6 Lenten Reflections on Holy Communion in the Middle of a Pandemic

Reflection #1

 

It was a big deal.

I was in the first grade. I walked home from school. My mother and brother were nowhere to be found. I was free to experiment.

On the kitchen table I placed a loaf of bread and poured myself a cup of Welch’s grape juice. I was going to celebrate Holy Communion all by myself. I prayed hard, just like my mother had instructed. It a prayer of humility, confession for sins – some even I did not know. If we had a kneeler, I would have been kneeling, just like at church before the communion rail.

I ate a slice of Wonder Bread and washed it down with grape juice.

“What do you think you’re doing?” my brother startled me as he walked in from school. “You can’t do that!”

I had done it. The bread, I imagined, was the body of Jesus. The juice, was his blood.

It was a big deal.

 

 

Nearly twenty years later, our seminary professor taught us the essentials to withstand withering ordination exams: “a sacrament is entrusted to the ordained, a command of Jesus, an action of God, communicating the spiritual truth of God’s love and grace for humankind.”

You’d be surprised how many candidates for ordination don’t get this vital principle of the Church correct on their first examination.

So sorry. Study up and come back next year.

With the majority of the Protestant House of the Christian Church, we recognize two sacraments: Baptism and Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion. Jesus tells us to do it. God is the primary actor, the ordained is the stand in. God’s love and grace abounds.

Baptism is God’s way to make a person a Christian. Because God does it, we can’t undo it. Redoing what God has done doesn’t make sense.

Eucharist is God’s way to unite us with Christ and with each other, the Body of Christ, in love and grace.

The stewardship of sacraments is given to the ordained, and their designated believers, through St. Peter, the rest of the Apostles, continuing by apostolic succession, to our present generation. Our sign is the cross, our symbol is the yoke we wear.

 

 

During Lent, it is our congregation’s tradition to withhold Holy Communion until the fast is broken on Holy Thursday. During these 6 Sundays I will replace the Eucharist with a brief time teaching about the sacrament, it’s practice, and our prayers.

I’ll answer such questions as, “Every Sunday? Really?” “Why is it so repetitive; the same stuff over and over again?” “Sung responses?” “What do the responses mean, anyways?” “Why can’t you do it like another pastor I once had?” “Wine or grape juice?”

 

 

At the beginning and end of the day, at the dawn and sunset of life, there remains the mystery of God’s tender love for us. God so loves the world, that he gives us his only Son, that whosoever believes in him might be saved. For God sent his Son to the world, not to condemn the world, but that all the world might be saved.

That’s how much God loves you.

That’s how much God loves our neighbors.

 

Eucharist.

It’s a big deal, full of more love than we can comprehend.

Thank you, Lord, for your gift of love.

Amen.

 

Reflection #2

 

How we give God praise and thanksgiving during worship comes to us through instruction, practice, and tradition. In Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, we experience the practice of the first generation of Christ’s disciples: “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.” (Acts 2:42)

 

Apostles taught and broke bread.

 

Thus, the community was fulfilling two of three primary commands of Jesus: 1) teach the newly baptized converts “all that I have taught you”, and 2) when you gather, eat the bread and drink the cup “in remembrance of me”. They would fulfill the third of three primary commands of Jesus to love God and love neighbors, by using the remaining bread and wine after Eucharist to feed the hungry and poor.

Therefore, early Christian worship maintained a balance: teaching and sacrament, or “Word and Table”, as we were taught in seminary. The Christian life the other six days of the week is to be devoted to loving neighbors in need, through outreach and mission.

 

“Balance Word and Table” our seminary professors taught us. 

 

Table is the sacrament of Holy Communion, also known as Mass, or Eucharist. Over the first one-thousand years of Christianity, dogma, pride, greed, and intimidation perverted the Sacrament of Holy Communion, suppressed the proclamation of the Word, enslaved the people, and contributed to the division of the Church. This division is called the Protestant Reformation. The church divided into Protestant and Roman Catholic about 500 years ago.

Our Roman Catholic cousins continued to emphasize the Eucharist, to the exclusion of the Word. Our Protestant effort emphasized the proclamation of the Word, often at the expense of the Mass. Thus, we stopped celebrating Holy Communion weekly, resorting to monthly, or even, quarterly.

Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s there has been a concerted effort by both Protestants and Roman Catholics to return balance to the First Century practice of Word and Table. This effort is called “orthodoxy.”

The sacrament of Eucharist, which is the Greek noun meaning “thanksgiving” in English, is a reenactment of Jesus hosting his final supper with his disciples in the upper room the night before his crucifixion. It’s earliest historical account is found in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, the 11th chapter.

The Sacramental liturgy – a collection of prayers called “the Great Thanksgiving” – and the act – the elevation of bread and wine, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, and sharing the host – is a reminder of God’s great love and sacrificial gift, the gift of his Son Jesus, for our forgiveness and salvation.

In preparation of Holy Communion, we return our gifts to God, our tithes, offerings, bread, and wine. These elements are presented to the altar as a sign of our reciprocal love for God’s love for us.

As we are taught by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, before we present our gifts to God at the altar, we must confess our sins, repent, and reconcile our broken relationships. Therefore, confession and reconciliation always precede Holy Communion.

Traditionally, the Lord’s Prayer follows the liturgy of the Great Thanksgiving, but precedes the distribution of bread and wine, because in the Lord’s Prayer we ask for God’s forgiveness of our sins and trespasses.

Once cleansed, we are ready to be fed. The Table is set. Next Sunday, I teach about what we do at the Table; the liturgy of the Great Thanksgiving.

 

Question from the audience! why is the celebration of the Eucharist reserved for only the ordained? 

 

The ordained is given the gift of Eucharist by God and charged with its use and safekeeping.

 

Allow me to explain.

The first Apostle of the Church was Peter. The second was Paul.

Through scripture, the Apostle Paul identifies different members of the Church given unique gifts. (1 Corinthians 12). God gives different people different gifts. To some, God appoints the gifts of apostles, to others prophets, to other teachers, working miracles, speaking in tongues, casting out demons, etcetera.

Jesus tells the Apostle Peter that he is a Rock upon which he will build his Church, “and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

Saint Peter binds the Sacrament of Eucharist and Baptism to the Apostles, and to their subsequent generations.

Early on Apostles became known as Presbyters, Elders, Priests, and Pastors. The titles are synonymous. In the United Methodist Church, the called and appointed Apostles of Jesus are known as Elders.

Celebrating the Sacraments is one of four necessary gifts, given their combination, that the Church recognizes in apostolic leaders. God gives to Apostles the gifts of: Word, Order, Sacrament, and Service – authority to proclaim the Word of God, authority to organize and shepherd communities of faith, authority to celebrate the Sacraments, and a life dedicated to serving those entrusted to your care.

Any one gift, God may grant any individual.

To anyone given all four gifts; we are recognized as Apostles of the church, set apart by ordination, signed by the cross, and yoked by the stole. We are keepers of the keys, the stewards of Sacraments, clergy of the Church.

 

Reflection #3 (Delivered the 1st Sunday of the Covid-19 Pandemic)

 

We are fasting from Holy Communion this Lent, anticipating the moment the fast will be broken at Maundy Thursday worship during Holy Week.

 

It’s a big deal; to be one in a crowd of thousands, who, after a day learning at the feet of the Savior, finds themself hungry. Seeing Jesus take “five loaves and two fish , he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all at and were filled.” (Matthew 14:19-20)

 

Take. Give Thanks. Break. Give.

 

It was a big deal; to be seated with Jesus around the Passover table, “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.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

 

Eucharist is a big deal.

 

Take. Give Thanks. Break. Give.

 

These four basic actions of Holy Communion are the work of God, the command of Jesus, a witness to the Lord’s death and resurrection.

An essential core to every Eucharist celebration is giving thanks, just as Jesus did. Give thanks is the collection of prayers that constitutes what has come to be known since the third century as The Great Thanksgiving.

 

The final exam in “Intro to Worship” class in seminary was to construct from scratch a Great Thanksgiving based on an assigned passage of scripture. Every element must be used. Miss one and you failed. It was a big deal.

The Great Thanksgiving, also known as the Anaphora or Eucharistic Prayer, is a hymn of praise. It is Trinitarian, though always addressed to the first person of the Trinity, the Father. It is a three-way conversation between the people, the presider, and God. Therefore, it is most appropriately celebrated with the presider facing the people, speaking the language of the people.

 

  1. It begins with an introductory dialogue; a greeting that invites the people to join in the giving of thanks. A hallmark of the introductory dialogue is the Sursum Corda, Latin for “lift your hearts.”

 

  1. Learned by rote memorization, the recall and recitation of the introductory dialogue should free the mind to experience the preface. The preface is a prayer based on the assigned scripture for the day, citing a specific work of Christ or a general narration of salvation history.

One of the most spiritually satisfying times of my week is when, in the quietness of my office, I have the joy and privilege to write a new preface; it’s a gift to you, and my gift to God.

 

  1. Once or twice during the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer spontaneously explodes with congregational acclamations! “Holy, holy, holy” is called the Sanctus, from Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is called the Benedictus qui venit, from Psalm 118:26 and Matthew 21:9. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!” is an acclamation of faith, a line in the sand, a stake in the ground, a foundation upon which we stand!

Acclamations are spirited! Emotional! rousing! like a cheer in a stadium or a singing crowd at a concert. Thus, they can be spoken or sung. My preference is for singing!

 

  1. The celebrant speaks the words of institution, the commemoration of the events in which Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. To the best of my ability, the words are spoken the same for every Holy Communion, just as Jesus spoke them.

 

  1. We remember, called the anamnesis, what Jesus has done for us as we offer this memorial of his sacrifice.

 

  1. The presider invokes the Holy Spirit to descend on the people and the elements. This is called the epiclesis. It is done that all might obtain the benefits desired from communion, our petitions, and prayers.

 

  1. The Great Thanksgiving concludes with a triumphant, joyful, Trinitarian doxology, like icing on a cake, that sums up our praise of the Lord, our God.

 

Correctly employ all seven pieces into a Great Thanksgiving and you pass. Miss one iota, a fraction of a punctuation, and, well … see you next semester.

As the presider, entrusted to the pastoral care of each and every one of you, … who some weeks hang by a thread walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and, other weeks are skipping through life on cloud nine … Eucharist is essential, the oxygen of faith, the blood of belief, sustenance for the journey.

That’s how big of a deal it is.

 

Amen.

 

[References:

– “At the Lord’s Table,” Supplemental Worship Resources 9, Abingdon, Nashville, 1981

– “The United Methodist Book of Worship,” The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992.]

 

Reflection #4 (Pandemic 2)

 

We are fasting from Holy Communion this Lent, anticipating the moment the fast will be broken at Maundy Thursday worship during Holy Week.

 

It’s a big deal; the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Take. Give Thanks. Break. Give.

 

Following giving thanks (the Great Thanksgiving), breaking bread and pouring wine is a joyful part of the Sacrament because it recognizes our unity. As seeds of grain are gathered and unified into the flour of a common loaf, so, too, are we unified in our belief and witness of our risen Lord. As the grapes are crushed and the juice of each berry is channeled into one cup, so, too, are we unified with each other and with our God.

Breaking bread and pouring wine is a humbling experience for me, for I experience anew, at every celebration, my personal sense of unworthiness celebrating the Mass.

Beloved, I am sincere: because God has made a place for me at this, His Table, I am absolutely confident that there is a place at the Lord’s Table for you, too.

Breaking bread and pouring wine is a privilege that captures me in awe, the speechless glory of God’s presence and grace. When I elevate that loaf and break it … wow, Christ is broken for the world, for you, and for me. When I lift the cup … I’m overwhelmed that Christ’s blood washes away the sins of the world. Our past is gone, our present if clean, our future is God’s.

 

Our Roman ancestors and present-day Catholic cousins came to believe over the centuries the bread actually became the flesh of Jesus and the wine miraculously turned into his blood. This was another gripe that split us into the Protestant house. United Methodists believe the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood, not his actual cells and bodily fluids.

One loaf. One cup. This is ideal. Early Apostles celebrated the Eucharist is small groups, in house churches, so it wasn’t a challenge. Given the setting, attendance, and dietary needs of those in attendance, accommodations may need to be made that include many loaves and many cups.

Shot glasses symbolize disunity and is in bad form, except in the midst of a pandemic!

 

Wine or grape juice? United Methodist practice is to use the unfermented juice of the grape, or, non-alcoholic grape juice. We recognize some struggle with addictions and using wine would become a barrier between themselves and the Table. It’s about being open, welcoming, accessible.

 

Accessible. Our practice is that Holy Communion needs to be as accessible to everyone. Not everyone will take advantage of it, but it’s their choice. Accessible means there’s room for everyone. No special knowledge or Sacramental understanding is needed. Have a difficulty walking? We’ll bring it to you. Home bound? We need to be organized and deployed to make home delivery!

 

Next, I’ll talk about giving.

Amen.

 

Reflection #5 (Pandemic 3)

 

We are fasting from Holy Communion this Lent, anticipating the moment the fast will be broken at Maundy Thursday worship during Holy Week.

 

It’s a big deal; the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Take. Give Thanks. Break. Give.

 

We follow the 4-step example of Jesus when he fed the crowds and served his disciples. 1) Jesus took the bread. 2) Gave thanks in prayer to his Heavenly Father. 3) He broke the bread. 4) And Jesus shared the bread.

 

I’ve spoken about the first three actions of Jesus on prior Sundays. Today, let us think about Christ’s act of sharing the broken bread and poured cup.

 

Bread and cup are given to modern disciples, just as Jesus gave to his disciples at the Last Supper. All who desire to draw close to Christ and intend to lead a Christian life, together with children, are invited to receive the bread and cup.

 

United Methodist do not refuse or deny anyone who presents themselves desiring to receive; though John Wesley regrettably did so on one occasion, which brought scandal and hurt, resulting in him fleeing the American colony of Georgia. Because God is the primary actor in a Sacrament, human subversion or denial is not allowed.

 

The consecrated bread and cup may be delivered by lay members of the church. When bread is given, we are reminded of the body of Christ, broken for us; God’s great sacrifice for us and our salvation. When the cup is shared, we are reminded of the blood of Christ, shed for us; washing us clean of our sins.

 

Barriers that inhibit belonging and full participation of those desiring Holy Communion must be identified and overcome. Intellect, ambulation, disability, diet, physical distance are some of the challenges that must be addressed to ensure full inclusion. Consecrated bread and cup may be taken by assistants after the service to those who are homebound and others unable to attend.

 

Giving should be personal: using the individual’s name (if possible) while making appropriate, non-threatening eye contact. Serving each other acts out our faith that Christ is the giver of this holy meal and that we are receivers of Christ’s grace.

 

Some celebrants will commune first. My preference is to be the last served. After all have been served, the table is to be returned to order. Left over bread and cup may be distributed to the poor, as was the early church practice, respectfully consumed, or returned to earth and God’s creation.

 

Next, I’ll conclude our Lenten discussion of Holy Communion. Amen.

 

[“The United Methodist Book of Worship”, 1992. p.27-31]

 

Reflection #6 (Pandemic 4)

 

We are fasting from Holy Communion this Lent, anticipating the moment the fast will be broken this Thursday, at Maundy Thursday worship.

 

It’s a big deal; the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We follow the 4-step example of Jesus when he fed the crowds and served his disciples. 1) Jesus took the bread. 2) Gave thanks in prayer to his Heavenly Father. 3) He broke the bread. 4) And Jesus shared the bread.

 

I was 14. The year was 1975. It was the first Sunday of the new quarter. My father, a 51-year-old seminary student and new local pastor at the time, asked me to join him in serving Holy Communion one afternoon to a member of the congregation in the nursing home. She was near death.

 

I was frightened about death, as most youth would expect to be. But I couldn’t show it. “Sure, I’ll go with you,” I replied as confidently as I could muster. Now, as a 58-year-old long-tenured pastor myself, I can see that my father was probably frightened, too. He was doing his best to hide his fear from me.

Dad led. I followed. We passed the sign on the door that said NPO, meaning nothing by mouth. Bread. Wine. This should be interesting.

IMG_20200330_105111

Dad carried this traveling communion kit, filled with leftover bread and grape juice from morning worship. It had been given to him by Rev. Harold Geiser, a pastor of the previous generation. This sacred kit has been left to me. It’s really old and well worn, near and dear to my heart.

 

The elderly woman lying in bed was older looking than just about anyone I’d ever seen. She looked about 65 pounds soaking wet. She was sleeping, breathing hard, and her dried out tongue hung out and looked cracked. I wish I remembered her name.

 

Dad said “hello.” No response.

Dad read to her the 23rd Psalm. No response.

He said an abbreviated version of the Eucharist prayer. No response.

There was no opening her eyes.

I watched to see her breathing. Because, … you know.

 

Dad opened the Communion kit and set up the bread and juice. I looked around for any nurse who might have us arrested and tossed out for violating the NPO order.

My father, very gently, placed a crumb of the bread on this woman’s tongue. She pulled in her tongue, closed her mouth, and I could see that she began to suck on the crumb and move it about her mouth. Dad took a straw off her nightstand, inserted it into one of the cups and held it to her lips. She quickly slurped it up and swallowed. She didn’t choke. She never opened her eyes. There was no acknowledgment of our presence. Dad said a prayer and we left.

 

I have thought a lot about this woman in the forty-five years that have since past.

The mystery of the Sacrament has been brought to focus by this experience. Eucharist intersected with a lifetime of faith; when this woman had come forward, knelt at the altar rail, received bread and cup in her local church. She had participated in Holy Communion as a child, youth, young married mother, and as an aging widow. The presence of the Holy Spirit wove a consistent theological, Sacramental thread throughout her life leading her to the threshold, the thin divide between earth and heaven, mortal life and eternal life.

By some mysterious way, God used the Sacrament of Holy Communion to gather in this sheep of the Shepherd, and to bring her safely and lovingly home.

 

Holy Communion is this, and so much more; a big deal, a larger mystery than any one can begin to describe; tasting, seeing, experience the presence of God; cleansing, celebrating, uniting, feast of a lifetime; sustaining grace providing everything necessary for the Christian journey; reminding us of God’s great love for humankind.

 

Join us this Thursday – Maundy Thursday – for breaking the fast with the celebration of Holy Communion at 4:00 p.m.

 

Over past weeks I have been praying hard, making plans, only to have plans changed, change, and change some more. I have been asking advice from seminary professors, colleagues, and conducting my own research. I’ve been seeking your input; after all, you are the sheep of the fold that God has charged me to be your pastoral shepherd.

 

I take my sacramental rights and responsibilities seriously.

 

Join me online. I will celebrate live stream worship and Holy Communion at 4:00 pm. All participants will have three choices. Choose according to your needs and comfort level.

 

1) Curbside. After the service, bring a disposable cup and paper plate, drive to the church, pause at the front door. Do not get out of the car. The consecrated bread and cup will be safely passed through your car window to you, and you will receive a blessing. The Bread and Cup will be prepared with the same (or better) sanitary procedures as is being conducted by restaurants providing curb side or drive in service.

 

2) Home Delivery. Those unable to drive to the church, please contact the church office, and we will arrange for a volunteer to safely deliver consecrated bread and cup to your home, where it can be left by your door. Also, contact us if you are willing to volunteer and deliver consecrated elements, with my thanks.

 

3) Virtual Communion. Bread, Cup, and a gathered community are required. Virtual Communion is not a recognized practice by the United Methodist Church, even though I am aware of its recent practice.

 

The Church has a history of invoking “In extremis” sacramental procedures during emergencies, such as the bubonic plague and combat. In extremis means “in the farthest reaches” or “at the point of death.”

 

In light of our present Covid-19 pandemic, as your ordained pastoral leader, and because of my great love for each and every member and friend of the Rush United Methodist Church, after great prayer and discernment, I am invoking Eucharist In Extremis for Maundy Thursday. Therefore, you may prepare in your own home a Cup and Bread for your own consumption.

 

We will resume regular Holy Communion after Maundy Thursday as soon as possible and permissible. You have my assurance: I will not allow you to starve or die of thirst! This pandemic may prevent us from immediately returning to weekly celebrations of Holy Communion, but together, we will do the best we can.

 

Amen.

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