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What Happens in Communion?
October 3, 1982

First United Methodist Church of Modesto

1 CORINTHIANS 10:16-17

Wherever I go as a minister, I encourage the participation of children in Holy Communion. In one of my rural Minnesota churches, due to the Lutheran influence,  it was their practice to leave children in the pews like orphans until they were confirmed. I encouraged parents to bring their children. On one occasion, Communion was reverently hushed. In those days we thought Communion had to be somber, sober, and hushed. People whispered. The organist was playing funeral music in the background as people came to the altar (it seemed like funeral music to me--sad, soft). All of a sudden, a young boy hollered at the top of his voice, "Hey, Mom. It's only grape juice!" Evidently it wasn't the 'blood' he expected to drink. 

What can we we expect to happen when we come to Communion? What expectations ? For centuries the church has disagreed. The extreme positions: On one hand, there are the Roman Catholics who believe that the bread and wine are transformed into the very body and blood of Jesus who is again sacrificed on our behalf. On the other hand, there are those churches which believe that nothing really happens at Communion; but believers in Christ gather together to remember the last supper. Both of these extremes usually insist that only their particular members may participate. Most United Methodists find ourselves in the middle between these two positions. 

It is difficult for me to understand what happens in Communion in the context of the ancient sacrificial systems. Understanding Communion to be the repetition of Christ's sacrifice is to use language and imagery that are quite foreign to our modern world. Sacrifice implies that on the altar a  sacrifice --vegetable, animal or human-­ is to appease a god who demands some sort of sacrifice in order to forgive and enter into relationship with humans. This very ancient practice is found in many religions. But, we through Jesus Christ have come to believe that God is not a legalist who requires blood, or sweet smelling incense, or the taste of harvest in order to be appeased. The sacrificial system is not part of our culture, nor is it part of our beliefs. If the imagery is useful to you, please use it; if it is not, it is not necessary to image a sacrifice in order to appreciate what happens in Communion. 

So, if sacrifice is not meaningful, are we left then with the other extreme, that Communion is a Memorial Service, a time to remember? A time to remember like a family dinner,  a family reunion where all your family gathers. They come from all over to get together, to celebrate their family. During the course of the day, after the feast, some of the family sits back with a cup of coffee, and someone says, "Remember how Uncle Gus used to enjoy these reunions?" And someone else responds, "Yes, and remember the time he …” and off they go, reminiscing, remembering usually a lot of humorous incidents in the lives of those who've gone before. 

Communion is like that. We gather as the family of God. We come to the table. We remember our Lord, we talk about the saints, we remember our departed loved ones. We celebrate our one-ness, our unity as a family for we have a common heritage in belonging to Christ. We are sisters and brothers. We stand with each other, shoulder to shoulder. We cry together, laugh, share. Paul wrote letters to the church in Corinth. What a time they had! Church squabbles are not new. Reading between the lines, the church was in turmoil, split into factions,. Some felt they were better than the rest because they spoke in tongues, and Communion was riotous. Evidently they ate together and drank so much they were getting drunk. Paul told them to eat at home. 

His instructions on Communion included an appeal for unity. "All of us are one body, for we all share the same Lord." We gather as one family, sharing the same loaf. Today we celebrate our world-wide unity as the family of God. How fortunate we are to have people in our church from other parts of the world—Laos, Cambodia, Philippines—with ancestors from all over. How blessed we are not to be a lily-white anemic congregation! Give thanks for our oneness. As you gather at the table, imagine the many colors and nations of Christians all over the world gathering today. I've been in Japan on World Communion Sunday and I know the Christians there today are celebrating Communion. I've been in Australia on World Communion Sunday and I know they are gathering, some to kneel, some to sit in pews and be served. Different services, different languages, different customs, but all one, belonging to Christ. What happens in Communion is that we gather as a family, celebrating our oneness, remembering our Christ. 

But there is more. Christ is present.  We remember Jesus, what he said and did, but more. Christ is also uniquely present. Christ is not just a person who lived long ago, but he is the resurrected Christ, present to us in the Spirit, uniquely so. He is present when we gather in his name, but especially, significantly in Communion. We call Communion a sacrament —a sacred act— because Christ is present, present in the bread and juice, present in the fellowship. 

Paul in his instructions to the Corinthian Christians about Communion, wrote in 10:16 -17,  "The cup we use in the Lord's supper and for which we give thanks to God when we drink from it, we are sharing in the blood of Christ, and the bread we break when we eat it, we are sharing in the body of Christ ." Note the word "sharing." Other translations use the words "communion" and "participation." The Spirit is contagious. Have you ever gone to a party or someone's house and really didn't want to go, but when there, you were caught up in the festivities, the spirit, and had a great time. Like going to a football game. The score is close, your team is inching its way to the goal line. Everyone is on their feet and you find yourself hollering, acting like an idiot. That is what happens in Communion. Christ is uniquely present. You and I share, participate, and when we open ourselves, allow ourselves to respond, the Spirit catches us, lifts us to new heights of warmth, love, joy, peace, forgiveness. 

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, added another dimension to Communion. He believed Communion is a means of grace because Christ is present, a means by which God can enter a person’s life. Many have been converted to Christ at Communion. Many have committed their lives and experienced forgiveness, wholeness, healing. Therefore, Methodism invites everyone--not just members, not just Christians--to Communion. Everyone is invited. Christ may reach you, touch you, envelop you, embrace you as one of his own. 

What happens in Communion is that we gather as a family, united in Christ all around the world, where we remember Christ, where we experience Christ in the Spirit, where Christ is present to embrace us, forgive us, love us and empower us. "We are sharing in the life of Christ." 

© 1982 Douglas I. Norris