks of bread or thin wafers, or even – as I have sometimes experienced it – Coca-cola and potato chips.
Last year, a new pastor wrote to a clergy discussion list asking for their opinion on a proposed Lenten program. Her congregation had suggested that during the weeks of Lent, they have the church open during the day and make available in the back of the church a plate of consecrated bread and cups of juice so that people could stop by for prayer and communion.
“Would there be anyone in the sanctuary to receive those coming in?” the members of the discussion list wanted to know.
“No,” the young pastor replied. “We would put the bread and juice out in the morning and people could help themselves.”
“You mean you are proposing a self-serve communion bar?” one pastor bluntly phrased it.
“Well, yes,” she replied. “I’d bless the elements before hand so they would be properly consecrated,” she assured them.
The response from the clergy was unanimous. Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, and Episcopalians alike all vigorously vetoed the idea.
“Communion is about community,” they told the neophyte pastor. “Christ is in the bread, and Christ is in the cup, but most importantly, Christ is in the people gathered together. The salvation that Christ offers us is not a private gift to be hoarded but is a gift to all people and our gratitude for that gift is acted out in our love for each other. To eat the bread and drink the cup all alone in a sanctuary is a meaningless act. There is no such thing as self-serve communion.”
When I invite you to this table today, I invite you to participate in a ritual that re-enacts the gift of Christ’s salvation to us, and as you receive that gift – whether you lift the chalice or drink the grape juice – take a moment to look into the eyes of one who offers it and look around at the people receiving it with you. There are the ones who bring this ritual to life for it is in the love we have for one another and the love we carry as we go forth from here that Christ becomes alive to the world once again.