Grace Presbyterian Church
October 3, 2021, World Communion Sunday
When Christ’s own body comes to table,
When all God’s children gather there,
The grace of sacramental living
Is given freely, everywhere.
You might have noticed that the white vestments came out for this morning, though they have not always appeared for Sundays on which the Lord’s Supper has been practiced. That’s because if the white vestments came out every time the sacrament should be observed in worship, we would never get to use any other vestments. There is no qualified religious authority or text that gives a good credible argument for why the sacrament should not be observed every time a congregation comes together for worship, even including such occasions as weddings and Services of Witness to the Resurrection. The first reactions against weekly communion came as anti-Catholic backlash in some Reformed areas during the Reformation, and over time that backlash morphed into the perceived “impracticality” of weekly observance, and sometimes into a desire to keep the Lord’s Supper “special,” which is to say, I guess, that nothing else about worship is “special.”
The occasion of World Communion Sunday, marked today in many Protestant traditions, provides an occasion to critique those reluctances among many other things. It might be worth remembering that there is nothing else we do in worship that has quite the direct mandate as this sacrament, given most immediately by Jesus on the night before his death. The church at large was quick to make it the central feature of their gatherings, even in the teaching/preaching parts of their worship took up much more time. They sometimes got it wrong, as we see from Paul’s reprimand to the Corinthians in chapter 11 of his first letter to them, but they did it. It is, in short, a direct ministering of grace to his disciples, and to us who follow over the many centuries as part of the body of Christ.
Now bread we break and wine we offer,
Though not our own, but Christ’s we give.
In nations found the whole world over
God’s people take this feast and live.
I wonder sometimes if there’s something else at work in some churches’ reluctance to observe the sacrament more regularly. It’s a lot of work, especially when pandemic conditions have not forced these little two-sided containers of “bread” and “wine” upon us, to get together that much bread and (in most Protestant churches) grape juice for particularly larger congregation, to be sure. It’s also true that it takes time. There’s also the matter of the awkwardness of much theology about the table; is Christ really present in the bread and cup, or spiritually present (this would be the position of most churches in the Reformed tradition, like us Presbyterians), or is it all just symbolic? And there’s also the challenge of acknowledging Christ as the one who serves us all, when any idiot can look and see that I am not Christ, and nor is any other minister presiding at table this morning anywhere in the world.
But I wonder if the biggest obstacle for some churches is that this sacrament is something we share – not just among ourselves in one sanctuary, wherever we may be, but with all the church in all the world.
I’m not sure everybody likes that. Particularly in this country, it’s kind of a thing for churches – especially those on the presumed cutting edge of contemporary worship – to pride themselves on creating a distinct “culture,” of worship and pretty much everything else. You won’t find this experience anywhere else is the implied promise. That attitude, honestly, can turn up in a church whether it plays the hottest new songs on the CCLI worship music charts or fills the air with the sounds of Bach and Mozart.
The Lord’s Supper, though, is not unique, and is almost designed to thwart uniqueness. You break bread and pass it around, and you pour out the wine or juice and share it too. The bread may be different in different places, as this table suggests in a small way, but it’s hard to be terribly different about the observance of this sacrament. We kinda have to share it, and not just with that church a few blocks away we don’t like. We share it with a worldful of churches in places we don’t like full of people we don’t like, against whom we’d much rather discriminate.
In every place, at every table,
Our Lord presides at every feast.
No gates, no walls are there to hinder
All those who seek, from great to least.
Among many other things this sacrament, and this particular occasion of observing it, do to us is this compelling to see ourselves not as some kind of “special” or “unique” outfit but elementally as part of Christ’s body, the church.
We don’t necessarily like that. I know there are probably some churches in this town where I’d be horrified to sit through a worship service, and my own past experiences make it hard to conceive of participating in much of anything with some churches. But that’s not up to me, and those churches are part of the body of Christ too. So to with churches in Haiti or Afghanistan (to the degree that any churches are allowed to exist there anymore) or any number of places in the world that too many of our leaders and people demonize at every opportunity.
And yet here this particular table stands, one of many around the world where bread and cup will be ministered on this day, with absolutely no checkpoints or gates or gatekeepers, open to anybody to whom the Lord calls. It stands as an open rebuke to the likes of the “church growth movement,” a seemingly innocuous thing in recent decades that promoted the use of things like “market segmentation” to encourage churches to seek out their members in moderately affluent, middle- to upper-class, and almost exclusively white neighborhoods – “people like us” as many churches would put it.
There are Christians at tables around the world on this day who are, to say the least, not like us. The reading from Ephesians reminds us, though, that even we ourselves were “not like us” before the working of Christ’s mercy and redemption opened the good news up beyond the Jewish origins of its earliest followers. We “Gentiles” – i.e. anyone non-Jewish – were the outsiders. You might even borrow a Jimmy Buffett song line and say that we were the people our parents warned us about. Indeed those in churches these days who want to keep folks “out” are only “in” by the grace of God, and don’t like that reminder.
If they don’t like that, they really won’t like eternity. The feast we keep today is, again among many other things, a foreshadowing of the great feast to come:
As now we gather, we look forward
To days to come, when we shall see
Our Christ alone at one great table
To serve God’s children, loved and free.
Until that day in glory, we keep the feast here in this one small corner of the body of Christ, one part of a world of Christ’s followers, seeking to be faithful and to bear witness.
For the whole church in the whole world, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #637, O Sing to the Lord; #340, This Is My Song; #103, Come Now, O Prince of Peace.
Hymn embedded in sermon: http://hymnsbycharlesfreeman.blogspot.com/2021/09/when-christs-own-body-comes-to-table.html