Brought together by the bridge pieces of the Sign of Peace and the Offering, the Liturgy of the Eucharistic [Holy Communion] Meal is the third and final portion of our regular Sunday worship. In many ways, what we do when we celebrate Holy Communion is to be the deepest expression of what Christians believe heaven will be like. In these few moments we have the closest view of heaven we will get this side of being there fully. [According to our Orthodox brothers and sisters, everything to do with worship is a glimpse into heaven…]
Much as the Liturgy of the Word [lessons, homily, prayers] has echoes reaching back 2,000 years to synagogue worship Jesus and the disciples might recognize, the Eucharistic Liturgy has very ancient echoes, as well. These include, most obviously, references to the Last Supper – Jesus’s last meal with his disciples the night before he dies. This event itself includes references back to the Passover [some 1,500 years before the Last Supper]. We also know that what we do at Sunday worship reaches back to the house worship of the earliest Christians. Most congregational worship had a community meal at its center.
One of the great challenges in our Communion Liturgy is to remember that it is a community meal. That the bit of bread and sip of wine not just represent a meal, but is a meal – a community meal, a sign of the great feast that will be heaven in its fullest sense – is the challenge and vision we’re being invited to imagine and bring to life each Sunday we celebrate Holy Communion. This is nothing short of a glimpse of the great promises of God. It is, if only for just a moment, to be a hint of what the world could be and what it will become in Jesus.
There’s a little game I’ve played with small children that goes like this: I will ask, “What did you have for breakfast today?” You can imagine the answers and, if all goes well, someone will say something like, “Capt’n Crunch!” [Don’t judge my choice of breakfast cereal here!] I’ll ask, “Did you put milk on it?” “Yes!” And then we begin a series of questions; where does the cow live, what does the cow eat, where does the grass grow, where does the earth come from? The final answer is to help the child see that all things have their root in God.
The purpose of the offering, ultimately, is to help us see that all things have their root in God. The prayers and actions around the offering are to help us remember this. What we offer in our offering is only that which God has already blessed us with. We give it back with some combination of gratitude, humility and a sense of mystery. Gratitude that God first entrusted us with this gift, humility that it is so small in relation to God’s generosity and mystery in how God uses all things together for good.
It's unfortunate that so often the moment of offering feels like the collection of “dues,” or that somehow, we’re “paying” for church. Some of this is the things that are said to people, “we need offerings to run the church.” [true, to an extent] Or, we treat it as something of a “shake-down.” Something that may be helpful in all of this is that when our church is healthy, we come to understand that all we [our church/congregation] really are is the embodiment of the love of Jesus in the world. We’re not so much an “institution,” as we are a living, breathing thing. We make Jesus come alive in this place. Our offerings are a small sign and a small gratitude for our understanding of this.
“If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” [St Matthew 5:23-24]
In some of the ancient worship liturgies, this moment in our worship was called the “kiss of peace.” Literally, you were to kiss one another as a kiss was a sign familial connection, of relationship and reconciliation. While today we may rarely kiss at the sign of peace, the purpose remains the same. This is the pivotal moment in our worship time. Having come into the church, made our confession, listened to the stories from the Scriptures, heard instruction and stated what we believe to be true, now comes the moment when we begin to make these things real. The sign of Peace is the moment we are to begin living into everything we have been working on up to this moment. We are to become the embodiment of reconciliation, forgiveness and the Gospel story and we begin with the people around us – our friends, family and fellow worshippers. We take this moment to live into the words of Jesus, to begin living into the forgiveness and acceptance we receive from God in Jesus by extending it first to those around us.
This moment is the pivotal move toward Holy Communion. We are now ready to come to this holy meal as a family that, collectively, is a sign of God’s hope and purpose for the whole world. It is, in the moment of the sign of peace [kissing or handshaking or hugging – your choice] we begin to truly become the church, which is the living embodiment of the love of Christ in the world. For one, brief, moment we should be able to look around us and think, “This is a bit of what heaven is about.”