An invisible communion

This is the sermon I gave today (4th October, 2020) at Putney Methodist Church. It was a special occasion as it was the first time we were celebrating Holy Communion since the beginning the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the first time since 1st March – almost certainly the longest period in Putney’s century and a half history when we have not had the chance to come together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The text today was 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 11:23-26. The full service can be seen on YouTube here.

1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 11:23-26 (The Lord’s Supper)

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

For 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, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In 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.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Reflection

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

The celebration of holy communion has sadly been one of the most divisive and often misunderstood aspects of Christian life. It is also one about which I regularly receive questions from faithful followers. What does it mean? Am I worthy to receive it? What am I meant to feel? It is also one of the subjects you are most quizzed about at theological college and I have several learned tomes about it on the shelves in my study, several of which I have even opened!

There is so much to say about holy communion that it could easily fill umpteen sermons. Communion as sacrifice, as thanksgiving, as transformation, and so on. I want to think briefly today, though, about that fundamental idea of ‘communion’ – one of those words that we really only use in church life, unhelpfully. Technically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘communion’ means “a sharing, especially of thoughts; fellowship; a participation; a sharing in common”. The word indeed derives from the same root as the words ‘common’, ‘community’ and even ‘communism’.

At its heart then, communion is about sharing together: holding something in common. That is what the first part of our reading clearly brought out: “a sharing in the blood of Christ … a sharing in the body of Christ … we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”. Who brings us to this table? It is our common host and Lord, Jesus Christ. Where do we meet? At one, common table. How do we celebrate? With a common cup and a common loaf. Immediately, though, I can hear alarm bells ringing in your heads. “What does he mean, ‘a common cup and loaf’? Hasn’t he read the COVID regulations?!” Please be assured, I will go through the details shortly but we are going to take extreme caution to prevent any potential source of infection being shared in common!

The last few months have brought our celebrations to a shuddering halt and it has been one of the greatest sadnessses for many people that they have not been able to participate in communion – an integral part of the Christian life for 2,000 years. As a minister in the Methodist Church in particular, where we have relatively few ordained folk, around about 50% of the services I lead are usually communions and it has felt very odd to be deprived of this sacramental sharing. Even today, as we tentatively prepare to celebrate our first communion, I am very conscious of how many people cannot join us. Those who are still shielding, those joining us via Zoom and those who may watch later. How then does the experience of COVID change our understanding of communion?

Well, I now need my beautiful visual aid to help me. This wonderful blanket was made for my newly adopted son by members of this church and the circuit. Someone co-ordinated the effort and someone else very skilfully put it all together, but the different squares were made by lots of people. The lovely card that came with it said:

The whole circuit was involved, with many knitters – both experienced and novice – making up squares that were sewn together to make this glorious, rainbow patchwork. While making each square, contributors and their families were asked to say prayers for the health and happiness of your new little family … Many of us felt that a patchwork in particular was very symbolic of the new beginning you are all experiencing. Your family is a result of different parts, of different experiences – both dark and light – being bonded together to make a unique and beautiful whole.

There are several sermons in those words and I am sure this blanket will be re-appearing repeatedly over the years as a visual aid for various occasions! This blanket, though, was a communal act. It was a beautiful, arguably sacramental, action that brought all sorts of different people together – ‘experienced and novice’ – to produce a united whole. Yet, some of the people from across the circuit who helped make this will probably have never met each other, or only know each other vaguely, and they produced their different squares in total isolation from one another. They engaged in a common activity, for a common purpose, but most of those people have never seen the fruits of their communal effort.

In our holy communion, we celebrate something similar. A visible representation of an invisible communion. We celebrate the fact that in God, we are one common humanity and we are part of a countless fellowship. In a few moments, I shall pray the great prayer of thanksgiving over the elements, which includes the beautiful lines: “And so with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven”.

As we gather here, we join not only with the few of us present here today but with all of creation, seen and unseen. We join with the saints in light who have gone before us (“the company of heaven”); we join with all those celebrating communion today across the world, and those who would long so to do; and we join with those who are yet to come, the countless unborn generations who will follow us.

We see that invisible fellowship in so many ways. Last year, I was privileged enough to travel to Myanmar to share with Methodists worshipping in that country. One vivid memory is leading communion in the Wesley Methodist Church in Mandalay on one Sunday morning, beneath the old palace walls, and I shall always remember the sight of people carefully removing their shoes to receive the bread and wine at the table. Those faithful Christians, even though I have never seen them before and probably never will again, are part of our fellowship here today.

Regularly, before the crisis, I would take communion to people in their homes. It would usually be just the person and me, sharing together using my portable home communion kit. Even though it was just the two of us, I was always conscious that we were not alone, but were joined by the fellowship of their own church and the church universal, all crowding into a little front room or hospital cubicle. Those people are here with us today.

Today, I am deeply aware of those who would be with us today in Spirit – even from our own little church. Those who are shielding; those who have moved away during the crisis; and those who have passed to glory. The words of Paul are fulfilled here: “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”.

Did Paul mean our solitary loaf here today? Does he exclude all those who cannot physically eat it with us? No, not at all. For he was talking of the one true bread: the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ. For our communion symbolises the deepest truth there is. That in Christ Jesus, God chose to live among us, to share our common humanity and to sit at a common table with women and men like us. That through that communion – that act of common living – we may know ourselves to be part of a common creation, united with all peoples everywhere. That through Christ’s communion, we may share in common something of God’s nature, purposes and wholeness.

I know how hard these past few months have been: the lack of touch and the ability to sit down with one another to share fellowship. And I know that it looks like things aren’t going to get any easier soon. Our communion today, though, reminds us all that the truth and power of God remain eternally. That whether we can reach out and touch one another or not, whether we can see those with whom we are in fellowship or not, whether we can participate in it this simple meal or not, we remain in communion with God and with all humanity. Not because of what we do, or the words I say, or the eloquence of our prayers. But because of what God has done in Christ Jesus, reaching out to knit us together into a single fellowship. In Christ, who took the commonest of actions – eating and drinking – and made them sacred, in order that we might know he dwells in us and we in him. “We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”. Thanks be to God, for his gift beyond words. Amen.

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