Saturday, April 30, 2005

Bread and Wine Issues

I visited a church recently in the Southwest, and led Holy Communion after the pastor’s sermon. I followed the liturgy, said the appropriate words, broke the bread and poured the wine (which wasn’t wine at all, but a very bright red grenadine). Then I extended the invitation for people to come forward.

Even though the room was full, with over seventy people present, only six people trickled forward … only six were willing to take the bread and drink the wine!

After the service, I asked the pastor, “Why did so few people come forward for Communion?”

He answered, “Well, I guess they didn’t feel like they were prepared to take Communion. Maybe they didn’t have enough time to fast and pray during the week.”

I was quietly exasperated, but instead told him frankly, “We’re going to have to change that.”

Ever since that experience, I realized that we have serious problems with Communion in our network of churches. And slowly I have begun addressing these problems, misunderstandings, and struggles, one by one.

First, let me remind you that I am the only ordained Methodist elder in the country! Churches can only celebrate the sacrament if I am present and leading the ceremony! The problem here is obvious, and the General Board of Global Ministries is working to change this outrageous situation.

But perhaps more importantly, our churches, pastors and folks have some serious theological misunderstandings about Communion. Remember that our churches are a hodgepodge of denominational backgrounds, ranging from traditional religions and witchcraft, to Catholicism, to Pentecostalism. People bring their own opinions about Communion with them to church, and then are surprised to hear or see something different.

I decided to teach a seminar to our pastors last month on Holy Communion, using the document approved by General Conference 2004, entitled “This Holy Mystery.” I passed out both English and French copies. It’s a superb document, outlining our official theological, historical, and practical positions on why and how we celebrate the sacrament. The result was an extremely live and fascinating discussion!

One of the distinguishing features of Communion, as practiced by United Methodists, is its openness. We throw open the table of the Lord to people from other churches, denominations, and baptisms. We welcome children, the disabled, and even known “sinners”! We don’t require that someone take a class before being allowed to partake; we don’t have a political litmus test. Neither do we require baptism as a prerequisite, since John Wesley argued that Communion was a “converting ordinance.” We simply say, “God invites you to the Table!”

But this is the very feature that it so difficult for most of us to accept. We want to put borders, boundaries, and fences around it in order to “protect” its sanctity.
One of those borders that is hardest to cross is found in I Corinthians 11:17-34, particularly verse 27, which reads, “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.” The more evangelical and Pentecostal churches have taken this warning from Paul to mean that one must shy away from the table, unless one has rigorously prayed and fasted several days before partaking. I heard the pastors say many times, “But our people don’t feel ‘worthy’ to come to the table.”

I always answer the same way: “But none of us are worthy! That’s the whole point of Communion! The gift of bread and wine is exactly that … a gift from God to the world!”
I also spent some time explaining the context of Paul’s words in I Corinthians, to show that he wasn’t saying that Communion shouldn’t be taken by “unworthy” people, but that it shouldn’t be celebrated in an “unworthy manner.” The Corinthians had made a mockery of the sacrament, by eating a huge meal, keeping the poor from participating, and getting drunk on wine. Communion had become a sham, a show of division rather than unity. But, I explained, Paul wasn’t saying that you had to put yourself into some kind of holy frame of mind before you shared the bread and wine. The point of the meal is grace, from start to finish.

After this part of the seminar, one of the pastors raised her hand and said, “Thank you for explaining that to us. No one has ever told me that is what Paul really meant. I am so relieved!”

I have had to overcome my own childhood misgivings about Communion; I grew up in a non-sacramental church, and have come a long way in my own appreciation and understanding of Communion. It’s fun to pass on my own excitement of the meaning of the Lord’s Table.

I have even written a sermon about Communion, which I am now using in every church where I preach. It’s called “The Lord’s Party.” My closing story is my childhood memory of playing in the fields behind my house. When it was dinnertime, I remember Mom coming to the back porch and yelling, “Dinner time! Come and get it!”

That’s the job of the preacher. To stand before God’s Table and say, “Come and get it!”