Sunday, October 4, 2009

The church of many tables

Renewing worship at the table
Acts 2:42-47

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It’s World Communion Sunday,
and we are doing what we do best at Park View.
We’re joining hundreds of individual voices together as one voice.
We’re using well-chosen and well-spoken words,
in litanies and prayers.
We’re listening to the skillful public reading of holy scripture.
We’re listening to, and making music
that fills the air and lifts our spirits.

When it comes to the practice of corporate worship,
of performing rituals that strengthen our identity as a body,
that link us to the wider body of Christ in the world,
and that lift up the saving work of Jesus Christ,
we can do no better than to gather all the people we can
into one big place,
and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, with all our might.

The institutional church gets a bad rap sometimes.
Often, rightly deserved.
But for all the limitations,
all the potential drawbacks,
all the historical weaknesses of the large institutional church,
this is not one of them!
How good to be together this morning
and to celebrate with one voice—
one large, full voice.

Now . . . I might point out the irony,
that this World Communion Sunday—
a day that practically begs for a congregation to come en masse,
from far and wide,
into a large steepled sanctuary,
and practice the high holy ritual of the Eucharist,
the Lord’s Supper—
would be the day we launch a worship series that,
in a sense, puts a question mark after the institutional church,
or at least an asterisk.
And rather, lifts up the small, organic church,
the body of believers that is small enough to fit around a table.

This is a series about bringing the church back to the table,
Back to a space where we share our lives more deeply,
more intimately,
more transparently.
A space where people gather
who are bound together in mutual covenant.
A space where people challenge each other
in love . . . and in safety.
A space from which this covenant community
becomes a place of profound hospitality to the neighbor,
the stranger,
the outsider,
the enemy.
A space, dare I say it,
unlike anything else that exists in the larger community.

Today, and throughout October and November,
we will be sitting at this very table,
and asking ourselves questions
about how the church of Jesus Christ
might be revitalized,
as it gathers around tables,
in small, organic communities.
We will ask what it might mean for Park View Mennonite Church,
if we more fully implemented this vision of ourselves
as not just one community, one big happy family—
but as “a community of communities.”
Or more specifically,
“a community of . . . communities engaged in God’s mission.”

What would it mean for our practice of worship,
if we believed the small organic community
was at the center of the life of the church,
and not just an optional piece, situated around the edges?
That’s today’s question.
In coming weeks we will ask the same thing about witness,
about mutual care, biblical interpretation,
accountability, and other tasks of the church.
What would it mean,
if this large weekly gathering of hundreds, while important,
was considered church, but with an asterisk,
and the gathering of believers around a table
was considered church with an exclamation mark?

In my sermon three weeks ago
I said we need to bring the church back to the table.
If all we are is a church with a cool program,
and large attendance,
and great worship and music,
with something attractive for all ages,
then we are missing an essential part
of what church is meant to be.

If we are not breaking bread together, face-to-face,
in table-sized groups,
with glad and generous hearts, book-of-Acts-style,
if we don’t know, in the deepest way possible,
the stories of others at our table,
if we are not praying, worshiping,
studying scripture, and seeking God’s face,
if we are not demonstrating, at our tables,
life in the household of God,
if we are not embodying God’s kingdom . . .
welcoming the stranger,
sharing ourselves and our resources,
sharing God’s good news of salvation and restoration
with each other at our tables,
then we are not really being church.

In that sermon, I wondered how a large, complex,
and fairly institutional church like ours,
might be a seed bed for small, organic communities.
I called for us to organize ourselves in such a way that we
empower the church to function at the table.
I called for us to look at ourselves not so much as
preservers of the institution,
but as entrepreneurs, as risk-takers for God’s kingdom.

Okay, but how does this apply to worship?
Isn’t this big worship event what we do best as a big church?
Isn’t this the ideal environment to celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

Small groups might be best
for intimate sharing and prayer and mutual support.
But for worship, isn’t bigger really better?

Well, consider.
Worship is, and always must be,
at the very heart of being church, no matter what size.
The church exists to glorify God.
We were created to offer ourselves as living sacrifices,
given over to the purposes of God.
We are not our own.

If that’s true,
why would we ever gather as a body of believers,
whether in hundreds, or in twos and threes,
and not consider worship task #1?
I wonder why so often, small groups, organized by churches,
gather in someone’s living room, or around a dining table,
and enjoy good sharing, even deep sharing,
and might even close in a heartfelt prayer time for each other—
but never deliberately and collectively turn their attention
to the worship of God;
never say together, in one voice, to God,
“We are here at this table
only because you have made us, and called us.
You alone give us life and breath,
and we bow ourselves in humble submission to You.”
Even more surprising,
if you looked at these groups with New Testament eyes,
is why they rarely, if ever,
celebrate communion, the Lord’s Supper, together?

Ah, well, that’s an easy question to answer.
Because the Lord’s Supper has been so thoroughly institutionalized.
There are proper ways, and improper ways,
to carry out this solemn and symbolic ritual.
And depending on one’s tradition,
it is so elaborate and sacred a ritual,
that only duly ordained clergy,
who have undergone rigorous training, and apprenticeships,
are capable of leading God’s people in the ritual.

John Howard Yoder, in his book called “Body Politics,”
called the Lord’s Supper one of five practices of the church
that we are to do “before a watching world.”
It’s not a secret ritual we hide from outsiders.
We carry it out in the normal course of living
as the body of Christ in the world.

When you read the Gospels and Acts, you start to understand that.
Jesus told his disciples after supper,
after he served them the broken bread and the wine,
“Do this in memory of me.”
Do this. What did he mean by “this”?
Jesus could not have meant “the Mass,” or “the Lord’s Supper,”
because those did not exist yet.
Rather, he meant the common meal.
Meals nearly always included bread and wine.
Whenever you share a meal like this together,
and eat the bread and drink the wine,
do it in my memory, Jesus said.
John Howard Yoder said that Jesus blessed,
and made a sacred memorial out of,
their ordinary partaking together of food and wine for the body.

That’s what the church in Acts did.
We just heard it, chapter 2.
The first church daily
broke bread together at home
and ate with “glad and generous hearts.”
They regularly ate a common meal,
with high thanksgiving,
and in memory of Jesus.
It’s clear that having a common meal, a full common meal,
was central to the practice of worship in the early church.

Later, Acts 6, we have the first structural reorganization of the church,
and it happened precisely because of this meal.
A conflict developed around
how this meal was distributed to the widows and those in need.

And in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians,
he confronts them on their unjust practices in the Lord’s Supper.
Some were going ahead and eating their fill,
before the needy members of the church arrived.
So they ran out of food and wine.
Some were getting drunk and others were going hungry.
Clearly, the Lord’s Supper was not
a half-ounce of grape juice and a micro-wafer.
It was a substantial meal,
and it was to be shared in common with all the believers,
with thanksgiving,
and in memory of Jesus Christ.
The Lord’s Supper was central to their worship.

Our own traditions have gotten pretty far from that.
Not saying it’s bad to celebrate it purely symbolically.
Nothing inherently wrong with ritualizing it, or institutionalizing it.
It’s a ritual that is often full of deep meaning.
Many of us could give testimony to that.

But if a substantial common meal was so important to the early church,
that they ate it together regularly,
and called it the “Lord’s Supper” . . .
doesn’t it at least suggest that we might get away with it,
if we gathered together as believers, at tables, in our homes,
and shared a meal, regularly,
while giving high thanks to God,
and bringing the memory of Jesus Christ to mind,
and calling it the Lord’s Supper,
and calling it worship, and calling it church?
At least, nobody could accuse us of being unbiblical.
Because that is precisely what the New Testament church did,
all the time.
Why did we stop?
Why did we stop?

I believe the Lord’s Supper,
whether a full meal or a symbolic meal,
must remain central in our worship,
central in the life of the church.
It’s one important way we can embody the Gospel.
In the Supper, we tangibly encounter the Gospel truth,
that Jesus Christ gave his life for our salvation.
In the Supper, the truth in our heads,
becomes truth in our bellies.
In the Supper, the Gospel moves from being rational to relational.

In the creeds and confessions,
and in our proclamation of the word,
we affirm the truth,
we restate what we believe.
And we need to keep doing that.
It grounds us.
But when we take Communion we move that truth
into the realm of relationship.
We don’t just confess.
We commune.
Did you get that? Commune.
Unite with.
Join together with.
Have intimate interchange with.
In the supper,
when we eat it with thanksgiving,
and in memory of Jesus,
we are communing with God through Christ,
and we are communing with each other.

Confessing without communing,
is only doing church half-way.
If we confess our faith,
and then fail to commune
with the One in whom we have put our faith,
and the ones with whom God has called us into community,
then we have not really done church at all.

I’m not saying we radically change communion practices
here in this sanctuary.
They are meaningful.
They will continue.

What I am saying though,
is if we only take a symbolic meal 3-4 times a year in a large crowd,
we haven’t had the kind of deep communion we need.
We need to find more ways, in more venues, on more occasions,
to eat common meals.
And give higher thanksgiving to God,
in more intentional memory of Jesus,
and be bold to call it communion.

Even a family meal, or an ordinary meal with Christian friends,
or a Sunday School potluck,
or small group snack time,
or pizza in the dorm,
has the potential of being transformed into spiritual food,
into Eucharist.
The word “Eucharist” is nothing more than Greek
for thanksgiving or gratefulness.
Any meal shared with believers can be Eucharist,
if shared with genuine thanks to God,
and in memory of Jesus and his sacrifice.
It doesn’t take much to add a bit of bread,
and some juice or wine,
and use the same symbols Jesus used.
Why not have communion weekly? Or daily?
It’s altogether possible,
if we bring church back to the table more often.

Let’s ponder for a while what that would mean.
And talk about it, at the tables you typically eat at.
But today we join as one large community
and with high thanksgiving,
and in memory of Jesus’ sacrifice,
we partake of a symbolic meal.
You are invited.
In song, let’s express our readiness to
come with joy to meet our Lord in the bread and cup.

—Phil Kniss, October 4, 2009

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