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Covenant New

The Lord's Supper

Scripture: Luke 24:13-35

These past six weeks since Christmas, our worship has been exploring questions about the future of the church.  What is changing, what we need to focus on, what gives us hope.  But part of imagining the future always involves looking back, too.  Reminding ourselves of our history, our traditions, of what has sustained us as people of faith over many years.  And surely for Christians of all kinds, and through all the centuries since the time of Jesus, one of those basic and life-giving traditions has been the celebration of communion, or the Lord's Supper.  This meal is something that binds all Christians together, around the world and across time.  The place where we both receive and become the body of Christ, in common faith and confession.

Of course, it's also been a matter of incredible diversity and even conflict within the church.  Is the Lord's Supper a common community meal, or a ritualized element of worship?  Is it just a matter of symbols and memory, or does something actually happen as the bread is broken?  Do we celebrate a few times a year, or monthly, or even weekly?  Who is invited to participate?

Not surprisingly, we've had our questions and wonderings here too.  Also our moments of recognizing holy and transformative ground as we take up this age-old tradition in our worship.  And like any good and living part of a community's life, our understandings and practices around communion have grown and shifted over the years.

I went back and looked at some of my files this week, and found three different sermons over the past few years that reflected significantly on our communion practice here at St. Jacobs.  I suspect Mark and Wendy could each add a few as well.  These sermons all wrestled with some pretty similar questions, like: "What does this communion meal mean?" "Who is invited to take part?" "How do we balance traditional practice with the current spirit of our congregation?"   We've done a fair amount of reflecting on the Lord's Supper recently, and in a lot of ways, it’s really not new ground that we want to cover today.  Mostly, I think, we just want to celebrate the gifts of this meal and our developing practice around it as a congregation.

As pastors, though, we do feel like it's important to name our patterns and understandings from time to time, so that we can own them together as a community of faith.  And that helps us be clearer too, about how we frame a worship ritual like communion and invite people to participate.

This morning there are two things that we want to share with you around our communion patterns.  Two things, you might say, to try out with our gathered community of faith.  They come out of conversations that have happened within our pastoral team over the past few years, but also within our ministry teams and leadership groups.  And, it seems to me, they also simply come out of the spirit we sense within the congregation more broadly.

The first of these things is the paragraph that you'll find under the order of worship on the inside page of your bulletins.  Perhaps you've noticed and taken a look at it already.  It's a statement that will appear in the bulletin each time we celebrate communion.  I'm going to take a moment to read it for us:

This morning in our worship we are celebrating the Lord's Supper, a ritual we share with Christian communities around the world.  We participate as followers of Jesus, at different places on a journey of faith.  This is a table of welcome, at which Jesus is the host.  All who come to this table will be welcomed and served.  May these good gifts of God draw us ever deeper into lives of faithfulness and discipleship.

This statement is a way of naming some of our convictions about this meal and what it means.  We hope it can also be a way of clarifying who all might be welcome to come and eat at this table. 

There are a few pieces of this statement that I want to unpack, but I'll begin with what is really the core conviction at the heart of it.  And that is the recognition that when we gather to celebrate the Lord's Supper, Jesus is the host.  This is not our table, even though we bake the bread and pour the juice.  When we come to eat here, we experience again what was done in that upper room so long ago.  When Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and shared it with his friends.  We come to this table at the invitation of Jesus, and it's from his hand that we receive its gifts.

I wonder how easy a time we actually have imagining Jesus as a host.  Mark was chatting with the children about some of the different table graces that we use at mealtimes.  Our family will most often recite "Come, Lord Jesus" before a meal.  "Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and may this food to us be blessed."  Although, we realized a while back that this little prayer doesn't actually say 'thank you' for the food anywhere.  So we've cobbled together our own version that adds the last half of "God is great and God is good."  So our grace ends "By your hands we all are fed, thank you Lord for daily bread."  Any regular mealtime guests are used to this by now, but it still throws people from time to time when our kids launch into this second half after "Come Lord Jesus" reaches its usual conclusion!

But the point is that this "Come Lord Jesus" prayer invites Jesus to be a guest at our table.  Some families even have a tradition of leaving an empty seat for Jesus around the table as a reminder of this invitation.  And there's no doubt that Jesus spent a lot of time in his ministry as a guest.  His was a life on the move, from town to town and home to home.  He didn't have his own table to extend to guests.  Instead, he found himself over and over again a guest in the homes of others.  All kinds of others, from Pharisees to Romans to tax collectors to ordinary Jews.  And as a guest in such a variety of homes he challenged all sorts of conventions about the kinds of people you ought to eat with.

And yet, Jesus also had a remarkable way of taking on the role of host - even without a home or a table to prepare.  All he needed was some bread to bless, and the tables were turned.  The feeding of thousands from just a few loaves and fishes.  A breakfast on the beach after his resurrection.  And that last supper, still in someone else's home, that he shared with his friends.

As a host, Jesus shares not only what he has but who he is.  In some traditions, the bread used in communion is called the 'host'.  Isn't that interesting?  Jesus as the host himself becomes the food that we eat, the gift that nourishes and draws us together.  We say: "Come, Lord Jesus be our guest," but we know that we really need to be fed at Jesus' hand.  We need to become the honoured and invited guests who come to Jesus' table, in all the many places in the world where it may be found.

At this meal we celebrate today, Jesus is the host.  It is Christ's table, and not ours.  He is the bread that is broken, and his the hand that offers it to us. 

What does it mean for our communion practice that Jesus is the host?  Well, there are two things that the statement in the bulletin tries to say.  The first is that if Jesus is the host, this is not our table to protect or police.  It is a table of welcome and hospitality, and we will not turn anyone away.  In our Anabaptist tradition, sharing in the Lord's Supper has generally been linked pretty closely with baptism.  Because this meal binds us together as the body of Christ, it has often been reserved for those who have committed to entering that body through the waters of baptism.  And there is much that makes sense in holding these things together.  And yet, if we hold them too tightly, we risk taking over the table and displacing Jesus as the host.  The meal ceases to be good news, it ceases to be grace, it ceases to be the unexpected gift that invites us to meet Jesus wherever we are.  And so we say that at this table, no one is turned away.  Where Jesus invites, we receive with joy and hospitality.

But the other thing the statement suggests is that if Jesus is the host, this meal leads us somewhere.  It enters us on a journey of faith and makes us to be followers of Jesus.  Even if receiving the bread and the cup is the very first step on that journey.  And so we trust that the gifts of this meal will draw us deeper into lives of faithfulness and discipleship.  That they will make for an encounter with the living Christ that leads us towards him.  I'm not concerned if people come to receive communion who have not been baptized.  But I also suspect that Jesus' invitations to the table and to the water don't sound that different.  Baptism is a similar gift of grace and renewal.  When Jesus invites us to the one place, he's probably opening a door to the other as well.

A couple of years ago, we had a communion service here where we served the bread and the cup from stations at the front of the sanctuary.  Micah Roth was sitting in his usual spot with his family near the front on this side, and all of a sudden he got up and came forward to participate.  It hadn't been planned, and Micah hadn't shown particular interest in communion before.  But something that morning caught him, and there he was with hands open to receive the bread that was Christ's body broken for him.  It was a beautiful moment of standing on holy ground, as Jesus welcomed Micah to this table of plenty. 

And afterwards it got the wheels spinning for us as pastors, and for Daryl and Stephanie.  If Micah had been called to Christ's table, perhaps he might be called also to the waters of baptism.  It was its own unique process, as we considered together what it would mean to baptize someone with Down's Syndrom.  But when Micah was baptized that spring, it was another experience of holy ground.  The gifts and promises of God poured out upon his head just as they had been put in his mouth  to be tasted and enjoyed.

Take a moment to consider the Emmaus Road story at the end of Luke, the one we heard earlier in the service. It's another example of Jesus subtly slipping from guest to host, and one of my favorite gospel stories.  It's just a few days after the death of Jesus, in that time of confusion and fear as the world was shaken for those who had been part of Jesus' circle.  Two of his followers are walking from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus when the risen Christ joins them on the road.  But they don't know who he is.

And as they walk they talk about all that has just taken place, until the stranger with them jumps into the conversation.  He opens the scriptures to them, and explains all that was to happen.  But they still don't recognize Jesus.  In fact, they have no idea until they stop for dinner.  Jesus makes moves to head on without them, but the two travellers convince him to stay and join them for the meal.  So Jesus, the stranger in their midst, agrees.  And he sits down with them, a guest at their invitation.  But there at the table, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and hands it to them.  And in that moment they finally see.  They finally recognize the Jesus who had been with them all day.  And just as their eyes are opened he disappears.

Until they ate bread from the hand of Jesus, they could not see or understand.  Until Jesus became the host, offering himself to them, their journey could not begin.  Sometimes it's the eating that opens our eyes.  Sometimes the table of the Lord is where the journey has to start.  It is Christ's table, after all - even when we think it's our own.  We're carrying on a solemn ritual here, but then Jesus shows up - opening eyes and enflaming hearts.

And look what happens after this meal.  Their hearts now burning within them, these travellers on the road get up and turn themselves right around.  They march back to Jerusalem to join the disciples of Jesus and share what's just happened, how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

You don't have to see Jesus clearly to receive this meal at his hand.  You don't have to be changed already, or even a respectable distance along the journey.  This meal isn't a reward for the faithful.  This meal is what makes us faithful together in spite of all our foibles and failings.  The meal is the gift - the presence of the living Christ here, among us, as we eat and drink together.  And through it we become the body of the living Christ ourselves.  Eyes and hearts and scriptures opened again each time that we come to the table.

I said at the beginning that there are two things we want to share and test with the congregation around our communion patterns here at St. Jacobs.  The first is this statement in the bulletin.  And the second is a shift in format that will help us do a better job of engaging children in our communion celebrations.  This is another area that's been talked about a fair amount in different places, but hasn't been reflected much in our actual communion practice.

So what does it mean for this to be Jesus' table when it comes to the many children in the congregation?  Jesus said "Let the little children come to me," but we've certainly been much more careful.  There's no doubt that it's an awkward dynamic for many parents, and probably always has been.  We know that kids aren't really supposed to have communion until they're older, and we try to explain that as best we can.  But there's bread and juice being passed around - a perfect snack for bored taste-buds and grumbly little bellies.  Their faces light up, but we hold the plate above their heads and try not to meet their eyes as it passes them by.  This is a taste of God's goodness in exactly the tangible ways you can understand - but you can't have any.  It's tough messaging to convey to your kids, and it often sounds a hollow note after the lovely words of graciousness and hospitality that generally frame the meal.

So what to do?  Whether kids ought to be offered the bread and the cup at the Lord's Supper is a tricky question.  And the dynamics change significantly across the range of ages between young childhood and adolescence.  There is certainly room to continue with an expectation that sharing in this ritual requires some level of understanding and maturity.  This is deep and profound stuff that calls us to shape our lives in a particular way.  We don't necessarily do any favours to our kids by downplaying the power or significance of the meal.  And yet, perhaps there is a prompting here to allow our children to explore Jesus' invitation to the table in some new ways.  In any case, it's probably a matter of family discernment as much as church policy - whether spoken or unspoken.

But what we do absolutely want to honour is Jesus' invitation to come.  An invitation that is clearly for all, to be part of a whole community of faith that moves together in the direction of Christ.   As pastors, we have heard from parents and experience ourselves a longing for children to somehow be included in our communion celebration.  And so this morning everyone will be invited to come forward together to Christ's table.  There will be servers at the front offering the bread and the cup, but there will also be two stations where pastors will offer a blessing to any who come.  To children, perhaps, who don't take the communion elements, but also to anyone else who might wish to feel the grace of God in that way. 

But whatever you might choose to receive when you arrive, the invitation will be to all.  The whole gathered community of God's people here at St. Jacobs moving together towards this table of hospitality to which Jesus calls us.  This sense of moving altogether is beautiful and powerful.  And it allows us to create space to engage our children through this ritual in ways that we have not always done well in the past.

The plan is to try this format for communion on a more regular basis moving forward.  Not exclusively - we'll still come back to other forms from time to time, including serving in the pews.  But we will try out this mode as a bit of a default for the next while, and see how it goes. 

So, the table is set.  And Jesus our host invites us to come and receive and enjoy the good things that have been prepared for us.  We will sing a hymn of preparation together, and then begin the meal.  Please turn to number 60 in your purple "Sing the Story" books, Come to me, come to us.  Let's sing together.