Essential: Communion

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Acts 2:42, 46

Last weekend, while I was on vacation, I got to finally experience online worship as a participant, in all its glory. I rolled out of bed, booted up my computer, sat on the couch in my pajamas, and sang hymns while I made coffee and the kids did their thing and Jon went to pick up brunch. There was no struggle to wake up early and get ready and get the kids ready – granted Jon is usually the one who does that on Sunday mornings – but there was no rush to make it out the door, no wondering if there would be time for breakfast. I found myself thinking, I get the appeal here.  I could get used to this.

At the same time, something was missing. There were no other people. There were, of course, the pastors, on video; there was a Scripture reader, and some musicians in a virtual choir. But there was no one to greet me at the door with a bulletin, no one milling around and chatting in the narthex, no chorus of voices surrounding mine as I sang, no conversation over coffee and cookies after the service.

Altogether, I thought that was not a small thing that was missing.

We’ve been talking for the past few weeks about what it is that makes the church the church, looking to the first post-Pentecost church of Acts 2 as our model – what the essential aspects of being church were for them and what those look like for us now, especially now in this new-normal season of life and ministry. We’ve talked about worship and learning, our first two essential aspects of church, and two that we’ve more or less figured out, at least in terms of format. We can worship and have Bible study and antiracism book discussions here on Zoom. It’s not necessarily the same, but we’re doing it and it works. Today’s essential aspect is one where it seems to me we may still have some thinking and visioning and discerning to do, as we look ahead to the long haul of this pandemic and maybe even beyond. Today’s essential aspect of church is communion.

When I say communion, I do mean our practice of Holy Communion, our sacrament, but I also mean more than that. I mean the sharing of food around ordinary tables, and the sense of fellowship that results from that. I mean the things that make us one body, the Body of Christ in the world. I mean becoming the kind of community that Paul exhorts the Romans to be in the Call to Worship we read earlier: a community that laughs together, rejoices together, weeps together, hopes together, challenges each other, sometimes just tries to live with each other, welcomes strangers into the fold together. I have always loved our sacrament of communion for the way it embodies these things and invites us to experience them in the rest of our life together.

And we can do many of them still. We can still laugh together and weep together and challenge each other, but not always in our old ways. It’s hard to eat together now.

And yet Acts 2, in this one paragraph description of the early church, says that the early church ate together. They devoted themselves to their shared meals, to the breaking of bread. They gathered in the Temple and ate in their houses and they shared food with gladness and simplicity. This isn’t just “coffee hour,” it’s not something extra and optional that happens after church; the sharing of food together is church. The becoming one body over shared tables with thanksgiving is church.

It’s not just eating for the sake of eating. It’s equalizing and connection-forming. It’s that sharing a meal is sharing a basic part of our lives with each other, and in the end I think that’s what God wants.

And that gives us some rethinking to do, about what that means for us now. (As always, as I speak, I invite you to respond with your own comments and ideas in the chat; or if you’re on the phone, get in contact with me later.)

Because I do think something is missing without our usual tables. Without our communion table, where we all come forward to receive God’s grace in tangible ways. Without our Fellowship Hall tables, where we get to know one another over coffee and snacks every Sunday, and where we perhaps most effectively welcome new visitors into our church family. We can pray together and rejoice together and hope together and weep together here during our prayer time and after the service ends, but it’s also hard to really get to know people better and include everyone in a big, virtual group. And even if we do begin offering in-person worship again in the next weeks or months, the reality is that medium-term future probably does not include coffee and potlucks. So what next? What do fellowship and community look like in the new-normal era of coronavirus?

As with most things these days, I suspect that there is also opportunity here. Maybe this move to doing most of our church life together over Zoom gives us the chance to get to know one another and build community in new ways. We are less impeded now by geography and traffic when it comes to chances to connect – one new prayer group has already started, maybe there’s the opportunity for other small groups as well. Or maybe especially as the weather grows cooler in the fall, there will be chances to connect outdoors in ways we never would have thought of before. Maybe we have the opportunity here to think more intentionally about the ways we are building community because it’s not going to happen in the ways we took for granted.

We heard another passage of Scripture earlier, from 1 Corinthians. In that passage Paul passes on what we call the words of institution, words we hear in our Great Thanksgiving: “This is my body, that is given for you. This is my blood of the new covenant. Eat and drink in remembrance of me.”

If you read what Paul says before and after, you’d realize there was more to this story than just the beginning of liturgy. Paul is writing to a church that isn’t acting according to the model of Acts 2. People aren’t sharing their food, and some people leave the ritual meal drunk while others go hungry. Instead of using the meal as a chance to share lives and build community and become one body, they use it as a chance to solidify divisions between the haves and the have nots. This, Paul says, is not real communion.

I think this passage can be a challenge to any church in any season, but it is perhaps especially one now, because the reality is that not all the people we might normally see on a Sunday morning has access to this new virtual table. Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing ways that worshiping online is MORE inclusive, because you don’t have to be right in Arlington to come. But maybe some of you remember T, who for months walked across the bridge from a shelter in Georgetown with her foot in a walking boot to come to worship at Arlington Temple. I haven’t seen her since we started doing this, and I don’t know how to get in contact with her. Most of our unhoused neighbors aren’t just going to wander into Zoom worship on a Sunday morning, and many of them couldn’t if they wanted to. We are still feeding people during the week via your donations of food – it’s just not quite the same as sharing a table. This is, to be honest, the thing that troubles me most about our current reality, and I wonder often, is there some other way God might be calling us to offer fellowship and community, not just food, to our neighbors beyond these virtual walls?

And I still believe that there is possibility here, though I’m still trying to work out what it is. I do believe that God is calling us back to the essentials of what it means to be the church, and giving us new ways to live them out. The sacrament of Holy Communion has always been a reminder to us that the Holy Spirit can work to bring us together across the bounds of space and even time, as it unites us to the whole communion of saints. There’s no reason why the Holy Spirit can’t be at work now in new ways too, bringing us together across and through and perhaps sometimes despite our screens. We can still be a community in this time: laughing, weeping, hoping, praying, challenging each other, welcoming the stranger, building up God’s kingdom, breaking down new walls.

We may not have our tables, but we are still called to communion. So what does that look like now?

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