Sermon by Pat Shaver
What does your family eat for Christmas dinner?
When I was growing up, Christmas dinner was always roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with a chocolate lady finger torte for dessert. It reflected my mother’s New England and English background.
In the family I have now, Christmas dinner is a Mexican stew and pie, which reflects our family’s preferences and Bill’s parents’ upbringing in Arizona.
We eat thousands of meals during our lifetime. Most of them aren’t particularly memorable, but some stand out in our minds. Our stories about meals reveal things about our lives. They remind us of who we are and where we come from.
Communion began as a full meal, and although a piece of bread and swallow of juice don’t feel like a meal, they carry the essence of one. Just like the meal stories in our lives, the Lord’s Supper proclaims a story. It tells the story of God’s creating, redeeming and liberating love, of Jesus’ coming to us – his life, ministry, death and resurrection, with the new life it promises.
We don’t have just one meal story. Our meal stories reflect specific times and circumstances in our lives or those of our ancestors.
We have stories of last meals, the last meal we had with Grandpa before he died, and memorial meals, the meal we shared with the extended family after Aunt Jan’s funeral service.
We have meal stories that tell of hardship, of fleeing one country for another. Last fall Janet Berg shared with us the significance of zwieback in her family. Her ancestors dried loaves and loaves of it to eat on the ship which brought them to the U.S. She thinks of them every time she hears the word or sees it.
We remember some meals because they bring something that we didn’t expect. The taste of a certain food can bring back a flood of memories from the past. Or a meal can bring new, surprising information, – a couple announces their engagement, or someone shares a particularly deep personal story and we come to understand them differently.
Some meal stories are significant because of the people and fellowship involved. Get togethers with a good friends, the tradition of pizza lunches in the youth room, fourth Sunday community meals with people from our neighborhood.
Some meals are celebrations of victory, as in a fight against cancer, or celebrations of achievement, such as marriage or graduation.
Just as we don’t have only one meal story, communion doesn’t have just one story. It is rich with metaphors, which tell us about aspects of Jesus and invite our response.
The first communion story we tend to think of is a last meal story – Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. It is a story about sacrificial death, containing phrases such as “on the night that he was betrayed,” describing the bread as Jesus’ broken body and the wine as his blood, being poured out for us as a new covenant . It is also a memorial story. Paul says that whenever we eat the bread and drink the cup, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” ( 1 Cor. 11:26)
Betrayed, broken, blood poured out and the Lord’s death are hard words to hear. I have to admit that I can have a tendency to stop paying attention right there, and so think of the Lord’s Supper as only a memorial service remembering Jesus’ death. But that isn’t where the story stops.
We need to pay attention to the phrase “new covenant.” We don’t just remember Jesus’ death, but also that God raised him from the dead. The commentary to Article 12 in the Confession of Faith says, “Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has rescued believers from sin and evil and brought them into a new covenant,” a new agreement or promise. 1 “The church’s response to God’s salvation through Jesus includes thankfulness. So the Lord’s Supper is also a story of thanksgiving, which is where the term eucharist comes from. Eucharist’ means ‘thanksgiving’.”
Communion is also a story of liberation from hardship, of Exodus . This comes from the fact that the Last Supper took place during the Jewish celebration of Passover. The purpose of the Passover celebration was to help people remember God’s great act of freeing “the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. (Exod. 12) Jesus’ Last Supper signaled that he was leading his followers in a new exodus out of bondage and into salvation.” “As we relive this event with a common meal, we give thanks for all God’s acts of deliverance in the past and present, for the forgiveness of sins, and for God’s continuing grace in our lives.”
Meal stories involving the Risen Christ, contain the unexpected. The disciples don’t recognize Jesus until he sits down with them at the table, takes bread, blesses it and gives it to them. Then memories of other times he had done that same action come flooding back and they recognize him and understand him in a new way, as someone who death could not stop. The Lord’s Supper is more than a memorial meal. Article 12 says that the Lord’s Supper “re-presents the presence of the risen Christ in the church.” Re-presents is RE hyphen PRESENTS, makes present again. It continues, “As Christians eat the bread and drink the cup, they experience Christ’s presence in their midst. The Lord’s Supper both represents Christ and is a way in which Christ is present again in the body of believers.”
The Lord’s Supper is also a fellowship meal of the church , from which comes another of its names, communion. Jesus invited the community of his disciples to share the cup and bread in fellowship with him and each other around the same table.” It is Jesus who is the host and invites us to the table . He is present at this meal as the risen and unseen host. Later, believers in the early church ate together and came to understand the bread as a sign of unity in the Christian community. As we take communion together, “we renew our baptismal covenant with God and with each other and recognize our unity with all believers everywhere in all times.”
The Messianic banquet, another type of meal in the Christian Scriptures, is a celebration of victory, of the day when Jesus Christ has triumphed and Christians will feast with Christ in the fullness of God’s reign. This is a celebration at the Lamb’s Feast, which we await with hope and joy. (Rev. 19:6-7a, 9a)
So communion is actually the story of a number different meals, which speak to us of Jesus’ death and resurrection, liberation, the Risen Christ, the church’s meal and the Messianic banquet. Most communion services touch on each of these themes, but a given service generally focuses on just one of them. You might try listening for which theme is being emphasized and how that is being done, to see if it helps you to enter into the service more fully.
How do we describe what happens during communion? Arthur Boers says that the Anabaptist understanding is that actual ‘transformation takes place in communion [but it] is of people, not objects. Communion is not a sacred object in which Christ is contained; it is a sacred event.’ It is not ‘mere memorial.’ Something actually happens. ‘When the church gathers in faith and love, open to the power of the Spirit, Christ is made present in the sharing of bread and wine.'” 2 At the Lord’s table, Christ shares himself with us through the bread and wine, and we share bread and wine with each other.
If Christ is risen and with us always, why do we need to celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Eleanor Kreider suggests that it’s the difference between being told “I love you” and being kissed. Words are good, but a tangible expression touches us in a different way. God is Spirit, beyond our knowledge and understanding, beyond any words we could use, but we humans are both body and spirit. If we open ourselves to receive it, communion is a way for God to touch us through our whole being, which is both physical and spiritual.
When we celebrate communion on Transfiguration Sunday, we think about the unexpected, the mysterious.
The disciples had an experience of Jesus that they hadn’t expected, couldn’t have expected. They were, alternately, dazzled, astounded, babbling, terrified, confused, awed and, ultimately, silent. They were so thunderstruck they couldn’t find any words for the experience. How could they possibly describe it? Who would believe them?
They had seen Jesus shine with the same light that had reflected from Moses’ face when he spoke with God on Mt. Sinai. They had seen him converse with the great religious leaders and teachers from the past. They had seen and felt the cloud, the presence of God, enfold them, and proclaim Jesus the Chosen, Son of God, more important to listen to than Moses or Elijah. All of this was part of the nature of Jesus, but they hadn’t seen it before.
In 2 nd Corinthians, Paul says that, in the same way that Moses put a veil over his face so that people couldn’t see God’s glory, we have a veil over our minds regarding understanding God. But in Christ, the veil is removed. We can’t penetrate it by ourselves. We need Christ to remove it for us, to open our eyes, to show us things beyond our limited knowledge of reality. When we do that, we begin to get glimpses of God’s glory and we begin to be transformed, to be shaped more and more like Christ.
Our experiences, our glimpses probably won’t be as grand as that of those three disciples on the mountain top, but when we give ourselves to Christ, we do find the veil being pulled back. Sometimes in big ways, most often in little, we have experiences that reveal to us a depth of reality we haven’t seen before. We encounter and understand God, Jesus, another person or ourselves in a new way… and it changes us. And each new encounter or understanding we experience, changes us, opens us – transforms us – a little more, as Paul says, “from one degree of glory to another” into the body of Christ we were created to be.
The essence of Jesus didn’t change on that mountain, it was the disciples that were transformed as they understood him in a new way. How is God wanting to surprise you? Are you open to the possibility? Where do you feel resistance? What is holding you back?
Marcus Smucker says that “God’s desire for our lives is to transform us into the likeness of God’s own image,” but “we choose how much we will allow God to shape” us.” 3
God can shape us through all kinds of life experiences. Communion can be one of them. Just as he did with his disciples, Jesus invites us to receive him. Can we open ourselves to him? …to the richness of this table?…to the possibility of meeting him and understanding him in a new way? …Can we open ourselves to allowing God to shape us? …to the possibility of being transformed?
As you come to the table, what do you expect? What do you fear? What do you yearn for?
1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.
2. Boers, Arthur Paul, ” In search of something more: A sacramental approach to life and worship, ” Vision , Spring 2001.
3. Marcus Smucker, ” Confession, the way of transformation, ” Vision, Fall 2002, p.33-34, 32.