Monday, April 24, 2017

Some Thoughts on the Eucharist

Thinking out loud for a bit on the matter of observing the Eucharist (communion, Lord’s Supper) weekly instead of monthly. I grew up in the monthly tradition. I know of some who partake of it quarterly. I never really questioned the pattern; it was what I was used to and that was that. Mainstream free church Protestant.

But these past few years I’ve been embracing a more liturgical tradition. Some of you know I’ve been on a spiritual journey (we all are, really) and as a Baptist pastor who preaches Sunday mornings I began, awhile back, attending an Anglican-style worship service Sunday evenings.

At Church of the Resurrection we celebrate communion every time we meet. That’s because the structure of the worship service has two focal points – the service (liturgy) of the Word and the service (liturgy) of the Eucharist. I’ve grown to appreciate this pattern and understand why – biblically, theologically, spiritually, historically – it’s, well, the way to do things.

And so I introduced weekly communion at our church this past Advent season as well as during this (recently completed) season of Lent. As an experiment. I explained the purpose. Got a consensus. Took the leap. It was well received, I think.

Most everyone appreciated the emphasis on the Lord’s Supper during these special seasons. I was hoping we’d continue this new tradition the rest of the year. I took an informal poll, however, and while a solid group of folks wouldn’t mind celebrating the Eucharist weekly, a good number – with absolutely no complaining or grumbling (we have a magnificent spirit of peace and unity at our church) – stated they simply preferred monthly observance.

So we ended weekly communion on Easter Sunday. And this past Sunday felt quite odd for me when we concluded the service without a trip to the Lord’s table. The new pattern had become very meaningful to me.

Now the main reason I think a lot of us who fall into the monthly tradition category are hesitant about going weekly is this: we say we want communion to be meaningful and a too-oft repeated observance may somehow make it less so. I can understand this concern to a degree.

The challenge I have with this view is that it could be said for almost any aspect of worship. “We shouldn’t sing each week, songs becomes less meaningful.” “We shouldn’t read the scripture each week, it will get old.” “We shouldn’t receive a weekly offering, that diminishes its impact.” See what I mean? And yet this idea is front and center with regard to communion.

So I got to thinking, what perspective of the Lord’s Supper prompts this position? You see, I’m pretty sure how we view the Eucharist influences how often we want to observe it. So my question is: how are the “monthlies” viewing communion? Not sure about everyone else, but I can certainly ask myself: When I was a monthly observer, how did I view this sacrament?

My answer for me: I didn’t view it as a sacrament.

That’s the key issue, I think. For most of us “monthlies” (I’m including myself because I still struggle with this perspective), we want to make sure we do communion “right” so we “get ourselves ready” and “examine ourselves” to make sure we aren’t partaking in an “unworthy manner.”

(Sidebar: See 1 Corinthians 11.27-28; but for a fuller context be sure to read verse 29 in light of verses 17-22 which reference the body of Christ, the church. This warning is about division, not whether we are worthy or not to receive communion…because we aren’t, that’s the miracle of this event!)

Did you hear the implication of this view? “Get ourselves ready.” “Prepare for communion.” Do you see the inherent self-effort in this approach? The Lord’s Supper has (for some, not all) subtly become primarily about us. It’s what we do to pretty ourselves up; it’s about our attitude and approach to God. This then changes how we handle communion. We think we need to safeguard the ceremony because if we don’t, it will no longer be special.

But if this event is viewed as a sacrament (an expression and means of God’s grace – a free gift of love), then the Eucharist is really about what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives. It’s primarily a celebration of Christ’s victory over death (and thus our victory in Christ), not a solemn remembrance of his suffering. In fact, eucharisteo means to give thanks and is based on the words of Jesus himself. (See Luke 22.19; Matthew 26.26; 1 Corinthians 11.24, even Matthew 15.36.)

In other words, the bread and cup are God’s gifts to us, not our gifts to God. The bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Christ and are therefore our spiritual nourishment given by God so that we might truly partake of Jesus. In the Eucharist we are welcome guests at God’s feast that gives life to those who participate in faith.

If that’s the case, why wouldn’t we want to eat and drink of Christ every chance we get? We feed on God’s Word (the scripture) each week (daily, one would hope), why not feed on God’s Word-made-flesh (represented by the bread and wine) each week (or even daily, for that matter)?

Or, completely different metaphor, imagine my wife’s response if I told her I was thinking we should only go on date nights once every quarter or so. After all, I don’t want to cheapen the experience by going out each week…

Well, those are some thoughts. I hope I haven’t offended anyone. I’m not implying the “monthlies” are self-centered. I simply think if we view communion as a sacrament it can help ease the burden of having to “make it special.” After all, if the bread and wine are truly gifts from God, then every time we receive them something special happens. Now for me, that’s a refreshing perspective.