Demystifying Communion (Em why ess tea Eee are why)

NewChurch-Podcast-Art2Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion —It’s called a lot of different names, all of them pointing to different aspects that are important to consider. It’s referred to as a sacrament. The word “sacrament” means “mystery” but it refers to a mystery that’s both physical and spiritual. A “sacrament” is understood to be an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace. Baptism is also a sacrament.

It’s called “the Lord’s Supper” because it was instituted by Jesus at “The Last Supper” and because we feast with Him, through Him and on Him.

John 6:53 is the very familiar but very strange passage,

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

It’s called “The Eucharist” because it’s thought to be a feast of thankfulness for Jesus, the cross and salvation—the word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving”; It’s called “the Breaking of Bread” “the Memorial of the Lord’s passion and resurrection,” some call it “the Holy Sacrifice” because they believe it mysteriously makes present the sacrifice of Christ. It’s called the “bread of angels” and “bread from heaven.” It’s most common name is “Holy Communion” because through this liturgical mystery meal we are all in union (communion) with Christ and with each other.

I’m pretty sure I’ll say something that bugs you tonight. There will be some part of this message that each of us will think, “Oh, that’s not right, I’ve never heard that before, that’s different from the way so and so explained it to me in such and such church.”

How about if we all just take a deep breath and promise up front to not get all bent out of shape over this. Can we go ahead and agree on that up front? We’re not going to let Holy Communion—the sacrament intended to bring us together in union with Christ and each other—to cause us to start fighting with each other in disunity. How stupid would that be?

I’m going to walk through some scriptures that talk about The Lord’s Supper and give you some of my thoughts on the subject, but I’m not pretending to have it all figured out. Actually, I hope that by the end you’ll see that that is my main point—we don’t need to have it all figured out.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 9.52.36 AMAll four Gospels describe the institution of this meal by Jesus. It is a multi-layered deeply meaningful thing we are doing. When we break bread in worship we’re remembering the Passover, the Last Supper, Christ’s death and sacrifice, our thankfulness for receiving salvation, our unity with Christ and the body of believers, and the promise of a future heavenly banquet when the Lord returns. There’s a lot going on, layers within layers, mysteries within mysteries.

Fortunately, for all of us, I’m going to clear it all up tonight once and for all in this message. Even though people have argued about it for thousands of years, brothers against brothers, sisters against sisters, churches have split and blood has been spilled—I’m going to put it all to rest right now. Isn’t that thoughtful of me?

I’m kidding but we really could find common ground if we could be satisfied with this: It’s a mystery. Em why ess tea Eee are why. Mystery. If we could teach and embrace all the layers of meaning but remember that it’s a mystery we would be fine.

I think most of the silliness surrounding disagreements about Communion happen when people get backed into a corner that they can’t get out of, they get into an argument and they stand their ground defending the undefendable.

It all started when Jesus sat down to His last Passover meal with the disciples. In the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke, it says it was the actual Passover meal and it probably was. Jesus would have kept the Passover strictly in accord with what Moses said in Exodus 12, which seems to have been on a Thursday that year, but the Gospel of John says the Last Supper happened before Passover. So which is it? They can’t all be right can they?

You may remember that the Temple was controlled by the Sadducees who were looser in their beliefs and ran a much looser calendar. They had long ago stopped believing in anything supernatural and were pretty much a stuffy, powerful, Jewish culture club. You know how we sometimes move the observance of a national holiday to Monday if it suits our purposes?—they did that, too. They wanted Passover to fall on Saturday, probably because it was good for business, so the official national Passover was observed on Sabbath that year. This means when John says the Last Supper was just before Passover—he is also correct.

If you were considering losing your faith because of some apparent timeline difference between the Synoptic Gospels and John you can return to your regularly scheduled devotion. Also, John wants us to understand what is written in 1 Corinthians 5:7, that Christ is the Passover Lamb who was sacrificed. Jesus is the Lamb who was slain for all our sins, so he points out that Jesus was killed at the same time as the official Passover Lamb on the day of preparation. Jesus was able to both celebrate the Passover with His friends and be the Passover Lamb for the whole world. Those goose bump chills you might be experiencing are a perfectly normal reaction to how awesome God is.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 9.54.40 AMAnyway, the Passover was the biggest celebration in the Jewish year. It was their Christmas, and it was a giant family event. They looked forward to it all year. They remembered and celebrated being set free from the tyranny of Egypt, they told the story of how the Angel of Death passed over every home that had lamb blood on the door frame and didn’t kill the first born son. They ate a meal together, sang songs, played games with the kids, and remembered who they were. It was a celebration of their birth as a people.

There’s a lot that can be said about the correlation between Communion and Passover—the different cups and symbols in the meal, how they point to Jesus—but I’ll save that for another time. The bottom line is the Lord’s Supper is to be understood in the context of Passover. For the Church, it replaces Passover as our covenant meal.

Keeping this in mind clears up a couple things that people argue about—at least for me. Like how often should we do it?

People argue about how often we should celebrate Holy Communion in worship. Well, Passover was once a year and the early church broke bread and worshiped together every day. In Acts 2:42 it says:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” An early document of the church called the Didache says to Break Bread on each Lord’s Day in worship. So, clearly this means we should either have Communion once a year or every day—or anything in between. In other words, he told us to do it but we have freedom in how often.

At NewChurch we’re gonna go with once a month for now, we may do it more often as the Lord leads us.

The other thing people argue about, and this can get ugly, is who is eligible to receive Communion. Do we have to be a certain age? Do we have to have a certain understanding of what is happening? Do we have to be super awesome holy doubt-free believers who are perfectly unified in our theology and understanding of what we are doing?

Well, let’s look at Passover for our answers. It included the whole family, from the youngest to the oldest. They ate the Passover meal because they were in the family and were God’s people. I think it’s the same with us.

All baptized believers are welcome to the table.

You may wonder why I said baptized believers and not just believers. It’s pretty simple. Communion is a covenantal meal, a sacrament. Baptism is the covenantal entrance to God’s family. Why would you take part in the covenantal meal if you refuse to enter the covenant? Why take part in the second sacrament if you aren’t going to do the first?

I’m not going to spend much time on baptism tonight but the Old Testament practice that baptism replaces is circumcision. Circumcision was the old way of entering the covenant family, and it took place when the child was eight days old. That’s why we baptize our children. We baptize our children for the same reason—because we intend to raise them as part of God’s family, we raise our children as Christians. We are not raising them hoping they will become Christians. Do you see the difference? Do we raise our kids hoping they’ll become Americans? Texans? Do you hope they’ll one day decide to take your last name and become your child? Come on, that’s nonsense. We raise them as our own Children, as God’s own children, as Christians who have received the grace and mercy of Jesus just as we have. If you baptize your little ones, then why wouldn’t you bring them to the table?

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 10.02.02 AMWe had Von and Angel baptized as infants so, when I brought them to the altar for the first year or so, I would dip my finger in the wine and touch it to their tongue saying, “This is the blood of our Lord which was shed for you.” And when they got old enough to take the bread, I would break off a piece and give it to them saying, “This is the body of the Lord which was broken for you.” It was an awesome experience.

Maybe you’ve never heard of such a thing. Paedocommunion is a fancy word for communing the very young. I know it’s different than some of the churches we’ve come from. That’s okay. You don’t have to commune your little ones if you don’t want to but I’d like to encourage you to pray about it.

In our case Von and Angel were Communed until I started working at a church that didn’t practice Paedocommunion, then they stopped for a few years until they took a Communion class and received their First Communion. It wasn’t the end of the world but it might have been a little confusing for them.

NewChurch is affiliated with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the LCMS, and they allow Paedocommunion, leaving it up to the individual congregations. NewChurch will embrace bringing our little ones to Jesus in every way, in all the sacraments, in the Word, in teaching—we will receive them as our little brothers and sisters in the Lord. If you have questions or concerns about this please feel free to ask me or Kemper, but let’s not allow it to cause any disunity among us.

So at that Passover meal in Luke chapter 22,

Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me.”

Do you think the disciples understood what was going on?—What He meant by that? One of them was about to leave the party and get the cops. A couple of them were wanted terrorists, one was seen as a traitor to his country—they were a ragtag bunch, compared to respectful citizens they were kind of a mess. In a few hours they were all going to scatter and hide when Jesus got into trouble and none of them seemed to understand the whole “I’m going to die and on the third day rise from the dead” thing He kept talking about. So my question is, why did Jesus Commune them? Shouldn’t He have guarded the altar a little better? Taught a Communion class first? No, Jesus instituted this meal and it is to be served to all the baptized saints and scoundrels who gather around the table—everyone who’s following Him.

After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you.

I’m sure they understood exactly what He was talking about. Or not.

This brings us to another one of those pesky disagreements we awesome Christians like to punch each other in the face over. Some say that the bread and wine are just bread and wine, they symbolically remind us of His body and blood—but come on, don’t be silly, we all know it’s just bread and wine. Other’s say, “No! The wine literally becomes Jesus’ blood and the bread literally becomes Jesus’ flesh. Another camp believes that in a spiritual way the bread and wine are the real presence of the Lord—and another COMPLETELY different camp says that’s absolutely wrong because the bread and wine are actually the spiritual presence of the Lord. And many wars were fought, enemies made, bodies were broken and blood was spilled over the subject of this meal that unifies and unites us with Christ.

Like I said, NewChurch is affiliated with the LCMS which teach that His body and blood are truly present and distributed to those who eat and drink at this table. That in a spiritual mystery we experience the Real Presence of our Lord in Communion.

I think it’s best not to get too caught up in it all. Jesus said “This is my body, this is my blood” and we want to take Him at His word. Any attempt to explain it further will corrupt His words and be fruitless dogma. Any attempt to explain it away with scientifically enlightened reductionism is a denial of the supernatural miraculous power of God. There are mysteries and they should be embraced and savored. Part of coming to this table is laying aside the enlightened idols of our culture. We take our intellect captive in obedience to Christ and accept this mystery in no other way than by faith.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 10.04.23 AMBREAD AND WINE
I think it’s worth considering what bread and wine represent from a Biblical perspective. Jesus was born in Bethlehem which literally means “house of bread,” everything we need in daily life is referred to as our daily bread, God fed the children of Israel in the wilderness with bread from heaven, Jesus multiplied bread to feed the five thousand, and He said He is the Bread of Life. There was a piece of bread in the Passover meal called the Afikoman, it was hidden somewhere in the house to be found by children, and it represented the coming Messiah. Jesus said that bread was Him. Bread is awesome. It smells good, it tastes good, it fills you up and leaves you satisfied.

Jesus said the wine is His blood, He also said He is the new wine, He made water into wine, in Psalm 104 among a list of other things it says God gave wine to make the heart of man merry and bread to sustain our strength. Wine changes our attitude, it goes to our head, it makes us feel happy, it’s medicine for our soul. What would Communion be like if we ate enough bread to feel satisfied and drank enough wine to feel it?

Kim and I used to be part of a church where the minister was expected to drink the leftover wine remaining in the chalice after Communion was served. Most of us did intinction, where we dipped the bread in the wine, so there was not only a lot of wine left over each week, it was riddled with floaties. Kemper was one of the ministers, and he doesn’t like wine at all. Is it wrong that we took so much pleasure in watching him have to down a big ol glass of wine all the way down to the dregs? Probably, but it’s a good memory anyway.

In 1st Corinthians chapter eleven St Paul is giving instructions on worship and has this to say about the Lord’s Supper:

For I pass on to you what I received from the Lord himself. On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me.” In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood. Do this to remember me as often as you drink it.” For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are announcing the Lord’s death until he comes again.

Every time we eat and drink Holy Communion we are proclaiming the Gospel—that Jesus died on a cross and rose to life on the third day—and we continue to proclaim this until He comes again.

So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself. That is why many of you are weak and sick and some have even died. But if we would examine ourselves, we would not be judged by God in this way.

First question, what does it mean to be unworthy? Is there anything we can do to become worthy? Do we save ourselves? No, of course not. We are saved by grace alone through faith—and faith is a gift from God. This is a warning to those who would take this sacrament lightly, a warning for those who have not been washed clean and made right with God through the saving work of Jesus. It’s a warning to examine ourselves. Search our heart. Remember what Jesus has done for us. This meal will either be a way for us to respond to the grace God has shown us through Jesus or it will be an invitation for God to judge us on our own merit—which is not something I would wish on anyone.

This is why many branches of Christ’s church guard the table carefully. They don’t want to be responsible for serving God’s judgement to people. But I believe this is the wrong way to look at it. The warning is not to those who serve the meal but to those who receive the meal. Paul did not chastise the leaders for serving everyone, he chastised the people who were eating and drinking without examining themselves. So, the NewChurch Communion table is open to all baptized believers who love and serve the Lord. It’s His table not ours.

When we come to His table we do not come by our own authority. We do not presume to be worthy because of anything we have done. We are carried to this table as a cripple, led to the table as one who is blind, invited to this meal like a beggar. None of us are worthy on our own. We are all guests of the Lord who brought us back from the dead so that we can share this meal with Him. Like vampires we drink His blood and it gives us eternal life. Like zombies we eat His flesh and we will not die. Unlike monsters, though, we are invited to this table as beloved children of God who no longer sees us as His enemies but sees us through the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus.

As people we have a tendency to disagree over things—pretty much over anything—to draw lines in the sand, fight and argue. It’s not our most attractive feature. Can you join me in trying to be a little more gracious about things? Too many Christians are known mostly for how opinionated and dogmatic we are about everything. What if we held things with a little more open hand? What if we didn’t take ourselves so seriously all the time? What if we just accepted what God tells us in His Word and left plenty of room for mystery? We don’t have to close the loop on every little thing that comes up. I gave up trying to find a church that I agree with on everything, I don’t think I even agree with myself on everything. Leave room for mystery, trust in God, have faith in Jesus. AMEN