Communion 101

given on World Communion Sunday, October 5, 2008:

Today is World Communion Day.  I grew up calling it Worldwide Communion Sunday, but I learned this week that that term is outdated and that there really is a reason for the change.  In fact, this week I have learned a number of things about communion that I did not know.  Therefore, I have decided that maybe it was time to share some of my new knowledge.
For instance, did you know the practice of World Communion Day began in 1936 in the Presbyterian Church?  If you think about the timing, that was a time of world-wide strife—World War II.  The Presbyterians wanted to connect Christians at a difficult time which was not an easy task considering the forms of communication at that time.
In 1940, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America established World-wide Communion Sunday as a global and interdenominational event.  According to the Global Board of Discipleship website, the impact of the war caused the Methodists to take a special offering for a fund, Fellowship of Suffering and Service which was a predecessor of what we now know as UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
Times change, of course, and the emphasis World-wide Communion Sunday has changed.  In 1971, the United Methodist Church changed the name to World Communion Sunday and started using the special offering to support the Crusade Scholarship Program that provides assistance to racial and ethnic minority students who are pursuing a career in some form of ministry.
But that is the historical background and I am getting very close to boring, as the students would tell me.  Still I think it is good to get an idea of the background before you move on to other information.  I know that many of us have lived through some of the changes on World Communion Sunday, but I did not know the origin.  I guess we are now ready for a trivia question on it.  Do you think you can answer some trivia questions on the practice and traditions of communion?  I expect you can, but I also thought today would be a good time to review this background on communion, too.
First, let’s review why we practice communion.  Again on the website for Global Board of Discipleship, the explanation is provided.  In fact the current changes in the Methodist’s practice of communion are fairly recent as they were updated at the 2000 General Conference; and at the 2004 General Conference the publication of two documents was authorized to interpret and teach about baptism and communion.  Today, I am using the website summary of the document, The Holy Mystery:  A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion.
The mystery is a term often used with communion, but it remains a bit of curiosity why.  I was absolutely amazed at the list of verses which have connected the Last Supper from the beginnings in Exodus through the Old Testament to the story of the Last Supper and even to the “breaking of bread” after Christ arose from the tomb.  On the back of your bulletin, you can see the list of verses for bread and a list for wine.
The mystery is a reference to the theological connection of today’s practice to the Biblical references.  John Wesley certainly must approve of the way today’s Biblical basis, the historical review, and out personal experiences all support our understanding and our practice of communion.  When the General Conference in 2004 decided it was important to reaffirm the Holy Mystery, it was in response to a need to emphasize the importance and the relevance of the practice of communion.
Each and every day, we find the secular world attempting to separate us from our Christian beliefs.  We are challenged to step away and to realign ourselves with the materialistic world.  The television blares at us to go and buy.  The television immediately tells us what is going on in the world, usually the negative rather than the positive.  We are challenged to stay connected with God, with Jesus’ teachings, and to allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us.
The bread, as explained by the Global Board of Discipleship, signifies God’s sustenance of human beings and the importance of our eating together.  The bread is a symbol, and in the Methodist church it is only a symbol.  For some denominations, the bread, after being blessed or consecrated, is considered to truly be Jesus’ body.
Bread, for us, is a symbol and can be anything from the little dried flat wafers I remember as a child to a homemade, yeast bread cooked in an oven where the aroma wafts around the kitchen and the house of the baker.  The bread no longer must be unleavened; it can be made with leavening.  In fact, when I started looking up information on the bread, the hints on the web included listing the Hawaiian King Sweet Bread as one of the favorites now being used.  At licensing school one of the hints was to use the Rhodes frozen bread loaves because it does not crumble as much as some of the other forms.  One recipe I found did not include any leavening, but had honey and molasses in it.
Our own church member makes today’s bread.  I have not asked about it, but I know that it is wonderful.  I know it was made with love.  I know that it is only a representation of Christ’s body, but the historical and Biblical significance makes it a blessing.  As I share the words, “Take.  Eat this in remembrance of me.”  I know that I am carrying out a tradition to share Jesus’ message that we are one with him.  We are Christians who know that Jesus died for our sins.
The same can be said of the wine.  As Methodists, we no longer use wine in our communion because in the early 1900s the church actively supported prohibition.  My own grandmother was a member of a Methodist Temperance League as I found out after she died in 1995.  In fact, I have a small hymnal that was used in their meetings.  Wine made from the red grape has been the typical juice used to represent the blood of Jesus.  It is interesting to think that some churches honestly believe that it is transformed into Jesus’ blood once the priest or the minister consecrates it because at that Last Supper when Jesus lifted the cup and told his disciples to drink, there was wine in that cup not his own blood.
According to the Global Board of Ministries, Methodists did use wine until the American church took a stand against alcoholic beverages during prohibition.  At that time, grape juice made from the red grape became the beverage of choice for communion.  I remember how good that grape juice tasted and being so frustrated with that tiny little cup that could not even hold a teaspoon of juice.  I wanted more.  Having grape juice rather than orange juice in our household was a treat.  Then on those communion days, that tiny little taste of grape juice always seemed so sweet.
Maybe I was really experiencing the Holy Mystery more than I ever could have imagined.  The bread and the juice used in our communion services are just ordinary ingredients in one of the most significant rituals or traditions of our Christian heritage.  Maybe the fact that I wanted more juice and more bread is the mystery.  I can see that the longing for more can be a longing for more of God in my life, too.
Today, as we continue on with the World Communion Sunday practice, the time is right to remember that we may be Methodists, but we are certainly not the only church who is remembering Christ.  We recite the Apostles’ Creed and when we come to that word “catholic,” stop and consider that catholic does not mean one denomination today, it means a world-wide church where all share a belief in God, in Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit.  We are truly one with the world each and every time we stop and take communion.  We are truly one with God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit when we take communion.
Please join me in reciting the traditional Apostles’ Creed (no. 881):
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose form the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.        –Amen

Today communion does not have to be done the “way we always do it,” it can be done in a completely different manner.  We use intinction most of the time.  We use the process of getting up out of our seats, going down the aisle to receive the elements.  Today, we are going to bring communion to you in the pews.  While we are distributing the elements, please sing the hymn, “Let Us Break Bread Together,“ number 618.  Together we are one in Christ.  Together we are one with each other in this congregation.  Together we are one with a global community.

Dear Heavenly Father,
Today we have spent time remembering the purpose of communion.  We have looked at the history of a world-wide observance of communion.  We have reviewed the symbolism of the elements of communion.  Let today’s communion reach into our hearts so that we may be reminded of Christ’s death and resurrection for us.  Let us know that each one of us is in covenant with God and will be able to feast at the heavenly banquet with Jesus.        –Amen

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