Sunday, 29 October 2017

Reflecting on communion (part 1)

For quite some time, the church here has been planning a discussion about how we celebrate communion. Some of those who know me will know that this topic is one which lies close to my heart. I have had both deeply beautiful and deeply painful experiences of the celebration of communion. I have known it both as a wonderful expression of Christian love and as an unwelcome reminder of deep divisions.

Here, the conversation has finally begun, and I was given the opportunity in a service to offer some biblical reflections as we begin to reflect together about what we do and why we do it. Here, as in the service, I offer it in two parts, beginning with a reflection on Exodus 12, the story of the Passover. (This was written to be shared aloud in the context of a church service and I decided against any substantial rewriting so please bear that in mind if there are a few bits that don't quite scan as a blog post!)

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I feel the need to begin with a confession: I am not a biblical scholar. Even if I were, there are 2000 years of debate and theological treatises around the topic of communion so anything I can say in the next few paragraphs could never be more than a very limited introduction. When it comes to thinking about the celebration of the Passover, there are another few thousand years of debate to add in to the mix. My intention then, is simply to share a few of my own thoughts on a theme about which I care very deeply and about which I have reflected at length, attempting to help us seek together the heart of God in our exploration of this theme.

While I want to reflect in more depth on the gospel text, the story of the last supper, I think context is hugely significant when we reflect on any biblical theme, and as such I don’t think we can begin to think about communion without first returning to the Passover. 

The Passover celebration was the context in which the disciples, the early church and Jesus himself would have understood what was happening at the Last Supper. As far as I understand it, in Jewish thought and tradition, the celebration of the Passover feast is not just a commemoration of a historical event but is a moment when, in a mysterious way, the God who exists outside of time allows his community to be present in two historical realities at once. At the last supper, Jesus and his disciples would have truly believed they were present to one another both in the upper room, and at the same time in Egypt being led out of slavery.

And so that context: the context of the Passover, which was so important to Jesus when he took bread and wine that evening, is therefore important to us too. It is context which is, I believe, very clear: the Passover is the moment at which God very concretely takes the side of the poor and the oppressed; the Passover is what makes possible the liberation from oppression. 

Admittedly, I’d probably question some of God’s methods on this one: I’m not sure that amount of death and destruction is ever the best solution to a problem, but for me that in no way undermines what this says about the character of God in relation to the weak and powerless, and it in no way undermines the reality of the Passover as a witness to that. For me, in fact, it is this which is the very essence of the whole story.

And if the weak, the powerless and the enslaved are at the heart of the Passover story: it behoves us to consider how we ensure the weak, powerless and enslaved are at the heart of our communion celebration too.

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