Communion: A Holy Mystery
Wow, has there been a lot of stuff in religion news lately! That guy that got swallowed by the whale brings up images of Jonah - I may yet write about him. The Southern Baptist Convention has been meeting this week and surprised everyone by electing Ed Litton as president. Rev. Litton is marginally more progressive, because he has advocated for racial justice, than the leading candidate, Mike Stone, who is very conservative and apparently campaigned hard for the job. This after outgoing president Russell Moore resigned, accepted an appointment at a church that isn't Southern Baptist, and then several of his letters were leaked - letters accusing the SBC leadership of racism and support of sexual abusers.
And then there is the debate in the U.S. Catholic Church about whether President Biden and other supporters of abortion rights should be able to receive communion.
I am not Catholic, so I can't claim to know enough about Catholic doctrine to make an informed decision. But maybe, just maybe, my lack of catechism allows me to be a little more objective. So that is what I want to explore today.
I know some of my readers are friends from church. Many of you I don't know, so I don't know if you are Christian, if you are seeking something, if you are regular church goers and comfortable in your denomination or if, like me, you have a deep faith but are frustrated with the church. Maybe you have been hurt by the church and are trying to find another way to God. There has been a lot to be frustrated with this week.
As I understand it, the issue the Catholic bishops have with abortion rights supporters is that they are sinners, because what they support is perceived as murder of the unborn. Because they support abortion rights they are unrepentant and so should not be able to take communion.
I could get into all kinds of stuff about women's rights, and the fact that women are the ones who suffer through and after an unwanted pregnancy even though they don't get pregnant by themselves. I could demand answers to the question of how one can be "pro-life" and support the death penalty. I could point out that no one is pro-abortion; people are pro-choice. Abortion is not an easy solution to an unwanted pregnancy. And that comment doesn't account for the wanted pregnancies that go bad. There are all kinds of GOOD reasons to be pro-choice. There are also reasons to be anti-abortion. I guess you can tell which side I am on, but that isn't what I want to write about today.
I want to consider the meaning of communion, also called the Eucharist.
Again, I don't know what the liturgy of the Catholic church is around communion, but I've been a Methodist long enough to recite the liturgy almost from memory. I do have a United Methodist Hymnal at hand just in case. Also a UCC Hymnal.
Here is the Methodist version. The light print is read by the leader and the bold by the congregation:
Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him,
who earnestly repent of their sin
and seek to live in peace with one another.
Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another:
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.
Hear the good news;
Christ died for us while we were y et sinners;
that proves God's love toward us.
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
Glory to God. Amen
And then there is passing of the peace: Let us offer one another signs of reconciliation and love.
The offering: As forgiven and reconciled people let us offer ourselves and our gifts to God.
And then the Thanksgiving and Communion:
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
It is right, and a good and joyful thing,
always and everywhere to give thanks to you,
Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
You formed us in your image
and breathed into us the breath of life.
When we turned away, and our love failed,
your love remained steadfast.
You delivered us from captivity,
made covenant to be our sovereign God,
and spoke to us through your prophets.
with your people on earth
and all the company of heaven
we praise your name and join their unending hymn:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
Holy are you, and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ.
Your Spirit anointed him
to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
and to announce that the time had come when you would save your people.
He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.
By the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection
you gave birth to your church,
delivered us from slavery to sin and death,
and made with us a new covenant
by water and the Spirit.
When the Lord Jesus ascended,
He promised to be with us always
in the power of your Word and Holy Spirit.
On the night in which he gave himself up for us,
he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread,
gave it to his disciples, and said:
"Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you
Do this in remembrance of me."
When the supper was over, he took the cup,
gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said:
"Drink from this, all of you;
this is my blood of the new covenant,
poured out for you and for many
for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this, as often as you drink it,
in remembrance of me."
in remembrance of these your might acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving
as a holy and living sacrifice,
in union with Christ's offering for us,
as we proclaim the mystery of faith.
Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.
Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood.
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.
Through your Son Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit in your holy church,
all honor and glory is yours, almighty Father,
now and for ever.
Then we say the Lord's prayer, which I will be happy to share with anyone who doesn't know it.
Because there is one loaf,
we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.
The cup over which we give thanks is a sharing in the blood of Christ.
The body of Christ, given for you. Amen
The blood of Christ, given for you. Amen
Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery
in which you have given yourself to us.
Grant that we may go into the world
in the strength of your Spirit,
to give ourselves for others,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The UCC version has different words, but the message is essentially the same: we are all sinners but God, in God's great love for God's creation, sent his Son, Jesus, who sacrificed himself for all of us. When we eat the bread and drink the juice or wine in communion with others, we participate in the holy mystery that is God's love, grace, and forgiveness.
In some churches communion happens every week. In some every month, and in some only quarterly and on special occasions.
This liturgy is very meaningful to me, as I have said it over and over (the church I attended served communion monthly). I LOVE serving communion to others. For me, communion is a tangible reminder of the love of Jesus Christ. When I visited a church not to long ago for communion, the pastor did OK with the bread, but the person serving the juice was looking out the window and said nothing. She may as well have been a book shelf and I will never go back. At the church I have most recently attended, I don't like it when the juice server says to me, "The cup of blessing," or, "The cup of salvation." Maybe that is OK for some, but to me it takes Jesus sacrifice, the shedding of Christ's blood poured out for me and for many out of the communion service. It is an intimate sharing of a meal.
I always thought that it was appropriate for only clergy or certified lay persons to preside over communion, but I have been rethinking that. I looked up the Lord's Supper in the gospels as I prepared to write this post. Jesus is sitting in an "upper room," at a table with his disciples - including Judas Iscariot, who had already sold Jesus out. He breaks bread, as was customary at the time, but this time says, "This is my body, broken for you. Take and eat." Then he pours wine into the cup (Methodists use juice in an effort not to cause problems for anyone who might be alcoholic - the UCC church I attend offers both) and says, "This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Drink from it, all of you."
That's it. There is nothing about going out and getting "right with God," or confessing sins, or repenting and changing one's ways. In fact, Jesus already knew that Judas had betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver, but Jesus serves him anyway. Luke writes, "But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this." (22:21-23). John adds that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, and named Judas as his betrayer (13:26) while the disciples were still at the table, although only Judas knew what he was saying.
"Eucharist" means thanksgiving. Most Christian denominations consider it a sacrament, which is a rite of special significance, in that it symbolizes God's grace and is a channel for God's presence. Catholics consider the Eucharist to be one of seven sacraments. Methodists consider it one of two, with baptism being the second, with sacraments being a way to grace and sanctification.
That is just a smidgeon of background history - more intellectual and educated theologians than I are still debating the meaning and mystery of Holy Communion.
So, back to the U.S. Catholic bishops, President Biden, and those who are pro-choice. First of all, I can't say for certain that being pro-abortion is the only concern of the bishops - being pro-choice may only be the issue that has gotten the most press. I can guess that the language in the teaching document will not call out abortion rights specifically. The concern is that the new document may prevent the Bidens from taking Communion.
President Biden is Catholic, and a deeply religious man. Being disallowed from receiving Communion, I imagine, would be a very painful reality for him, as it would be for me. I have several arguments with the stand of the U.S. Bishops:
Jesus said, "Ask and it shall be given to you." If someone comes asking for the gift and grace of Jesus Christ, who are priests, ministers - or bloggers - to deny them? Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say what you must do to receive this holy rite. He breaks bread and pours wine. There were no additional requirements or rules, other than those associated with Passover. According to my Bible, the rules for Passover are that it is to be celebrated:
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day you shall hold a solemn assembly, and on the seventh day a solemn assembly; no work shall be done on those days; only what everyone must eat, that alone may be prepared by you. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance. In the first month, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day, you shall eat unleavened bread. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether an alien or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread. (Exodus12:14-20).
Note that those who eat leaven are not cut off from God, but from Israel.
2. We are all sinners, and God's grace is freely given. If one person receives communion and feels a connection with God, then that is one reason why no one should be excluded.
In the liturgy, we are called to repent of our sin before God and one another, but we don't say them out loud. My sin is private in this communion liturgy. Public figures do not have that luxury.
3. None of us truly repent of our sin. We think we do. We try. We mean to. But on any given Sunday, if we recognize our sins, do we not have to go home and think about it first? Maybe that is just me being honest. Also, how many times in the heat of the moment do we make promises that we forget before the sun sets that day?
4. The Good News is that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Not after we repented and changed our political opinions. I do not doubt the piety and faith of the U.S. Bishops, but in tying their religious doctrine to politics, I wonder if they have not lost sight of their calling.
5. Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the chief priests for 30 pieces of silver (that is all Jesus was worth?!?). Jesus knew it, but Judas was still welcome at the Passover table. Judas was still given the bread that was Jesus body, broken for him, and Jesus blood, poured out for the forgiveness of his sins. Jesus still washed Judas' feet. Jesus demonstrated grace to the man who had sealed his crucifixion. Even though Jesus knew this was God's plan, it had to hurt that someone he had loved, traveled with, taught and broken bread with would do this to him.
6. Do we truly know what is sinful? We think we do but we are not God. Jesus said,
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matthew 7: 1-5)
7. The liturgy calls us to unite as, " 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. Denying communion divides us from Christ and from each other. (In the Methodist tradition the table is open to all,. Catholic churches do not offer communion to those who are not Catholic - a practice I don't agree with).
8. When asked what the most important commandment is, Jesus answered that we must, "love the Lord your God with all your hearts, all your minds, and all your strength. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself." (Matthew 22: 36-40). Is it loving to judge someone as unworthy of God's grace? And while we are talking about judgement, see again number 6, above.
9. No one really knows what Communion is, what it does, or how it works - it is a holy mystery. Do the bread and wine actually become flesh and blood? Some say it does. Are we washed clean? How? It is a mystery, and we must accept it as such. To do or say otherwise is, in my mind, idolatry, because we are putting our own understanding and interpretation of what happened in that upper room that night ahead of what scripture tells us.
Ultimately, each of us is responsible for our own relationship with God. Each of us will be judged accordingly, by God and God alone, and each of us will receive mercy and grace from God. I pray that the U.S. Bishops will be able to set aside their pride (a sin) and their power, and just love the sinners who come to them, seeking God. I understand that they are in a hard place right now, but others have been there before them, and only God can get them - and us - out of the mess we are in.
Here is something I've come to think lately, as I have struggled with church. Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." (Matthew 18:20). It is the patriarchy that says that only authorized persons can preside over communion - it gives them power. It is the patriarchy that sets rituals and rules. If I am dining with another person, and we bless the food in Jesus' name, is that not communion? If I don't take communion, am I cut off from God? Jesus never said we had to take communion - only that when we break bread and drink a cup with another person we should do it in his memory. There were sinners at Jesus' table - often - and he did not turn them away. If you find the liturgy and ritual comforting, then take communion. If you find it threatening or if you are unfamiliar with it - find someone to take it with you, either in church or at your own table. Jesus is here, with us, loving us and offering grace, whether we recognize him or not.
The bread is his body, broken for you and for many. The juice is his blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins, for you and for many. Amen.
P.S. "Amen" means "so be it."
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