world communion sunday

IMG_2857This sermon was delivered on World Communion Sunday (October 4, 2015) at Murray Presbyterian Church
in Murray, NE.

Scriptural References:
Exodus 12:1-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-32

A recording of the sermon is
available here.


     Last night I had had the pleasure of marrying a young couple, and as usual, after the wedding came the reception. I was not planning to attend, I don’t usually attend them, but this couple asked me to come bless the meal. They even wanted me to bring my whole family – they clearly have not met my toddlers! I went alone, however, and arrived at the reception after completing pictures at the church but before the wedding party, so the guests had already taken their seats. Walking into the reception hall I had a moment of being back in the middle school cafeteria, emerging from the buffet line with my tray in hand – where would I sit? I was all alone. The only people I knew were the bride, groom, and one groomsman, but I wasn’t part of the official wedding party so I didn’t have a space at the head table. As if reading my mind, the groom’s grandmother walked up to me, hugged me and told me how much she appreciated the service all while demanding that I sit at their family table for the reception. “Yes, there is space for you,” she persisted while I politely declined. Grabbing my elbow, she led me to one of the family tables to sit right next to her where she proceeded to move people around in their seats to make room for me. She even pulled up an extra chair from another table. I insisted that the table was full, that I’d be leaving early anyway, so I would just sit near the door at one of the less-full tables. “No, we’ve just pulled up a chair and we’ve adopted you. You’re sitting here with us.” “Well, then. Yes ma’am,” I replied. It turned out to be the best seat in the house as I got to learn all of the interconnectedness of the guests and families, but I’ll not lie to you that I was very hesitant to be sitting right up front with the family of the groom. I didn’t belong in that seat or to be treated with such affection and hospitality.

The Passover story, oddly enough, can be seen through the lens of a story of hospitality, care, and invitation. Taking a deeper look at the story, we see a God who seeks vengeance but who holds in high regard the importance of religious traditions, thus offering sanctuary to those who do also. Chapter 12 of Exodus gives explicit, detailed instructions on a meal and time period of remembrance for God’s people. God gives word to Moses and Aaron that all who follow the ordinances and instructions to the very last detail would be spared the vengeance of the Lord. Thus, God is offering invitation to the people Israel to participate in a meal of great importance to their faith.

Up to this point in our Old Testament lesson, Israel has been in slavery for 400 years because a Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph. God’s people had become too numerous for the Egyptians and they were oppressed and enslaved. Moses heeds YHWH’s call from the burning bush and is sent to deliver Israel from the hands of Pharaoh so that God’s people might worship him. Pharaoh’s heart is continually hardened throughout the plagues until finally the tenth and worse plague, that of the death of all firstborns, is sent upon all Egypt. God provides a way for his people to be safe: to mark their doorposts with the blood of a pure lamb that God might literally pass over their house. This is also bound up in the meal.[1]

This meal carries profound ritual for spiritual life. Even in the midst of great danger and haste there is a place for ritual. This is one of the first times that we see God’s handiwork of impregnating common objects with divine significance. The details and requirements of the invitation are precise:

“…a lamb for each household. 4If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10You shall let none of it remain until the morning.”

Even the dress requirements for the meal are explicit. Basically, dress as if you are prepared to leave for battle at any moment. Strict adherence to the instructions and participation in the summons of God for this meal are the only way to save the lives of your family. The Lord is inviting and asking the people Israel to choose a life of faith over an event of death. And it wasn’t just “simply a saving moment but rather the key event in the history of Israel when YHWH kept his covenant, made a people for himself, and gave his people a land, a hope and a future.”[2] This is hospitality. Salvation over death.

We read the institution of the Lord’s Supper in light of the Passover because: “to celebrate this meal is to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. That is, it is to proclaim the Lord’s victory. Passover recounts God’s victory over Pharaoh just as the Crucifixion and Resurrection prove God’s victory over sin, evil and death as Jesus “trampled down death by death.” To celebrate this meal is to rejoice victoriously and to hope for the completion of that which has already been inaugurated in Jesus.”[3]

The meal that Christ is sharing with his disciples is the Passover meal. The Jews have gathered for their annual remembrance meal, which we see in Matthew 26:17: “On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’” Christ, knowing that night is the night he will be handed over to the authorities for death, holds fast to the rituals of his disciples. However, in the middle, he transforms the meal. The Jews are celebrating a meal of the mighty salvific actions of the Lord, and Christ gives a new commandment and a new meaning of salvation to the meal. The Passover of the Israelites becomes the Lord’s Supper of the apostles.

Paul places the words of institution on the midst of a discourse to the Corinthian church about their behavior during the agape meal, or the love feast. The feast had become one where the least were treated as such. This behavior was reprehensible for new communities in Christ. He moves quickly into the Eucharistic meal as it pertains to the traditions of the Corinthians. Paul’s letter spells out for them that what he shares he learned directly from the Messiah, thus giving immediate weight and importance to his words. The meal is tied to the crucifixion – “on the night when he was betrayed” – because the crucifixion of Christ was necessary for salvation, in the same way as the Passover meal. The meal in which we will participate today is a meal of great historical and ritualistic significance. This meal reminds us of our participation in the death, and eventually the resurrection, of Jesus Christ.

My husband grew up in the Episcopal Church. I remember the first time I attended services with him I was terrified about communion. It wasn’t even called communion in his church – it was the Eucharist. Everyone in the church seemed to know exactly what to do and when during the service which unnerved me enough, until he pointed out to me that the services are written word-for-word in the Book of Common Prayer. Every word, except the sermon. Nice. This, I could handle. It was the walking forward and kneeling and receiving the elements that scared me to pieces. I was just certain that they would know I didn’t belong. What if they refused to serve me? I required Mason to repeatedly – I mean, every few minutes, even in line to walk up to the altar – show me the motions. Then, I made him kneel next to me so that I could just follow his every move. I am here to tell you, ladies and gents, that I survived my first communion in the Episcopal Church. And that afternoon I told him that I loved him, but that if he wanted to be in ministry and have me marry him, he’d have to be Presbyterian. It was too much for me.

Looking back now on the experience, and studying it in light of the Passover, I recognize the significance of the ritual. God is a god who delights in strong rituals, even in the face of the angel of death or on the tides of betrayal. One piece of the Episcopalian ritual I enjoy, and have occasionally found myself subconsciously doing, is the decision to not receive the sacraments due to personal hindrance. Their tradition understands that if anything is keeping you from full participation in the sacrament, then one should either personally refuse participation, or merely come forward to receive a blessing. This behavior is more common in their services and traditions because the sacrament is celebrated and received weekly. I think this is why our Presbyterian Book of Order requires our announcement of the sacrament at a minimum of two services prior to the meal. We want to offer people a chance to rightly prepare themselves for full participation in Jesus Christ. And this is precisely why we receive the sacrament only after the prayers of confession and the reading and exposition of the scriptures.

The celebration of the Lords’ Supper is central to the Gospel tradition. Professor Daniel Migliore states, “If Baptism is the sacrament of the foundation of Christian life in God’s grace, the Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of the sustaining of Christian life by that same grace. If Baptism is the sacrament of the beginning of Christian life, the Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of growth and nourishment in the Christian Life. If Baptism marks the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ that welcomes us into his body by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s Supper marks the triune God’s ever new sharing of life and love that draws us more deeply into communion with God and each other and strengthens us for service in the world.”[4] The Lord’s Supper is our remembrance meal of God’s redemptive work through Christ.

Throughout Christian traditions there have been debate and argument and denominational divides over the meaning of the meal as far as the presence of Christ exists in the meal itself. The meal means that Christ is making himself present in the here and now through the power of the Holy Spirit through the drinking and eating of the ordinary, everyday elements. Participation in the sacrament means we look eagerly for “the consummation of the liberating and reconciling activity of God in which …[we] are now participants and co-workers.”[5] Migliore continues, “Thus in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the whole range of Christian life in time is expressed – memory of the crucified Lord, provisional experience of his presence here and now through the Spirit, and hope for the swift coming of God’s reign of justice, freedom, and peace in fullness.”[6]

Today we are invited to join God in Christ at the table that has been prepared for us. We are not necessarily deserving of a space at this table, and we may even want to insist that we sit at a less-full table in the back, but we are invited, wanted, adopted by Christ for a seat at his table. The invitation is the ultimate sign of hospitality. We are offered salvation over death, yet again. There is no one right or wrong way to receive the gift of God in Christ through communion. All that needs to take place is that we have the reading and proclamation of the scriptures, and that we use ordinary, everyday elements. For, Christ shared a ritualistic, scriptural meal with his disciples and used the elements present at the meal to completely transform their understanding of covenant, salvation, invitation, sacrifice, hospitality…of love.

John Calvin’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper consists of six propositions: “(1) The Lord’s Supper is a gift. (2) The gift is Jesus Christ himself. (3) The gift is given with the signs. (4) The gift is given by the Holy Spirit. (5) The gift is given to all who communicate. (6) The gift is to be received in faith.”[7] Calvin defines the sacraments as “visible representations of the invisible spiritual things to which the Word directs us.” Those who participate in the giving and receiving of the sacramental elements are recipients of the greatest gift ever given. A gift that cost a man his life and a God his Son. This gift left friends lost and bereft with grief as they struggled to understand all that Christ had shared with them prior to his death. This gift changed the course of history. The gift requires of its faithful receivers respectful acceptance.

Paul continues his chapter eleven discourse on the meal sharing appropriate behavior for participation. What appears to be a message to the individual in verse 27, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord,” is actually an admonition to the church as a whole – to the congregation. These words are a continuation of his attempts to lead the church in a manner that revealed the transformation power of the Gospel for human relationships. With that understanding, the letter continues by reminding us that this meal is a memorial meal that satisfies our souls, not our stomachs. If someone is hungry, this meal will not suffice his needs, and we as the church are to address them prior to having him join at the Holy Table. We, those who have received the greatest gift from God, are to care for one another, as we are all members of the body of Christ. If one member is weak or ill, and none attempt to offer assistance, the whole body is weak and ill. The invitation, the hospitality extended has requirements of us, also.

This morning we have gathered for worship, we have confessed our sins to one another and to God, we have heard the words of forgiveness, we have made offerings of gratitude to our Lord, we have sung hymns of praise, we have heard the Word proclaimed, and we are about to take our place at the table. Today is World Communion Sunday, meaning that all congregations across the globe, from the Vatican to the underground church houses in war-torn countries and everyone in between, we all are encouraged to celebrate the invitation of Christ to join him at the table. We will use ordinary elements. We will partake by Intiction. We will try to replicate, in our way as a congregation, the meal that Christ ate with his disciples that transformed the meaning of salvation. While we do not eat this meal with loins girded and in haste, we do eat this meal with the same spiritual fervor and reverence as the Israelites did in Egypt so many years ago. We participate in the mighty acts of God at this table today.

In preparation for the invitation to the table, I ask you to take a few moments in silent reflection and prayer. At the end of the reflection you will hear me offer words of welcome. When it is time to come forward to receive the gift of God in Jesus Christ, I encourage you, I implore you, to look around and if need be, grab someone by the elbow and drag them to the table with you. Remind them that they are wanted, there is always space, a chair will be pulled up just for them, and that they are adopted by the meal preparer. The room has been made ready. The disciples have already set it according to Christ’s instructions. The elements are here. You are here. You are invited. You are wanted. You are welcomed. God is extending radical hospitality to you, my friends. In a few moments…come to the feast. Receive it in faith, and receive it as members of the universal body of Christ with your brothers and sisters all across the globe.

Thanks be to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit who vehemently say to us “Yes, there is space for you! Come and eat.” Amen.


[1] Taylor, Porter C. “For the Life of the World” article from Patheos.com: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theliturgicaltheologian/2015/03/28/for-the-life-of-the-world/
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] Migliore, Daniel. Faith Seeking Understanding (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2004) 288.
[5] Ibid, 289.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Gerrish, Brian. Grace and Gratitude, 135-139.

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