Week 3 – Come to the Table: Diving into the why of Communion
I pray you enjoy this message and God speaks to you through it. To listen to this message you can hear it on the Beech Grove United Methodist Church Podcast (podcast releases Monday mornings), or by clicking here.*
Also every week I offer sermon notes as an opportunity for folks in my congregation to have something to take with them for reflection on the sermon or to help in sharing with others. Check them out here!
*Note: Sermon audio does not match the manuscript…sometimes the Spirit moves
5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:5-10
The strangest and almost oxymoronic part of this meal is often pointed to as the sacredness that the meal gets treated with. The problem is not with considering its general sacredness, because in almost any denomination within the Christian faith, it is a vital “ritual.” Now notice I said ritual and not sacrament. This is because there is a division between how that sacredness is understood and this is inherently where those strange feelings come into play.
You have this idea in several Anabaptist traditions (like Mennonites), some Baptist and independent-type churches, or even some Pentecostal churches in which they refer to these rituals as ordinances; or a practice that demonstrates a person’s faith, rather than the sacramental definition we carry of an outward sign of an inward grace and a means by which that grace is received and understood. This leads to a variety of different variations by which this ritual is practiced across the Christian Faith. I will not say that any of them are wrong, for that is not my place…what I will merely convey is that I am using our United Methodist doctrine of Communion as the platform for how Communion is understood in the context of this congregation and denomination.
The Sacredness of Communion
The sacredness, in many cases for communion, is determined by the group of persons practicing their faith in such a way together. The irony of all this is that when it comes to the practice of this sacrament, the global church has had conversations about where we fall within that manner of the sacredness of this ritual. Then once that is established by practitioners of the faith, we then determine what that manner of sacredness in practice looks like. Basically, we all approach the meal in some manner of sacredness, but the way the meal is viewed through the lens of the community is seen through a denomination’s understanding of this ritual’s connection to sacredness in the practice of faith and understanding of grace.
This becomes a vital part of what we are considering in this next piece of both liturgy and practice that we have in this series. As we looked at the invitation in last week’s message, we saw that it was God, through Christ, who was the primary actor in the invitation and thereby in the sacrament of communion more broadly.
We do not participate because we are one way or another, we participate because of the work that God has and will do through us leading to the table and beyond the table. However, while God is the actor in the Communion meal, through Christ it does not exempt us from playing a role to participate both in our faith and in the meal itself as well. God is the primary actor, not the sole one.
Our Role at the Table
If we look at our role in the meal, we are seen as willing receivers of what God is offering through the meal. I mentioned this last week, and it feeds into where we are going today. We heard last week that “Christ invites all…who earnestly repent of their sins…” and this brings us to the topic of confession and by extension, peace.
Many of you may be wondering then, why we allow people who are in your or others’ minds “sinning” to come to the communion table.
We talked last week about this concept of the open table, and as opposed to other denominations within Christianity that reserve the table for “members” of the church, the United Methodist Church allows anyone (as I mentioned last week) who is willing to come and receive. Again, this comes all back to our understanding of how we understand sacredness and really grace for that matter.
NOTE: It is not that the UMC is “less sacred” than other denominations, but that there is this emphasis on God’s actions at the table and harkens back to John Wesley’s understanding that the communion meal itself could be understood as a “converting ordinance.” By this, he meant that embedded in this sacramental practice is the realization that and reception of God’s love upon a person and thereby within that witness could draw a person into an experience of grace in a justifying and even more broadly sanctifying manner.
This calls upon the people in their role of communal gathering as a part of this meal to recognize their faults, both of themselves and the community. This becomes the role of the prayer of confession. It sparks in our minds the need for, an understanding of God’s divine grace. We believe that grace is prevenient, and thereby it is there even when we don’t recognize it or even when we are wholly unworthy of it. However, the prayer of confession offers an opportunity for the gathered community to come to acknowledge the evil around us both in our implicit and complicit actions.
When we take this into consideration with our scripture passage today, we begin to understand more deeply, what is truly being asked of our spirits in this prayer, and in the subsequent offering of peace that follows.
We hear in this passage,
“If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”1
So begin plainly, What is Sin?
Well if we dive into the biblical language on this one I have always found it offers a more profound understanding of this word than we give it in our modern-day fundamentalism of seeing sin as doing something wrong.
The Greek word used by the writer in this passage for sin is hamartia, and its literal meaning is “to miss the mark.”
In biblical times this word was often associated with archery, or other “shooting/throwing” type events, and from that understanding, I think it may offer a bit more “greyness” to our understanding of sin than the often-used definition of wrong-doing might often portray. To be clear this does not exempt us from harm, but it allows us to reorient our understanding of our relationship with God, because when we understand sin as “missing a mark” it brings to light the true definition of repentance (which in harkening to the greek again of metanoia) which is “to turn towards.”
Not long ago we talked about repentance and tried to reorient us towards thinking about it as turning toward God, rather than “away from something else.” I say this semantically because when we unpack sin, both as a scriptural understanding and as a lived experience it begs the question what mark are we missing?
To be somewhat plain and vague (which might get me misunderstood) we miss the mark on God’s desire for us.
To dive a bit deeper so I am hopefully not misunderstood, God’s desire is that Kin-Dom nature that reflects the spiritual image of God in which we were created. The prayer of confession offered by this community in the communion liturgy is an acknowledgment of how we have failed to live in God’s image.
In the traditional prayer of confession from our communion liturgy, we say,
“Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”2
Notice within that prayer the image of God that is put forth, the true image of grace, peace, and mercy in the midst of a world that surrounds us in pain and suffering. I could break this down line-by-line, but we would be here all week. Namely, it is an opportunity for us to reflect on each of those lines, and the time of silence offers a moment for us to reflect inwardly on the manner in which we have missed the mark on who God desires us to be.
Being Genuine in Confession
This becomes important because this is the act that truly becomes transformative for a person discerning about coming to the table, or important for those of us who may practice this meal, no matter how often, with a manner of complacency. The confession is what is meant to knock us into the space of the sacredness of the meal. It doesn’t matter if it is your first time taking communion or your 1000th time doing it. It doesn’t even matter the frequency with which you take communion. The prayer of confession drops us into the mindset of what God offers to us through our lives and this meal. In the UMC we allow participants to discern how much God is working within them to come forward, and therefore it is not without a word of warning when we talk about confession, as the writer of this scripture offers,
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 3
This is where the gravity of the situation of sin gets overblown, but there is a justifiable understanding behind it. The thing is if we continue to understand, at its very basic nature, faith is a relationship with God’s and God’s creation, why would we not want to be genuine when admitting we have missed the mark on who God has called us to be?
The problem is that it is not just our unwillingness to confess, but even our unwillingness to fully understand what sin and evil for that matter truly mean, or even look like. We so badly want to paint people who don’t look, act, think, or behave like us as “practitioners of sin.” We want to demonize people because of their race, culture, gender identity, or even sexuality, and play it off as upholding the “true ideal of God,” but we inherently miss the mark. We systemically oppress, because we feel it is our job or position in the Kin-Dom to do so, but we inherently miss the mark. We condemn the drag queens reading to kids, but not the racists marching through the streets and so we miss the mark. We try to create definitions for things to make us feel better about our own inherent oppressive abilities, but honestly, we miss the mark.
This is probably making many of us uncomfortable because we want to believe sin is one single action, one single wrong-doing, and want to exempt ourselves with little fanfare from it. The truth is by the nature of what John writes here, there are truly few of us really worthy of this meal, and yet we approach with a willing heart for it to be transformed by the work God can do so at the table.
The prayer of confession tugs on our heartstrings, because it reminds us we have made mistakes. It reminds us that we have missed the mark, but the reminder in it is repentance is about a reorientation, and in our prayer of confession and by nature the peace that is received and extended.
The prayer of confession calls us to repentance and to turn ourselves back toward God’s image. To aspirationally confess and receive, that which is inherently a part of our lived experience is God’s grace. The nature of peace names how we are called to take this manner of repentance and seek peace, not judgment, condemnation, or harm…PEACE.
It is proclaimed in verse 5 that “God is Light.” God is the way for us to truly see how we live and exist together, not just as a small Beech Grove Community, but as a larger manifestation of creation, the Kin-Dom of Heaven aspirationally proclaims us to live into. We acknowledge the peace we offer because we recognize we have missed the mark with God and one another, and we desire to do better. The table calls us towards it. It snaps us into reality and calls us to be better human beings for God’s Kin–Dom, here and now, and into the promised salvation.
What are the sins we often fail to acknowledge?
How do we miss the mark, and how can we repent and turn towards God, to be justified and sanctified through God’s grace?
1 John 1:9 NRSVue
UMH pg. 8
1 John 1:8, 10