AUTHOR Sophia Agtarap
I remember when I was asked to help serve communion for the first time. I was in college and a member of a predominantly Filipino United Methodist church in southeast Seattle. I was apprehensive at first because I remember hearing a mentor say that he didn’t feel anyone other than pastors should serve communion. But I said yes, anyway, partly in defiance of him. I knew something special happened when I'd come up to the front to take communion, but could never fully articulate what that was.
When I asked about the “why” of communion, Taylor Burton-Edwards, Director of Worship resources for the United Methodist Church’s Board of Discipleship, shared this with me:
In the case of early Christianity, the understanding of Communion, or the Eucharist was that it was a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God. (The word Eucharist means, "thanksgiving.") Based on Old Testament/Jewish precedent, and put most explicitly by the prophet Malachi and in Psalm 24:3, only an unblemished, whole sacrifice, i.e., persons with "clean hands and pure hearts" could be acceptable to God. Many early Christians interpreted this to mean that when they offered themselves in praise and thanksgiving to God, they themselves needed to be clean (cleansed, i.e., baptized) and whole (i.e., having no outstanding conflicts with each other). This is why, to this day, United Methodists and many other Christians confess our sins, receive God's pardon, and then offer the peace of Christ to one another before we proceed to offer the Great Thanksgiving. If we have done these things ("love Christ, earnestly repent of your sins and seek to live in peace one another," (UMH p. 7), then we believe we are able to offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ's offering for us" (UMH p. 8). But if we have not, then we are not. This is why "This Holy Mystery" insists that we offer the Invitation at each time we celebrate, and follow it with the acts of confession, pardon and peace. The table is still conditional, even among us—because we understand that these are the standards Christ has set.
The sacred and secular meet
I think back and wonder how those early followers of Jesus experienced this meal together. It likely was not in some pristine church lined with neatly arranged pews, red carpet or intricate banners adorning the walls. At least not a first. I’d like to think it was more like the experience Jerry Herships has at AfterHours Denver, where a communal meal is shared at the local bar.
For some, that probably sounds like a strange concept, considering the United Methodist Church’s affirmation of abstinence from alcohol as a “faithful witness to God's liberating and redeeming love for persons ." But the church, she’s changing. Known as the Chief Love Monger and Lead Spiritual Entrepreneur of AfterHours Denver, Herships thinks it makes all the sense in the world that bread is broken in community—regardless of location. You can find him offering communion seven days a week with the homeless who gather in a city park. Church is a sacred place, Herships says, but it isn’t the only sacred place. The holy is present wherever there is life. This means that sometimes the sacred and the secular are blurred, inviting people to take part in this holy mystery, who may never set foot in a church.
Remembering and re-membering
As a Filipina, meals play a big role in our celebrations. The big holidays (not to mention any time someone celebrates an important life event) all provide opportunities to gather with extended family and friends over food. And everyone is invited. It is in these celebrations that all are fed; all are given a place in the gathered community and all are remembered. Herships believes that when Jesus shared a last meal with his disciples where he uttered those words, “Do this in memory of me” this referred to eating together. To remembering together. Using the mundane task of eating a meal, Jesus took an ordinary event and made it holy by attaching to it the memory of his life and teaching.
When we celebrate communion in the park, in a bar or inside a church, we are not only remembering and recalling the life, death and resurrection of Christ but we are also being re-membered. Brought back again. Re-attached to the community that has shared the memory and encounter of the living Christ over thousands of years. This Sunday, Christians the world over celebrate World Communion Sunday—a reminder that we are indeed one body called to serve Christ in the world.
Herships offers communion to the homeless when they gather in the park, and only about 60-70% take it. If they choose not to, the invitation is always extended for when they are ready.
When they give them the bread, they dip it in the grape juice and say, "A reminder of how much God loves you."
Once, a man just looked at Jerry with tears in his eyes and just said, Still?
As I said the words, “the bread of life given for you” and nervously tore off a piece of King’s Hawai’ian bread that first Sunday I served communion, I remember losing composure as I offered this symbol of grace and love to those kneeled down at the rail in front of me. In that instant, all I could think was: Thank you for the privilege of sharing this holy time with friends and strangers no more.
Social Principles, ¶162 L), "We affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God's liberating and redeeming love for persons." The Book of Discipline also stateswith regard to those who choose to consume alcoholic beverages, judicious use with deliberate and intentional restraint, with Scripture as a guide." (p. 112)
• United Methodists & Communion ► some questions & answers
• United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion ► download PDF
• World Communion and French Fries ► blog by Debra Dean Murphy
• Supper's Ready ► a blog by Tim McClendon