Note: This week we ran the service a little differently, with a series of shorter reflection broken up by music and readings - through this we continued our series exploring why we do what we do - this time, contemplating the various segments of the regular communion liturgy. So if this reads a little different to a normal sermon on here, that is why :)
Call to Worship
Christ call us to his table, It is here we receive what we are
Christ feeds us at the table, It is here we become what we receive
Christ leads us from the table, We gather and go as the body of Christ
Reading: Matthew 5: 21-26
We need to prepare ourselves to come to the table. This doesn’t mean that we can only come and take communion if we have our life together, or if we feel adequate, rather it means that we should seek to not gloss over any divisions, fractures, and wrongs in our community as if they have nothing to do with what happens here.
Jesus reminds his followers that before a gift can be taken to the altar they must ask themselves if they are at peace with one another, and if someone holds something against you, go first and be reconciled. At this table we are united with Christ, and through that united with one another – division, dispute, fracturing, and wrongdoing amidst the community defiles and disrespects that unity.
Paul, in his writing around communion, scolds the Corinthian church for going to the table while the community is divided, while the poor are excluded and exploited, treated with contempt and humiliated. These scriptures emphasise that we need to attend to our relationships with one another before we are ready to come to the table, so that we might be ready to meet the presence of Christ, so we may say, honestly, that we are ready to receive what we are and become what we receive. And so we begin our communion liturgy by saying peace be with you, and offering one another peace.
It has been tricky to have a robust time of passing the peace in recent years, but it is intended to be more than a greeting. It provides us an opportunity to become aware of any friction or cause that needs to be addressed and to make peace. Out of an earnest desire to be one with Christ, to experience the peace that passes all understanding, we take a step at the beginning of our communion liturgy to share a word of peace with one another.
Reading Leviticus 7:11-15
Gratitude and Gift
It was in reading the writings of Rabbi Shai Held* that this small passage on the thanksgiving offering really came alive for me. Far from a dry instruction on the manner in which offerings are brought forward and disposed of, it is brimming with implications for hospitality, community, and the way in which we share joy.
In this teaching the people bringing the offering are instructed that the flesh of your thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being shall be eaten on the day it is offered; you shall not leave any of it until morning. So all that is brought forth in this offering of thanks, this offering of well-being, must be consumed the same day; whatever is left come morning must be burnt up. This is different to many other offerings, where the food has until the third day to be consumed. The question asked then, is why must this particular sacrifice be consumed so fast?
Necessitating the prompt consumption of all that food encourages the one making the offering to invite others to the table. The law teaches that when you come into a time of well-being and joy and thanks, you should not experience that alone. For the food to be finished and not wasted, family members, relatives, friends, and acquaintances from the community must be invited to join in the meal. The laws around this offering are written up in such a way as to draw the people into community, into hospitality, into sharing their joy and good fortune with others. As Rabbi Shai Held writes: when one has been the beneficiary of God’s kindness one is expected to bestow kindness oneself… deep joy is meant to be shared.
Communion is a gift. A good gift from God. And like all gifts from God they are meant to flow through us and not simply to us. We are channels of God’s gifts, they land on us, well up in us, and then flow through us to others. For this reason we cannot be grateful and self-enclosed – we cannot hoard joy. Just as we sought to rectify wrongs and be reconciled to each other in the peace, so too we seek to invite others to the table, out of a recognition that communion is a gift from God, a place of joy!
However, not all can be present at the table, and so, for this reason, early in our liturgy for communion, we share our prayers of the people. Through this we remember those who cannot gather with us at the table, and in this remembering, we consider how we might re-member them – how we might remain in community, how we might include in the feasting those not presently at this table. More broadly, we also remember those struggling around the world – those in situations of strife, exploitation, oppression, and inequality – those whose ability to live in the abundance Christ came to bring, the joy God desires, the freedom of the Spirit is currently curtailed. We remember those not in situations of wellbeing, and turn our voice to God in hope that, by the power of Christ, they will be gathered at the banquet, whether in this age or the one to come.
Prayers of the People (communal)
Great Prayer of Thanksgiving
Having made peace with one another and having remembered those not currently with us to receive the gift of bread and wine, we now come to the great prayer of thanksgiving. Communion as a meal of thanks – as a way of acknowledging that and of opening our hearts towards God, we narrate the story of God’s love for humanity.
We give thanks for creation, its goodness and beauty. For God’s faithfulness despite human sinfulness. For God’s election and deliverance of Israel; the law and the prophets. For the incarnation – God with us in Christ. For Christ’s compassion and care, conviction and calling. For Christ’s victory over the powers of Sin and Death – for the resurrection and the life! For God vindicating all that Christ said and did in raising him from the dead and giving him all authority over heaven and earth. For the promise of redemption, reconciliation, and new creation!
The prayer of thanksgiving builds and builds until it crescendos and we join voices with saints of every age, join voice with the heavenly choir to say:
Holy, holy, holy God,
Wisdom, strength and hope
Heaven and earth are full of your glory,
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord
Hosanna in the highest.
But there is always more to be thankful for. Always more gratitude! Both for all God has done in the great acts of redemption but also for the small and personal mercies and blessing for which we are thankful for now. To that end, we continue our prayerful time of thanksgiving and I invite you to share aloud anything you wish to give thanks to God for…
Reading 1 Cor 11: 23-26
The Last Supper
At this point in our liturgy we reflect on the last meal Jesus shared with his friends before his arrest and execution. The meal that initiates our practice of communion together. A meal shared with those who had followed him, those who would carry on his ministry after his resurrection and ascension, and even with the one who would betray him.
When I went through the communion process with kidzchurch two months back, this was when I brought up that Jesus said some funny things at that dinner. Things that might strike us (not yet dulled by familiarity) as strange. Things about eating of his body, drinking the blood he has poured out. There was a reason early Christian writers had to defend Christianity to wider Rome and assure everyone that they were not in fact some strange cannibalistic cult.
I wonder what you thought (if you can remember) when you first heard Jesus words, to take this bread for it is his body, and drink this cup, for it is his blood? I wonder what you still think about it?
There are loads of symbolic and theological resonances and meanings in Jesus’ words throughout this part of the meal. References arching back to his teaching of himself as the bread of life, comparisons of himself to the Passover lamb, all of which are rich and worthy of reflection.
But at a base level Jesus comparing himself to the bread and the wine reminds us that he is a staple of life, necessary at a basic, daily, material level. Jesus feeds us and sustains us as we live each day in his love. Christianity is a very material religion – and our great sacraments remind us of this – the water of baptism, the bread and wine of communion, are the basic building blocks of life. Jesus chose staples of the everyday to communicate the most holy and eternal of truths. We do not need the ornate and exclusive to signify that God gets involved! Simple things communicate splendid truths: That God’s love is so great that God lives amongst the messiness of real life in order to redeem the world and set us free to live for love.
Call on Holy Spirit to form us through the meal into Christlikeness
At this point we call out to the Holy Spirit. We speak to the Spirit and ask them to help us be like Jesus, to love others as he did. We call on the Spirit to make us one with Christ and with each other. In this we recognise that Christians are made – that if we are to be able to manage to live at peace with each other, to remember one another, to receive the world in gratitude, to remember Christ and imitate him in our daily life, it will be because the Spirit descends and dwells within us and makes it possible, makes us possible!
For this meal to be all we have hoped it to be, we need the Spirit. It is not about getting the words right, not about the person who serves, not about the materials themselves, it is about the Spirit creating a moment in which something remarkable happens. All this is held in the words we pray each month at this moment. Let us offer them together.
Holy God we thank you for these gifts of bread and wine
And we pray that we who eat and drink them
By the power of the Holy Spirit,
May become Christ’ body for the world,
And we might be made one with each other
Through Jesus Christ our Lord;
Now, at the precipice of the breaking of the bread, pray the prayer Jesus taught us. We do this to connect us with the wide and long story of the church. The sprawling history of disciples coming to the table of Christ hoping to be fed on the way to a promised end. A prayer we are invited to pray (as we explored last week) within the relationship of the Son and the Father, praying on the same holy ground as Christ, a reminder of the Spirit of adoption we have received, which allows us to approach the table without fear or any sense of unworthiness, because our worth and dignity is found and secured in Christ!
We also are encouraged to pray this prayer in the language of our hearts, a reminder of the beauty of Pentecost – that all languages are fit to be a crib in which the Lord may rest, all languages fit and ready to speak of God and proclaim the good news. And so we pray the Lord’s prayer together.
The Bread and Wine
At this point we take up the bread and the juice, simple material things… but in this moment they are quite wonderful, glorious even, because for us right now Jesus is present – not necessarily in the bread and wine themselves (as some traditions hold) but in the moment, the event, the taking of these elements together.
As we eat and drink together we remember that Christ is the bread of life who shared food with those who were hungry, and we remember that Christ is the cup of joy, who revives us when we feel faint.
And Christ feeds us on the way, because Christ has called us to be what he was for others, to follow after him into the world. And so we eat and drink together to remember who Christ is, and to pray that we might be like him to.
As we say:
Let us receive what we are;
let us become what we receive.
The body of Christ.
Prayer of Thanks
As we said from the beginning, this is a table of thanks for communion is a gift from God. And like all gifts, the point is not to receive and keep, but to let the gift well up in us and flow out into the world. The table extends. We have been fed so as to be ready to meet a hungry world. And so we say thanks again to God, and we ready ourselves to go forth and try and live like Jesus. Being open and hospitable with all we have. As a sign of this commitment to follow, to go forth in imitation of Christ, to participate in Christ’s mission of love and justice, we dedicate our offering, a reminder that what we have received is to be used to bless others.
Blessing and Sending
Christ call us to his table
It is here we receive what we are
Christ feeds us at the table
It is here we become what we receive
Christ leads us from the table
We gather and go as the body of Christ
And that is (partly) why we do what we do
Thanks be to God, who gives all good things.
*Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah: vol.2 (The Jewish Publication Society, 2017)
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