A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: REFLECTIONS ON COMMUNION
This Sunday is the first Sunday of February, and so, as usual, we will be celebrating the sacrament instituted by Jesus with his disciples at the Last Supper before his arrest that began the sequence of events we recall every year in Holy Week that led to his crucifixion, death, and resurrection.
One of the unfortunate ironies of this sacrament is that it should be a source of great unity in the Christian church, but is actually one of the places we experience the most division because of disagreements over theology and institutional authority.
That is reflected in the fact that there are even multiple names for this sacrament: The Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and Communion. Typically, traditions that view the sacrament as primarily a ritual of remembrance, such as most Baptists and non-denominational traditions, use the language of the Lord’s Supper.
Those that believe that Jesus is truly present in one way or another through the sacrament, such as Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Moravians, as well as Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, tend to use either “Eucharist” (which literally means “thanksgiving,” emphasizing gratitude for Christ’s saving grace and continuing presence with us) or “Communion.”
As we prepare for this Sunday, I want to reflect for a moment on the last of these: Communion. The good thing is that while traditions to use some terms occur more than others, they are not mutually exclusive. In the Presbyterian tradition, for example, we still call the sacramental prayer the “Prayer of Great Thanksgiving,” and the theme of gratitude runs throughout it.
And we certainly remember Jesus’ sacrifice when whoever is officiating reminds us that Jesus told his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” when he was establishing the sacrament. The title of Communion, in particular, reminds us of two crucial and interlocking truths, though.
First, that Christian worship is not simply about what we experience in ourselves, whether that is remembrance or gratitude or anything else. The word “communion” literally means “a sharing or participation in” something, and when we are in Christian worship, we are sharing and participating in an encounter with the living God.
Obviously, this is not the only time we directly encounter God, but it is the most reliable time we can do so, because Jesus promised to be present wherever even just two or three of his followers are gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20). The sacrament of Communion, then, is a particularly powerful and direct opportunity to be in communion with God through Christ’s presence through the Holy Spirit in the sacrament.
And at the same time, “Communion” also reminds us that the sacrament is not an individual experience. When children are around two years old, they engage in what is called “parallel play,” meaning that they play alongside or near other children but not directly with them. Communion reminds us that the sacrament is not “parallel play;” we are not simply communing with God alongside one another, but we are bound together and communing with both God and one another in and through the presence of the Spirit.
In some ways, I wonder if the experience of digital communion may be a way to rediscover and experience that truth, because it is easier to fall into the pattern of “parallel play” when taking communion alongside one another in the Kirk Center or the Sanctuary.
So this Sunday, I invite you to come to worship and this sacrament through the lens of Communion. When we get to that portion of the service, to clear your mind and heart and pray along with the Communion prayer, and as you do so, to hold up the faces or names of others in the congregation.
Some of those might be people to whom you are very close; others may be those whom you’ve drifted away from during the pandemic or for other reasons; some may be those you recognize but don’t even know their names!
But whatever the connection may be, explore in your heart what it means to be in communion with each and all of them in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit in that moment; give thanks to God for them and pray for their well-being; and remember both that they are in communion with you and with God in that moment through the sacrificial love and grace of Jesus Christ.
I think doing this will be a powerful spiritual exercise for all of us, and I look forward to being in communion with you this Sunday!
Grace and peace,
If you would like to participate in Communion, we invite you to prepare your elements beforehand: a bread or bread-like item (cracker, pita, bagel, etc.) and grape juice, wine or water.
And if you are so inclined, we would appreciate photos of you with your communion elements, so we can all see who participated. You can share in the Facebook comments or send to