“Back to the Source: COMMUNION”


September 18, 2017:  Rev. Anna Fulmer

Our word for today is Communion. This is our second week in our series, “Back to the Source” which was a rallying cry for the Reformers, to go back to see what Scripture says. Communion is a topic that has long been debated in churches, but how many of us know what Presbyterians believe about Communion? We might know what we DO NOT believe, but what do we actually believe? Monthly, Buz and I say the Words of Intinction, the words we say as we bread the bread and lift up the cup. We know these words—some of you might be able to say them from memory. But often, we do not know the context of these words. The Corinthians have some major problems. The rich and affluent get off work early and start early, eating and drinking until they are drunk at the Lord’s Table. The poor have to work longer hours, and so they arrive later. They have nothing to eat, and they see rich Christians with everything. There is division and factions, and Paul addresses them.

1 Corinthians 11:19-26

This Scripture is the earliest reference to Communion that we have—and in it, Paul is getting angry that people aren’t doing it right! In the early church, the Lord’s Supper was often during a larger gathering, a community meal, and we can see it has gotten out of hand. The poor are left hungry while the rich leave with full bellies. It was a Roman custom for the host of dinner parties to sit their friends close to them—these early Christians struggle with a new concept of communion and community that asks them to spend time with people who are different.

The Reformers also had struggles about communion—what it was and was not. They came from the Catholic tradition that said that the bread and cup became the very body and blood of Christ. This is called a big word, “transubstantiation.” But each of the Reformers had a different take. I think that we would have probably been one whole Protestant church if the different camps, Lutherans, Zwinglians, and Calvinist (aka us) could have agreed on the Lord’s Supper.

Lutherans believe in “consubstantiation”—that the blood and body of Christ are presented alongside the bread and wine. Luther explained it that Christ’s presence was “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. The bread and wine are physically bread and wine but spiritually the body and blood of Christ. Ulrich Zwingli, the leader of the Reformation in Switzerland, thought of Communion as a memorial meal—that the bread and cup were just symbols. He argued that Christ’s body was in heaven, and this meal was to “remember Jesus and what he asked his disciples to do.”[1] Luther and Zwingli debated this—Luther thought Communion, because it was Christ’s spiritual body and blood strengthen faith. Zwingli refused this idea saying that faith only came from God.

John Calvin—our Presbyterian forefather went a different direction than both. He thought Christ’s body and blood were not physically present but Christ was spiritually present. The elements were spiritual nourishment by Christ through faith. And Christ? Christ has ascended into heaven. Instead of Christ’s presence descending into the bread or cup, we are “lifted up” by the power of the Holy Spirit to feast with Christ in heaven. It’s why we say in our communion liturgy: “Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord our God.” As Presbyterians, we affirm that something holy happens in Communion, it’s not just a symbolic meal, but we can’t explain that mystery—because it is a mystery. We can’t comprehend it fully. We can never be worthy enough for the meal, and that’s why Christ lifts us up, making us worthy. And Christ is not here—Christ is in heaven; therefore, WE must be Christ’s body on earth. As Presbyterians, we emphasize that the body of Christ isn’t just bread, but that WE are the body of Christ. In this heavenly meal, we are made one with Christ, and thus are called and equipped to do God’s work in the world. And so as that body of Christ, WE are called to be broken for what breaks Christ’s heart. WE are called to do Christ’s work in the world. We are called to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.

The Reformers met in Marburg to debate this, but each left more rooted in their own position. The arguing only got worse. Fights between pastors broke out. In Heidelberg, there was a church with two pastors. One was a Lutheran pastor, Hessus and his assistant pastor, Klebitz was a zealous Zwinglian. Obviously they did not agree about communion. Hessus in addition to being the pastor ran the local Bible college. In 1559, the assistant pastor was awarded a theology degree from the local Bible college while his head of staff and the head of the college was on vacation. The pastor, Hessus came back furious. That next Sunday he preached a sermon calling his assistant pastor a Zwinglian devil and demanded that the degree be revoked. It wasn’t. The next Sunday, as the assistant pastor lifted the cup of wine, the head pastor wrenched it from his hand. A physical fight ensued. Can you imagine me and Buz duking it out? Him calling me a devil? It would be Mayweather and McGregor right at the Communion Table! Communion was serious business.

Because of this fight, we have one of our confessions, the Heidelburg Catechism. I think Paul would have probably told these two pastors the same thing he told the Corinthians, “There are factions among you. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, you are more focused on your theological differences than being in communion with Christ and one another.”

Maybe you want to take these words literally. But Anna you might think, this Scripture says that Jesus took a loaf of bread and said, This is my body that is for you. Jesus must have meant that was his actual body! Throughout Scripture, Jesus uses metaphor to explain who he is: think about all of the “I am” statements, Christ says, “I am the bread of life.” “I am the gate.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the true vine.”—do we think that Jesus is literally a vine on a plant—No! This metaphor tells us something deeper about Jesus than any literal explanation could. I think Jesus would be less concerned about us believing this is his actual body, and what we were doing to be the body of Christ in the world—which makes me very Calvinist. Paul, too is more concerned here about what the church is actually doing to be the body of Christ—he is worried about the church’s theology of community, justice, and care in relation to the Lord’s Supper than their theology for theology’s sake. For our theology to have weight, it must have implications for our lives and our work in the world.

Here in Scripture, we see what Communion is and what Communion is not—Communion is not just about the meal, about the physical bread and cup. Communion is about the community as well, the relationships. The body of Christ isn’t just about Christ’s physical body—it’s about how we treat one another. As Presbyterians, we allow children to come to the Communion table. I give a Communion Training class for kids (and I will give one in October), but children can have communion whenever families decide. Jesus says, “Let the little children come,” and so we do. My parents must not have gotten that memo because my parents made up the rule that I couldn’t have communion until I was confirmed in the church—7th grade. When you can’t have something as a child, I think it makes you want it even more. I went through the Children’s Communion Class at my church in elementary school—but didn’t get to take communion. After communion, I would take my parents small cups and stick my tongue in there, desperate for a few drops. I hear often, that children do not understand what communion means—they just think they are getting a free snack. For me, watching everyone else take communion, I yearned to be a part of it. I yearned to be included. I yearned to be accepted as part of the body of Christ. And I would argue that none of us understand what it really means—why do you think there are fist-fights about it? It is a mystery. Instead, I think we learn about Communion and about the body and blood of Christ through taking it, receiving it time and time again. And we are raising our children to be a part of the body of Christ—Communion is part of that.

But communion is not just about community, It is about memory—remembering who God is, who Christ is, and the Spirit’s presence in our world. Christ utters these words on a day of remembrance, the Passover. Memory is conveyed with ritual—in this meal we are not supposed to just remember the last Supper, but the manna and quail in the wilderness, God’s provisions and care. The jar of meal the widow shares with Elijah. The garden of Eden that God creates so that the man and woman can eat whatever they desire, except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We are supposed to remember Jesus, and all of the meals he ate with sinners, tax collectors, and outsiders. How he took 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and fed thousands of people and had leftovers. How after he died, he appeared to the disciples giving them fishing advice and grilling them fish and bread. How he appeared on the road of Emmaus with disciples and how it wasn’t until he broke the bread that their eyes were opened and they recognized him. This meal, this bread should not just remind us of one moment, but ongoing story of God’s deliverance. And every time we eat, we are called to remember—not just at this holy meal. Christ uses something so ordinary, so basic, so that we will remember every time we eat bread and drink juice.

We are fed so that we can become closer to Christ, so that we can be lifted up, so that we can remember. We re-member, become members again of the household of God. That we belong to something greater and larger than ourselves. We are part of God’s story too.

Remember, we are the body of Christ. We are fed so that we can become more like Christ, helping neighbors in need, breaking down barriers, sitting at table with those that society hates, those that we love and those who will betray us. We come to table, as guests, not the host. Christ is our host. So come.

[1][1] Rogers, Jack. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions, (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1985), 99.


1 Corinthians 11:19-26

Indeed there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of your goes ahead with your own supper, and the one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took a loaf of bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way he took the cup also after supper saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

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