by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The readings for Sunday, August 19, 2012:
Those who seek the LORD lack nothing that is good. (Ps. 34:10)
In this Sunday's Gospel, we see Jesus confounding his listeners; the more he talks, the more confused they become (and a bit revulsed by the idea of eating human flesh and drinking human blood; let's not underestimate the strangeness of Jesus' message).
We shouldn't fault the people of Jesus' time. After all, Communion can be a divisive issue even in our own time. Churches differ in how often they celebrate Communion, and denominations differ widely in what they think the Eucharist means.
I remember an incident from my own past during my first year of college. My friend, Melanie, and I had returned from a retreat where we’d had a special communion experience. We stood in a circle and communed each other. Before, I’d only had the traditional Eucharist: bread and wine given out by a church official. On retreat, it felt special to have my fellow Christians hand me the elements, which I in turn gave to the next person. Isn’t this what Martin Luther meant by the priesthood of all believers? More importantly, isn’t this what Jesus had in mind when he gave instructions during the Last Supper?
Melanie and I volunteered to be in charge of the Wednesday night campus service after we returned, and we arrived armed with bread and a jug of wine (back in 1983, when the drinking age was still 18). We didn’t create anything new; we just recycled one of the services we had experienced during the week-end retreat. All went well until we started communion. Several outraged students left.
Our campus pastor sometimes attended our Wednesday night group, but that night was one of the nights that he didn’t. We passed bread and wine that had not been consecrated by an ordained clergy member; we had said the words of consecration before we passed around the elements, but none of us had gone to seminary, or even graduated from college. Since many of the members of our group were not traditional Lutherans, this oversight slipped the notice of many of group members. Even though I am descended from a long line of Lutherans, several of whom were ministers, even though I had gone through years of Sunday School, First Communion, and Confirmation classes, I somehow didn’t get the message that communion without a minister in charge was taboo. At the very least, as our campus minister gently told me, a minister needs to have blessed the elements.
Well, this is how we learn; it became a teaching moment, and luckily my fellow college students, easily offended, were also quick to forgive. But this incident gave me insight into how this sacrament can become so divisive.
Of course, Jesus didn't intend for the sacrament to become divisive (at least not to his believers). On the contrary, Communion is designed to unite us--that's why most churches offer the sacrament as a communal practice. Unlike prayer, which is easily done in private and often silently, the Eucharist should solidify us and nourish us as a group, much the way that family meals together nourish us not only as individuals, but also as a family.
Of course, we can't leave it there. Communion should also transform us to do the work of God on earth. The surrounding lessons tell us of virtues we should strive to manifest in our lives. Our goal is to be leaven to this loaf of a world, to be the light of Christ in the world.
Again and again Jesus reminds us of the necessity of nourishing ourselves with him. Our ancestors ate manna, and they died. We can feast on the food that will bring us eternal life.
God calls us to do serious work. We must live as if the Kingdom of God has already taken over our world. To keep ourselves strong for that work we need to keep ourselves fed with good food: homemade bread and good wine, grilled fish, the words of the Bible, the words of writers who inspire us to transform both ourselves and the world, the images of people who inspire us to visions of a better world, music that can wind its way through our days, prayers that keep us connected to God, relationships that remind us that we are loved and cherished and worthy, and the sacrament of Holy Communion.