Last week in the first sermon of this miniseries on “Awakening,” we talked about awakening to ministry. Specifically, we talked about awakening ourselves to the holy work of sharing peace and offering forgiveness. We talked about how this work is for us all. Absolving others is not relegated only to ordained priests. Offering forgiveness is not sacramental work. Jesus gives the authority to offer this ministry to all people who would take up their own cross and follow him.
This week we are awakening to the meaning of the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Do you and your congregation want to learn more about Holy Communion in the United Methodist Church? A great way to learn more is to download and study the PDF, The Meaning of Holy Communion in the United Methodist Church by E. Byron Anderson, or order booklet copies for your members to study together. This new resource includes “Frequently Asked Questions” gleaned from Discipleship Ministries Facebook pages on worship. Available in English, Spanish, and Korean.
Often, when we think about stories from the Scriptures that speak to the practice of the Lord’s Supper, we may limit our range to the traditional texts associated with the holy meal: the institution narratives (Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; and Luke 22:7-23). These three gospel writers, along with the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), give an account of how Jesus gathered in the Upper Room with his disciples on the night he was betrayed, possibly as part of the annual celebration of Passover. At the meal, he took bread, gave thanks to God, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat. This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And after the supper was over he took a glass of wine, gave thanks to God, gave it to his disciples and said, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you. Drink this in remembrance of me.”
But there are other stories from Scripture besides these well-known ones that inform our practice of Holy Communion. These include the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-10; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13, 25-59); John’s account of the risen Lord Jesus preparing fish for the disciples on the shores of Lake Galilee (John 21:4-14); and today’s story of the risen Lord Jesus appearing to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It is to this story and how it awakens us to greater understanding of our holy meal to which I would like to turn our attention.
I have to confess that this is my very favorite story in the whole Bible. It is not only central to my personal understanding of the sacrament of Holy Communion, but it is central to my understanding of Christ’s presence with us in the power of the Holy Spirit.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Heather Murray-Elkins speak at a minister’s convocation in my conference. I remember being struck by something she said when she was talking about United Methodists and the Lord’s Supper. She talked about how in today’s world, so many families no longer gather around a table to share a meal on a regular basis. Maybe with all of the newfound interest in cooking and services that deliver ingredients and instructions on how to cook them to our doorsteps and the rise of take-home meals in grocery stores, this is changing. But I suspect that even if some families still engage in this practice, it may not happen more than once a day.
Gone are the days of my mother’s childhood when she and her siblings would be late for school because they were reading Upper Room devotions at the family breakfast table. Gone are the days when all family members are expected to be home for dinner every evening at 6:00 p.m. Gone are the days when hands are held and meals are blessed before stories of the day’s events. Gone are the days when my husband and I even sit down at our smaller kitchen table to dine. Our table has been in the refinishing shop for six months and we’ve barely missed it. It is so much easier to plop down in front of the television with just the two of us here.
Okay, so maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe there are lots of families where the dinner hour is still protected. I hope I am wrong. Please write to me and tell me how wrong I am!
But Dr. Murray-Elkins’s point was not simply to grouse about how sad it is that the world has changed and families no longer sit down together around tables to eat. Her point was to suggest that the whole basis for understanding what is going on at the Lord’s Table is dependent upon everyone having a baseline established through regular prayer around the family dining table.
The prayer that Jesus offered at the Last Supper was not a new prayer that he made up on the fly to fit the context. He took an old form, a Jewish blessing that would have been used in family homes, and he adapted it. In doing this, he gave it an entirely new meaning. Jesus took ordinary staple foods—bread and wine—and by adding holy words and ritual actions—take, bless, break, give—turned a regular meal into a sacrament.
Notice that this fourfold pattern of take, bless, break, and give appears not just in the familiar narratives on the Last Supper, but also in the feeding of the multitudes and around the table in Emmaus: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:30, NRSV).
And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. (Matthew 14:18-19, NRSV).
It was in the ritual pattern of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving that the multitudes were fed. It was in the ritual pattern of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving that the disciples’ eyes were opened and their minds awakened so that they were able to recognize who was sitting at their dining room table. It was the ritual action of take, bless, break, give that made their hearts burn anew about the words he had spoken as they walked along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus.
Now I don’t know about you, but I am fifty-one years old, and I grew up not on the current eucharistic prayer in our hymnal, “Word and Table I,” but on the previous prayer, based largely on the liturgy penned by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the Church of England in 1552. It took me a long time to get used to the “new” version. That is, until I realized that the “new” version was actually much older than the version I’d grown up on from the 1968 hymnal.
Our current Prayer of Great Thanksgiving reflects decades of work undertaken by Methodists in conversation with our ecumenical partners following the sweeping changes of Vatican II. Our current pattern reflects the shape that we see in the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Ron Anderson writes,
Traveling the road to Emmaus, the disciples are joined by the risen Christ. Jesus interprets the Scriptures to them and then eats with them. It is in the breaking, blessing, and sharing of bread that the disciples’ eyes are opened and they recognize Jesus. The disciples return to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. . .
Within [the] basic pattern of Word and Table, the pattern for the service of the Table reflects the four-fold shape we see in the accounts of the meals Jesus shared with his disciples: Jesus 1) takes the bread and cup, 2) blesses God or gives thanks to God, 3) breaks the bread and pours the cup, and 4) gives the bread and cup to his disciples. The church through the centuries has understood Jesus’ command to “do this” to include not only the breaking and giving of the bread and cup but also the taking and blessing or giving thanks to God for what the church has received and continues to receive from God in creation, redemption, and sanctification. In taking and blessing (thanksgiving), we prepare the table and ourselves to share the gift God provides to us in Jesus Christ. On the one hand, this is as simple as setting the table as we would for any meal. On the other hand, this preparation involves the preparation of our hearts and minds, so that we may know that Christ is present with us in our sharing of the bread and cup with one another. In breaking and giving (communion) we are confronted with the practical necessity of breaking the bread in order to share it with one another. We are reminded that, as Jesus broke the bread in anticipation of the breaking of his body for the world, Jesus continues to offer his broken body to us for our healing and the healing of the world (E. Byron Anderson, The Meaning of Holy Communion in the United Methodist Church. Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2014, pages 10-12).
Anderson’s words are helpful in reframing my own understanding of Holy Communion from approaching the table in childhood having just said the prayer of humble access, which in the hymnal of my childhood was offered immediately before coming forward to the altar rail.
The Prayer of Humble Access
We do not presume to come to this thy table,
O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in thy manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy
so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.
But thou art the same Lord,
whose property is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord,
so to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ,
that we may walk in newness of life,
may grow into his likeness,
and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
Saying this prayer right before receiving had the effect of focusing my thoughts on my individual sins and my personal unworthiness. In my child’s mind, going to the Lord’s Table was about my unworthiness to receive. Eating the bread and drinking from the little cups of grape juice on my knees before the altar rail positioned me so that I was looking down. It made me feel small and sinful during Communion. If I dared look up, I saw a man in a black robe looking down at me sternly and seriously. Even though that man was my father, it felt to me like in that moment he was standing in for Jesus and judging me for my sinfulness. I’m not sure everyone experienced it this way. I’m only saying that was my personal experience.
I can’t help but contrast how I felt as a child with the way I feel now when I go forward to share in the Great Thanksgiving. Even the name of the prayer helps set a different tone: The Great Thanksgiving. I appreciate the focus on confession and pardon at the beginning of the ritual. I am grateful for the reminder, as we talked about last week, that I need to be reconciled with my neighbors before coming to the Table of the Lord. I experience the prayer as joyful and hopeful and focused not just on my personal sin, but on the call to offer myself sacrificially, in praise and thanksgiving, to Christ’s ongoing work in the world. I love hearing the presider pray that we may be made One by the Spirit of Christ and his redeeming love. And receiving the elements from a standing position, with my head up and my eyes forward to meet the gaze of the person who is giving the bread and wine creates in me a deep sense of connection to my brothers and sisters in Christ through the holy meal.
So that’s my experience. The more important question now is: What is yours? Has your experience of Holy Communion changed over the years, or has it largely remained the same? If it has changed, what brought about that change? How can you communicate what Holy Communion means to you and help others in your congregation to share about their experience of our sacred meal?
Having been challenged by Luke’s story and awakened in our own understanding of the Lord’s Supper, let us prepare to come to the Table of our Lord Jesus Christ.