We have been teaching during this Advent on the four pillars of the Church. These are the hallmarks that we hope and pray that St. Patrick’s will embrace and incarnate. So far we have heard about radical love, discipleship and evangelism. The fourth pillar is the Sacraments and in particular the Body and Blood of Christ. In the video that gave us these pillars, called Rethinking Church, a nondenominational pastor, speaking of the first Christians said,“it seemed like they gathered and when they gathered they focused on the Body and Blood of Christ, Communion was a big deal….”
And he is absolutely correct. Communion was a big deal. We read in the Book of Acts that they gathered every day for the apostles teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and the prayers. And of course the breaking of bread included Communion at the end of what they called an “agape” or “love feast.” But why? Why was Communion such a big deal? Allow me to suggest several reasons.
First it was a big deal because it united them in love, one to the other. The invitation to come to the table was open to all; male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free. That astonished the ancient world where in some places it was law to separate classes and sexes and races. These early Christians came together as one, as His Body, and they drew strength from one another as different people brought different gifts to edify the whole.
The need for that has not changed. The usher greets, the lector reads, the choir sings, the acolyte serves, the preacher preaches, the people pray. We are like individual instruments, each with our own unique sound, but coming together to form a symphony to the glory God.
That is why it is sad to me that churches today are offering live podcasts so that people can worship in the privacy of their homes. While this may be a good thing for shut-ins or people who travel, those who are able bodied should never utilize it. The Scriptures gives a command that we are not to forsake the assembly of the brethren (Heb. 10:25).
I saw a sign on the road in Kentucky that read, “Tattoos while you wait.” Some things you can’t stay at home for and tattoos and worship are two of them. Especially since corporate worship should include the Body and Blood of Christ, you can’t do that long distance or through the Internet. The Body of Christ is not a virtual Body. It is made up of flesh and blood folks receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. As the saying goes, “you have to be present to win.”
Those first Christians partook of the Body and Blood of Christ daily while in much of the modern Church it is done once a month or quarterly or even less. One pastor said to me that he would be worried about doing it every week because it would lose its meaning. When I pointed out to him that he did not have that same concern about taking up the offering, it made him smile and I hope rethink his position.
After I completed my first seminary we spent one year in Sewanee at the seminary so that I could complete Anglican Studies and work on a Masters in Sacred Theology. During that year I attended Mass daily. It was offered at the seminary Monday through Friday, I attended Mass at a convent on Saturdays and on Sundays we returned to our home parish in Chattanooga. I did not really recognize what it was doing for my soul until we moved away from the seminary and I celebrated or received the Sacrament less often. I felt as though I was drying up spiritually and perhaps I did a wee bit. I can’t exactly remember the last time that I went more than a week without receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, but I vividly remember how out of kilter my life felt when that happened.
I am not proposing that we begin a daily Mass at St. Patrick’s but I do propose that we recognize how important it is and to make it a life priority. And not just on Sundays but also on Holy Days. One parishioner said to me. “My family has made it a commitment that unless we are sick or dead, we will be in Mass.” To that I said, “Amen.”
There are times that I wish I could model the Roman Church and tell you that missing Mass is a mortal sin and that you put your soul in peril, but I do not believe that so I could not say it. However I do believe that Christ’s Body and Blood is our spiritual food and drink and that it weakens our souls to miss it, just as it would weaken our bodies to go more than a week without food and drink. I do not say this to create guilt. I say it because I want what is best for your soul. The early Church received Communion daily to unite with one another to be the Body of Christ. I don’t think that it is too much to ask us to make it a priority to receive weekly and on Holy Days.
Communion was also important to them because it united them with their true home. St. Paul says that our citizenship is in heaven and that even now we are seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph 2:6). When the Church militant (on earth) met around the Body and Blood of Christ she joined herself with the Church triumphant (in glory), because there is only One Body. In doing so the Church militant drew strength from the Church militant. How does that happen?
Think with me about the Revelation to John. What is being taught in that Book to exhort, correct and encourage the Church (besides possibly suggesting that Justin Beiber was the anti-Christ)? It was telling the Church to stir up its first love and to persevere to the end and it did this by giving them a glimpse of what is going on in the heavenlies.
Part of the Church on earth was undergoing persecution and more of it would face persecution in the future. It looked like the forces of darkness were winning. It was difficult to believe that God was on the throne when madmen were conquering the nations. How were they to believe that the cross had conquered Satan when satanic forces were putting them to death?
To answer this Jesus allows the Church on earth to get a glimpse of the Church in heaven where we see God firmly on His throne, the 24 elders falling in worship at the feet of the victorious Lamb and we see a heavenly wedding banquet. That is reality and that is the lens through which the events on earth must be viewed.
Thus when the Church on earth celebrates Holy Communion, it unties itself to the Church in glory. It is more than just a foreshadow of the heavenly banquet, it is an entering in as we join our voices with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” It is a time when the Church militant steps out of time and enters the eternal worship of God. Nothing prepares you to face the challenges of this life like seeing things from the perspective of the life to come.
As an Anglican priest I am not allowed to celebrate Holy Communion unless there is one other person with me because Jesus said that He would be present wherever two or three are gathered in His Name. A Roman priest does not have this restriction however because the Roman Church realizes that when a priest celebrates Holy Communion he is never alone. As just mentioned he celebrates with “all the company of heaven.” It is kind of nice however when I say “The Lord be with you” that there is at least one voice to respond, “And with thy spirit.” It’s even better when there is more.
Thus Holy Communion is such a big deal because it unites us with the Church triumphant, and as the writer of Hebrew put it, surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses we are able to run with endurance the race that is set before us. We need that connection to finish the race.
Mostly however, the early Church was so focused on the Body and Blood of Christ because that is how they united with Jesus. Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (Jn 6:56). Remember many of them had actually knew Him. They remember the sound of His voice because they heard Him teach in the synagogue. Some felt His touch as He washed their feet or laid His hands upon them to heal or to bless them. Some had Him look into their souls and tell them their deepest thoughts. Some had seen Him beaten beyond recognition and over 500 had seen Him after He was raised from the dead.
What I am trying to say was that Holy Communion for those early believers was not a doctrinal matter of Transubstantiation versus Real Presence versus Spiritual Presence. It was a personal connection to the One that they knew and loved and missed and longed to be with again. It was a way to abide in Him and to have Him abide in them. It was smelling the pillow of your loved one who has been gone for too long, but it was more. It was wearing a piece of jewelry that your loved one gave you, but it was more. It was being connected to one another through a promise, but it was more. It was actually a physical way to connect spiritually to Jesus.
As we eat His Body and drink His Blood we take Him into our heart and mind and soul and He takes us into His. That is why we say in the Canon of the Mass “that He may dwell in us and we with Him.” This is not a theory for me.
About 30 years ago I was in a very dark place in my life and felt like I was drowning. I could not pray and the Bible, full of its promises, seemed to be mocking me. My heart was black. I had been wounded deeply and I was wresting with unforgiveness. If truth be told I was wrestling with hatred. There were days that I wish I had an off button. I knew that warnings in the Scripture about eating and drinking unworthily and so I was afraid. I knew I was slipping away and I did not know of another way to hang on and so I asked my priest if I could still receive communion, being in such a sin-filled condition.
He was a wise and loving priest and he told me that he would not only allow me to receive but that he was commanding me to receive and if I did not he would chase me down. So I came to Church late so that I would not have to talk to anyone and I left early for the same reasons. Week after week Christ reached out to me through His Body and Blood and like a Good Shepherd He took me to Himself and He carried me for about a year. Slowly I found healing and forgiveness and was able to forgive. I have no doubt at all that I would not be standing here today if Jesus had not allowed me to abide in Him and He in me through the Sacrament. It saved my life and my soul.
The preacher on YouTube was right. Communion was a big deal to the early Church, and if we are going to be the kind of Church that the Lord wants us to be, it must be a big deal to us as well. St. Paul in the letter to the Romans used the expression “the obedience of faith.” Obedience is how we express our faith. Jesus told us to go into all nations and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to observe or obey all that He has commanded. He gave us a new commandment that we are to love one another. But He also gave us another commandment. “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Let us demonstrate our faith by being obedient to what our Lord has told us to do. “Alleluia, Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” “Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia.”