As I mentioned in the post “A New Start”, I have used Exodus 12: 1 – 14, Romans 13: 8 – 14, and Matthew 18: 15 – 20 as a set of lectionary readings for four different Sundays. This is the sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (8 September 2002) at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY).
It is always interesting to see what information I get during the week prior to a particular sermon or how the particular Scripture readings for a particular Sunday happened to fit into that particular sermon. For those that might think otherwise, the Scriptures for use each Sunday come from the modern lectionary and were pre-determined a number of years ago. Unless there is a specific reason, most pastors in all denominations use this lectionary. Not all pastors use the same three scripture readings in the same way as I do and it has always been interesting to see how other pastors have used the same three readings.
Coupled with the selection of Scripture readings for today was a monthly newsletter that I received this week. The topic for this month’s newsletter, prepared and distributed by a Christian layperson out of Texas, was communion and its meaning and relevance. I won’t go into the majority of what she wrote because she was writing of what communion meant to her.
It is important that we realize that each of us has our own reasons for the celebration of communion. But our reasons for communion should not be on the how but on the why of the celebration. Communion for me has been and will always be both a celebration of the present and a remembrance of the past. It is a celebration that in Jesus’ death and resurrection I was saved from the slavery of sin and death and that as long as I continue to believe, the rewards of heaven are mine. It is a remembrance of that night in Jerusalem when Jesus gathered with his twelve disciples and possibly others to celebrate Passover and transform that ancient celebration of the Jews into an on-going celebration of life and faith.
It is a special time, made even more so by the nature of what transpires during the ceremony. One time, for reasons long forgotten, communion was celebrated with the 100-year old crystal communion given to the church by a faithful member. It truly gave a meaning to the celebration that was not normally there. And the one time that does stick in mind most vividly was the time that I took communion at my grandmother’s church in St. Louis. I was probably no more that 12 or so, perhaps older as I took this communion.
Now my grandmother’s church had been a Lutheran Church but changed denominational affiliation during the last big fight in the Missouri Synod. This, I am sure, is why I was allowed to take communion. So I came up to the communion rail with my mother and accepted the wafer that was offered. Thinking it was bread like I was used to, I took and ate it at the direction of the pastor. But it was one of those bland cardboard tasting wafers not the bread that I was used to. So I immediately swallowed the wine that was offered and discovered in my sensory dismay that it was really wine and not the grape juice of my home church. That is and will always be a memorable communion for me, though perhaps for not the right reasons.
I know that there are some that feel communion is only vital if celebrated every week. Perhaps that is so; but I worry that by simply performing something each week and not giving any thought to what transpires during the communion ritual, the ritual is quickly transformed into just that, a ritual without meaning or context. And I know that there are some churches where the act of communion is never done or done on a frequency best measured in eons or other measures of geological times. The Evangelical United Brethren Church, the church through which I claim my Christian heritage, held to a quarterly communion schedule meaning once every three months. And communion in the early days of Tompkins Corner was limited to the time when the circuit rider came, which might be once every six weeks or so.
I don’t know how most churches have come to a monthly communion schedule but I know that it works for me both, as a participant in the service and one who must lead the service. There is enough time between each communion to make each service real and inviting to all that partake while keeping it alive and fresh each time.
It is this need to keep it alive and fresh that makes the celebration of communion so important and more so this week as we face the most trying of times. For communion has in it’s meaning community and communion is a celebration of community. No doubt by now you have seen or heard the commercials on television put out by the communications arm of our parent body. The theme of these commercials is “Open minds, open hearts, and open doors.” At a time when our faith is being tested in a manner that could never be imagined, we as a church must remember that there are those in this world who feel that all that has transpired over the past year is a sign that God has forgotten them.
But God has not forgotten them or us; one reason for communion today is to remind us that God did not forget us. And as United Methodists at communion, we remind the world that our table is open to all and not just a select few. There are churches in this country today where the communion rail is open only to those who pass a particular test of membership. In all honesty, I could never belong to such a church nor could I ever conceive of offering communion in such a manner. It is not ours to judge the worthiness of those who come to the rail; those who come to the rail come because they are not worthy and are seeking the grace and forgiveness that is possible at that time.
We need only to remember why we even celebrate communion in the first place. When Jesus meet with the twelve that evening, they were celebrating Passover, though the blood of the Lamb of that Passover had not yet been shed. We are reminded in the Old Testament reading for today the preparations of the Israelites as they gathered their belongings and quickly had one last meal before going on the Exodus and a journey to the Promised Land.
The Passover meal that the Jews celebrate each year is a remembrance of that night described in the Old Testament reading. It is meant to evoke a memory of that evening of rushing about and trying to get things together for the trip. But I think it also serves to remind the Jews of the trip itself, of the days in the wilderness when things looked bleak and at times like God had left them to die in the dry arid land of the Sinai.
The trip from Egypt to the Promised Land was far from a pleasure trip or a simple vacation and much has been made of the time it took and the manner in which the Israelites traveled. But as we will hear in the coming weeks, it was also a time of turmoil and disagreement. On more than one occasion, the Israelites were ready to pack it in and go back to Egypt. If it was not for the lack of water, it was for the lack of food. But through it all they remained a community and even if they didn’t want to, they all understood that it was as a group they would live and die together.
One of the primary reasons why the Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites during the Exodus was to give them that sense of community, of how to behave in a community. Remember that the first three of the commandments tell them how to act towards God; the last seven tell how to act amongst each other. It was as if God said to the Israelites, “If you are to be a community of believers, this is what you will believe and this is how you will live as a community.”
It may seem to us today that the problems of a community of believers are unique to this day and age but such is not the case. It seems like every other paragraph in Paul’s letters deals with the actions of one person with another in their community. John’s writing of the Book of Revelation dealt as much with the relationships of people in a church community as it did with apocalyptic visions of the future.
And even Jesus had to deal with discourse amongst his own. That is what the Gospel for today deals with. Jesus simply told his followers that if two people disagreed on a subject, they should attempt to deal with it between themselves and to do so privately. If need be, impartial witnesses should be brought in, to vouch for the testimony of both parties if need be. But Jesus made it very clear that at no time should either of the two parties ever do things either without witnesses or in secret, for to do so would go against what Jesus was preaching.
Paul reminded the Romans that the relationship between each of them was founded in the fellowship of Christ and that relationship was founded on the laws given to them by God. We are reminded that is still true today; we are also reminded that the community in which we live, whether we want it or not, is much bigger than the world of Jerusalem when Jesus first gave his warnings about the relations between others or the world of the Romans.
As we come to the table today, we come seeking to renew our relationship with Christ first established that night in Jerusalem some two thousand years ago and to also renew our sense of community with those whom we see each day and each week.