Sacrament of Holy Communion

Proper 5A

TEXT: Mark 3:20-35

Jesus came home and, as usual, a crowd gathered—so many making demands on him that there wasn’t even time to eat. His friends [and family] heard what was going on and went to rescue him, by force if necessary. They suspected he was getting carried away with himself. (Mark 3:20-21, The Message)*

Family is as foundational a concept in the Bible as anything else. The Bible begins in Genesis, not with talk of nations and tribes, but families. Big families. Real families. With moments of dysfunction so great it makes your head spin—and gives one pause, hearing about “biblical family values.”

And, sure, there are other great metaphors to describe the relationship between God and humankind. King and subjects. Master and slaves. However, it always comes back around to family. Sometimes God’s faithful people are likened to the bride of the Bridegroom. And our infidelities are then compared to adultery.

But, most of the time we’re called God’s children. God’s daughters and sons who bring great joy, as well as profound heartbreak. And so, coming to God and God’s Kingdom is really like going home—to family.

In Mark, chapter three, Jesus’ family is either frustrated with him, or just plain worried about him. They hear that Jesus is drawing crowds again, and they go to restrain him, because people are talking. The professors of religion—the well-educated scholars from Jerusalem—say he’s “working black magic, using devil tricks to impress them with spiritual power.”

Other people say that he’s crazy. And his family is … well, likely, they’re embarrassed! Certainly, they’re also worried about what might become of him. Jesus, however, doesn’t seem to be all that concerned. After all, he knows how badly things are going to turn out.

Anyway, as Mark tells us, Jesus’ mother and brothers come to get him. They show up at the place where he’s teaching. But there are so many people there that they can’t get near him. So, standing outside, they relay a message that they want to speak with him. And the message comes to him: “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside looking for you.”

And what does Jesus do? He responds with a question: “Who do you think are my mother and brothers?”

Then, looking around, taking in everyone seated around him, he answers the question.

“Who is my mother? Who is my brother? Right here, right in front of you—my mother and my brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

In other words, he opens up the tent and invites everybody in. Anybody who wants to come in—anybody who wants to join the family—is given the chance.

Who is his family? Those who do the will of God. When you do the will of God, you get the chance to be Jesus’ brother, his sister … even his mother!

Jesus’ family is a welcoming family. The front door is wide open. And while we may bring dysfunction in the door with us (and at times we can look like a group of misfits), the things we gain are amazing. And the greatest of those things is love.

Sometimes I am asked why it is that, in most places in my denomination, the Communion table is an “open” table—why it is that, every time we gather to break bread, we make a point of saying that everyone is welcome. Everyone. Member or non-member. Baptized or unbaptized. Mostly believing or mostly doubting. Everyone is welcome. Anyone who wants to may eat the bread and taste the grapes.

How come? Why do we do that?

In most denominations, before you can take part in a Communion service, you have to be an official member. You have to be baptized. You have to be confirmed. And there are good reasons for that, which have to do with different traditions and theologies—and different understandings of what is taking place when the bread is broken and the wine is poured. In fact, for some Christians, it’s extremely important that real wine is used—instead of the alcohol-free grape juice we commonly use.

Now, I’m not going to criticize what other believers do in other places. But I also will not apologize for our practice. Like most Protestant churches, we do not see the Sacrament of Communion as involving some kind of miraculous transformation where the bread and wine become—literally—the flesh and blood of Jesus. That’s not what we believe. For us, the bread remains bread, and the grape juice … well, it doesn’t even turn into wine!

However, I do think there is a kind of transformation that takes place here, when we gather round this table. Exactly what it is … that’s not so easy to define. Maybe it’s more metaphorical than literal. Or maybe it just has more to do with the heart than with the head. Or more to do with feelings than with rules. And I know some of us get uncomfortable, hearing that. We want clear guidelines, parameters, definitions. We want to understand exactly what’s going on.

I used to want to understand things, too. And at one point, I guess I thought I did understand, rather well, just what was happening at the Communion table. But then

I have a story to tell about this. It has to do with a Confirmation Class I was leading some years ago. Most of the people in the class were junior-high-aged kids who had asked for some instruction in the basics of Christian belief, before they made their own formal professions of faith.

So these young people were all around 13, 14, 15 years of age. Now, for some reason, I thought it was important to lay out for them some of the different ways that Christians looked at the Sacrament we call Communion, or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper.

I wonder how many of you know this stuff. It all has to do with how we think Christ is “really present” at the table.

First of all, there’s the doctrine of transubstantiation, which holds that, in the Eucharist, the substance of wheat bread and grape wine changes into the substance of the Body and the Blood of Jesus, while all that is accessible to the senses remains as before. This is what many Christians believe.

Then there’s the doctrine of consubstantiation, which attempts to describe the nature of the Christian Eucharist in metaphysical terms. It holds that during the sacrament, the fundamental “substance” of the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the substance of the bread and wine, which remain present. Many—though not all—Lutherans believe this.

Then there’s the belief called memorialism, which says that the elements of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper are purely symbolic representations of the body and blood of Jesus, the point of the feast being simply commemorative. Memorialists feel that the chief purpose of the sacrament is to help us remember Jesus and his sacrifice on the Cross.

Other Christians agree with John Calvin that the reality of Christ’s body and blood do not come physically to the elements, but that “the Spirit truly unites things separated in space.”

Fascinating stuff, isn’t it?

Anyway, this group of young teenagers was pretty tolerant. They listened to me going on and on about the fine points of sacramental theology, and some of them even asked some polite questions about it all.

Then, this young girl spoke up. I’ll never forget her. She had an uncanny ability to see what was important.

She said, “It doesn’t matter how Christ is present in the elements on the table. What’s important is that God’s people are there. That’s where the ‘real presence’ of Christ is—it’s in the people who come to the table.”

And I thought: “Wow! She understands it better than I do.” Some people spend five years in a theological college, and don’t grasp the concept as profoundly as did that young teenager.

When you come to the family table of Jesus, rest assured that the entrance to his dining hall has swung open wide. He bids you come, and share a meal. If you feel no hunger, you are not compelled. But you are welcome, in any case.

Look around you. Here is Jesus’ mother. Here are his sisters, his brothers, his friends. To be part of this company, all you need is an appetite for God’s will.

Perhaps you are really, really, hungry for the things of God.

Maybe you’re starving.

Or maybe you’re simply curious, just wondering what faith might taste like.

To all of you, in Jesus’ name, we say: Come on in, if you want to. Join the family.


The Message Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson


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