Today I would like to share two moments of insight that I have had regarding Communion that gave me fresh insight and new perspective on what it is that is happening when we share in Communion.
The first was in my second year of ministry I was stationed in a small town called Matatiele at the foothills of the Lesotho Mountains. It was the first place that I properly experienced snow in the early spring of the year 2000. It was (and I imagine still is) a very beautiful place, a place surrounded by farms, hills and mountains. It was quite a magical year for me.
I was 26 years old, and for first time was really beginning to spread my wings, enjoying also some of my first significant contacts with some of the other clergy in the town. I had made friends with the Catholic Priest Fr. Richard, who was originally from Ghana. Together we started attending the aerobics class in the Methodist Church Hall. I also enjoyed attending the midweek morning Eucharist or Holy Communion service at the local Anglican Church on a Thursday.
In the Easter week of that year I was invited to attend a Passover Meal hosted by the Anglican Church and led by the Anglican Priest. The experience of that Passover Feast made quite an impact on me and gave me a new insight into the nature of Communion. During the course of the Passover Meal, as the Anglican Priest followed the traditional format of the Jewish Passover, those who were eating the meal found ourselves being invited not just to think or the Exodus or the escape from Egypt as an event from the past. In a very real sense the liturgy was inviting all of us who were gathered there to imagine that we had been part of the original Exodus, that we had been slaves in Egypt and that by the hand of God’s grace we had been led out of the land of slavery and been set free. It was quite a powerful experience. It helped me to understand why it is that the Jewish faith has been so enduring through many centuries of hardship.
Communion is often spoken of as the Christian Passover. It made me realise that the communion service is meant in some way to do something similar to the Jewish Passover. It is meant to be more than just a memorial of events of the past, but an invitation for the events of the past to become something that we can experience and participate in, in the present, so that it is we too who join Jesus with his disciples in that upper room, on the night of his betrayal, as he takes bread, breaks it and gives it to them saying: This is my body, do this in remembrance of me, and has he takes the cup saying, This is my blood of the new covenant given for you. I had the sense from that Passover meal in MAtatiele that in Communion, the events of the past are intended to become events of the present in which we can participate, and in so doing to be transformed in the here and now.
As Jesus shared that last supper in the upper room, so Jesus shares that last supper with us also here and now in the present today. As Jesus shared meals with sinners and outcasts, inviting them to draw near to experience themselves as the beloved of God, so Jesus shares a meal with us too, in all our sinfulness and in all of our brokenness so that we too can experience ourselves in the here and now as the beloved of God. As Jesus sacrificed his life on the cross for the life of the world, so in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup, we are invited to imagine that we are standing at the foot of the cross as witnesses and like the Roman Centurion to say to ourselves “Surely this man was a son of God” or “Surely this man was the Son of God” depending on how one translates the original Greek of Mark’s Gospel. As the hymn writer puts it: “Love so amazing, so Divine, demands my life, my soul, my all!” The remembering of the sacrifice of Jesus invites us into a life of loving sacrifice in the present here and now today. As Jesus says in John 20:21 “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you!”
The second moment of insight came in more recent years in 2015 or 2016, watching the semi-fictional British TV series called Outlander in which a former Second World War English military nurse, on a visit to the Scottish Highlands in 1945, finds herself transported back in time to 1743 into the events leading up to the Battle of Culloden.
There was a scene that really stood out for me in the 4th episode of season 1 where all the members of Clan McKenzie, gather together in order to renew their pledge their allegiance to the Laird. In that scene, each of the clan members were required to stand before the Laird, verbally offer their allegiance, and then as a symbol of that allegiance, to drink whiskey from a common cup or bowl that was offered to them by Colum McKenzie the Laird.
In watching that scene, suddenly a light went on for me about the meaning of Communion that I hadn’t quite understood before.
In my teens when I was confirmed in the Methodist Church, during our confirmation classes I was taught that Holy Communion was a sacrament, and a sacrament was defined as an outward sign of an invisible grace. The outward sign was the bread and wine. The inward grace was the forgiveness of sin and the presence of Christ.
But when I was studying theology, I saw that the origin of the word sacrament was in fact from the latin word sacramentum and originally referred to an oath of allegiance taken by Roman soldiers offering their allegiance to the Roman Emperor. The root word sacrō meant to hallow or to consecrate. Those who took the sacramentum as an oath to the Emperor were taking a sacred oath consecrating themselves to the service of the Emperor. And this oath was a sacred oath and a religious act, because the Emperors after Julius Caesar were all considered to be divine, gods or sons of the gods. In ancient Roman religion and law, the sacramentum was also an oath or vow that rendered the swearer ‘sacer’, in other words, "given to the gods," in the negative sense if he ever violated the oath he had taken.
The ancient historian Vegetius writes writes a summary of the meaning of the sacramentum. He says: "...The soldiers swear that they shall faithfully execute all that the Emperor commands, that they shall never desert the service, and that they shall not seek to avoid death for the Roman republic!"
When I first came across this in my studies I couldn’t quite understand how this oath of allegiance that Roman soldiers took to the Roman Emperor had any relevance to the ritual of Holy Communion.
But seeing that oath of allegiance by Clan McKenzie to the Laird of Clan McKenzie on the TV series Outlander, suddenly it all became clear. A central part in this Scottish Highland act of allegiance was drinking from a common cup of whiskey that was offered to them by the Laird.
Suddenly the penny dropped. The outward sign of drinking from the Laird’s cup was the an inward symbol of the Clans commitment to standing in loyalty with the Laird and being willing to fighting on his side if necessary. Being willing to die for him, or with him if it ever came to that.
That was certainly the experience of the Christian community in the first 250 years or so of it’s existence. It was often a dangerous thing to be a follower of Jesus and to call oneself a Christian.
From the earliest times, the Christian Community understood themselves to be owing their allegiance to a different Lord. Although the Roman Emperor Caesar was the Lord of the Roman Empire and ruler of the then known world, the ultimate allegiance of every Christian was to a different Lord. We catch a glimpse of that in our reading from Luke today where Jesus celebrates the Last Supper with his disciples. While the Roman Emperor’s lorded it over the people under them, and their high officials exercised authority over the people on the Caesar’s behalf, as we read in Luke’s version of the Last Supper, it was not to be so with the followers of Jesus, for Jesus had come to serve and not to be served. The early Christians faced a choice. Would they offer their allegiance to Caesar and follow the ways of Caesar as the secular authority, or would they offer their primary allegiance to Jesus as Lord, and follow the ways of Jesus?
It remains an important question: We all owe our allegiance and loyalty in some way to the country in which we live. It is part of being a good citizen. But ultimately, as Christians, there is a higher authority that we owe our ultimate allegiance to, and if faced with a choice between following the ways and policies of our secular authority or following the ways of Christ, as Christians our primary vow of allegiance (our sacramentum) should always be to Christ.
And so that is one perspective on what we do here today, as we participate in the sacrament of Communion, as we eat the bread and drink the cup, symbols of the sacrificial offering of Christ’s own life for us, so in return we come to pledge our allegiance to Jesus as Lord and commit ourselves to his Kingdom of Love. From this perspective, it is not a matter of whether we are worthy or not. It is rather a question of who we will choose to serve. Will we serve the ways and the lords of this world, or will we serve under the ways of the Lord Jesus Christ. Or perhaps if we were in Scotland, would we serve the ways of the Laird Jesus Christ, who has already in his death made his pledge of allegiance towards us and in fact towards the whole world. Amen.