October 4, 2020

“The Roots of Communion”


Luke 22:7-20


Today, on World Communion Sunday I will be preaching on the history of and meaning behind communion. First, though, a bit about this special Sunday. What are the roots of World Communion Sunday? World Communion Sunday (originally called World Wide Communion Sunday) is a gift of the Presbyterian Church to the larger ecumenical church. The first celebration occurred at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1933. Rev. John A Dalles, a PCUSA pastor who has done some research on this special Sunday’s origins wrote the following in a blog recently. “Davitt S. Bell (the late Clerk of Session and church historian at Shadyside) recalled that The pastor of Shadyside, Rev. Dr. Kerr first conceived the notion of World Communion Sunday during his year as moderator of the General Assembly (1930). It was an attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity—in which everyone might receive both inspiration and information, and above all, to know how important the Church of Jesus Christ is, and how each congregation is interconnected one with another. Dr. Kerr said the following about starting this tradition. ‘The concept spread very slowly at the start. People did not give it a whole lot of thought. It was during the Second World War that the spirit caught hold because we were trying to hold the world together. World Wide Communion symbolized the effort to hold things together, in a spiritual sense. It emphasized that we are one in the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’” What a timely idea for the much-divided Christian church of today. Perhaps next year we can find a way to celebrate communion together with other churches in our own community, seeking unity in Christ’s church.


What about the roots of communion itself? They are a bit confusing to untangle. Elaine Borcher shares a story about her little brother, who was visiting their grandparents in another town. They took him to church with them that Sunday and took communion together. After church, the little boy asked his grandparents what communion was all about and how it began. Granddad replied, “That was Jesus’ last supper.” The little brother replied, “Boy! They sure didn’t give him much to eat, did they?” Sounds like he still had a lot to learn about communion!


Perhaps we do as well. It may be that you have partaken of this holy meal for decades, yet may not fully understand its significance. The origins of communion in part come to us from today’s passage, as Jesus gathers his disciples together in an upper room for an important meal before he goes on to be betrayed, put to trial and suffer death upon a cross. However, the roots of communion go back many centuries before this event.


The scripture passage for today tells us that it was the festival of Passover. Passover was and continues to be one of the most important of eight main festivals celebrated by the Jewish people, giving thanks for God’s deliverance from the bondage of Egyptian slavery. The Hebrews had been slaves to Pharaoh for 430 years (Exodus 12:40). Finally, they were going to be free. Several plagues coincided as punishments from God, with the last one finally breaking the pharaoh’s resolve. In Exodus 12:13, God says, “I will pass over you and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you when I smite the land of Egypt.” Moses spread the word to the Hebrew people to be ready for the last plague. On that night every family sacrificed a lamb. God passed over the homes of Hebrew slaves, who had put lamb’s blood upon their doors in Egypt, sparing firstborn children’s lives in a plague that killed all male babies. (Exodus 12:1-13:16) The festival of Passover commemorates God’s faithfulness and the Hebrew people’s deliverance from bondage.


Originally, the meal consisted of unleavened bread to remember that when the slaves were freed, they had no time to make proper bread when Pharaoh finally freed them. This bread was also a reminder of the first unleavened bread baked from new corn when the Israelites had entered the land of Canaan after 40 years of wandering through the desert.


The other part of the Passover meal was the lamb - a reminder of that first animal sacrifice which had saved the Hebrew people from God’s plague against Egypt. The lamb had to have been properly slaughtered - no bones broken, drained of all blood, some of which would then be smeared upon the facing of the door.  



Later, over the centuries, new additions came to the Passover meal - Two portions of bitter Herbs - They were bitter to remember the bitterness of suffering in slavery. Some leafy greens - dipped in salt water to remember the tears shed in slavery. A hardboiled egg - to remember new life, and the offerings presented to God at the return of the exiled from Babylon. The lamb turned into a lamb shank which became a visual reminder of the sacrificial lamb and lamb’s blood placed upon the doors of God’s people to save them from the plague. Finally, there were 4 cups added.  No one knows exactly how the cup became a Passover symbol.  We do know that by the time Jesus observed the Passover, drinking cups during the meal was an official part of the observance. It is believed the cups signify at least two things - one about God and one about ancient Hebrew history. In Exodus 6:6-7, there are four expressions of God’s deliverance out of Egyptian bondage. God says I will free you, I will deliver, I will redeem, and I will take. Other Jewish tradition assigns a matriarch to each cup - Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.


Jewish tradition says little else about the cups—though we are told they should be filled with red wine to remind us of the blood of the Passover lamb. Jesus speaks about two cups in this passage, which is quite confusing for us unless we remember the roots of Passover and the multi-cup tradition.  Let’s take a closer look at this section from Luke’s gospel to see what it tells us about the Lord’s Supper. I invite you to open your Bibles at home as we go through this passage together.


We begin with verse 10, as Jesus tells Peter and John to look for an unusual sign of a man carrying a jar of water and to follow him. It is unusual because in those days carrying jars of water was women’s work. Then they were to ask, “The Rabbi says to you, where is the guest room where I am to eat the Passover meal with my disciples?”  It is possible that Jesus had pre-arranged this event, and had spoken to the man ahead of time. More likely, however, is that this was Luke’s way of demonstrating Jesus’ prophetic powers. Then Peter and John went and bought the lamb, the bread and wine for Passover.


In verse 14, Luke writes, “and when the hour came” - that is when it was sundown, they gathered together to celebrate Passover. This has been traditionally thought to have been on the Thursday of Holy Week, which we remember as Maundy Thursday, also known as Holy Thursday, or commandment Thursday, when Jesus commanded his disciples to remember him through this meal.


Then in verses 15-16, Jesus says how he has longed to eat this Passover meal with the disciples, for he would not eat of it again until it’s fulfillment in the kingdom of God. Two things are important here. First Jesus longed to be with his disciples. They had become family, and much like the families who gathered to celebrate Passover together, now Jesus and his followers gathered as a family as well. One of the first things we learn about the meaning of communion is this: Just like the Hebrew families who gathered for centuries before Jesus and just like Jesus and the disciples, we are family- part of God’s family as we gather around God’s table.



We also learn that Jesus was looking forward to the heavenly banquet he spoke of as a teaching parable in Luke 14:16-21. The second thing we learn about the meaning of communion is that it reminds us of the promise of heaven. For one day, we too will be around the heavenly banquet table with Christ.


Then comes verse 17, and only Luke’s version has the cup come before the bread. All other versions of the first communal meal in the Gospels or in 1 Corinthians 11 have Jesus breaking bread and then sharing one cup. The Christian church follows this pattern rather than Luke’s. The reason as I understand it again has to do with the tradition of four cups in Passover, and Jesus begins to change the meaning of the cup and bread to symbolize a new covenant.  So he takes the first cup, which stands for freeing the people from their burden - foreshadowing how his death would free us from the burden of sin, and invites the disciples to share. He then speaks of another and third important meaning of communion- that we look forward to Christ’s return and the establishment of God’s kindom here on earth.


Then Jesus takes the unleavened bread, which has up until this moment stood for having to rush out of Egypt. Now the bread that is broken stands for Jesus’ body- his body on the cross given for the disciples and for us. The bread stands for a broken body nailed to a cross and becomes a tool for the remembrance of Jesus and of his sacrifice.


Then, after supper, which is after completion of the rest of the Passover meal, Jesus uses the next cup, either the cup symbolizing deliverance, or the cup taken after supper, which is traditionally the third cup, the cup of redemption. Jesus calls this cup "the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you" (Luke 22:20). This cup stands for Jesus’s sacrifice, for his bloodshed for us, a blessing from God to deliver, to redeem us from sinfulness. It also stands for the new and last covenant between God and God’s people- Jesus proclaims himself as the new covenant. All other covenants between God and the people failed. Human beings could not keep from sinful behavior, and covenant after covenant was broken. Yet through the sacrifice of Jesus, much like through the sacrifice of the lamb that saved the Hebrews from God’s plague, Jesus, the paschal Lamb’s sacrifice saved us from the plague of sinfulness and kept us connected to God. These are the deep Passover roots in the holy meal of communion, which we must remember.


As the early church embraced this new tradition of Passover, the meal began to lose some of its significance. In 1 Corinthians 11:20-23, Paul reprimands the Corinthians for eating their own meals at different times rather than together, gorging themselves on bread and getting drunk from the wine, and leaving nothing left over for those who were part of Christ’s body who arrived late after a hard day’s work. You can see in this renaissance era depiction of the passage that a poor servant sits on the floor with nothing to eat, while those gathered around the communion table are hoarding the elements and making merry. They had forgotten why they were gathering for communion.


So, let us not forget! Remember the reasons we gather for communion! We gather on this world communion Sunday to remember Jesus, united as part of God’s larger global family. We look forward to our heavenly banquet with Jesus, look forward to the full establishment of God’s kindom upon the earth, and give thanks for Christ’s sacrifice and for the establishment of a new unbreakable covenant between us and God.  Give thanks for God’s welcoming table, even though we each have our own today and are separated by distance, we are united in the Spirit of Christ, who was and is and is to come. Alleluia! Amen.

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