As we come to the communion table today I want to focus our thoughts for a few minutes on what it means to be a part of the communion of saints. We have experienced a lot of deaths recently – some members of our congregation, plus parents and siblings of congregation members. That’s where the rubber meets the road for the Christian faith. Are we going to despair or are we going to embrace the hope that is offered to us in the Gospel? Is the Gospel too good to be true or too good not to be true?
The communion table has always been one of the most important symbols of the faith for me, and taking communion with the church family is the time when I feel I come closest to catching a glimpse of that which I cannot fully grasp. One of the old communion hymns states these seeming contradictions: “Here, O my Lord, I see the face to face; here would I touch and handle things unseen; here grasp with firmer hand eternal grace; and all our weariness upon thee lean.”
St. Augustine said the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are “visible signs of an invisible grace.” They point us to mystery in such a way that our finite minds once in a while are inspired to say, “Aha!” The words and the bread and the cup transport us back in time and across the ocean to picture Jesus with his disciples, offering them the bread and saying, “Take. Eat. This is my body, which is broken for you.” Offering them the cup and saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” Being lifted up on the cross, his body literally broken and his blood literally pouring out, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” At the right time, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
But that was not the end. God raised Jesus from the dead, and he ascended to heaven where he reigns with God and intercedes for us. As we partake of communion we remember that he is alive and with us today, and that we are a part of his body, the great communion of saints.
And that will not be the end either. Because through Jesus God promises us eternal life spent with him. We look forward to a time when we will gather at table in the kingdom of heaven with our loved ones who have gone before us and all the saints who from their labors rest. “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
When John Calvin, the Father of Presbyterianism, was alive during the Protestant Reformation, one of the big battlegrounds was communion. The Catholic Church believed that when the priest says the words of institution, the bread and the wine literally become the body and blood of Christ. Calvin said the bread and wine are not what is transformed during communion, it is us who partake of them. In a mystical sense, Christ takes us to heaven for a foretaste of the heavenly banquet as he serves as host at the table.
The other transformation Calvin saw taking place in the Lord’s Supper is in our hearts, by encouraging mutual love and concern for each other in the body of Christ. Christ spoke of the bread as his body being broken for the believers. He also spoke of the believers as his body. This is my body. You are my body. So Calvin believed that the act of partaking of this meal together should awaken devotion for each other as the body of Christ as well as devotion for Christ himself.
Calvin wrote, “We shall benefit very much from the Sacrament if this thought is impressed and engraved upon our minds: that none of the brethren can be injured, despised, rejected, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time, injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs we do; that we cannot disagree with our brethren without at the same time disagreeing with Christ; that we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren. Accordingly, Augustine with good reason calls this Sacrament ‘the bond of love.’” (The Institutes, p. 1415)
Today’s passage from Hebrews begins with these powerful words: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That’s what taking communion is all about. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
The writer starts with Abraham and goes through many Old Testament heroes of faith, some well known and some pretty obscure. They went on their journey of discovery, facing hardships and discouragement, and even death, but they kept going. He describes these folks as the great cloud of witnesses who surround us and cheer us on, these Old Testament figures.
He concludes, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” Pilgrims, glimpsing promises from afar, in search of a better country, a heavenly one. That’s a strong image for coming to the communion table as a part of the communion of saints.
Communion is an experience, not something you learn about. It is experienced at this table, it is experienced in this body. It can’t be explained. Calvin, who most of the time thought he could fully explain everything, had this to say about the Lord’s Supper. “Whenever this matter is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither the mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express.” (Ibid., p. 1367)
Let us come to the table with childlike wonder and awe. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
August 7, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church