a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
February 5, 2023
Luke 22:14-20 NRSV
14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15 He said to
them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, 16 for I tell you, I will
not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 Then he took a cup, and after giving
thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves, 18 for I tell you that from now on I will
not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 Then he took a loaf of
bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body,
which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And he did the same with the cup after
supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
The Sacrament of Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Mass, all names the
simple meal of bread and wine given to us by Jesus are known by. Wafers and wine or
Wonder Bread and Welch’s grape juice, or some various combinations of these- or
other symbols of the elements - have been used for this meal. This morning I want to
explore a few of the many meanings and ways of experiencing this simple meal that
may widen or deepen our faith. You might call this sermon a little “table talk.”
In the Scripture we hear Jesus say, “do this in remembrance of me.” So one of
the basic ways to think about and experience communion is to reflect on who Jesus is
to you – Lord? Savior? Friend? Spiritual example? An extension of that would be to
think about his life and what we know of it from the Bible. Of course, other words in
the Scripture speak of his body and blood, reflecting his suffering and death on the
cross. These are all pretty orthodox or standard ways to think about communion.
The liturgy of the early church focused pretty much on our sins and his death. It
interpreted his death as a religious sacrifice to pay a price for our sins that was
demanded by God. This naturally emerged from the roots in Judaism, which was
rooted in the pagan religions around it in using animal sacrifice as a substitute for
human sacrifice to appease angry gods. The early liturgy of worship for this refers to
Jesus as “Agnus Dei,” or the “Lamb of God.” This is a reference to the “sacrificial
lamb,” used in Judaism to symbolically take our sins upon it and be killed and the meat
eaten. In the practical sense this provided meat for the priests of the Temple to eat.
These connections can have some important ways for us to confront our own
failures to be merciful, forgiving, and loving towards others. But they also lead to a
variety of what I would call “overkill.” They lead to authorizing violence in the name
of God, of self-sacrifice that goes beyond heroic to destructive and unhealthy. It is not
that this understanding is absolutely wrong, to me, but it certainly has led to a lot of
actions that don’t seem to reflect the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. “Do this in
remembrance,” is at its heart a basic way to say we share this symbolic meal to
remember our faith in Christ, and his love for us.
In the early church the belief in this symbolic meal came to be called a
“sacrament.” The formal meaning of this word is “a ritual meant to impart divine
grace.” In other words, it symbolizes a blessing. Early on it was a way to remember
God’s love for us shown in the life of Jesus, and remembering his doing this as part of
the Jewish Passover meal. As the church became more organized and separated itself
from the synagogue and Jewish rituals it came to be proclaimed as something more.
Instead of simply representing the body and blood of Jesus it came to be proclaimed
that by saying the words the elements became the actual body and blood of Christ.
This is still at the root of what defines Catholic teaching.
The Protestant churches that emerged have lessened that aspect to various levels.
Many of us still consider this to be a sacrament, and many consider the line between
representing Jesus’ body and blood and becoming Christ’s actual body and blood to be
more mystical than actual. Certainly some Protestant churches do not believe that this
is true at all but that it is simply “done in remembrance,” without any mystical or
magical transformations of the elements. And of course for some it is not called a
sacrament but an “ordnance.”
Now before I put you fully to sleep with this rather academic retelling of these
theological thoughts let me tell you a poor communion joke you’ve probably all heard
before, to break the boredom. Everyone knows the most famous representation, or
painting of the “Last Supper,” right? DaVinci’s classic painting where everyone is
looking out toward us from one side of the table? Well, do you know why that is
presented that way? It’s because Jesus said to the disciples, “If you want to be in the
picture get on this side of the table with me!” Let’s all have a collective groan now:
Ready? 1,2,3… groan. Thanks I feel better already!
For many people communion is most meaningful as a sorrowful time for
Christ’s suffering and our sins. They feel it is a respectful thing to feel sad for Christ
suffering and for the sins we have committed that he was sent to suffer and die for.
Again this is meant to be a positive thing. I like to remember that confessing our sins is
only meaningful if it leads to knowing and believing we have been forgiven and if we
intend to redirect our lives [ what’s called “repenting” ], in a better direction. The risk
here is, as we know today, the calculation of what is a sin can be used to unjustly
stigmatize people for something that has nothing to do with God’s intentions – for
example being left-handed!
So let me jump to a meaning for communion that our United Church of Christ
includes in its liturgical worship language for the sacrament. One of the ways it is
referred to is as “the joyful feast of the people of God.” The intention is to remind us
that the “Gospel” is always “Good News.” If we fail to understand that all of the
previous ways should lead to renewed faith, renewed joy and gratitude to God for all
that we have and all that we are it comes off as something less than a holy meal.
Rather than a time just for self-flagellation for our failures and foibles, it is a time to
meet the joyful Christ who loves us beyond all measure, beyond our deepest beliefs
and our worst failures and as one lovable movie character put it: “to infinity and
So let me tell another bad preacher joke at this point to lighten the mood. Don’t
stop me if you heard this one: The Pope called the Cardinals in to the Sistine Chapel in
the Vatican for a talk. He said, “I have good news and bad news. The Good News is
we have just signed 2 new contracts for millions of dollars to help our budget.” The
Cardinals asked who is this new contract from? The Pontiff said, “Well it is with
Burger King and Coca- Cola.” The Cardinals were surprised but nodded and seemed
ok with it. One of the Cardinals asked, “What is the bad news, Holy Father?” The
Pope said, “Well there’s two parts: The first is we have to change the liturgy from
‘this is my body and this is my blood, to ‘Have it your way, have it your way,” and to
‘The Pause that Refreshes.’ And the second bad news is we are going to have trouble
with our Wonder Bread and Welch’s Grape Juice accounts!”
Yikes, yes, I know we all feel less intelligent for that one, huh? Sorry, but had
to be done! Now, where were we?
I would be remiss if I didn’t return to the fact that this symbolic meal we
celebrate has its roots in Jesus’ own religion. The Scripture tells us that it was the
night of the Jewish annual celebration of Passover. Passover was and is perhaps the
most sacred Jewish ritual and religious celebration. It is the reminder of the story of
God liberating the slaves from Egypt by mighty works. God called Moses to lead
God’s people out of Egypt to a land of Promise. Moses was a Hebrew born into
slavery, adopted by the King of Egypt’s daughter and raised as a Prince, who murdered
a man and ultimately became a fugitive out in the wilderness before God called him to
be the greatest prophet of the Jewish faith.
The Passover meal was a carefully scripted way to remember that God warned
the Hebrew slaves that a pandemic was about to kill many of their Egyptian captors
and to wipe blood on the doorjamb of their homes would signal the killing spirit to
“Passover” their homes and not harm them. Jesus was celebrating this symbolic meal
with his disciples before he himself would become the “sacrificial lamb” for the abuse
of power and privilege by the religious leaders, the Roman governor and Emperor and
all those who, throughout history, cause suffering to others because they can. These
roots give us an important understanding of our faith history. Unfortunately the
Christian church has often repeated these same sins in the name of Jesus Christ –
abusing its power, wealth, and privilege to cause others to suffer, and for that we are
right to seek to repent from – to turn away from – that kind of theology and practice.
There are many other ways we can talk about this meal, but to avoid this
becoming like the too long prayer of a father before the family meal let me end with
just one more.
In my faith I love the meaning of communion as a “foretaste of heaven,” a
“vision of what heaven will be like,” and a reminder of Jesus’ promise of the
fulfillment of God’s reign will come. What the Bible refers to as “the Kingdom of
God,” is a powerful image of the way God intends human life to be, not just in heaven
but here on earth. This “reign of God” is the time when all relationships will be based
on love, forgiveness. It will be a time when injustice and suffering because of human
selfishness will have ended. The sharing of the bread and cup, passed around the
congregation rather than taken individually at the front is a powerful reminder of this.
I have to admit in every UCC church I have served we have always served communion
that way. Even if it was also offered by coming to the altar, the passing of the bread
and cup are to me a powerful visual reminder of our community in Christ based on
serving one another as equals. So this morning I want to challenge us to consider
moving toward that model of communion in the future. I want to ask our Council to
consider that change and to discuss it.
For me the power of this image was portrayed in the movie “Places in the
Heart.” Perhaps you saw it - starring Sally Fields, John Malkovich, and Danny Glover.
The movie is set in the depression era South. Sally’s husband is the local Sheriff and
also a cotton farmer. He is shot to death by a desperate black teen, and he is executed
for his crime. Sally has to farm the cotton to survive and take care of her family. She
hires a black man to help her. Malkovich plays a blind lodger she takes in to help
make ends meet. Together they work to overcome the challenges including attacks by
other cotton farmers covered in their KKK sheets, as well as the desperate work of
picking cotton to win a small prize for the first to deliver their crop to the gin mill. In
the end, after they miraculously pull off the first crop to get to the gin, there is a scene
in a small church. They are taking communion in the pews. As the camera pans the
congregation there is her husband, the Sheriff – sitting beside her and the children –
and beside him is the young black teen who shot him. A clear symbol of the presence
of the reign of God among us now even as we anticipate it in the future. The camera
pans more and there beside the black hired hand are the members of the KKK who had
persecuted him. All around the church are people who, though often perceived as
enemies of one another, are sharing the plate and the cup.
This is the Kingdom of God I believe in. That is the power of communion that I
hold dearest. This is the meaning I cherish, the meaning that echoes with the invitation
from our song, “Come As You Are:”