Today is the first Sunday of the month. Which means: it’s time for communion.
Or, at least that’s what it means for me. It’s what we do here at First UMC of Sylva. I was a member at First UMC of Waynesville for 7 years, where its’ the same: the first Sunday of the month means communion. And for my home church, too – another First UMC down in St. Petersburg, FL. So, for all of my 42 years, the first Sunday of the month has meant it’s time for communion.
But that’s just a tradition many of us Methodists have developed over the last couple hundred years; it’s not written in stone or even in our Book of Discipline. Back when Methodism was getting started there weren’t enough pastors to go around. Each pastor would take a circuit of churches and make the rounds, and churches would get communion not every Sunday, but only every so often. We got used to that “every so often” rhythm, and many of our churches kept up this a once-a-month tradition.
It’s funny how these traditions develop, right? It doesn’t really matter when we take communion. Anytime can be the right time.
In fact, the first communion wasn’t even on a Sunday. It was on a Thursday. And it was the exact right moment for it.
“When the hour came,” Luke tells us. In other words: “It was time.” It was time, so Jesus sat down with his disciples for a last meal, a Passover meal. “I’ve been waiting for this moment,” he tells them, “this meal that happens right before I suffer for God’s purpose.”
It was the right time for Jesus to do something mysteriously strange.
To break a loaf of bread and give them all a piece.
To pass a cup around to the disciples so they can each take a sip, dividing it among them.
A loaf of bread, broken. A cup of wine, divided.
Jesus said that in that breaking and dividing we would remember him. So we keep doing it. We break the bread and divide the cup, sometimes on a first Sunday, sometimes not. Whenever we celebrate communion, the breaking and dividing are an essential part of it.
Which makes the way Paul talks about it a little strange. In explaining communion, he writes to his Christian friends in Corinth: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, because we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 11:17).
There is something about the breaking and dividing that actually leads to oneness.
That’s part of the holy mystery of communion.
So like I said, I grew up in a First UMC down in Florida. It was a decent size church, pretty similar to First Waynesville. When we came to church late (and we were always late) we sat in the balcony, because those were the only seats left. I got used to a balcony seat after all those years, so when I went to the 11:00 service at First Waynesville, I’d sit up here. And from up here, you can look down there – just like I did when I was a kid, seeing all the people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews.
All those people are a good thing, but they pose a logistical problem when you’re serving communion. It takes time to get everyone out of their seats and down front and back again. So when I was a kid, my home church went through this phase where they’d speed things up by bringing communion to us. The ushers would come by with plates filled with tiny little squares of Wonder Bread. Then they’d come around with tiny little glasses of grape juice. My brothers and I loved this – a tiny little snack!
Which, of course, communion is not. It’s much more than a snack. But I was still growing in my understanding of this “holy mystery.” Another thing I didn’t get about communion back then was that there was any “breaking” involved. I’m sure the pastor broke an actual loaf of bread before we ate our Wonder Bread squares – but I was probably daydreaming. And clearly they divided up all that grape juice into our tiny cups – but I didn’t think about that. All I thought about was my little snack. Which meant I didn’t think much about being “one” with my church family, either. I didn’t care about the other people in the church; I just cared that we were close to the end of the service, and before long I’d be able to get out of my itchy church clothes.
That was communion to me, for a long time. An individually packed snack, just for me.
That changed the first time I took communion at Wilderness Trail.
Many of you know Wilderness Trail; many of you have been there, that week-long backpacking trip that teaches us so much about our life with Christ. I went for the first time as a teenager with the youth group from FUMC St. Pete. As part of it, we took communion at an outdoor chapel – basically a patch of land in a break in the trees.
I can remember sitting on the ground, knee-to-knee with my fellow hikers. We were all pretty nervous about what we had gotten ourselves into. One of the adults – most likely Rob Blackburn, but I didn’t know him then – some adult called us forward for communion. We were told to come up in small groups. So I knelt around a set of rickety wooden tables alongside a bunch of other teenagers, some that had come with me from Florida but some that I didn’t know at all. Immediately I was uncomfortable – my knees were on hard ground; little rocks were poking into my skin. I was nervous and uncomfortable and also… open? Is that the right word? Open to some experience of God. I snuck a glance around, and the other hikers seemed to feel the same way: nervous and uncomfortable and open.
And then that adult – Rob, I’m guessing – took the loaf of bread and broke it.
No, better said: he tore it; he ripped it. Little chunks of it fell to the ground. He placed a ragged piece of bread in each of our hands. When he put it in my hands, he let his hands weigh down on mine, so that it felt heavy.
This was not the neat little square of Wonder Bread I was used to.
Then, he came around with the cup. I watched as the hikers before me dipped their chunks of bread into the cup. Juice sloshed around. It dribbled on our chins. When it got to me, I wasn’t sure how far to dip my bread in. Then I pulled my bread back out and it was soaked and dripping; I had to rush it to my mouth to contain the mess. And then I experienced a new taste, a combination of things I had never put together before: bread and grape juice, all at once.
I also experienced a combination of feelings I had never put together before: brokenness and oneness, all at once.
In this weird, new way of taking communion, the brokenness could not be missed. The ripped-apart bread and the passed-around cup drew me way outside of myself, to something bigger, to a God who was willing to be broken and divided for the sake of all of us. And before I knew it, it was also pointing me deep inside myself, to some broken place there, to my heart breaking open with the full understanding of how desperately I need God’s love and how powerfully God loves all of us.
After we had taken communion, we slowly stood up – dazed, shell-shocked. We brushed off our knees. We made a circle, not just with the people we had taken communion with, but with all the hikers there. We held hands. When I looked around at all the faces, I saw that we were all still nervous and uncomfortable and open, but there was something else there, too, something new.
We were one.
So today, it’s time for communion. Because it’s the first Sunday of the month, and that’s when we take communion – even when that means we take communion at our homes. Here I am, at mine.
But here’s the real reason it’s time for communion: because God knows it’s the exact right moment for it.
We are in a season of brokenness. Back in March, a novel coronavirus rapidly broke down just about every aspect of our normal lives. Routines, school schedules, Sunday morning worship, social events, plans for the future – all broken. In this same season, another layer of brokenness is being painfully revealed: the racism that persists in our society, a racism that I wanted to think had been healed… but I have had to confront the terrible fact that racism persists.
Right now, we can’t deny it. We are broken.
And the knowledge of our brokenness makes us ready, ready for this.
Ready for a meal that we can share across time and space. Ready for the mysterious way the Holy Spirit arrives in bread and cup and connects us to the death of Christ 2,000 years ago… and also to each other, taking communion at different times and places this week. In this brokenness, we are made one.
We are also ready for this meal, because this season has made us nervous and uncomfortable and open. We recognize the brokenness in our busy, pre-COVID schedules. We recognize the brokenness in our loneliness now. We recognize the brokenness in systems that affect people differently based on the color of their skin. We recognize the brokenness in our own hearts, where prejudice still lurks. We recognize how desperately we need God.
This is the exact right time to share this bread broken, this cup divided.
This is the exact right time to be reminded of how powerfully God loves us.
This is the exact right time to be drawn into a mysterious oneness with each other.
Through bread broken and a cup divided… may it be so.