Remembrance is an Action Verb

Sermon Series: “Taste and See”

#1:  “Remembrance is an Action Verb”

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (NIV)

The story is told of a little girl whose parents had taken her forward to receive Holy Communion. The pastor tore off a piece of bread for her to dip in the cup, and handed it too her.  Disappointed with how small the piece was, she cried out, loud enough for everyone in the sanctuary to hear, “I want more!  I want more!”  While embarrassing to her parents and amusing to the pastor and the congregation, this little girl’s cry accurately expresses the way many of us may feel.  We want more!  We are hungry.  We want more than we are receiving from the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Sure, most of us have been faithfully coming to the Lord’s Table for years and receive there a blessing as we take the bread and cup.  But deep down, we suspect that there is so much more to the Lord’s Supper than we are perceiving – there are depths of meanings that we have been missing – there is more nourishment there than we have been taking advantage of.  But we can’t quite put our finger on just what it is.

What is it that we want “more” of, as we come to Holy Communion?  What would help us feel more satisfied and fulfilled when we break the bread and share the cup?

In one of the churches I served, we offered a study on our United Methodist understanding of Holy Communion, called, “This Holy Mystery.”  On the first night of that study, the participants were asked this very question:  What do you want more of, as we come to Holy Communion?  The answers the class came up with were varied, but they all seemed to distill down to two themes:  1) We want more understanding about the meaning of Holy Communion; and 2) We want a deeper and more profound experience of this sacrament.  In short, we want both more understanding, and more experience – we want to feed our head and our heart.

I suspect we I were to ask you that question, you would probably come up with the same answers. This means that our congregation is probably right in line with United Methodists all across our nation. A number of years ago, the general church polled United Methodists about their feelings about how Holy Communion was experienced in our congregations, and overwhelmingly, they came up with the same two themes – United Methodists hunger for a more complete understanding about what Holy Communion means, and for a more profound experience of Holy Communion in our churches.

That is why, over the next month or so, I have decided to preach a sermon series on Holy Communion.  It is our intention to address both hungers we may be experiencing:

To help us begin to gain a better understanding of the meaning of the sacrament, we will hear scriptures and sermons that reveal the many dimensions of meaning of this sacrament, aspects of Holy Communion we may never have considered.  Like a fine diamond, we will grow to appreciate the full luster of the Lord’s Supper as we see its many and varied facets.

Unfortunately, many of us have spent our entire lives looking at Holy Communion from only one angle and have missed the richness of all that the sacrament offers.

When I was in seminary, I did a study of one small United Methodist congregation in the Atlanta area (actually very similar to our congregation here) that, several years before, had begun celebrating Holy Communion every Sunday.  Now a days, that isn’t all that unusual, but way back in the early 80s, it was very unusual indeed!  I interviewed most of the members of that small congregation to find out how they experienced Holy Communion, and discovered what I have discovered in every congregation I have served throughout my ministry – that when you ask most people what Holy Communion is about, they will say that  “we are remembering the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.”  And of course, in one sense, they are right.  After all, that’s what we have engraved across the front of our communion tables: “This do in remembrance of me.”  In communion, we ARE called to “remember” Christ’s crucifixion and sacrifice.

But there is more to “remembering” than just recalling something that happened in the past. Remembrance is an action verb – it is something we engage in – something we participate in – something we DO.

In Greek, the language of the New Testament, there are two words for time:  “chronos” or ordinary sequential time that can be kept by a clock or a calendar;  and “kairos,” God’s time – divine appointments pregnant with possibilities and transformative in power – moments when the Kingdom of God breaks into history or into our lives, giving us a window into eternal realities that transcend time and space.

If we only see Holy Communion as a memorial meal in which we recall the death of Jesus 2000 years ago, we are only seeing communion in “chronos” time. We are commemorating something that happened in 33 AD.  But the power of the sacrament is that it is actually a “kairos” event – a window that invites us to enter into the timeless and eternal realities of God.  The original word translated “remembrance” may be better translated re-presented – that when we break the bread and share the cup we “make present” again that which we are recalling – we bring forward the past into the present, rather that reflecting backwards in time.  That means, whenever we eat the bread and drink the cup, the whole saving action of Jesus Christ – his incarnation, life, death and resurrection – is made present to us:  we become participants in the events, not as dusty history, but as present realities in our lives, and a foretaste of the promises of God’s “heavenly banquet.”

As Paul wrote in our scripture for this morning:  “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup (here and now), you proclaim the Lord’s death (in the past) until he comes (in the future).”

Until we see the Lord’s Supper as a “kairos” moment where God breaks into our lives with his grace and love, we will never be transformed by it, and it will remain a dull and empty ritual.  Over the next few Sundays, we will be given glimpses into the “kairos” nature of Holy Communion as we consider all that Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and promised return means, and how the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper invites us to be caught up in God’s divine plan of salvation for his creation.  A “Holy Mystery,” indeed!

So, by the time we are through, we all should have a better understanding about all that communion means.  But, as I said, we also hunger for a more profound experience of the Lord’s Supper.  In order to encourage that, during the duration of this sermon series we will be modifying our worship in two ways:

1)  Since the theme of each sermon will be Holy Communion, we will be serving communion every service,including Sunday mornings.  How are we supposed to gain a deeper experience of this sacrament if we don’t participate in it?

Now, I know there are some people (especially those on Sunday mornings), who may find the idea of having communion every Sunday as strange.  It is not what we are used to (at least not on Sunday mornings).  Like most United Methodists, your reaction may be, “But we’ve never done it that way before!”

Oh, yes we have! Maybe not in our brief lifetimes, but weekly communion is our heritage – a heritage we have become disconnected from over the years

You don’t believe me? Let me give you some background:

We know from the second chapter of the Book of Acts (2:42), for instance, that after the birth of the church on Pentecost, whenever the believers gathered, they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread (what they called the Lord’s Supper) and prayers.”

Then for the next 1,500 years, we were all Roman Catholics, communing whenever we went to worship. When our spiritual ancestors broke way from Rome in 1534 and formed the Church of England, we continued the practice of weekly communion.

Then in the 18th century, John Wesley started a revival movement among the laity of the Church of England.  Most of those in Methodist societies were still members of the Anglican Church and attended worship there on Sundays, services which always included the Lord’s Supper.  We know that Wesley, an Anglican Priest himself, communed four or five times per week.  He saw communion as a powerful means through which divine grace is given to God’s people.

Methodism quickly spread to the colonies in America.  Our early American Methodist ancestors were at first able to receive the sacraments from Anglican churches of which they were considered members.  But the political situation soon changed. Relations with England began to sour, and Methodists in the Colonies began to reject the English church.  When tensions with England began to rise and it began to look like war might break out, most Anglican priests left the country.  By the mid 1770’s American Methodists had no access to the sacraments.

John Wesley sent missionary preachers from England, but they were laymen, as were the Americans who became preachers.  They had no authority to baptize or to offer Holy Communion.  Methodists were longing for the sacraments, and it was this need that motivated Wesley to take action to provide ordained elders for America.

In 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church was created in the United States, and a few clergy were ordained.  Still, the number of ordained clergy was too small to offer the sacraments regularly to the rapidly increasing number of Methodists.

In order to serve the growing church, clergy were sent out on horseback to travel a circuit (hence the term “circuit rider” being associated with Methodist preachers). They would have so many villages and settlements on their circuit that they could only get to them about once every three months or so.  When they arrived, they would preach, perform weddings, baptize, and serve communion.

By the late 1800’s many Methodist churches were no longer on a circuit, but were served by full-time ordained clergy – but by then, the habit of quarterly Holy Communion was so established that it continued to be the norm.  Since it had become an occasional and “special” service, the Lord’s Supper took on a deeply penitential and somber tone.  The dynamic and vibrant Wesleyan understanding of Holy Communion was lost, and the sacrament became understood only as a memorial of the death of Christ.

In the last century, we have at least moved to the designation of the first Sunday of every month as being “Communion Sunday,” but even that falls short of recovering the rich sacramental heritage that is ours.

2)  So, one of the things we are doing to try to gain a more profound experience of the Lord’s Supper during this sermon series is to celebrate it weekly.  The other thing we will do that will help us to experience the richness of the sacrament is to recover the fullness of the communion liturgy. 

Because we have down-played the importance of Holy Communion in the worship life of the church, most Methodist Churches have tended to truncate the service of Holy Communion, cutting out important parts of the liturgy.  On those Sundays we do offer communion, we have tended to simply tack communion on the end of our usual service, as though it was an afterthought.  Our main concern has been “How can we serve communion and still keep the service within one hour?” – so many churches today just offer a brief prayer of consecration of several sentences, and then invite people to commune.  I have to confess that we here in Mims have fallen into that habit.

But in doing so, we miss out on the beauty and flow of the Service of Word and Table (turn to the front of the Hymnal – page 2 – to see what I’m talking about).  I’m sure you noticed that our service this morning is a little different in its structure.  Worship services are meant to be like good plays or fine orchestral masterpieces, there is a dramatic movement from beginning to end. Rather than just being a hodgepodge of vaudeville acts thrown together with no thematic unity or progression, Christian worship is meant to be experienced like an orchestral symphony in four distinct movements:  1) The Gathering (as we enter worship praising God);  2) The Proclamation of the Word (as it is read and preached); 3) Our Response to the Word (as we encounter God through our prayers, our offerings, through baptisms, and the Lord’s Supper;  and 4) The Sending Forth (as the church scatters to be Christ’s presence in the world).

That’s why we are experimenting with a different order during this series.  We will be offering Holy Communion, not as afterthought or appendix to the usual service, but as an indispensable part of the whole worship experience.  We believe that, if we approach these weeks with open hearts and minds, we will find a new richness in this Holy Mystery we call the Lord’s Supper.

Yes, I’m convinced that that little girl taking communion speaks for all of us, when she shouts, “I want more!”  The good news is that God has much more to give, if we will only be open enough to receive.

My favorite communion hymn in our hymnal should be our prayer as we come to the table of the Lord hungry and wanting more:

“You satisfy the hungry heart with gift of finest wheat,

Come give to us, O Saving Lord, the Bread of Life to eat.”

(word and music by Robert E. Kreutz)

My you be filled and satisfied as you come to receive all that God wants to give you.