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Sunday, July 29, 2012

What Communion is All About

Look at the word.  COMMUNION.  It suggests community, something that brings people together around a common event.

But communion is one of those things that tends to separate more Christians than it unites.  Should it be restricted to members of one's own denomination or congregation, or open to all baptized Christians?  Should baptism itself be a prerequisite?  Should communion be celebrated with leavened bread or unleavened?  Grape juice or wine?  Individual cups or common chalice?  Should it be brought to people as they sit in their seats, served to kneeling parishioners from behind an altar rail, or handed out from the center aisle assembly-line style?  Should it be reserved for those who have a proper understanding of what it means?

It's easy to get caught up in the debate; after all, partaking of the body of Christ is not something to be done lightly or casually.  But all these questions serve to break down the body of Christ, rather than help knit it together.

This morning I was reminded of what communion is really all about by none other than my own not-yet-communing four-year-old son.  For once I wasn't preaching, and I had given my husband the morning off by taking both kids with me to church.  They both went up for the children's sermon, where they were treated to an object lesson about how communion is supposed to be a welcoming experience.  The pastor talked about how some people were allergic to wheat, and so couldn't share the communion bread, which wasn't very welcoming to them.  He passed out a bag of gluten-free crackers and invited each child to eat one, while he explained how some of those crackers were put on the altar alongside the bread, and available for anyone who couldn't eat wheat so they could still share in the Lord's Supper.  He also talked about grape juice being available in the same way, but by then he had lost the kids' attention, as they were busily and happily munching on their crackers.

Of course my son had to ham it up.  When it was his turn to reach into a bag and take a cracker, he did so with a huge smile on his face and, before the pastor (and, more importantly, the pastor's microphone) got out of range, he took a bite and said, "Mmmmm, yummy!"  Of course this was picked up and broadcast over the sound system.  But given all the other things he could have said into the microphone (we've recently begun distinguishing between 'grown-up words' and 'words Spencer can say'), I just laughed along with everyone else.

The smile never left his face, and he asked his sister next to him if her cracker was yummy, too.  She nodded that indeed it was, as crumbs decorated her lips and chin.  The sermon ended, and the kids came back to join me in the pew.  As Spencer approached I noticed that he still had a piece of cracker in his hand.  This kid has already established that he is one of the world's slowest eaters.  But before I could tell him to hurry up and finish his cracker, he reached his hand out to me, cracker pinched between his thumb and forefinger, and he said, "Here Mama.  I saved this for you."

You could have knocked me over with a feather.  I noticed several women nearby grinning with their eyes shining, and I realized that their expressions probably mirrored my own.  I said to him, "The pastor gave that to you.  Don't you want to eat it?"  He replied, "I saved it for you.  Eat it, it's yummy!"

What could I do?  I took the bit of cracker and ate it.  I gave him a big hug and thanked him, and tried not to cry.  It was definitely one of those moments when you forget all the temper-tantrums and the time-outs and the messes, and you're just so grateful and proud to be Mama.

It wasn't communion per se; the words of institution weren't said, and there was no prayer or ritual.  It was a gift shared among a group, and even as Spencer relished its goodness, he wanted to share it with someone who wasn't there to receive a portion of her own.

Does Spencer understand the Lutheran understanding of the 'real presence of Christ' as distinct from the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation as distinct from the Calvinist understanding of eucharistic symbolism?  Most assuredly not.  But does it matter?  Did the disciples have to pass that test on the night in which Jesus was betrayed?

Spencer received a gift, and he enjoyed and appreciated it, and he knew it was too good to keep to himself, so he shared it.  If that's not what communion is about, then what is?

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