Sunday’s sermon will explore 1 Corinthians 11 and the various ways that the church at Corinth was abusing communion. Over the past few years, communion has become one of my favorite forms of worship– a tangible reminder of the grace that poured out from Christ’s cross. At the same time, as I’m researching and writing, I’m starting to remember that I haven’t always felt that way…
I was 17 when it happened. As part of a summer program in Atlanta before my senior year of high school, I attended about a dozen different houses of worship, and the first on my checklist was a Methodist church in a fairly well-to-do neighborhood. Much about that church felt instantly familiar –pews, hymnals, robed choir, red carpets, pulpit in the middle of the platform–, but there were a few noticeably different things as well. For example, I know that memories tend to become embellished with the passage of time, but I’m still pretty confident that Count Dracula was the senior pastor at that church. To a 17-year-old kid who had zero experience with high church traditions, the situation was clear:
big black robe + slicked back hair + talked about blood = Dracula
Apart from Rev. Dracula, it seemed like a fairly normal service to me. Hymns and offering and such were all pretty standard, but when it came time for communion, things got kind of weird. You see, Rev. Dracula took it on himself to stress how these elements become more than bread and juice when we take them together; they become the literal body and blood of Christ. He even said the exact words that were seared in my memory from then on: “To take communion is to receive the flesh of Christ.” (Side-note: If the word “flesh” doesn’t just make your skin crawl, you’re a braver person than I am.)
I didn’t understand this at the time, but that pastor was advocating for transubstantiation– the view that the bread and juice served in communion change their substance and become the literal body and blood of Jesus. While many Christians do embrace this philosophy (particularly our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters), the majority of protestant and evangelical Christians do not. Do virtually all Christians agree that something special takes place when we share communion together? Absolutely, but when it comes to transubstantiation, there are many different viewpoints. As a teenager, all of this was completely over my head though, and as I approached the communion table, all I could think was, “Wait, you mean I’ve been eating flesh for nearly a decade?!”
It didn’t help that this church used the standard United Methodist communion elements: King’s Hawaiian bread dipped into Welch’s grape juice. As I plunged my chunk of bread into the juice and then slid it between my teeth, the moist and spongy consistency sent a chill up my spine, and all I could think was “FLESH!”
For half a decade after that, I refused to take communion out of fear of cannibalism. Way to go, Rev. Dracula.
Let’s jump ahead to the spring of my senior year of college. I had just reaccepted Christ into my life and been accepted to Duke Divinity School to answer the call to ministry. It was Easter Sunday, and a thought occurred to me that hadn’t in about three years: “I should go to church today.” Walking up the street from my dorm and sliding into a pew at the Episcopal church where my friend Karl served, I wasn’t able to pay much attention to the service; rather, I was distracted by the fact that I’d be serving in one of these places myself in a matter of months. When the call came to come up and receive communion, I was caught off guard, and I suddenly flashed back to Rev. Dracula. In spite of my fears, peer pressure got the better of me, and when the people on either side of me stood up, I followed suit. Before I knew it, I was back at the front of a church about to receive it: flesh.
I psyched myself up. I knelt at the bench. The servers came around to me. Throughout the bread’s whole journey from their hands to my mouth, I reassured myself. I cringed with expectation, and then . . . a cracker and wine. That was it. My taste buds and the other various sensory receptors in my mouth informed me that this was definitely not flesh; it was a cracker and wine. I breathed a sigh of relief, but just as it took me five years to get up the nerve to take communion, I would spend the next five years reflecting on what the ritual really means for us. We’ll be talking more about that on Sunday.
Grace and Peace,