Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
August 5, 2018
Scripture text: Mark 14:12-26
Click play above to hear the sermon.
Have you ever been in a situation when you were discouraged to participate in communion, or unworthy, or simply not allowed or welcome at the table? It shouldn’t be so hard to share in a sacred meal together, without all the worry of who is in or out, how we serve, what we serve.
Let us break bread together. Sharing bread and cup is the central act of community in the Christian faith. The word “communion” contains all but the last two letters of the word “community” and all of the word “union.” The Latin word communiomeans “mutual participation.” When we share bread and cup, we don’t do it alone. To think, “I’m going to have a little communion, some bread and wine by myself,” misses the point. While it is a sign of the grace of God to us as individuals, it is a mutual participation in the life of Christ together.
Still, Christians have had a hard time getting this right throughout history. One of the most important historical communion controversies happened right here at First Church during the time of Jonathan Edwards. The early Puritans who came to New England were by nature separatists who were trying to form a more pure community than the corruption they saw in the Church of England. Their practice was to only allow communion for believers who had experienced regeneration and could supply evidence. Solomon Stoddard, who was Jonathan Edwards grandfather, served this church for 50 years. Stoddard was aware that the next generation was not as interested in absolute purity, and in 1700, he adopted an important shift that became known as the Halfway Covenant. Stoddard believed that communion should be offered to everyone, whether covenanted believers or not. His theological statement said it was fine to offer communion to non-Christians if they desired it, because communion was a means of grace, and it might even bring them to conversion.
Edwards came to disagree with his Grandfather near the end of his time in Northampton, and wanted to reassert the Puritan way of only giving communion to the covenanted believers who could show evidence of true conversion. Now there were a variety of conflicts between Edwards and the congregation, and this communion controversy stirred the pot and surfaced them all. After 18 months of controversy, the congregation wanted Edwards out of the pulpit. Given our current practice of having an open communion table, I have often thought that Stoddard should have a more prominent place in our history, and place on the wall, since we are perhaps more like Stoddard than Edwards today.
Dealing with human discord was at the heart of the first communion service with Jesus. Jesus did not begin by explaining the nature of community or his theology of bread and cup. Even though John’s Gospel says that Jesus turned water into wine, the Gospels do not a miracle at the last supper, with bread and cup becoming flesh and blood, His first words to the disciples in Mark’s Gospel are, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” Communion begins with the frank acknowledgement of the brokenness of human community. Betrayal exists even in the heart of insiders. There is no ideal community of Jesus followers for us to point back too and say this is the time when Christianity was pure, when we truly got it right. Our most intimate, sacred ritual is a reminder of how wrong even good people can be.
Not surprisingly, this distresses the disciples, and each says to Jesus “Surely, not I?” In Mark’s Gospel, this is not a declaration, not a testimony to their fidelity to Jesus. It is a question. Mark does not report a group of paranoid disciples looking accusingly at each other for signs of betrayal. Rather they are looking internally, questioning their own level of commitment to Jesus in a time of great distress. Jesus does not dwell on this reality, but moves ahead into sharing the bread and cup with everyone, not revealing who the betrayer is. Note that even Judas is not excommunicated. It makes me wonder if there is grounds to withhold communion from anyone if he too can dip bread into the wine with Jesus.
Jesus breaks bread with the disciples, just as they are, and Christ breaks bread with the church just as it is. This makes the offering of bread and cup a sign of God’s solidarity with human beings. In the midst of our mistakes, bad theology, selfish actions, and participation with injustice; still-God seeks us in holy love. God never gives up on human community. This act of giving is not blessing our sin, but giving in the hope of real community, forgiving to bring forth reconciliation. Jesus is offering everything, body, blood and soul, to bring us together. Eating together creates an intimacy. As the late chef Anthony Bourdain said: “If people would just sit down and eat together, and understand something about each other, maybe they could figure things out.”
Early Protestants were clear that they did not believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine of “Transubstantiation” meaning the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist. But they could not agree on what they did believe happened at the table. All the first generation reformers, lead by Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, gathered in Marsburg, Germany in 1529 for a colloquy on theology. It is the only time they were all together. They found agreement on 14 topics, including baptism, the trinity, original sin and justification by faith. They saved communion for last knowing that Zwingli and Luther forcefully disagreed.
For two days they debated. Zwingli believed that communion is a symbolic act, a remembrance, something we do because Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” At this point Luther scribbled something in chalk on the table and covered it with a napkin. Luther believed that Christ is present in communion, not necessarily physically as body and blood, but yet a real presence. He saw the body and blood of Christ as subsisting in, with, and under the elements. Zwingli said that since we know that Jesus is in heaven at the right hand of God, how could he be present at communion? Luther countered that Christ could be omnipresent and in both places at once if he wanted to be. At a key moment, Luther then removed the napkin from the table and revealed the words “hoc est corpus meum.” “This is my body.” For Luther that was all that could be said, Jesus himself had said it was his body and it must be so. Zwingli was so exasperated he was moved to tears.
Before the end of the meeting, Zwingli and his party asked that Luther and the Wittenbergers to recognize them as brothers in Christ and to share communion together as a goodwill gesture. Luther refused to do so, creating a reality of division over our central act of unity that would last for much of Christianity for nearly 500 years. (account from page 724, Fatal Discord by Michael Massing)
What strikes me about this great controversy is that the argument is centered on the wrong location. They are focusing on what is happening to the elements at the table, where the real location of communion is where the bread ends up, in us, as Christian community. I can partially agree with Luther that there is a Real Presence of Christ at communion, but it is not limited to what happens to the bread or wine. I believe Christ is made present wherever two or three are gathered in his name, as Matthew proclaims. So of course there is a mystical presence of Christ as we break bread. I believe something more rich than symbolism happens in this sacrament, that something is lost if we reduce it to a symbolic action. Yet Zwingli embodied the spirit of communion more fully when he desired to partake with Luther even though they disagreed so vehemently. Being a Christian is more than being right, or having the right theology.
A miracle happens in communion, but it is not a miracle that is performed by me at the table, it is a miracle that happens among all the people. It is not the bread that changes, but it is us who are brought to change. Bread does not become body, but we become body. Wine does not become blood, but Christ flows in us, enlivening us just a blood flows in our veins. Being a part of the Beloved Community is a miracle, a gift of God’s spirit, church is not just like-minded individual affirming our faith, or pledging allegiance, but it is the gift of community from God.
Jesus said, “This is my body.” We break the bread as a symbol of Christ broken for us and with us. But we are also saying, “This is my body.” (Gesturing to congregation.) You are all part of the living body, through whom the miracles of grace and justice flow. All now is prepared, so let us sing together. Th