Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Communion: Body and Blood

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 09/16/2012

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God is up to something. He’s got plans for this world. He’s got plans for you and plans for me. He’s taking what’s broken and hurting and dying and transforming it into wholeness and health and life. He’s setting people who have been living in slavery free. He’s letting people in on a new kind of life, inviting human beings into the celebration of love at the center of the universe. The death and resurrection of his son, Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, is the climax of that plan, and the power center from which the energy for this worldwide revolution is emanating.

Jesus wants to be the life in every circumstance and part and moment of our lives. He wants to be the life in our work, in our relationship with our families and friends and neighbors; he wants to be the life in our sorrow and pain and longing, and in our joy and celebration and wonder. For those of us who, by God’s grace, have entrusted ourselves to his kingship, who he is and what he has done and the love he has for us sustains and invigorates every aspect of our existence.

Jesus has given us, his students, a meal to share, a freedom meal, that puts us together with Jesus at the moment of his momentous victory, and that puts us together with the whole family of God in the midst of our journey through this not yet fully transformed world, and that brings the promises of God’s kingdom coming in fullness to bear on our lives now.

However, anything symbolic and powerful tends to attract controversy and strong feelings. [footballer in Glasgow nearly starting a riot by pretending to play a flute story…] Similarly, the meal Jesus gave us has become surrounded by controversy and strong feelings, tragically producing division rather than the unity it is intended to support.

Ironic that the meal is made up of bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus. Because the body is a symbol in the scriptures of the unity between brothers and sisters, between Jesus and his church. And yet the meal has been the epicenter of the disunity among Christ followers. Even to the point of blood being shed, not in the holy sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, but in the unholy disputes among bickering brothers and sisters. [brief comment on the reformation history and how communion lands at the center of it…]

This week we’ll tackle some of the most common questions that have surrounded the Communion meal.

[note Vineyard churches’ general approach to these kinds of questions – cool Vatican story]

What’s with all the names?

(credit Tom Wright’s the Meal Jesus Gave Us)

The early church had four main ways of referring to the meal they shared in remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross. Often, they simply used a descriptive term, calling the meal “the bread breaking”, or the “breaking of the bread.” Acts 2:46-47

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Acts 2:46-47

Sometimes it was called “the sharing,” which is an English translation of the Greek word koinonia. Koinonia can also be translated “communion,” because we share, or commune, with Jesus in his death and risen life.

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a sharing in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.

1 Corinthians 10:16-17

Other times it was referred to as “the thank-you meal”, because Jesus took the bread and cup and gave thanks to God for it; similarly, when we celebrate the meal, we give thanks to the Father for the sacrifice of his son, Jesus. The Greek word for thank you is “eucharisteo,” from which we get the term “Eucharist.”

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

1 Corinthians 11:23-24

Many called it the Lord’s Meal, or the Lord’s Supper, referring to its origins as the meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples the night he was arrested.

In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

1 Corinthians 11:25

Later, after Christianity had reached Rome, a new term became common, and still is among Roman Catholics. At the time, church services would be celebrated in Latin and at the end the person presiding over the meal would say, “Go - you are sent out.” This was because when we have been nourished by the death and risen life of Jesus, we have all we need to serve him powerfully in the world. The Latin phrase for “Go – you are sent out” is “ite – missa est.” That phrase is the origin of the term “the Mass,” the sending or commissioning meal.

How is Jesus present in the meal?

Over the years, and across denominations, Christians have wrestled with this question. It all goes back to how one is to interpret Jesus’ statements when he passed around the bread and the cup: “This is my body...this is my blood…” A continuum of opinions exist, from those on the one end who hold that somehow the inner substance of the bread is transubstantiated, or becomes, Jesus’ actual flesh (and similarly in the case of the wine or grape juice, his blood) to those who hold that it simply signifies, or points the way in our mind towards, Christ’s body.

[history lesson: Aristotle, accident & substance, transubstantiation… Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, 1529, a castle in Marburg, Germany…Hoc est corpus meus; depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is…Johannes Oecolampadius: Aramaic, “This – my body”… It’s the space between the words that opens up the mystery to us… Calvin?: No, John Calvin: the miracle is that we are taken into heaven, where Jesus reigns]

Followers of Jesus find they are often required to hold truths about God in tension with one another. Grace & Judgment. Justice & Mercy. One God who is Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Free Will and Pre-destination. Faith & Good Works. If we try to find a satisfactory explanation we end up settling for less than the truth and find our selves trying to defend our position with increasingly complex rationales which lead to frustrating or nonsensical conclusions.

Jesus says that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner we are doing those things for him. How exactly does that work? It’s hard to say, precisely. Seems to be more than metaphor but not exactly literal. Falls in the realm of mystery. But it’s no less true. The apostle Paul says that the church is the body of Christ. How exactly does that work? It’s hard to say, precisely. Seems to be more than metaphor but not exactly literal. Falls in the realm of mystery. But it’s no less true.

We would do well to receive the truth of the bread and cup, the body and blood of Jesus in the same manner. Seems to be more than metaphor but understanding it literally doesn’t do it justice, either. How exactly does it work? It’s hard to say, precisely. Falls in the realm of mystery. But no less true. We’ve got to be willing to live with the tension mystery creates.

Apparently, Jesus considers that tension to be healthy for our us. Jesus himself doesn’t go to great lengths to explain it. (his disciples in fact, would have likely been even more confused than us at the time of first sharing it). That’s significant, in my mind. He just commands us to share the meal, and there is evidence that when we obey him, even if we don’t precisely understand him, Jesus himself is revealed and present. And that, at the end of the day, is what matters. So we might as well get comfortable with the tension.

View most helpful to me: Timeline…We are eating food in the present that acts as a symbol of God’s future nourishment and sustenance. This food is also the food about which Jesus declared: “My body, my blood.” Mysteriously, the Holy Spirit works within us to anticipate the life we will enjoy when God’s kingdom comes in fullness. In a sense this is like the mirror image of what Calvin describes…we are not taken to heaven so much as heaven is brought to us. So this food becomes a true anticipation of the food that will sustain us in the life to come. And that food is Jesus.

“This – my body…This – my blood”

But again, not to put too fine a point on it, communion comes alive in the doing. what we need most of all, is to actually share the meal with one another in obedience to Jesus, with faith that he will be present and teach us what he wants to teach us through it. We need enough understanding to enter meaningfully into the meal, but communion is not something to be mastered. Just as Jesus is someone we must know enough to enter meaningfully into relationship with, but not someone to be mastered.

Let’s try an illustration that helps get to this:

Singing about our hunger for intimacy with God in the song, Discotheque, Bono of U2 sings…

You know you're chewing bubblegum

You know what that is

But you still want some

You just can't get enough

Of that lovie dovie stuff

[(pass out Dubble Bubble to everyone). Lead people through interacting with gum, understanding song, seeing the impact that relationship with something has on how we know it.]

In other words, we are to enter into the communion meal the same way we enter into relationship with Jesus, and let it teach us through the very doing of it. We enter into relationship in the space between the words. This bread – my body. This wine – my blood. Come to it as you come to me. With joy, celebration, repentance, anticipation, hunger, hope, faith. And in the company of a ragamuffin band, unjudging towards them, loving them because I love them, grace-filled towards them because of my grace towards them. Receive it as you receive me. Wholeheartedly, humbly, with gratitude and wonder.

Ok, one last thing for today:

What’s this sentence all about?: “For whenever you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Celebrating this meal is an action that says something. It proclaims. It announces. When we share the bread and the cup together, we are saying, to each other, to ourselves, to anyone who might be listening: Jesus’ death in the past has become our life, and his risen life now sustains us, in these dying bodies, in this broken world, until the time he returns to make all things new. When we share the bread and cup together, we are looking backwards and saying to our past, to our old selves, to the ghosts that would haunt us: Jesus’ death has conquered you and your authority over me is history. We are looking forwards and saying to our future, and its attendant worries, concerns, anxieties, anticipated sufferings: Jesus’ return is through you, and on the other side of you, so quiet your murmurings and your clamor, because Jesus will surely have the only certain and final say in my life.

Practical Tips:

1. Practice resisting disunity before you eat and drink. Perhaps practice the more commonly catholic practice of making the sign of the cross. Perhaps ask God’s blessing on an estranged brother or sister before you eat. Perhaps repent of a judgment you have held towards another brother or sister.

2. Make space for the mystery. Mystery invites reflection. Take some time to reflect on anything Jesus might want to speak to you through his holy spirit. Take a moment to ask him for something on your heart. Don’t rush through the meal – it’s bad for digestion. Savor it as you would savor Jesus’ presence if you were aware of it right now.

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