It’s always amazed me that – over the history of Christianity – one of the things that we seem consistently to argue about is... communion. Communion – this central sacrament that we say signifies our unity in Christ – one body gathered at one table. Over the history of Christianity, we have argued and contended and fought about communion: what it means; how we do it; who can lead and celebrate it; who can participate in and receive communion; whose bodies are included at the table, and whose are not.
These disagreements have been there from the very beginning. We can go back as far as the Apostle Paul, and see that, two thousand years ago in the church at Corinth, they were struggling over communion. For them, communion was part of a larger meal. They’d gather in the evening to share that common meal – but – those who were wealthier would go ahead and eat, before those who were working could get there. By the time the working folks arrived, all the food was gone.
And the Apostle Paul writes to them and says, “This isn’t communion, this isn’t the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s own table.” “Wait for each other,” wait until everyone gets there, and then share your meal together so that everyone is fed and everyone has enough. That’s communion. And then he said, and you know, if you are so hungry that you can’t wait for the others to get there, then, for the love of God, have a snack! (1 Cor. 11:34)
And from there, from the beginning, disagreements over communion have flowed on down through the centuries. They have resulted in schisms and the splitting of churches. Wars have been fought – for complex religious and political reasons that have included disagreements over the meaning of communion.
Even in our lifetime, the controversies over ordination have at their core the issue of who can be at the table – whose body can say the words, and break the bread, and pour the cup. Who is in. Who is out. Just 70 or so years ago, women weren’t allowed to preside at the communion table. And just 10 years ago, people like me were excluded.
Perhaps one of the most well-known disagreements about communion is the one that was wrapped up in the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. Now this is an oversimplified version. But in those days, what we would now call the Roman Catholic Church contended that, in communion, the substance of the bread and the wine were transformed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood. They called that “transubstantiation.” Martin Luther rejected that and said, no, the bread and wine aren’t actually transformed into flesh and blood, but rather Christ is “in, with, and under the bread and wine.”
The branch of this disagreement from which we descend, the Reformed tradition through John Calvin, articulated a third understanding of communion. John Calvin said that what happens in communion – the whole of the sacrament of communion – is that we experience “the real presence of Christ.”
Now what I like about that is its openness.