This is that time of year when I ponder what World Communion really means. I can say that I love everybody, but if I harbor ill will when I come to the Table then it doesn’t do much good. If I’ve been a jerk to someone, I have prevented them from knowing grace, too. I very much like what someone said, “The three phrases we most often desire to hear are: “I love you!” “I forgive you!” and “Supper’s ready!” In the sacrament of Holy Communion we hear all three from Jesus. It’s His Table, and all are invited. It’s up to us to come!
When I was a youngster in my home church we went to Sunday School and afterwards made our way into the sanctuary. The educational building was behind the sanctuary so that if you went from one to the other you usually entered through the back door that opened into the sanctuary right beside the pulpit and altar. If we saw the communion elements and the white cloth spread out we immediately pressed our parents into leaving early.
Communion services were so long and were as somber as a funeral service. We used the old ritual; where what we said reversed our efforts at the Protestant Reformation’s focus on grace. We went back to something that resembled a large confessional booth. We used words like, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed in thought, word, and deed…” I felt sinful enough already. Our communion service added to my sense of guilt. The words of pardon were miniscule in comparison to the confession. I usually left feeling worse.
This is one reason that today when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper; we attempt to focus more on Christ’s marvelous work of grace than on our power to reform ourselves. We, more often than not, now refer to Communion as the Eucharist. Eucharist means Thanksgiving. The most important thing that we do when we come to the Communion Table is say, “Thanks!” to Christ for his gift of mercy. Rather than focus overly on our sinfulness, we thank God for God’s graciousness. What a better perspective!
World Communion Sunday is an event that bridges denominations and spotlights our commonality in the Body of Christ. This world would be so much better off if we looked for that which we hold in common rather than our differences. Holy Communion, rightly observed, reunites the Church. This is the pastor’s hope when he or she holds up the loaf of bread and says, “Because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body in Christ.”
Therefore, our focus this week is in how to get over our differences and find common power to live in Christ. The Eucharist is a time of positive celebration, reunion, prayer for healing, and a sacred time to put others before ourselves. In my first parish I had three churches. I remember how shocked I was as I went to my first communion service at the smallest church of eight members. When I arrived there was a loaf of sliced “Wonder” bread still in its wrapper on the altar and a bottle of Welch’s grape juice and some small paper cups. They had not had communion in years. I was soon to find out why.
I went through the ritual and opened the altar for people to partake and NOBODY came forward. The reason they hadn’t had communion in years is that they were afraid. They knew full well that they were not living as consistent Christians. They felt too unworthy to come to the Table. I quickly switched sermons and preached on grace. Still nobody came up, but by the time I left there five years later, many did. Those few moved from guilt to grace, judging to acceptance. They found real communion with Jesus, a sacrament indeed.
Dentist Thomas Welch found himself in a somewhat similar situation back in 1869. Communion was problematic for a number of reasons. The alcoholic content of the wine was one of them. Dr. Welch was the Communion Steward for the congregation of First Methodist Church of Vineland, New Jersey. To his dismay, more often than not, communion either set some of the participants off on an alcoholic binge or on a rush to judgment by the abstention crowd. He and his family did experiment after experiment to come up with a solution and they did. He created unfermented grape juice, dubbed it “unfermented wine,” and soon churches all around wanted the product. By 1890 “Dr. Welch’s Grape Juice” had become a staple on communion tables, where it remains so today, all because someone saw communion as a sacrament that brought Christians together, not divided them!