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Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ,
The holy supper which we are about to celebrate
Is a feast of remembrance, communion, and hope…
from the Reformed Church in America, “Order of Worship for the Lord’s Day”
Sunday was one of those days where mystery ambushed me.
Being a Christian in the first place means being plunged into immense mysteries. St. Paul calls Christ himself “God’s mystery” (Colossians 2.2-3). As he writes to his protege Timothy, he quotes what was likely a pithy slogan of the embryonic Christian movement, reminding him that “without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great…” (1 Timothy 3.16)
For Christians, of course, that word mystery connotes not a lack of meaning, but a largesse of it. As the late Eugene Peterson put it, “Mystery is not the absence of meaning, but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.” Mystery is the beauty and truth and goodness of the Trinity bursting the narrow banks of explanation, definition, even language.
This past Sunday was World Communion Sunday — a day the global Church marks to celebrate the incredible mystery we taste at the Lord’s Table: that when we at First Presbyterian Church, at 717 Prosperity Farms Rd., partake of the Eucharist, we join a feast that spans the globe. We enter a moment that marries visible and invisible. And, in our eating and drinking, God’s mighty acts in the past and his wondrous future all rush together into our unassuming present.
Christians of the Reformed persuasion, at their best, acknowledge the unfathomable wonder of the sacraments. No less a nuanced (and long-winded!) theologian than John Calvin himself says as much. As he weighs in on the controversies of his own day concerning the mechanics of Holy Communion, he acknowledges:
“…if anyone should ask me how this takes place [that Christ is present in Communion], I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it.”
“I experience rather than understand it.”
Around the Table
Harold and Lisa (not their real names) would sit in the same pew, at our 8:15AM service, Sunday by Sunday. Harold’s been a pillar of the community at FPC for decades, and I’ve experienced him as warm, wise, and encouraging in the few years I’d known him. Their seats had been vacant for a few weeks, as Harold had been in the hospital. Last Friday, I got word that Harold had died. I was surprised, and saddened — when I’d last visited with Lisa and him I didn’t know it’d be the last time I’d see him.
But on Sunday, Lisa was there, in the same spot they had faithfully staked out over decades. My voice cracked as I stole a glance at her while at the Table, praying the Great Thanksgiving:
“With your whole Church on earth,
And with all the company of heaven,
we worship and adore your glorious name…”
I served Lisa the elements a moment later, and both of us thought about Harold. Even though we feel the ache of his absence, he was truly partaking with us, too. In fact, he was now more truly communing with the Lord of the universe than ever before.
That morning, our church marked the day as a number of children shared in their first Communion. I wound up serving one family who’s recently come to us. They arrived having been away from the church for decades, and came with lots of questions. In fact, in our pre-communion class for families, the Dad acknowledged, “I probably have as many questions about this as my kids!” But there they were, newcomers and long-timers all gathered together to feast upon Grace.
After our final service for the morning, a handful of our church’s staff and lay leaders took communion to the homes of those in our church who are in ill health or who can’t make it to the church to worship in-person. My wife Monica and I visited with a couple I’ll call George and Beth. They’re lovely people. For decades, they’d spent their lives developing an art restoration business that today has an international reach. But a few years ago, George had a terrible accident, is now wheelchair-bound, and Beth spends her days juggling the business and care for George. As we shared bread and wine, we talked together about how the meal we were sharing nourishes us to bear Jesus’ grace to each other, and how it’s an appetizer course of God’s promised future, in which our bodies and God’s whole creation will one day be raised, healed, renewed.
Driving home, we shared a silent sense of the holy ground we were on. The Church on earth and the company of heaven. Newcomers to the Table and the seasoned faithful. A taste of God’s past, nourishment for the pain of our present, a first course of the future.
I don’t understand these mysteries. But we arrived home sure we experienced them