Grace Presbyterian Church
August 4, 2019, Pentecost 8C
Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion/Eucharist: What’s In a Name?
It is one of the quirks of the church’s history that one of its central practices has come to be identified by not one, not even two, but three different names.
After all, baptism is … pretty much “baptism.” You can argue about how it should be done – by immersion or by sprinkling, the two main methods – but either way, you typically call it “baptism” (“christening” technically refers to a different practice and does not carry the same force of membership and initiation as baptism). But as to the sacrament being observed today there is no such unity; depending on the tradition you’re in, it can be called one of three different names.
To be clear, those names historically have been taken at different times to refer to a specific part of the sacrament – the moment of the breaking of the bread, for example – but (again, depending on your tradition) all three have come to be used to refer to the sacrament in full. You can call it the Lord’s Supper, you can call it Communion (or even Holy Communion), or you can refer to it as the Eucharist. Each of these names can be found in common use in some corner of the Christian tradition today. Sadly, some folks in one tradition get bent out of shape if a pastor or other leader uses the “wrong” name for the sacrament, if you can believe that.
This is particularly sad because all three of these names for the sacrament have something important to say about the sacrament, things we really should bear in mind whenever we come to the table. We can learn something from all of these names.
I’m guessing “Lord’s Supper” is most commonly used among this congregation and many others in town. It’s a good name, and points to the founding event that prompts us to observe the sacrament even today. As recorded in three of the gospels, including in our reading from Luke, during the observance of Passover Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to his disciples with the instruction to “do this in remembrance of me,” and followed with similar blessing of the cup. It points to God’s initiation of the act we practice as sacrament, much as the passage from Deuteronomy – that great recapitulation of the Law that finishes the first five books of scripture known as the Pentateuch – reminds that the Passover itself was initiated and commanded by God.
It’s good and right to remember that our Lord gave us this sacrament, but that’s not all there is to remember. And worse, taken as the only “legitimate” name for the sacrament, it leads to a distorted and potentially even harmful view of the sacrament as a memorial and nothing but, distorting and weakening the sacrament’s power and meaning. My wife can tell you about the time when we were living in south Florida, and she got in trouble for not wearing black for serving the Lord’s Supper. I’m not kidding.
No, there is more to the observance, and one of those things is indicated by the term “communion.” You can probably work it out from the word itself; in observing this sacrament, we – and that’s all Christians, not just those here in this church – are in communion with Christ and with one another.
However, in some corners this word refers only to the specific sharing of bread and cup, which (to be honest) is the main if not only thing most Christians associate with the sacrament, leaving out the act of remembering God’s love and provision for us and offering of praise to God that also come with the sacrament, and that can also be a problem.
Still, though, that fact of sharing with the whole body of Christ – indeed being or becoming the body of Christ in the sharing of the bread and cup, as Paul describes to the Corinthians – is a good and vital thing to remember in coming to the table. We do not come to this table alone; the body of Christ comes together and is made one at this table. But it may be challenging to remember just who else is calling to the Lord at the table; maybe parents desperate for their children to be released from that detention facility in Homestead; maybe folks who were only yesterday desperately seeking shelter from a terrorist with a murder weapon in El Paso or Dayton; or millions of people around the world who, to put it bluntly, do not look or talk or act like us. Pay particular attention to the hymn we sing after this message; it is a wonderful poetic evocation of that joining together at Christ’s table, being made one with Christ and one another in the sharing of the bread and cup.
There’s also a verse in that hymn that points to the final name for the sacrament and what it teaches us: the gratitude and praise that are evoked in the word “Eucharist.” That’s not commonly used in most Protestant circles, to be sure. It is, however, probably the oldest word for the sacrament, coming from a Greek word that roughly translates as “to give thanks” or “to be grateful.” It would have been a word for saying grace at a meal, for example. We could stand to be reminded of this aspect of the table; we are here not out of rote obedience but out of gratitude for the God who provides for us and sustains us at this table and in all our daily living.
They’re all good words, in other words, and all speak to good things about this sacrament we are about to receive. It’s a lot to think about, to be sure. Still, all of these are things to remember whenever we come to this table. Remember the Lord who calls us here; remember the body of Christ of which we are a part; and be grateful.
For the Lord’s Supper, and Communion, and Eucharist, Thanks be to God. Amen.
*Note: David Gambrell, Presbyterian Worship: Questions and Answers (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2019) provided initial ideas and themes for this meditation.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #515, I Come With Joy; #498, Loaves Were Broken, Words Were Spoken; #506, Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!; #529, Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether
Yes, this, but not only this.