A reflection on the Meaning of Communion
Rev. Dr. Robert R. LaRochelle
It was a Sunday morning just a couple of weeks ago. As a matter of fact, it was the day on the worship calendar of many Protestant churches that goes by the name World Communion Sunday. My sermon was aptly entitled ‘IS IT REALLY COMMUNION?’ and in it I tried to examine as best as could what Communion might really mean for those of us who come to worship and partake of it, at least on occasion.
My sermon had made its foray into history, including the long history of separate Communion wherein the usual practice has been that Protestants and Catholics not receive Communion in each others’ churches. Though I resisted the tendency to speak at great length about any of the questions involved, by the time the sermon was drawing to its end, I could not resist finishing up by explaining that the sacrament of Communion, by the very fact that it is considered a sacrament, has to be seen as an outward sign that both signifies something very important and also serves as the cause of that which it signifies.
Now, I knew in my head and at least as importantly in my heart what I meant by saying this. But something dawned on me then and later on in the day and then during the week as I reflected back on that sermon. It struck me that the sheer emotional investment I had made in speaking the right words from the pulpit and in articulating as best I could what the essence of Holy Communion might mean might very well not mean all that much to many of those people in the pews that day who had little choice but to sit in their pews and listen to my sermon.
Is it really a sign of unity?, I wondered, when a few hundred yards down the street Roman Catholics were holding their own Communion ritual with no invitation to Protestant Christians to come join them at table? In fact, in some of those churches the suggestion that one NOT partake is explicitly advertised in the worship materials that are used or the words spoken by the priest from that very table.
Is it really a sign of what we are supposed to be when some of us might sit on our comfortable pews and want nothing at all to do with others who are sitting around us?
As I reflected more upon this, it dawned on me that this issue has really been an emotional one for me throughout my life. Raised a Roman Catholic and having served for years as a teacher of religion in Catholic schools and churches and having served for nine years as an ordained clergyman within that church, I both loved the Catholic Church deeply, yet yearned passionately for change within it, including the simple (I thought) realization that Catholics and Protestants cannot be divided at Jesus’ table.
Yet …. It wasn’t just emotional for me from that perspective. In my twelve plus years as a Protestant pastor, I have discovered, much to my chagrin, that the zeal and desire for shared Communion isn’t really there within most Protestant churches. While some of us advertise ourselves as having a table where ‘all are welcome,’ I think most of us are very comfortable with Communion as being something we share with each other, kind of disconnected from what is going on at those other churches, including sometimes even the one across the street. Even most World communion Sunday services, really, tend to be shared just within our own churches, among ourselves!
In fact, though, it cuts even deeper than any of this. Some would argue that this is a battle that has already been won. Think of all the Catholics and Protestants, they would say, who very freely receive Communion at funerals and weddings in churches other than their own, who are, in fact, already engaged in ecumenical Communion, if even, in some cases without the approval of their churches.
As wonderful as I think it is that they are, I also think of all of those who would never consider doing so either because the rules of their own church don’t allow it or because they feel that, way down deep, they are not really welcome at that other church’s table.
And even more, as favorable as I am to individual persons, in acts of conscience, doing anything they can to break down barriers that, in my view, are both unnecessary and absurd, I yearn for something more.
What I would REALLY like to see is good, serious discussions by Catholics and Protestants together about what Communion really means and about how the language each tradition has used to discuss it has both HELPED and HINDERED our understanding of sharing in Jesus’ Communion with us. Wouldn’t it be great if all of these churches which worship in such close proximity to each other, such as my own and the neighborhood Catholic parish, could find ways to talk to each other about this sacrament in which Jesus calls us all to be ONE?
Some would contend that I am woefully idealistic and impractical, but I will contend in reply that Catholic and Protestant young people and adults alike would greatly benefit if, alongside one another, they could learn what it means when we do what we do separately in our own churches. And I am idealistic enough to believe that if we enter these discussions together, if we hold up and examine these very real, historic differences for what they are, we will yearn ever more deeply for that day when we can freely and officially sit side by side at the table that belongs not to us, but to God!
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
TO BE CONTINUED……………..
Rev. Dr. Robert LaRochelle is a pastor and educator who lives in Connecticut. He is author of Part-Time Pastor, Full-Time Church, Crossing the Street, and So Much Older Then …. His next release will be in Energion’s Topical Line Drives series and is titled What Protestants Need to Know about Roman Catholics.
In the next article in this series, Rev. Dr. LaRochelle discusses specific differences in the understanding of Communion between Protestants and Catholics.