By Chuck Griffin
Matthew 26:26-29 (NLT): As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take this and eat it, for this is my body.” And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, “Each of you drink from it, for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many.”
The taking of Holy Communion, also called the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist, seems like a tame worship event to experienced Christians. Every now and then, though, I’ve gotten a reminder of how mysterious it is for the uninitiated.
While serving as an associate pastor in Lexington, Ky., I helped with communion on a regular basis. One Sunday, I carried the juice, trailing another pastor who offered the bread as people lined up at the prayer rail.
A lady was there with twin 4-year-old granddaughters, who apparently were new to church. She had dressed them in identical purple velvet dresses, the kind of dresses grandmothers tend to pick out for their granddaughters when showing them off to friends for the first time.
When the pastor ahead of me offered them the bread, saying, “The body of Christ, broken for you,” they looked startled and a bit perplexed. They could see it was bread, though, and took it.
Then I came along with cups of a red liquid, saying, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” Twin Girl Number 1 took a step back. Twin Girl Number 2 formed a perfect “O” with her mouth as she inhaled to scream.
I quickly dropped to my knees, saying, “No, no, it’s okay, it’s just grape juice. See?” Number 2 didn’t scream, but both girls maintained their looks of horror as they walked away. I’ve since learned an alternate set of words to use with children.
I was reminded that encountering Christ’s sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper is a powerful moment, one not to be taken lightly. As adults, should our response be at least a little more like those girls? After all, communion should make us very mindful of a broken, bleeding body and our deep dependence on that suffering. It’s grape juice, but it’s not just grape juice.
I also took communion to residents of nursing homes in Kentucky, and had two thought-provoking experiences in those settings.
I had been an associate pastor for only a few weeks when the first moment of enlightenment occurred. I dutifully set out on my mission, my portable communion kit loaded with juice, thimble-sized cups, tiny squares of bread and a miniature plate.
All went smoothly until I reached one elderly lady whose mind had been described to me as “pretty far gone.” She was sitting up in her wheelchair, her head slumped to her chest. I spoke to her. No response. I set communion up on a table in front of her. No response.
I went through a simple liturgy, one employing words familiar to anyone raised Methodist. I then touched the bread and juice to her lips, which she slowly tried to taste with her tongue.
I packed up my kit, thinking, “Well, I guess that was a waste of time.”
Just as I turned to leave, her hand shot out, grabbing my forearm with surprising strength. I jumped like I had been bitten.
She looked up at me and slowly said three clear words: “I appreciate this.” She then slumped back into her previous position and remained unresponsive. I learned a lesson about sacraments; never assume nothing happened simply because I did not see anything happen.
Another key communion experience occurred late in my ministry in Kentucky. I took communion to Arthur and Edna, a husband and wife, both suffering from dementia. Edna had contracted the disease first. Arthur developed his disorder about a year later but declined more quickly.
By the time of my last visit, the two shared a nursing home room, but couldn’t say each other’s names, sleeping on separate mats. I went to Edna’s mat first. She seemed uninterested in my presence until I brought out the same little communion kit. She took communion eagerly.
When I went to Arthur’s mat, Edna sat up, her eyes following everything. Arthur also clearly wanted communion. I went through the brief liturgy again, giving him the juice and bread.
As I did so, I heard Edna’s voice saying softly, again and again, “Hallelujah. Hallelujah.” She was still saying it when I left in tears.
God’s grace, particularly as it is expressed in the bread-body and juice-blood of communion, has the power to sustain us in all the phases of our lives. Take what is offered so freely whenever you can, knowing God’s grace will remain with you even when all else of value has fled.
Lord, give us serious, life-long encounters with you. Amen.