Psalm 24 and Mark 8:1-10
It is often said,
that most of what happens to a church
is completely beyond it’s control.
In this country and in our denomination,
where — in both — independence and liberty are prized
that can be a hard pill to swallow.
But it’s true!
…Because it’s what is happening in the world around us,
what we can’t possibly control,
but which inescapably affects the life of our church,
— what we are faced with,
what and how we do ministry,
how we see ourselves as the church
in relation to the world.
I suppose we ought to take some comfort that God is in charge.
And in my most faithful days, I do!
We have a minor instance of this recently.
The Pope’s visit pretty much overran our church life last week.
And now, almost back to normal,
we close the “interruption” if you will,
finding ourselves celebrating Anniversary Sunday
the same day we celebrate World Communion Sunday.
Maybe it’s all just an accidental switch of calendar days,
or maybe there is some meaning, even God’s will in all?
It was, after all, the Pope…
…maybe there is in all this the hand of God,
something more to it,
even for us,
for whom it was more like a collateral change of plans.
So, as we gather on World Communion Sunday,
our celebration of the catholicity (small c) of Christianity,
as we gather with Christians around the globe
at a Table Jesus has prepared for us —
…that no matter how different the setting
or the theology
or the ritual
or the people gathered —
…as we remember that Table is Jesus’ table,
and because of Jesus,
it is still and always our common table.
And as we coincidentally (???)
celebrate the 288th anniversary
of Old First’s founding the same Sunday,
I want to ask you to look back with me
at the history of how communion has been celebrated
in our church over the years.
(Nancy will have a display of some communion-related artifacts
from the church’s archive down in the Fellowship Hour.)
Perhaps, there might be a thing or two for us to learn.
And some lessons we want to…
First, let me say it outright:
communion is not something
we can say
we’ve always done the same way.
Truthfully, there’s not much that attains to that claim,
no matter how often it’s made!
In fact, just last Friday night, I think we had a first,
and it involved communion.
The Arkansans were staying with us for the Pope’s visit,
and they asked if they could use the sanctuary for worship.
As it turned out, they also used it to sleep and hang out,
but that’s another story.
I said “yes” immediately,
because I always feel bad
that we underutilize this sacred space.
And because I and some of the rest of us have wondered sometimes,
if this sacred space could become a home to multiple faith communities
and their various beliefs and practices.
Of course World Communion Sunday’s not really about interfaith relations,
it’s more focused on
the one faith, one baptism, one Lord of Christianity —
…that no matter how hard for us to see
among all our schisms, divisions and cutoffs,
we’re ONE church of Jesus Christ.
…So I liked the idea that a Catholic mass
would grace our very REFORMED space.
But then I remembered,
that if it is Catholics celebrating,
it’s going to be wine instead of grape juice.
So I asked the Elders,
and they didn’t think it would be any problem —
we granted an alcohol dispensation for the Catholics!
we used wine here for communion ourselves,
Actually, alcohol was a part of our church life here,
until the early 70’s,
when at a party on site
some underage people drank,
and our Elders back then decided
it was the better part of safety to have the church be alcohol-free.
But we had switched from wine to grape juice much earlier.
Perhaps with the rise of the temperance movement at the end of the 19th century?
Nancy also has the bills for big wine deliveries in the archives.
And not just the substance of our ritual has changed,
but also its form.
As recently as Daehler’s pastorate,
our tradition was that people came forward,
to the communion railing
(some deride it these days as “the fence”!)
I like to imagine about 12 people fit down there in front of me,
and everyone stood
while the pastor served everyone individually,
first the bread, then the grape juice, in individual cups.
Going further back in our heritage,
there’s even more diversity within our communion history.
We used to only have communion 5 times a year.
Or my first year here,
when for some months,
we tried it every week
(the current practice of our current 3rd Sunday intimate communion after the worship service derives from that experiment).
The ritual we will enter into in a few minutes,
when we line up and come forward to “intinct”
now there’s a church word if I ever heard one)
a peice of bread in the cup of grape juice,
is a more recent variation.
And we’ve tried different breads —
most recently gluten free
which most people don’t like so much,
but is important because it means that the Table is open
to folks who can’t have gluten.
Sometime last year, or maybe the year before,
someone asked — I think with a bit of disapproval —
why we didn’t use the piece of plywood
over the marble communion table top
to extend the communion table on Easter?
Umm, because I’d never heard of such a tradition.
Nancy more recently told me that back in the mid-19th century,
Old First used a black table cloth for the communion table.
And there was the time, way back when,
when they’d set up tables in the aisles
and serve communion with people sitting down as at the Last Supper.
Or when we always used the silver.
Whereas today, our communion sets most often used
tend to be more humble material, pottery or wood.
It’s a reflection of some of the changing attitudes and understanding about this meal.
Of course, the biggest chapter on communion history at Old First
was the Mercersberg Controversy,
as memorialized by our “flying bible,”
…Geneva hates when we call it that;
she even accused me of inventing the term,
but I’m pretty sure it predates me.
Geneva finds “the open bible” more respectful.
But, I admit, I like “flying bible”
because the image always reminds me of a child’s drawing,
how a couple of Vs signify birds in flight.
One guest worried once —
even though she knew us enough to know better —
that the image was of a Bible getting thrown at her.
The Mercersberg Controversy,
wherein from the German Reformed Church’s Seminary,
you guessed it in Mercersberg, PA,
came a call of re-appreciation for Roman Catholic understandings…
which in the name of Incarnationalism,
uplifted the efficacy of altar-based worship
over pulpit-based worship —
— that one would come to church for the Eucharist
rather than the sermon.
The Philadelphia Classis was among the most strident
in rejecting the Mercersberg movement —
and its downtown church (that would be us) even pointed a bible
on the front wall of its Sanctuary
to reaffirm its low-church Protestantism —
…that the saving aspect of Christ’s ministry,
or at least our emphasis on the Gospel,
was to be found in our following faithfully what Jesus said and did
(rather than more in an Atonement effected for us
in his incarnation and crucifixion).
Which is all to say,
we don’t do communion the same way all the time,
or for all times.
I’d go much further and suggest,
that, in light of our individual differences and diversity,
we don’t even really do communion the same way in our church
on the same Sunday!
I’d venture that as we come up,
today for example,
to the Table we share
there are a whole bunch of different understandings
and experiences in play,
and God’s at work in them all,
can work through them all,
i’m not so worried that we all agree on this!
Except maybe to see that we certainly don’t do it,
or even mean it
like the early church did.
and earlier generations did.
The theology with which we understand,
even see what the Bread and the Cup are…
it has changed with time
and with the church
and with the world around us.
It’s no longer for us primarily a re-use of the matzoh and seder wine.
Or for most of us, I believe, it’s not the actual body and blood of Christ
who is being sacrificed for us again.
Rather, it is a symbol of Jesus giving himself,
an invitation for us to go and do likewise,
and a promise that God’s self-giving love
is still present and active
in our lives and in our world.
And that is for the whole church,
despite all the changes and differences we encounter,
that’s perhaps the common heart of the communion promise —
that God is with us, not just passively,
but that God’s love is seeking and finding,
it’s redeeming and transformative,
it never runs out,
so that we cannot lose as we spread it around.
The communion table is like manna in the wilderness
or like feeding the 4000,
it’s the exact opposite of all the world’s tales and fears of scarcity.
Instead, it’s the promise
and the reality
and the hope of abundance.
Of a table with room for us all.
Of a world with food for every last one.
Of a love that cannot be deterred or detoured,
but keeps on connecting us to God
and God to us,
and in that, bringing us home.
I want to close by asking you something today:
When you come up the aisle to the table today.
(You all are invited!)
Remember another time when you took communion very differently.
(I’ll remember when Nancy and I used a pretzel to have home communion with Phyllis Smith!)
And remember someone whose Christianity
is very different from yours,
maybe someone whose faith is difficult for you.
(I’ll be thinking of someone from Joe and Miguel’s wedding yesterday
who cornered me and introduced himself as the most conservative Christian I’d ever meet.)
And before we take the bread,
let’s imagine that God loves that person we brought to mind just as much as you.
And before you dip the bread in the cup,
realize that with God’s love, you can love them too.
That as we have communion,
we can move them from a tough space in our minds to a soft spot in our hearts.