All are welcome at Christ’s table – unless you have Celiac disease.
Holy Communion is one of the most important rites and rituals of the church. Since the church was established, we have hearkened back to the Last Supper through this important sacrament – one of only two that we celebrate. For us it is more than simply a reminder of Christ’s call for us to remember him. We feel there is a holy mystery around communion that draws us closer to God. We don’t know how exactly, but even John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed it to be one of the ordinary means of grace – meaning it is one of the simple ways Christians can deepen their faith and draw closer to God. Except if you have Celiac disease or are gluten-free. Add them to the growing list of people who are not welcome at the table of Jesus. As of 2017, the Pope announced that all bread at the communion table must be made with at least some element of gluten. According to the “rules” the bread must be “unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made.” For what purpose? Just because Christ used what we assume to be bread with gluten. But do we really think Jesus would see this as a necessity for communion? Where is God’s legendary grace and mercy in this?
By the way, there is a list.
The Catholic Church has a list of people who can’t come forward for communion. Not an actual list of names, but of deeds deemed to be unworthy. If you ever been divorced, had an abortion or participated in one, had sex outside of marriage or even deliberately had impure thoughts, you can’t come forward. If you haven’t fasted for at least one hour prior to receiving communion you can’t come forward. If you haven’t gone to confession since your last grave sin, and there’s a list you need to memorize, you can’t come forward. If you aren’t Catholic, you can’t come forward. If you are Catholic but don’t believe the wafer and the wine ACTUALLY turn into the literal body and blood of Christ, you can’t come forward. There are literally billions of people not welcome at Christ’s table.
I always assumed we were all brothers and sisters in Christ. But I was wrong.
The first time I found out about “the rules” was when one of my friends was getting married. He asked me to be best man at his wedding and as part of the ceremony each of us – the groom, the bride, the maid of honor, and myself – were all to receive communion. The priest asked me if I was Catholic and I innocently told him I wasn’t. He smiled and just said, “That’s okay, we just won’t tell anyone.” I was grateful for the grace, but had to ask why that was even a question and that’s when I found out – Catholics only. Sounds pretty exclusionary for a faith that claims to be for everyone. I read a Catholic blog that says the rules are there for MY well-being. Someone who comes to the table without the proper requirements is putting themselves in “spiritual danger!” I guess billions of people every Sunday are putting their lives and souls at risk.
Before we pile on the Catholics, let us not forget how much WE all love “the rules.”
They may not be as formal as those in the Catholic Church, but that doesn’t make our rules any less real. The words we say, the elements we bless, the way we do communion are all traditions that build up over time and we begin worshipping the WAY WE DO THINGS instead of worshipping God. We forget the meaning behind the traditions and begin to worship the traditions themselves. And Heaven forbid anyone should change those traditions. You’d think we’d brought back stoning. But that kind of thinking has been happening since the Pharisees. And probably before that, too. The Pharisees especially were known for following the rules. They were proud of it. They would remind you if you didn’t follow the rules, and tell you what the consequences were because they had memorized the list. But when Jesus came he pointed them out as an example NOT to follow, because they had become so obsessed with the rules themselves, they had forgotten the purpose behind them. They had forgotten that tradition was only important as long as it continued to draw us closer to God. That’s what happens to us in worship and in particular communion. We praise the form and functions of communion instead of our Lord who we came to praise in the first place. Part of that focus on the rules comes from this short passage in the Bible we’re going to read from this morning.
53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
The flesh and blood of Christ.
Personally, I wouldn’t want to eat the literal flesh and blood of Christ. Sounds a bit like the zombie apocalypse. But this belief is what is called transubstantiation – that the elements of communion literally turn into the body and blood of Jesus. There must be some kid who has reached into his mouth during communion to see if it was true. Jesus often talked in hyperbole. He did not literally mean that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven (Matt 19:24). He did not literally mean that when you give to the needy you shouldn’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing (Matt 6:3). And he did not literally mean that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that turned into a tree (Luke 13:19). So why is it that some people take this passage as (excuse the pun) gospel? When Jesus declared himself the Bread of Life, no one thought he was made out of wheat. As one writer put it, “He was simply comparing himself to food in general, the most common staple of the diet. Just as bread is the basis of physical life, Jesus is the basis of eternal life.” Most of us inherently understand that interpretation. Jesus is trying to emphasize the things of this world are fleeting. But if we nourish ourselves by living a Christ-like life then we are feeding our eternal soul which is much more valuable to us and to God. He didn’t literally mean we should eat and drink him.
By the way, did you now that the word “communion” isn’t in the Bible?
The King James Bible used the word to translate a portion of 1 Corinthians 10:16, but it means “sharing” or “participation” which is the essence of what communion is. We sometimes refer to it as the Eucharist, but this too is a translation of the Greek word eucharisteo in 1 Corinthians 11:24 meaning to “give thanks” something that is also an essential part of what we do in communion. We share and we give thanks. When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (something by the way that is only in Luke’s recounting of the Gospel story), he wasn’t big on the details because the details weren’t important. It was the sharing and the gratitude that were the main focus of the meal. It was a time to draw closer to Christ. Yet, somehow we develop these unwritten “rules” and then hold everyone to them as if THEY were the focus of the sacrament. Yet we feel free to ignore some of the other details. Jesus didn’t use wafers for one. Yet some churches use wafers instead of a loaf of bread. We use grape juice instead of wine and no one seems to have a problem with that. Why we get hung up on some details instead of others says more about us than about Christ.
What we need to do is be open to different ways of doing things.
“Different” doesn’t mean “wrong.” It just means “different.” As long as we keep to the meaning behind what we do, then we can still honor God and find new ways to communicate Christ’s love for us. We’re able to tell his story in different ways so more people can understand what it means to know that love. In one of his letters, Paul was being critical of those who came to communion in an “unworthy” manner, but he wasn’t criticizing the rituals of communion. He was criticizing those who were using communion for their own purposes. Basically, they were having a big party and labeled it “communion” but it had nothing to do with Jesus or honoring what Christ did for us. My hope is that in our effort to reach people for Jesus, we are open to interpret everything with fresh eyes including our most sacred traditions like communion. Not to upset the apple cart, but to try things that might help others understand Christ in new and different ways. I hope we will constantly be introspective about our own ideas of “right” and “wrong” and be open to the Spirit and the heart of what we are doing.
Communion is important.
It is an opportunity for the people of God to gather together in worship and to lift up thanks for God’s work in us and in the world. Communion is important as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and to help keep us humble when we are tempted to think more of ourselves and less of others. But there is something special and sacred about communion that is more than just a shared meal. As John Wesley himself once said, “I haste to this Sacrament for the same purpose that St. Peter and John hasted to His sepulchre; because I hope to find Him there. I come then to God’s altar, with a full persuasion that these words, This is My body, promise me more than a figure; that this holy banquet is not a bare memorial only […] in what manner this is done I know not; it is enough for me to admire. And thus His body and blood have everywhere, but especially at this Sacrament, a true and real presence.” Those are very important words for us as we understand communion. More than any other ritual, ceremony, or liturgy we perform, this one for us brings forth the “real presence” of Christ. It is, as John said, a mystery. One we do not fully comprehend but we experience by faith. Let us come to the table then, with gratitude in our heart, praise for the love of Christ, the memory of his great sacrifice for us on the cross, and open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
 http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2017/07/08/letter_to_bishops_on_the_bread_and_wine_for_the_eucharist/1323886; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/07/11/the-catholic-church-says-no-to-gluten-free-communion-heres-why/