I've been reading Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N.T. Wright for a while now. A chapter on worship got me thinking about communion.
I grew up going to a community church that was around the corner from my house. We walked to church every Sunday, and I have a lot of memories in that little white building. But my family roots are in the Grace Brethren denomination, and my grandfather was a pastor in the Grace Brethren church for fifty years. Any time we were in Ft. Wayne we would go the Brethren church and I have great memories there as well. The one thing that I believe they do better than any other church is communion.
Communion at my grandfather's church was always an amazing event. It started with a big potluck dinner. Say what you want about potlucks, but they can be fun and as I remember them, it was a roomful of people having a good time and enjoying dinner together. This was always followed by a foot washing service, in which we would move to classrooms in the church and then take a basin and a towel and wash the feet of the person sitting next to us. This tends to creep people out, but it is taken directly from scripture:
“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?" Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand." Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you." For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean." When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. - John 13:3-16 (ESV)
The point Jesus is making is not really that we should be washing each other's feet, but that we need to be servants, and serve one another out of reverence for Christ. Washing feet was a dirty nasty job, something that nobody wanted to do, and incarnate Deity, the creator of the universe was teaching His disciples through it that there was no job that they should not be willing to do for another.
As a kid, the ceremony was profoundly impacting. I still remember tying the towel on and using the basin. It was always a somber and quiet experience. It was never one that I looked forward to, but I think that was part of the point. I don't know how many times I have attended a Brethren communion service (we attended a brethren church from Jr. High on) but they have left a deep mark on my soul. I am always grateful for those experiences.
After the foot washing ceremony we would return to the fellowship hall for a time of singing and worship, that culminated with the breaking of the bread (think of a cracker that you would hold with another person and break in half) and the drinking of the cup.
So, with that in mind, as I am reading Simply Christian I come upon this:
"First, we break bread and drink wine together, telling the story of Jesus and his death, because Jesus knew that this set of actions would explain the meaning of his death in a way that nothing else--no theories, no clever ideas--could ever do. After all, when Jesus died for our sins it wasn't so he could fill our minds with true ideas, however important they may be, but so he could do something, namely, rescue us from evil and death...This action, like the symbolic actions performed by the ancient prophets, becomes one of the points at which heaven and earth coincide. Paul says that 'as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes' (1 Cor 11:26). He doesn't mean that it's a good opportunity for a sermon. Like a handshake or a kiss, doing it says it."
It got me thinking about communion, and how much it is marginalized in the modern protestant church. Wine is too messy or too controversial or too expensive so we use grape juice. Bread is too much work so we use prefabricated "communion wafers" that are a lot like pet food and very little like bread. We've legislated it into our constitutions and so we cram it into a service in between songs, or perhaps we might get out of our seat and walk to the front. Nobody wants to deal with glassware so we use tiny plastic cups.
None of these things are, in and of themselves, wrong. One of the very best communion experiences of my entire life was in my dorm room with a few friends, a can of coke and some crackers. But I fear that we have gotten so efficient at doing communion that we have forgotten the meaning of it altogether. Communion should be one of the greatest experiences we can ever have. As NT Wright says so eloquently, it is a point at which heaven and earth coincide. I think we are doing ourselves a significant disservice by making it quick, efficient and a tiny piece of a larger service. Maybe we need to rethink how we do communion in 21st century America.