“All Together Now”
By Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday. October 3, 2021
Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:14-17; 11:23-28
Special events have a way of eliciting a response unlike normal events and there is nothing in the Christian calendar that is more special, particularly ecumenically, in terms of the broader church, than worldwide communion Sunday, which we celebrate today. I have thought about seminal moments from my many years here celebrating worldwide communion and their impact. Many of you will remember the first communion that we celebrated after 9/11 in 2001. The world was still reeling from the disaster in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and elsewhere. Everyone was feeling the pain and the anguish. Churches were full. There was fear in the air, and no one knew how we would get through this. Yet we gathered here at the beginning of October, not long after the disaster, to take the bread and the cup and to remember whose we are and who we are. It was profoundly healing.
I reminisce about 2008, a time when there was a financial crisis. People lost money; a lot of people lost a lot of money. There was a fear of potential and imminent breakdowns in the economy. I even had to visit a person involved in the financial world who was thinking of taking his own life as a result of it all. It was a crisis. Yet, we gathered, we took bread, we took wine with the rest of the world, and we remembered whose we are and who we are.
Then last fall our hopes were raised that we would finally be able to get back to celebrating worldwide communion, and we couldn’t, and we didn’t, and we were heartbroken. We still knew whose we were and who we were, but we were missing something. So, here we are today in this wonderful place, being able to celebrate it again reminds us whose we are and who we are.
It’s a time for us to renew our commitment to the sacrament and precisely why it is important for us. We need to do that because for some of us it has been a long time since we last gathered around the table. For some of you it might even be the first time in your life that you have celebrated communion. Why do we do this? Why is it significant? Why does the church throughout the world set this day aside for remembrance and for communion? Well, there’s always been some degree of confusion about communion for Christians. Even the earliest believers, I think it is fair to say, who were following the traditions of the gospels, the stories and the life of Jesus, found certain anomalies and couldn’t quite put it all together. There were differences in the gospels where the location of the first Lord’s supper was served. There was a difference in the language that was used, a difference even in the timing. Yet there were commonalities in the gospels.
The commonalities were that Jesus, in taking those disciples for the first gathering in the upper room, was letting them know who he was and who they were. There was an urgency because Jesus also knew that he was about to be betrayed, and not only that, but that he would suffer on the cross. There was an urgency to have this meal, and most especially it was his last Passover meal with his disciples. It was an intimate moment to celebrate one of the singular moments of importance in the life of the people of Israel and God’s covenant community. And, during all of that, Jesus takes bread and breaks it; he takes a cup and shares it. But it’s only really when we come to our text today from 1st Corinthians that things are put together in a way that we can use, even liturgically.
The apostle Paul brilliantly explains what Jesus had been saying all along and defines for us the nature of the Lord’s supper. He did so in a time of great confusion. There was chaos in the way that early Christians were celebrating communion. Some were taking it and making it part of a feast – even a feast for idols and it was syncretistic and getting confused. Some people were treating the meal as an excuse for gluttony; others were deciding they were going to eat from the food of idols at the same time as they celebrated the sacrament of holy communion. There was disunity within the body; there was dissension and disagreement, and the apostle Paul stressed the need for unity. He stressed the need to understand the very nature of what communion is and how Christians are to celebrate the Lord’s supper.
That is why our text is important. It gives us a structure and wording that enable us to understand this sacrament fully. The more I look at it, the more I realize that Paul is stressing the importance of connections when he’s talking about the Lord’s supper. The connection between the God of Israel and the person of Jesus; between the person of Jesus and his followers, and between his followers and each other and the world. If we grasp these connections, we have grasped the essence of why we come to the table of the Lord, and why here at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church we have waited for this day.
The first connection is the relationship between the God of Israel and Jesus. It is no coincidence whatsoever that Jesus, when he sat down, took the bread and the wine, that he did it at the Passover festival. Not only were people in Jerusalem from all over the world – Jews coming to gather and to celebrate – but they were there to remember the power of God’s salvation and the promise of his covenant with Israel. You see, the Passover is inextricably linked to the notion of the freedom and salvation of the people from their tyranny under the Egyptians. God liberated Israel and the bible is full of references after the great Exodus of the people of Israel remembering that event. They remember two things about that event and the salvation they were given. The first is that they were to celebrate the feast of unleavened bread. We find this in the Book of Exodus. Chapter 12. I want to read two or three verses for you:
Celebrate the festival of unleavened bread, because it was on this very day that I the Lord brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. In the first month you’re to eat bread made without yeast from the evening of the 14th day until the evening of the 21st day. For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses, and anyone whether foreigner or native born who eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel. You will eat nothing leavened; wherever you live you must eat unleavened bread.
It was unleavened because the people of Israel were in a hurry to get out of the grip of the Egyptians and to be led by God away from their tyranny. They could not wait for the yeast to make the bread rise. That’s why it’s unleavened and you might complain about your wafer this morning and think it’s a little chintzy, thin and dry. It is chintzy and little and dry because it’s unleavened. That is why we link ourselves all the way back to the book of Exodus.
The lamb and the blood, of course, goes back to the markings put on the doors of those who belonged to the covenant of Israel to protect them when the plagues came. The unleavened bread and the sacrificial gift of the blood is a symbol of God’s redemption passing over the sins of the people. It was there in the Old Testament. Even the great Gamaliel in the Mishnah says that a celebration of the unleavened bread is a celebration to remember the forgiveness of sins.
So, when Jesus is there with his disciples, all of whom were Jewish, and belonged to the covenant of Israel, says to them, “This is in the new covenant of my blood” he is telling them that what he is doing and his offering of himself is exactly God’s offering of the unleavened bread and blood that spared the people. It must have hit those disciples hard. When we say those words in a few minutes, we are reciting the words of Paul to the earliest Christian community, reminding them of that fact. It’s also a connection between Jesus and ourselves. Jesus said, “I want you to do this in remembrance of me.” The taking of the cup and the unleavened bread is a sign of Jesus’ presence with us. It is a memorial, but even more than that because he says “This is my body broken for you” according to our text from Corinthians. This is more than just a memorial, and there’s nothing wrong with remembering the past.
I often hear, and it it’s a strange thing, people put down seniors a lot. Ageism is a real problem in our society, and it hardly gets a reference these days. People say that seniors like to live in the past, and when you visit them, they’ll tell you stories of the past as if they are entrapped there. I’ve never shared that opinion. In fact, I’ve shared a contrary opinion. I think that recollections of the past reform and reshape us in the present. I think remembering helps us know whose we are and who we are. It unites us in a common memory. I also think that when we have celebrations like worldwide Communion Sunday, they are like a reforming of our memory. They are a reshaping of ourselves.
When you think about it, we do this all the time with other things, don’t we? Thanksgiving Sunday, for example, next Sunday. Is this not a continued reminder of the wonder of the universe and the splendour of our country and our nation and the bountiful nature of God as creator that we should be thankful for? It brings us together to celebrate – to remember – and it shapes us as a people. Likewise, Remembrance Day is a moment when we remember that we have been formed, shaped, by the sacrifice of others in order that we do not repeat the errors of the past. It shapes us, and it’s why it’s a very important place in the life of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church.
I think September the 30th, and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, over time will shape us, inform us, and reform us so that we focus on the errors of the past, but also on the need for reconciliation in the present. We need moments where we do not forget and where we remember where we’ve come from even if it’s difficult to remember. Likewise, when you come today and you take the cup, you are remembering Jesus Christ. The sacrament forms us, reforms us, and makes us into his people.
It’s also an eternal thing. Paul knew and understood that the taking of the bread and the wine was going to shape the Christian community. He knew that it was also going to get them to have a sense of the eternal significance of remembering the body and the blood of Jesus Christ. I’ve thought about that because I had an iconic moment a couple of years ago. I was walking along an old street in Oxford, England, called St. Giles – a very famous street. There’s an old church called St. Giles and a small cemetery nearby. Walking by this historic place that had celebrated the gospel for hundreds of years, made me realize how significant it is in forming and shaping so many lives. As I walked past the cemetery, there was a young couple and a child having a picnic in the middle of it. A picnic. They had a nice red and white checked blanket on the ground, and I think they had (it could have been) an old, beaten up Fortnum and Mason basket. I was quite taken by it. Somebody who was next to me as I was walking along this narrow path said, “Isn’t that the most disgusting thing that you’ve ever seen in your life? People having a picnic in a cemetery.”
I said, “No; actually, I thought it was rather nice, personally. You sit there amongst people who have often been long forgotten. You read the headstones. You remember their lives. You get on with your life. You celebrate life and you remember death. Often people bring flowers; often people bring teddy bears. Why not sit and have a meal in the presence of death?”
As I finished saying this – nicely and gently, by the way – I thought, my gosh, that’s exactly what we do at communion. It’s a memorial meal just like the Passover was a memorial meal. It is celebrating the past, remembering the past. But it’s also remembering God’s activity in the past. It is remembering what the Lord has done. That’s why Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And when we do, the shadow of his cross and his resurrection hovers over us.
This is also a bond between us and each other. Unlike anything else we do communion draws us together. We eat and drink this as one people. For Paul, the importance of the Lord’s supper is a unifying act in the life of the church of inestimable value. He knew that the various pagan traditions, the different ways it was celebrated in different places, had to come to an end. There had to be something from Jesus himself. “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” He wanted to stress the importance of that.
Oh, and when people ate food to idols, well, idols only exist in the minds of the idolaters, according to Paul. Good argument. But, if you’re going to be gluttonous, be gluttonous somewhere else not at the Lord’s table. At the Lord’s table it’s about Jesus of Nazareth. Paul did not want that table to exclude people. He didn’t want to prevent them from coming to it. He wanted the doors of the early Christian church metaphorically to be open, but open to the very person who invites us to it. To be open to Jesus Christ himself.
He also said something lasting and significant. He said, “And we proclaim Christ until he comes.” This meal is a foretaste of a heavenly meal. It’s a foretaste of things to come. It’s not just about the past. It’s not just about the present. It’s about the future as well. A future that is in the hands of the Lord. We wait until he comes again.
I urge you, I implore you, to think deeply and examine your hearts as you come to the table today. What we’re doing stands the test of a tradition going back to the Exodus, to the upper room, to the earliest Christian community, and it bonds us together as one people: one family, one faith, and one Lord. So, come to the table today and enjoy the presence of Jesus Christ; “Do this in remembrance of me.” Amen.