A flashback: it’s 1969. I’m in my hometown visiting my grandmothers, 8 years old. I’m sitting in a pew at the Childhood Baptist Church in Jane Austen’s Village, with the family of my friend, Fluffy Hair. It’s the first memory I have of Communion.
Childhood Church had curved pews on a floor sloping toward the raised platform where the pastor stood, one of those beautiful churches built in the 19th century “auditorium” style. They were designed to make worship feel more participatory, sort of like going to the theatre, instead of the instructional rectangular style of earlier Protestant churches, with a high pulpit to emphasize the importance of preaching the Word. The center section, where we sat, had particularly long pews. You could see the action in the rows ahead of you, and see easily to the side as well. Fluffy Hair and I sat with her parents and her older brother, and I was fascinated to see a little tray being passed along by each person in the pew, a tray covered with little cubes of white bread. As it came to me I reached out to take one; after all, wasn’t everybody?
“No,” Fluffy Hair hissed reprovingly. She really was a sweet girl, and I think she was trying to keep me out of trouble. I passed the little tray, and she whispered to me, “You can’t take it until after you are baptized.”
Now, I was a crazy mixed-up little Protestant girl. My mother and her mother’s people were Southern Baptist. My daddy and his people were Methodist. At the time this happened I was attending Episcopal school and getting my religious education at Ye Olde Meetinge House in Olde Northern Virginia Towne. And in none of those places had anyone talked to me about taking Communion. I didn’t know enough to know I was prohibited.
But soon after that I attended an older friend’s Episcopal confirmation, and saw her go forward to receive Communion for the first time, a completely different arrangement than I had seen back home at Childhood Church. The Presbyterians did a good job of keeping the children out of church on Communion Sundays; although we attended there for six years, and I have many memories of being in church, I have no recollection of Communion there at all. And it was only later that I saw my grandmother’s church celebrate the Lord’s Supper and learned why they had those kneelers with railings at the front of the sanctuary.
Communion was apparently too important to talk about with children, even little girls who went to church every Sunday and even attended chapel at school twice a week!
I can’t remember who I asked to explain the whole thing to me. Remembering the sort of child I was, the one who preferred to figure things out for herself rather than to ask a question that might prove embarrassing, I imagine I watched and waited until I had the whole situation thought through to some moderately inaccurate conclusion.
A flash forward:
In 1994, older and wiser, I attended the wedding of another Episcopal friend, a college sorority sister. Her church, which we’ll call Truer Believer, had the reputation of being persnickety about its standards for membership, and seeing that the order of service included Communion, I had a quiet conversation with the friends sitting near me. We all agreed that we would likely not be welcomed at the rail to take Communion, and we were prepared for that eventuality.
It was a long service, with a full-fledged sermon during which the bride and groom sat down just like members of the British Royal Family at their weddings. Finally, vows taken and symbols exchanged, husband and wife sealed in their new roles with a kiss, we got to the interesting part of the program.
The handsome priest stood at the Communion table and said these words I will never forget:
“This is not Truer Believer’s table, nor is it an Episcopal table. This is Christ’s table, and all who feel called to share in this meal are welcome.”
So we went to the railing together and kneeled, my old friends from college and I, Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Lutheran, but really none of that mattered.
“This is not (our) table, nor is it an Episcopal table,” he said. “This is Christ’s table, and all who feel called to share in this meal are welcome.”
I have used these words myself, many times since. It is Christ’s table.
How do we learn what is expected of us in church? We’ll never learn if it is not explained. I learned a valuable lesson about explaining things from my friend RevFun, pastor of Rock n’Roll Church. It began as an alternative worship service in one of the established churches in town, but for almost three years it has been an independent congregation, received officially into the United Church of Christ last fall. RevFun, their pastor, has many years of experience in ministry, and he has a clear and keen calling to ministry directed at people who haven’t gone to church. He began telling me early in my ministry that you can’t assume people know everything. It’s showing hospitality to explain things. When his congregation has Communion, all the people move into a big circle. Most times they pass the bread and then the cup, each person serving his or her neighbor. And although they nearly always do it that way, RevFun always makes sure to explain what they are doing.
It’s funny, they like to think of themselves as a church that isn’t bound by rituals, but they have developed their own.
We heard the story this morning of the Last Supper, an evening that was both a “last” and a “first.” A few moments ago we heard the words of Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, explaining what he understands to be happening:
23For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In 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.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25, NRSV)
For nearly 2000 years, people who call themselves Christian have been breaking the bread and sharing the wine, remembering Jesus, experiencing Christ. Our participation in the sacrament is not simply something we do; it does something to us.
In this church we make a point of having the children present at communion; they are learning by participating. No one is telling them not to take the bread or the cup. We trust that by participating they will become part of us, will come to understand themselves to be Christians, followers of the way of Christ Jesus. The intellectual understanding will come in its own time.
Of course, the question is how well do we really understand this sacrament? A sacrament means more than a ritual does, after all. It is not simply a set of steps we take to remember a night long ago. It is a sign and symbol of God’s action among us, both then and now.
How do we wrap our heads around the words Jesus spoke to his disciples? Christ’s body, broken for us; Christ’s blood, poured out for us. Throughout history and across the traditions of Christianity, his words and our ritual practices have been understood in several different ways. There are some who quite literally believe they are sharing in the body of Christ, drinking the blood of Christ; they believe that a supernatural act takes place and they must account for each morsel and each drop. At the other end of the spectrum, and this would have been true in my childhood church, there is an understanding that we are remembering only.
I find myself somewhere in the middle. I don’t believe that we need to be troubled by crumbs of bread on the floor, but I believe we are doing more than performing a pageant. In the act of the breaking of the bread and the pouring out into the cups we may experience the real presence of Christ.
It’s not the only place where we feel Christ’s presence, but it is a moment in our lives together as a faith community when we focus keenly on the reality of something we cannot see or touch, but can know in our hearts and minds. And just as in the other sacrament we acknowledge, baptism, our bodies take part, too.
How do we learn to be Christian? What makes us Christian people?
We learn by doing. We are made into something new both by participating in the re-enactment of something from long ago and by being present to what is happening here and now. God is present here. Christ is present here. The Holy Spirit moves among us in the passing of the peace, in the hug given to an old friend, in the sharing of the bread and the cup. It happens where all are welcome, at Christ’s table. Amen.