As a seminary student at Duke Divinity School I developed a whole new appreciation for the sacrament of Holy Communion. In retrospect, I had a long way to go when I arrived at the hallowed halls of Duke. I grew up in an fairly large United Methodist Church in eastern Ohio and there we celebrated Holy Communion once a quarter and on special holidays like Christmas Eve and Good Friday. It was largely a mechanical process with the congregation going through the motions and the idea of encountering God in the sacrament was subsumed by concerns over actually swallowing the cardboard like communion wafer and not spilling the tiny little cup of juice on the altar rail. Thankfully, the watchful eye of my mom kept my brother and me from taking two cups of juice from the tray in a vain effort to wash down the cardboard communion wafer.
Walking into the Divinity School chapel service 5 days a week and receiving communion each day was a new thing. First, they served awesome bread. No cardboard wafers adorned the carved wood communion table in the chapel. The little glasses of grape juice that I was accustomed to were replaced by four beautiful pottery chalices. I have to admit that this initially confused me because receiving communion through intinction (where the recipient dips their peice of bread into the chalice) was unheard of in my midwestern United Methodist congregation back home. The ordained faculty who consecrated the elements and led the liturgy used different versions of the various prayers and delivered them with emotion instead of gliding through a rote recitation of the same liturgy. The students and faculty who went forward to receive Holy Communion did so with humility and reverence rather than the impatience of the typical congregant in my home church who sped through the receiving line in thinly veiled impatience at the preacher for making them go through this little ritual on the way to the real attraction of the worship service which was the sermon. For the first time since my call to ministry that came during a communion service at a church camp, I encountered the presence of the Risen Christ in the sacrament. It was glorious. And it kept me coming back for more. You would think that a seminary might require attendance at chapel but this was not the case. Nevertheless, most students and faculty attended the daily chapel services with its daily celebration of the sacrament. Maybe my fellow students attended out of a reliance on God that the overwhelming workload of seminary quickly engenders. Maybe the faculty attended to help assuage their anxiety over the future of the church that would soon be led by the wide-eyed students who sat in their classes and produced mediocre work in their effort to find the path of least resistance on their way to ordination. I like to think that most of us attended because we found the love and grace of God in the daily celebration of the sacrament.
After three years of an almost daily spiritually feasting on the presence of the Risen Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion, I graduated and started serving my first full time appointment as a pastor. I was appointed to be the associate pastor at a large church in Charlotte. It was a church that was almost 150 years old with its origins in a brush arbor camp meeting. While they had learned many things over their long history, a deep appreciation for Holy Communion was not one of them. They had finally acquiesced to a monthly celebration of the sacrament during the tenure of another pastor – but they were not happy about it and they told their pastors so on many occassions. Needless to say, this was quite a shock and was completely different from my seminary experience.
I remember a gentleman approaching me after worship on a communion Sunday and venting his frustration with the celebration of the sacrament. He felt that we celebrated communion too frequently and that it would stop being special if we kept doing it so often. He suggested we return to the quarterly celebration of the sacrament. In retrospect I have titled this the “It will stop being special” myth about Holy Communion. On the surface the logic seems to hold up. If we do something frequently enough we can take it for granted and it fades into the background and we can cruise by it on autopilot. However, just because it happens some of the time does not mean it is a universal truth. Some things are too important to approach in this manner. Do we stop hugging our children and telling them that we love them because we want it to stay special or do we think that is important enough that they know our love and devotion to them each and every day? My guess is that it is the latter. Do we only tell our spouse that we love them once a quarter because we want it to be special when we finally say the words or do we seize every opportunity to tell the person who has covenanted to walk with us through life how much we appreciate them? Do we only hold their hand or give them a peck on the cheek once a quarter or do we express our affection for them more frequently? Again, my guess is that we tell our spouse that we love them on a daily basis and hold their hand every chance we get. Why? Because some things never lose their specialness. They matter and the frequency of our engagement in them does not diminish that specialness. If anything, frequency reinforces it.
I would suggest that this is the case with communion. The frequency of its celebration is not the problem. Maybe the real problem is that we see Holy Communion as some time-wasting ritual in the worship service instead of an opportunity to experience the love and grace of a Savior who loved us enough to carry the weight of our sins. Maybe the problem is that we don’t see communion as a chance to tell that Savior how much we appreciate what he has done for us by pausing and remembering his mighty acts of grace. If that is the way we feel, then we are missing the point of Holy Communion and the church is not wrong for offering it on a frequent basis. We are the ones who need to get a clue. Jesus promised to meet us in this holy meal. Of all the places we can find him in the world, he has guaranteed to be present in the sacrament. Can we really be in the presence of Jesus too much? Can it really stop being special because we did it last month? I don’t think so. If we look deep enough into our souls we know that our problem isn’t that we have had too much time with Jesus. No – the problem is that we haven’t had enough time with him.
The myth that Holy Communion will stop being special if we do it too frequently is just that – a myth.
About a year after the above discussion regarding the frequency of communion I came across another myth about the sacrament. I had noticed that one of our church members never came forward to receive Holy Communion. He would participate in all aspects of the liturgy but he always remained in his pew while the rest of the congregation came forward. This peaked my curiousity so I approached him one Sunday after the service and politely inquired about it. I expected to hear that he had ties to the Roman Catholic Church since many who abstain from receiving communion in the United Methodist Church do so because Roman Catholics should not receive communion in a Protestant church. They’ll attend worship in a Protestant church with a Protestant spouse or friend but draw the line at participation in Holy Communion. But that was not the case with this gentleman. In a sincere and humble voice he told me that he wasn’t worthy to receive Holy Communion. He remembered that Paul advised the Corinthian church to not partake of the holy meal in an unworthy manner and since he was a sinner (his words, not mine) he did not want to run afoul of the apostle’s direction. On one level he was right. None of us are worthy to receive the love and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ remembered and communicated through Holy Communion. However, we are invited to the table of the Lord anyway. Not being worthy and being invited anyway is one of the ways that the sacrament of Holy Communion communicates the grace of God to us.
The idea that we have to be worthy before we can receive communion is what I like to call it the “Monty Python myth” regarding communion. If you have seen The Holy Grail you may remember a scene where King Arthur and his knights encounter God and start bowing and scraping in awe and reverence. God tells them that he really quite tired of all the “I’m not worthy” talk and to stand up and stop grovelling. If we recall the ministry and teachings of Jesus we’ll see countless occassions where Jesus seeks out the unworthy and spends time with them. He invites himself to dinner with the notorious sinner and tax collector, Zacchaeus. He engages in an extended conversation with the Samaritan woman who had been in numerous questionable relationships with men. Indeed in Luke 15, Jesus explicity says that he came to seek out and save the lost. I see nothing in there that says anything about Jesus only being interested in the “worthy lost.”
So what did Paul mean when he said not to partake of communion in an unworthy manner? Paul was actually addressing a situation unique to the Corinthian church where the wealthy upper-class members arrived early for the fellowship meal that surrounded the first century celebration of the sacrament and ate all the food – leaving nothing but scraps for the poorer members of the church to dine upon. Paul thought such behavior unworthy of a remembrance of Jesus’ love hence his advice to the Corinthian church. His words were never meant to dissuade followers of Jesus from receiving the love and grace of the Lord present in the sacrament. So it is time to set aside the myth that we have to be worthy to receive Holy Communion because, in truth, we are preventing ourselves from encountering the presence of Christ who has the power to help us overcome our unworthiness. To insist that we have to stay away from the sacrament until we are worthy is to declare that our sin is greater than Christ’s love and I am reasonably confident that runs contrary to what Paul wrote in Romans 8 when he declared that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38). It is time to get over ourselves and our sin and trust that God loves us. It is time to step down the aisle towards the table of Lord confident that his love is greater than our sin and experience his love and grace.
Instead of finding reasons not to participate in the celebration of Holy Communion, we should be looking for every opporunity to do so. I don’t know about you, but I can use all of the grace that Christ has to offer. I suspect that the same is true for you.