Why Communion?

As I prepared for today’s service and read the suggested lectionary for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost which also happens to coincide with communion Sunday, the direction for today’s sermon came rather easily. That is not to say that I didn’t get lost while writing it, but the direction was clear.

The first suggested reading was from 2 Samuel 11 – the story of David murdering his neighbor so that he could take the widow for his own wife. Well, I have had enough of murder and mayhem recently so I passed. Another, which today’s Psalm is based, is the Exodus story of God heeding the complaints of the hungry Israelites in the wilderness: Exodus 16 verse 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'” Bread of Life, Breaking of Bread, like I said, the direction was clear.

Why do we as Christians, celebrate communion? Why do we only celebrate it on the first Sunday of the month? When did we, as Christians, start celebrating communion on a regular basis? Why do we continue with this age old tradition when so many others have faded away? 

Well, maybe my direction was not as clear as I thought. So I spent much time Googling these various trains of thought. According to various readings, when exactly early Christians began celebrating communion on a regular basis is rather unclear. If interested, Frank O’Dea’s article titled “Eucharist: The Basic Spirituality” is an interesting read on the history of the Eucharist. According to him, “What provoked the disciples to begin celebrating a meal in memory of Jesus is a ‘missing link’ in the history of the Eucharist in the early Church.”  Most scholars agree that the writings of the New Testament were completed within the first century following the death of Jesus so it is safe to say the tradition of communion has been around for a very long time.

That is not to say the celebration of communion hasn’t evolved over the centuries. It is common knowledge, at least I believe it is, that early Christians were persecuted in the first 3 centuries following Jesus’ death.  As a result, early disciples of Christ worshipped the Lord in the privacy of their homes.  Early worship services consisted of a shared meal, preaching of the Word, followed by the Eucharist.  According to an article by John Weirick, “the early Church celebrated Jesus by taking communion, sometimes every day (Acts 2:42-46). They saw that every time they gathered around a table to eat and drink, it was a chance to recognize Jesus and thank God for all He’s done.” Of course, the first communion occurred with Jesus at the helm, which we all know occurred following a meal or rather, the “Last Supper” with his disciples. 

During Paul’s visit to Troas, he met with “believers to break bread on the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7). I’m sure how often communion was performed during the early Church varied within communities as well as varied during times of extreme persecution by the Romans but in general, we can all probably agree with Frank O’Dea’s statement that

One of the major concerns of the early Church was for the Eucharist to be a sign of unity, especially when persecution threatened to divide the assembly. Eating from the same loaf, drinking from the same cup, gathered around the same table – these were symbols of a united people. This sense of belonging is still very important today. 

What is also unclear is when and why the sharing a meal is no longer a precursor to communion. I could go on, but I won’t. After all, it is communion Sunday and a beautiful summer day. Communion is still an important celebration in the modern church. There are various reasons as to why most churches only celebrate communion on the first Sunday of the month, but these reasons are not really important.  I’m sure more theologically minded people in the pews could give many Biblically sound reasons as to why communion is considered one of the two Holy Sacraments but as humble servant, these reasons, although significant, don’t really impact my faith journey.

According to your bulletin, the title of my sermon is “Why Communion?” It really should read “Why Communion, why not Communing?” Why communion, why not communing? What is the difference? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, communion, a noun is “an act or instance of sharing” whereas communing, a verb is “to communicate intimately.” From my last sermon in February, I told you that New England is the least religious region in our nation. Furthermore, it is estimated that 50% of people surveyed in NH identified themselves as non-religious. That is not to say that non-religious people are not spiritual. I think this is far from the truth. As my circle of acquaintances have enlarged over the past few years, one of the most asked questions is “how our core group of friends know each other.” Many people are surprised at the answer – from church! Taken aback, a common response is that they don’t go to church and/or are not religious but commune with God on a regular basis at the top of our glorious White Mountains.  And how can you not? For me, most beautiful view on earth can be found looking out from the shore of Echo Lake. For me, this is home; I feel one with God; I commune with God. Maybe this is why New Englanders are spiritual rather than religious – we are surrounded by awesome landscapes that enable us to commune with God on a regular basis. Communing can be done anytime, anyplace, by oneself. No props are necessary. No other persons required. Simple and without any ties or obligation to organized religion or church. Believe me, running a church is time consuming, complicated, disorganized and often a very messy affair.

For me, communing with God is a one-sided conversation. Yes, the presence of God is certainly felt; I can certainly talk with God but what is also certain is that communing does not allow me to listen, understand, nor interpret the Word of God. There are been times in my life in this church that I have been on the outside, either refusing to come through the doors or asked not to come through the doors. These instances were very difficult and lonely times in my faith journey. Communing wasn’t enough, isn’t enough. I was alone. There was no unity, no gathering around the same table, no belonging. I remember during one of these times, I traveled to Weston Priory with some awesome women in my life. These retreats are filled with laughter, crying, games, shopping, food and drink (lots of food and drink) but these are all carefully scheduled around daily prayer services. Many of us rise at 5:30 AM to trudge down the road, often in the dark, for 6:00 morning prayers. If on the weekend, we are back for 11:30 Eucharist; back for Vespers at 5:30 PM and evening prayers at 8:00 PM. It has been a wonderful experience each time I have had the honor to be included, especially the time my mother was able to come along.  As I said, one of these trips occurred during a time when I was an outsider. To be in a place of worship, in fellowship with the faithful, participating in communion – the sharing of the bread and wine –  brought such a feeling of belonging, that I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my face, nor did I try. Unity, oneness, harmony – this is the power of communion.  Communion is an act of sharing which by definition, requires more than one person. It is also an opportunity for each of us not only remember and honor Jesus but it allows us to reflect on his teachings in a manner that for me, would not happen outside of these walls otherwise.

I would argue that for those of us that are committed to keeping the doors of the Franconia Community Church of Christ open is because, to paraphrase a statement made in Steve McSwain’s blog “Why Christianity is Dying while Spirituality is Thriving” we, the members of this church, have “an affinity for those matters of social and personal justice, compassion, spiritual wholeness and unity within and among all people and faiths.” We interpret the Word of God to do good works. We need good works to sustain us as a church. We need each other to be successful. Earlier this year, we advocated for gun control. Attending the march in Concord was invigorating. Many members attended the recent event hosted by Elise Drake. The main purpose of this event was to start a conversion about poverty, especially poverty in the North Country. As a church, we are intimately familiar with the poor who come to our doors each week to receive the blessings of the Good Neighbor Food Pantry. How can we help to continue this conversation that Elise has started? 

In our reading earlier from Ephesians, Paul begs us “to lead a life worthy of calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of these words. Without church, I am only able to commune with God, I am not in communion with God. Amen.