Lent, now a distant memory, lasts for 40 days – traditionally days of reflection, fasting and abstinence. Easter lasts for 50 days – and these are days of joy and celebration. In the contemporary Church we tend to forget that – we focus on the events of Holy Week and Easter and then move on. [To help us remember it’s Easter the colours of stoles and Communion Table stay white for these 50 days, we will keep the cross here with the white drape] and we keep on singing Easter hymns. The readings set for this season help us reflect on the meaning of the Risen Christ in our lives now and today’s reading is, perhaps, my favourite of all the appearances of the Risen Lord because it helps us remember where we can encounter the Risen Lord now – as the Word is spoken and as Holy Communion is shared.
Those long forgotten disciples realised they encountered Jesus as the Word was shared and explained – what we’d now call a sermon – and as bread was broken what we’d now call Holy Communion. They remark that as the Stranger explained the Scriptures to them their hearts were strangely burning and they see him in the breaking of the bread. Their excitement causes them to run and tell the others of Jesus risen life.
I suspect this story was preaching material for the Earliest Churches as they tried to understand the meaning of Communion. They knew Jesus had commanded them to share bread and wine; they knew it had links to the Passover and Sabbath Seders but they knew that Jesus had added to the meaning of those ritual meals and as they slowly started to understand the importance of Communion they shared it more and more. The same writer of today’s passage notes, in Acts Chapter 2, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” So this ritual of bread breaking and, we presume, of wine sharing was one of the earliest in the Church – one that we continue to this day.
The Eucharist Now
One of the things Christians have puzzled over, and argued about, for millennia is what goes on at Holy Communion. Some think that as the priest retells the story of the Last Supper the bread and wine are changed into the body and bloody of Christ – some Christians even try and explain how this happens. Other Christians think the broken bread is simply a reminder of Jesus’ broken body and the red wine a reminder of his blood spilt for us. Other Christians think it’s a mystery and we cannot possibly understand what is going on.
Our tradition looks to Calvin, the 16th Century French Reformer, who influenced the Reformed tradition. In Calvin’s view something very special happens at Communion – for the believer we receive Jesus’ body and blood in our hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving, as the old Church of England Prayer book puts it. He felt that the believer, at Communion, was gathered up into God’s presence and through the earthly things of bread and wine we receive heavenly graces.
Calvin wanted Christians to share in Communion whenever they met for worship but not less than once a week. This was remarkable as in the Medieval Church whilst mass was celebrated daily only the priest would receive Holy Communion regularly – most folk only received once a year – after going to confession. Calvin wanted us to celebrated and receive Communion more but also wanted to preclude unrepentant sinners from taking part. The City Council of Geneva, having got rid of the bishop, didn’t want to make Calvin a new bishop and resolved to decide themselves who could and couldn’t take Communion but they didn’t want to do this every week so a pattern of quarterly Communion became established – much to Calvin’s annoyance. This is the pattern we often see in the Church of Scotland.
In Scotland many Congregationalist Churches – especially EU – or Evangelical Union ones – wanted more regular Communion and many, like the Churches of Christ, had weekly Communion, but over the years this often became a monthly ritual.
The URC and Communion
When the URC was formed the people charged with explaining the faith that we both share and uphold wrote this about Communion:
The United Reformed Church celebrates the gospel sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. When in obedience to the Lord’s command his people show forth his sacrifice on the cross by the bread broken and the wine poured for them to eat and drink, he himself, risen and ascended, is present and gives himself to them for their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace. United with him and with the whole Church on earth and in heaven, his people gathered at his table present their sacrifice of thanksgiving and renew the offering of themselves, and rejoice in the promise of his coming in glory.
Now that’s quite a long statement so let’s unpack it a bit …
Gospel Sacrament At the Reformation there was a debate about how many sacraments there were. A sacrament is a sign or means of grace. Roman Catholics believe there are seven sacraments – baptism, confirmation, Confession, Communion, marriage, ordination and the last rites. Eastern Orthodox Christians believe these are major sacraments but believe there are many others too. Most Protestants only recognise baptism and communion as sacraments instituted by the Lord – but there is some debate over Confession as Jesus did tell his apostles to forgive and retain sins. The other things Catholic call Sacraments Protestants usually call rites. So by saying that Communion is a Gospel sacrament the URC is saying it is commanded in the Gospel.
Show forth his sacrifice on the Cross. Every time we celebrate Communion we both remember Jesus death on the cross and also realise it’s made present for us now. Projected through space and time we are there at Calvary, standing with Jesus as he dies.
He Himself, risen and ascended is present… We do more than remember Jesus at Communion. He is present with us, our risen and ascended Lord. As we eat and drink in his presence he is there, holding us, loving us, giving us strength and energy to be his disciples in our world. Communion is, after all, a sacrament, a means of grace. Through the bread and wine we receive God’s loving kindness giving us the strength to serve him in our world.
United with him…and the whole Church Whenever we share in Communion we are united with Jesus, with each other and with the entire Church – all those who have been before us and all those with us on earth now. Regardless of different interpretations of what we do and how we do it, Communion unites with Christ and each other.
Renew the offering of themselves Communion isn’t, however, just about feeding us. Here as we stand at the cross we offer ourselves again in loving service of our Lord. It’s not just a meal where we are fed but a meal where we offer to feed others.
and rejoice in the promise of his coming in glory The German philosopher Nietzsche famously said that if Christians want the rest of humanity to believe in the redemption they should, at least, look a bit more redeemed themselves! The final part of the URC theology on Communion tells us that at Communion we are to rejoice as we look to his coming in glory.
As our Gospel reading reminds us we meet Jesus every time we hear the Word explained and break bread together. This meeting with Jesus is for our benefit and nurture but not just for us. We are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. For our witness in the world, for our desire to be loving to those we don’t yet know, we need to be blessed and fed by Jesus at his table as we allow him to become real for us as we listen to his word, break bread and share wine.
Will you pray with me?
O God, whose greeting we miss
and whose departure we delay:
make our hearts burn with insight
on our ordinary road;
that, as we grasp you in the broken bread,
we may also let you go,
and return to speak your word of life
in the name of Christ, Amen.