Are we having communion today?

May 11th, 2015

The following is an adapted excerpt from Holy Communion: Celebrating God with Us by Kenneth M. Loyer (Abingdon Press).

When the hour came, [Jesus] took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” —Luke 22:14-16

“Communion Sundays are my favorite!” exclaimed eight-year old Hannah to her mother. A spiritually sensitive young girl, Hannah participates actively in the church I serve. Her enthusiasm for Communion derives in part from the fact that she loves the taste of Communion bread. On a deeper level, it is also the act of sharing in this holy meal together as a church family that she finds meaningful even at her young age.

One Sunday morning during the frantic rush to get ready for church, Hannah asked her mom, “Are we having Communion today?” She was asking, of course, whether Communion would be part of worship for us that morning in our church. She then told her mom, enthusiastically, that she really hoped it would be. Yet the question points beyond the original context to a deeper meaning: Are we, as the church — at the local level, at the denominational level, and in the wider church — truly having Communion today, in this day and in this age? In other words, are we communing with Christ as closely as he invites and commands us? In that sense, are we having Communion today?

We all seek communion, or fellowship of some sort, in the hope that it will bring us happiness and fulfillment. We all seek fulfillment somewhere, in something, whether it is positive or negative, healthy or not. Some people seek a kind of communion with their possessions, a common path in an age of rampant materialism. Others seek communion with themselves by relying on their own egos, reputation, or social status in the quest for ultimate satisfaction. Still, for others the way to try to make life complete is marked by professional success, hobbies, or another human being through friendship and love. Not all the places or people we turn to for fulfillment are bad. To be human is to seek communion with something or someone, to seek happiness and meaning, to know and be known, and to love and be loved. That is a natural desire, but we should ask ourselves what kind of communion we are seeking, and why.

In our quest for a good and meaningful life, where do we ultimately turn? At root, these are spiritual matters. Even among regular churchgoers, Holy Communion might be little more than an afterthought as a resource for the sustenance that we crave. Yet this sacred meal is a gift of God that directly addresses the hunger of the human heart. What makes Holy Communion holy — set apart, special, and of God — is the spiritual nourishment that it provides through the work of the Holy Spirit in our ongoing relationship with God.

The Lord’s Supper, like baptism, gives our worship of God a vital objectivity that stands out in an otherwise too comfortably pious and experiential church. We cannot reduce the meaning of the Eucharist (another name for Holy Communion, based on the Greek word for “thanksgiving” or “gratitude”) to a mere subjective, inner experience of God. Over against such minimalist approaches, in this sacrament the Word of God breaks through to us on God’s own terms, not on ours, and it is above all God’s action. Holy Communion is not first something that we do, but a divine doing that we undergo, by faith, as we receive these gifts of God that draw us more deeply into the mystery of our redemption through Christ. Here at the Lord’s altar, almighty God does what needs doing—taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood given for and to the world, so that, as Christ’s people, we might also be taken, blessed, broken, and given for the world in his name.

There is a great need to recover a richer theology and practice of this sacrament in the church today because that is a key to strengthening our life in Christ. It is also, I believe, a way for us and our congregations to experience genuine renewal. In the past, proper celebration of the Eucharist has sown seeds of awakening and revitalization. Today we see signs of a growing interest among many Christians in reclaiming a deeper appreciation for Holy Communion.

Acting on that interest has been crucial to the renewal of the church I serve. Our church’s journey of growth is not, in itself, exceptionally noteworthy or outstanding. Yet what God has done among us—reflected in part through an increase in average weekly attendance from under 90 in 2010 to over 170 in 2014—has given new hope to the people of Otterbein United Methodist Church of Spry in York, Pennsylvania, and has enabled us to do more to serve our community in Christ’s name and to grow closer to God and each other as a church family. For those reasons as well as others, this is a story worth telling, and people from other congregations may be able to benefit from hearing it. I can confidently claim that the recent growth God has brought about in and through our church has been fueled by a renewed commitment to prayer and to regular participation in the Lord’s Supper.

The institution of a midweek service of Holy Communion has played a large part in our turnaround, a far greater role indeed than what the average attendance of roughly a dozen people at midweek worship suggests. God has used that group to make prayer, Scripture, and Communion a more central focus for the congregation as a whole, and the results have been encouraging and exciting to see. In any setting, regardless of number or size, what matters most is for our hearts to be opened by grace to the God who can transform and renew us. As we abide in Christ by faith, God will bear spiritual fruit in our hearts and lives, in our churches, and in the world around us. It will be beautiful to behold.

I want to invite us all to respond in greater faith to the invitation of Christ himself for us to do as he commands, that is, to take, eat, and drink of the sacrament of his body and blood (for example, Matthew 26:26-27).

We need to be challenged to grow closer to Christ by examining various aspects of Holy Communion. We should reflect on its meaning in the following ways: as a prayer of thanksgiving, an active remembrance, an offering to God, a meal of spiritual nourishment, a communion with God and with others in Christ’s name, a foretaste of the promised heavenly banquet, a call to service, and an act of praise to God, all of which are encapsulated in the idea of celebrating Emmanuel, “God with us.” This is not an exhaustive list, but these are some aspects of Holy Communion that reveal its richness and depth while pointing us to the living presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. I urge you to explore how past, present, and future all intersect as we commune with God and with God’s people. In addition, we should consider how this gift of God’s grace engages the full range of human senses — seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting — as it gives us a share in the life of God and in Christ’s mission in the world.

We experience the presence of Christ in many ways, but none more special, more intimate, more truly satisfying than in what is variously called Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or simply the Eucharist. Whatever name we use for it, this is a meal of God’s grace that Christ has prepared for us. For it is here, as we respond in faith to his invitation, that he feeds our souls with the bread of life that endures forever. It is here, as we believe in him, that our spiritual thirst is quenched. It is here, as we partake of the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper, that we can say: The bread that we break is a sharing in the body of Christ, and the cup over which we give thanks is a sharing in the blood of Christ. It is here, in this holy meal, where God satisfies the deepest hunger and thirst of the human heart.

Why? Because here our souls feast upon and drink in a love so great that it will not let us go, a love that rescues us, forgives us, renews and restores us; a love so powerful that nothing, not even death, can separate us from it. It is all here, freely given for you, for me, for all people.

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