Week 5 – 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
7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. 9 Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. — Ecclesiastes 4:7-12
Many of you know why I was not here last week, but for those of you who don’t: Last week I ran the Shamrock Half Marathon as part of the Shamrock Marathon Weekend in Virginia Beach. I want to thank my friend and colleague, Joshua McCauley for filling the pulpit for me and bringing y’all a message on Thanksgiving.
However, for a moment in this sermon, I want to draw on my love for running (not just the act, but watching it too) as we continue to look at the sacrament of Communion as we have been doing this Lenten Season. Specifically, I want to reflect back to my High School Running days, when I was on a “team.” Many of you may look at it and think that running is an individual sport, and to an extent it very much is. However, at the high school and collegiate level it is more of a team sport, runners collect points for their school and there are even relays of one team against another (usually 4 athletes from each school).
I often say that my lessons in teamwork come from these relays and the ones I took part in as part of my high school swim team as well. It taught me that we were a crew and in it together. It taught me that no matter what part of the meet we were in I had a role to play, and especially when I touched the track or dove in the pool I knew I was part of a community working toward a goal.
As I reflect on those relay races; the adage “you are only as strong as your weakest player” exemplifies how a relay or a team in general works. As a distance runner, the only relay I ever participated in was what is known as the distance medley relay (1200m, 400m, 800m, 1600m). I was always the last leg and ran what was essentially the mile. I was far from the strongest on our crew, but my endurance was often unmatched by many others. It was my role to run as fast as I could for 1600m and hold onto whatever advantage my teammates got me, just as I trusted them to put me in a great position when I received the baton.
We Are Community
In the church, we are a team, a community, and the more we recognize that the more we live into our destiny as disciples in the Kin-dom of God. The way we relate to God and each other is essential when it comes to our faith, and no more is that played out in the way we celebrate the Lord’s Supper/Communion. The title “Communion” itself stands as a reminder that we are not in this alone, both in our understanding of God’s presence with us and our relationship with one another.
This idea of relationships is best expressed through a quote from a commentary I was reflecting on this week:
“To God, relationships are everything.”
The commentator continues on with this linguistic expression saying,
“By design, our greatest fulfillment begins when we enter a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. That primary relationship enables us to develop healthy, satisfying relationships with others…God’s best gifts come in relationships.”1
The Communion Liturgy of the United Methodist Church invites this manner of relationship. This is expressed in various forms, from the invitation as an expression of Christ’s presence to the prayer of thanksgiving offered to God as the foundation of the liturgy. However, this most connecting nature of it to me is in the final moments of the liturgy as we are calling on the Holy Spirit to be present with us and with the elements.
“Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine…By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.”2
We see in this liturgy and reflect on how Communion makes us whole, not just an individual person of faith, but more broadly as a community.
What is Community?
Community, as I understand it, boils down to being the opposite of selfishness.3 When we become focused on ourselves or even what we, solely, can do for a community we lose sight of what community is. There is a reason Paul talks about the “Body of Christ” because the community is about how we practice our faith together for one another for the Kingdom of God. When we try and balance the nature of the community solely on our shoulders, or try to do the work ourselves we have lost sight of what we are truly called to do.
So, if the community is how our ministry is shared:
Why is Community Important?
To answer this we look at how we often fall into one of two traps that show how little we care about or express community:
We say, “No one has ever been through what I have been through so I alone must solve this.” OR
We say, “I alone am the only one who has the tools or ability to handle this and therefore I must solve this.”4
Both of these are blatant lies we use to feed our selfishness and even ways in which we seek to stroke our egos. Even with the best of intentions and even seemingly the purest of hearts, it misses the point of how we are called to live and exist together in faith. We are not just in communion with Christ, but with one another as well and we take that into consideration as we reflect on our actions.
Dive Into Ecclesiastes
The Book of Ecclesiastes, one which you may not have done a whole lot of reading before, offers us a coherent understanding of what it means to be a community together. Ecclesiastes is an interesting book because it contains a bunch of “teachings” as we often refer to them. Even the writer calls themself Kohelet, or teacher. In this section we are looking at today we have a common theme of how the author writes saying, “Again, I saw vanity under the sun.”5 This word vanity used in this translation is referring to excessive pride, and as we see where the author is going we know that a lesson is forthcoming, and this lesson follows in talking about what it means to be supported by other people in our lives.
As we move to verse nine we read,
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”6
So there you have it, why is community important, because numerically more people can accomplish more things when they work together. When the teacher begins in verse 9 with, “two are better than one,” we can consider the relationship between those two chords to be a metaphor for our personal connection to God. This language helps us understand our personal relationship with God. However, in the end, the final sentence offered almost changes the whole script, because a third chord is added. I like to think in relation to our discussion today, that the third chord is community. Not only are we ourselves strong with God, but we are made even stronger when we gather together in the community.
The title for this sermon, Koinonia, is the Greek word for fellowship community. It is an expression of how we work together for the Kin-dom of God, and it leads also to the definition of communion or being together.
Holy Communion is a celebration and experience of community.
It is not by coincidence that we have this practice, but it is because of how the early Christians interpreted this idea of Koinonia. Early Christians, who were sometimes well versed in Jewish Scriptures, would have known this passage in Ecclesiastes, and others similar to it, and would have known the reason God created us was for the community. That is both to be in communion with God and to be in communion with one another. When we come to the table to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion we do both, this is why we call it communion.
We acknowledge in our United Methodist doctrine that we experience what is known as the “real presence of Christ” at the meal.
We do not believe in transubstantiation, or where the bread and juice transform into the body and blood.
We do not believe the meal to be a memorial or ordinance, that the meal represents a connection to the past life of Christ through how Christ passed down this meal to us.
We are more akin to something called consubstantiation, the presence of Christ with the elements. We believe in the mystery of the real presence of Christ in the entirety of the sacrament. It is unexplainable because we cannot begin to comprehend how Christ truly works, but we can say for certain that Christ is present in and through this meal.
Christ works within and through us so that we may receive the grace God offers to us and that we may then take that grace and share it with a world in need of it, and we do all of this, not just with Christ, but with one another as an expression of the reach of God’s grace.
Christ Works Within and Through Us
We acknowledge our communal calling as a gathered community of believers. Our understanding of community exists in our liturgy through how we participate together in solidarity with Christ and one another. It is not necessarily in the liturgy the way you may be thinking of, but when we think about our prayers in service or the peace we share with Christ and one another that is offered amid our approach to the table, as examples we can understand the presence of Christ. Worship is a time when we are feed not just as individuals, but as a community. It is both a reminder and an expression/means of community. My job is to stay focused on the spiritual growth of this community, and I take that job very seriously. I am here to help you learn about who God is and how God is calling this church to be the Kin-dom of God in the world.
Therefore, embedded in our experience of worship is an opportunity to dine with Christ. As I mentioned previously, when I addressed our previous practice of weekly communion, it is like sitting down to a family dinner. There is a place within that to experience the presence of one another. When we gather for worship, whenever we gather for worship, the meal of Communion as a constant practice is meant to embody the practice of dining together. Why, well because food comforts the soul, but also beyond that, this meal has that much more meaning because of all who are gathered. This meal was a part of the ritual practice of the early church whenever they gathered for worship because it was a moment in their praise for God to offer thanksgiving for God’s eternal gift and to experience this manner of community in Christ and one another to strengthen their bonds among them.
I love that last line in our scripture,
“A threefold cord is not quickly broken”7
That is our individual selves, God, and the community around us.
Maybe our problem in the community is we don’t gather around the table enough. Maybe we forget that by not partaking in this meal we miss the embedded theology that we are together on this journey and God is with us, in the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Think how vulnerable our chord looks by itself, but when we begin to weave together the three strands they become strong. When we are working with God and working with others we create a strong bond, and when we sit in that experience through ritual practice it reiterates that. We lift each other when we are in trouble, we fight for one another, and we build up the Kingdom in the way that God calls us to work. Our ritual practices, especially those connected to our most sacred rituals of Baptism and Communion are meant to be experiences that reiterate our faith. We gather at the table as a means of grace, so that we may also never forget our role in the Kin-dom. We can forget that we have those around us who are with us in ministry, we forget to rely on them, consult them, or even look to them for guidance. We think of ourselves alone on our own journey. Yes, it is our journey, but we are never alone on it. Not only do we have God, but we also have one another.
I want you to consider how you surrender yourself to the community. The Communion table and meal remind us of our need for community, both with God and others, and invite us to receive the fruits of both. As you consider the role you play ask yourself how to surrender yourself to both of those aspects. Do I allow God to fully work within me, and do I commit myself fully to my community, not as an individual, but as a member of the community and team?
I often find it easier when defining something to begin by defining what it is not. I learned this mostly from a book I read when I was working towards ordination called Not Every Spirit by Christopher Morse.
Note: These are just generalizations from my experiences of pastoral ministry. These may not match the verbiage we would use, but the themes of these two retorts are usually present.
Ecclesiastes 4:7 NRSV
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NRSV
Ecclesiastes 4:12b NRSV