I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the act of communion. Partly because I preached on communion in August, but also I’ve just been thinking a lot about church and what shapes us as a community. When I look at some of my formative times in congregational life, communion is one piece of the picture that stands out. I offer a few snapshots:
As a child in my Mennonite congregation where I grew up only those who had been baptized were invited to take communion and so, since Mennonites practice believers’ baptism, you’d be at least a teenager before you could take bread and cup for yourself. But this did not mean that we kids didn’t quickly sneak down to the basement kitchen after worship and gorge on the leftovers. There was something about communion bread that got us all worked up with a kind of excitement that would not have been there for any other loaf of bread that might sit on the counter at a friend’s house, let’s say. For me, I think it had to do with two things: first, this bread was out of bounds thus making it that much more alluring (we felt pretty pleased with ourselves and our sneaky ways, although from this vantage point, I’m quite sure the adults were aware of our mischief); second, communion bread at my church was made into little round balls the size and shape of marbles and tasted delicious. To this day I don’t know who went to the work of making those individual, bite-sized morsels, but they were nothing less than a labor of love.
I remember the first time I took communion as an 11th grader after being baptized by my dad who happened to also be the pastor. I don’t remember any profound spiritual thing happening in that moment except for the realization that I was now joined in a deeper (or at least more public) way to this particular group of folks who I knew and loved (and who loved me)–no longer just as a child, but as a full member, now with the benefits of eating the bread in the light of the sanctuary, not the darkness of the downstairs kitchen! It felt significant—and it was—this commitment to a way of life and a group of people—a commitment that I have made over and over again throughout the years.
Communion, at different points in my life, has held more and less meaning for me. One friend likes to point out that on the first Sunday he came to visit the congregation where I pastored it was World Communion Sunday and, for whatever reason (I can’t remember), it just wasn’t on my radar and so we didn’t have communion that day and he wondered what kind of church (and, no doubt, pastor) this was?!
I remember, in a college or seminary class, a visiting professor (I think from the Philippines) leading us in communion using a coconut for the flesh and blood, breaking it open with some force to expose the meat and let the milk flow out and then serving these to us.
I’ve had seasons in my life when I’ve been so hungry for communion and wished to come to the table together with my faith community more often than was normal for us. At some point we began to celebrate communion once/month instead of a handful of times each year. One of my favorite things as a pastor was to serve bread and cup, repeating Jesus’ words and sharing with each beloved person by name as they came forward; or serving the kids grapes and sunflower seeds reminding them about both God’s love and the church’s love for them. What a privilege to be a conduit through this ritual.
I attended an Episcopal church for awhile and still love to go there from time to time to be filled with liturgical words and pageantry and ritual. My most memorable experience of communion there was with my then 3-year-old son who was even hungrier than I for the bread (in his case, probably physical hunger more than spiritual, but maybe children have these two needs better integrated than many of us adults?). At this Episcopal congregation, we stand in a circle around the altar and begin by holding the hands of the person to the right and receiving some kind of word of blessing before turning to our left and speaking that blessing to the next person as it goes around the circle. Holding the little hands of my child and hearing him speak the simple words to me and echoing them back before tasting together God’s promise and love for us moved me to tears and I was reminded again how much we Mennonites can learn from other liturgical traditions (perhaps especially in the area of ritual). Ira doesn’t usually take bread and cup (in our congregation there is typically an alternative/parallel ritual for the children), but when he asks, I now say yes.
Sharing in communion at the cathedral on the Isle of Iona during my sabbatical in 2012 was one of the most beautiful and inclusive services of welcome that I’ve ever experienced. The words and music, the setting and gathered pilgrims from around the world wove together to create something deeply holy for me.
I’ve known some pain in relationship to communion. A number of times in my life when I chose not to partake because of strained relationships within the church or within my own personal circle of friends. I’ve experienced the pain of a Church divided as I’ve worked together in ecumenical settings where our joint worship services could not include communion because of rules about Catholics and Protestants (or even among differing denominations within Protestantism), even as there was widespread longing for healing and unity in this regard.
I’ve also come to experience communion in ways that reach out beyond the table found in our church sanctuaries. Breaking bread together happens whenever two or more are gathered, thanks is given, and we open ourselves to the possibility of Christ being made known among us. There’s something powerful about shared food–whether in the midst of the daily, mundane, ordinariness of life or in the special, liturgical, celebrative settings in which we also find ourselves in community with one another: potlucks and birthday parties, weddings and funerals, dinner with family or neighbor or stranger.
I think the communion table is a place of welcome and mystery, commitment and community. It’s one place where we are invited to meet Jesus through ritual and in one another as we are called to go out and be Jesus in God’s beloved world.
Do you have communion stories to share? If so, I’d love to hear them in the comments.
And if you’re interested, the text for my August 5th sermon at Austin Mennonite Church is copied below (or you can listen to it at https://austinmennonite.org/2018/08/05/beloving-jesus-by-rachel-epp-miller/).
Beloving Jesus – Austin Mennonite Church 180805
I had the joy of pastoring a congregation vibrant with young children, many of whom I had the privilege of dedicating after their births and watching them grow into preschoolers and then school-aged kids, doing their thing, developing their unique personalities, bringing themselves fully into the life of worship and community. A lot can be learned from children. Jesus knew this and welcomed the children, telling his hesitant disciples that adults need to look to the kids in our midst to glimpse what the kingdom of heaven is all about. One of the things I learned from the kids at San Antonio Mennonite Church is their hunger and anticipation, their excitement for communion. It was not unusual during a service where we would be celebrating communion for some rogue child to run forward during the early parts of worship and try to snitch a grape from the table, with embarrassed parents trying to catch up with them and put limits on their endeavor. As pastor I was thankful for this lesson – if only we adults could bring some of that excitement into our ritual, if only we were sitting in the pews, whispering to one another, “when will it be time to go to the table?” As I see a table set before us this morning, I hope our hunger grows in our worship, in our time together so that we are ready and excited to take part in this feast.
The scripture text we heard this morning needs to be held together with what comes before. John 6, as a whole, prepares us to meet Jesus at his communion table. In the first part of John chapter 6 we meet a young boy carrying a small lunch presumably following—with his family or maybe on his own—this itinerant teacher named Jesus from Nazareth. A large crowd (5,000+ people) has begun to follow as they have seen signs and wonders from this man who heals the sick and speaks remarkable words. The crowd is hungry—physically and spiritually hungry. They are people, largely impoverished, suffering under Roman rule, highly anticipating the coming of the promised Messiah to free them from their political and social oppression. Jesus sees all 5,000 of them and he asks his disciples, “What shall we feed them?”. Of course their response is one of incredulity: “Six months’ wages would not be enough to buy bread for everyone to taste!” But there is one small boy willing to offer a meager lunch of barley loaves and fish and Jesus says this will be enough to make manna for everyone. Jesus takes the lunch, gives thanks and distributes the bread and fish, as much as the people want. Sounds a bit like the language of communion, doesn’t it?
We come this morning as people who are hungry. We may not know the kind of physical hunger that wonders where our next meal will come from—I have a feeling the potluck that y’all have prepared will be abundant food for us, its own kind of holy communion. In fact, those of us with means in this country often have the opposite problem of too much food that rots in our refrigerators and causes unhealth in our bodies. Jesus is very concerned with physical hunger and he cares about the other hungers in our lives as well. If we don’t come this morning with the ache of hunger in the pit of our stomach, we may come hungry for hope in a world divided by politics and bent on abusive rhetoric and violent action. We may be hungry for renewed energy in our fight for justice. Our hunger may be connected to our mental or physical health as we struggle to make it through the day. We are burdened by the hungers we feel within our own lived realities as well as the hungers that bombard us from the needs around us. It doesn’t feel like we have all that much to bring that can contribute to the quenching of the hunger surrounding us. What are five barley loaves and two fishes in the face of thousands? The good news in this story is that Jesus says this is enough. You are enough. What you can bring in your little lunch box is all I need to share living bread, more than enough for all.
After the people have had their fill of bread, the disciples gather up the fragments, 12 baskets full. When the crowds see this miracle of multiplication, they recognize Jesus as their hoped-for Messiah and are ready to take him by force and crown him as king. But Jesus quickly retreats to the mountain by himself. Later that night, in the midst of stormy waters, Jesus leaves the solitude of the mountain and returns to his frightened disciples, walking right there on the water, telling them to not be afraid, they are not alone in the face of all that threatens. The following morning we again meet the crowds who have finally tracked down Jesus on the other side of the sea. This is the text we listened to this morning.
The crowds, having not seen Jesus climb into a boat with his disciples, wonder how he came to be on this side of the water, but Jesus doesn’t seem to care about answering such peripheral questions. He wants to get right to the heart of it. “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” We know from the events of the previous day that Jesus deeply cares about the people’s physical hunger. He made sure that all were fed and satisfied and he made a point of showing his disciples the importance of coming alongside the hungry and offering what we have, however meager. But here Jesus is shifting his focus. He wants the people to see something deeper and truer about who he is and what he brings to fill them. He wants them to understand that crowning him as king is not the way that his Messiahship will work. And so the people ask, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Or “What must we do to work the works?” would be another way of translating more directly (as per Tom Yoder Neufeld). And Jesus responds, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent.”
Now I want to unpack this a bit: To work the works is to believe in Jesus, the one whom God has sent. This gets to the heart of what it means to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus. The problem is, I struggle with the word “believe”. In my mind, the word “believe” connotes a checklist of statements that I must accept, even if it takes great intellectual gymnastics to do so, in order to be Christian. I find this difficult and lacking. After all, you can believe certain statements to be true, in faith, without your life being all that affected.
What I’ve been taught all my life as a Mennonite Christian has been that belief does not stand alone, it is not the only thing that is important. It goes together (and alliteration helps here) with belonging and behavior (not sure who came up with these 3 B’s, but they stick with me as helpful). Which gets to the heart of what Mennonites traditionally value: a strong faith and belief in Jesus as the Revelation of God, our Savior paired with belonging in a local congregation where we are accountable to one another, where we interpret scripture together, and worship and fellowship as community, paired with behavior—the assumption is that our faith in Jesus Christ will influence how we live out our daily lives as disciples so that our sights are not just set on some heavenly prize, but we are rooted in the present, being a part of God’s kingdom already being born among us now. All three: belief, belonging and behavior hold closely together for Mennonites. I think this is a helpful way of seeing things. To work the works is to believe, belong and behave as Jesus Christ.
I’ve also been helped by the teaching of Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg. He has a fair bit to say about believing in Jesus and he claims that the way we typically see this (holding a set of statements to be true, no matter what evidence may point to the contrary)–the way we typically define the word “believe” is a relatively new understanding in the history of the church. He writes about the Reformation and how belief was at the center of Protestants distinguishing themselves from Catholics and then many groups within Protestantism dividing because of what they believed. Then the Enlightenment of the 1600s happened with the birth of modern science and scientific ways of knowing which called into question many conventional Christian ideas: the earth as the center of the universe, creation as having happened in six literal days and not all that long ago, a world-wide flood that killed every land creature even more recently, etc. “With those notions challenged,” Borg says, “the response in much of Western Christianity was to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary. This was the birth of modern biblical literalism with its emphasis on the literal-factuality of biblical narratives: from creation through the exodus from Egypt to the birth, life, and resurrection of Jesus. Add to that popular Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife, and being Christian became believing the right things now for the sake of heaven later.” Of course, the language of belief has always been a part of Christianity, but, according to Borg, prior to the 1500s, it didn’t refer primarily to believing the right theological beliefs. “It meant something like the English word ‘beloving.’ To believe in God and Jesus was to belove God and Jesus. Namely, it meant to commit one’s self to a relationship of attentiveness and faithfulness.”
So Christianity becomes not so much about “right beliefs” as it is about a change of heart. To belove God and Jesus means to give our hearts to them and to that which they love. Christianity is, at its best, all about transformation at our deepest level so that our vision, our commitment, and our values mold to the one whom we belove.
And so Jesus invites us to belove him whom God has sent. To work the works we must align ourselves—mind, body, heart—after the one we belove. The crowds ask Jesus to give them a sign, like when they received manna in the desert many generations before. And Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus offers himself as life-giving bread and life-sustaining blood that we are to take into our deepest selves. At the communion table, we are invited to practice through ritual, every time we come, the ingesting of Jesus so that, when we go out from this place, we are becoming what we eat. When we leave this table, we go with the deep nourishment that allows us to work the works, to go into the world, beloving Jesus–not simply loving him as our own personal devotion (though this is important too), but loving what Jesus loves, who Jesus loves. In order to experience the fullness of Jesus as bread of life, in order to understand this, to taste this manna, we must put ourselves in close proximity to human need—because this is where the Word-made-flesh dwells. Tom Yoder Neufeld writes, “We will find the Word, the Manna from heaven, at the wedding where the wine has run out, in the temple kicking over the tables of commerce, at the well with a woman no one wants to talk to, or, as here in John 6, where the crowds are ravenous. And there the Word-become-flesh will ask us how we will feed real people real food. And then, as we busy ourselves with that task—as we must!–he will ask us the harder questions: Do you know me? If you know me, ‘work the works!’ Do you love me? If you do, feed my sheep, even if they number in the thousands! If you love me, give me what you have. If you love me, give me your life!”
It’s not an easy teaching. As Jesus goes on to explain that followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life in them, many say his teaching is too hard and a lot of people leave. Jesus turns to the twelve and asks if they will leave also, but Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
At the communion table, we encounter the mystery of Christ—that Jesus dwells in the flesh, wishes to dwell in our flesh, in our lives as we go out from this place. We take from this table the bread and cup, overflowing with life so that we might become what we eat, we might become as Christ for the world: overflowing with compassion for everyone we meet; convicted with a passion for God’s beloved community, celebrating wherever it is already visible and working the works with hope wherever God’s justice and peace remain dim; trusting that the lunchbox we bring, the broken vessels that we are, are more than enough for Jesus to do his life-giving work.
Are we ready to come? To eat and drink and be filled by this gift? To go from this place with our lunchboxes and become gift in love for the world? Jesus invites us to come, like children, with joy and anticipation, hungry for all that our journey will hold. And in the stormy nighttimes of our fear, Jesus will come to us, walking along the waves, speaking love and inviting us to trust that we are not alone. May the bread of life sustain us and may our eyes and hearts be open to beloving Jesus as we go out and work the works in his name. Amen.