A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 5th November 2006 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. Readings heard during the service were from Exodus 24:1-8, I Corinthians 11:23-26 and Mark 14:12-16.
To-day, as in every first Sunday of the month, we celebrate Holy Communion in this church.
The communion is holy because it is extra-ordinary. It is something which is separated from our daily ordinary life. It is a solemn ceremony. We must not take it lightly.
Every time we celebrate the holy communion, we are reminded that the Church is one. This is the Church of Jesus Christ. As the hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation” says, “With His own blood He bought her (the church), and for her life He died”.
There is only one Christian Church throughout the world. Yet there are many expressions of the faith in Jesus Christ: from the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions on the right of the spectrum (these traditions are considered liturgically high churches) all the way to the left-wing (or people-oriented) churches. These are the Baptist, the Alliance and the Evangel churches. Then, of course there are the Pentecostal churches which are considered to be on the far left in terms of theology and worship life. Kowloon Union Church is in the middle of the spectrum. Together with all churches from the “Reformed” traditions, we highly treasure the Incarnate Word of Jesus Christ. The Lutheran and Reformed creed of sola gratia, sola fides and sola scriptura (or only grace, faith and scriptures) are based on the sola Christos (only Christ).
Whichever tradition, we Christians and Christian churches celebrate the Holy Communion on a regular basis. The Quakers or the Friends and the Salvation Army are the only exceptions. We all consider it as a holy sacrament. Simply put, a holy sacrament is God’s grace made visible to all humanity.
Since its inception in the first century, the holy communion has been the most important ritual for the Christian churches. Many conservative churches regard it so very important that they only celebrate it on special occasions. I know some Baptist Churches would only celebrate it once a quarter. But for the more liturgical churches, like the Roman Catholic churches or high Anglican churches, they would celebrate it weekly if not also daily. In fact, most of the Roman Catholic priests and sisters do attend mass every morning. For the Roman Catholics the holy communion or what they call the Eucharist is the highest point of their mass or worship service, which is preceded by the Introit liturgy and the liturgy of the Word.
Different traditions have different names for the holy communion. These different names do carry different meanings. The Roman Catholics for instance call it the Eucharist which comes from the Greek word eucharisto which literally means “I give thanks”. Indeed, for the Roman Catholics, Eucharist is a thanks-offering. It is rooted in the ancient Jewish laws as recorded in the Old Testament.
In Leviticus, in the ritual of sacrifice, for example, there are burnt offering (ch. 1), the cereal offering (ch. 2), the communion offering (ch. 3), the sacrifice of sin (ch. 4), the sacrifice of reparation (ch. 6) etc. In many of these rituals, a lamb is used as the oblate. Especially in the sacrifice of sin, the blood of the lamb was sprinkled in and around the tent where Yahweh symbolically resided. The symbol was clear. A lamb was sacrificed so that the two alienated parties, namely Yahweh and the people were once again united. This was an act of atonement. The word “atonement” is made up of at-one-ment.
In the “New Covenant”, Jesus often labeled as the lamb of God (JN 1:29, 36) was the oblate. Once and for all, Jesus sacrificed his life and his blood shed for the remission of the sins of all human beings.
So in the Eucharist, this act of sacrifice or this act of salvation of the humankind through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is enacted.
For the left-wing churches like the Baptists, they also from time to time include the Lord’s Supper (that is the term they use for holy communion) into their worship services. As the term indicates, their emphasis is on commemoration. In celebrating the Lord’s Supper, they remember especially the night when Jesus was betrayed, he had supper with his disciples. They also remember what Jesus said, “this is my body” and “this is my blood” as Jesus’ anticipation of his own sacrifice. For two thousand years, this “Lord’s Supper” or “The Last Supper” has become a favourite theme for artists and painters throughout the world.
Since KUC is rooted in the Reformed tradition, we believe that through the celebration of the Holy Communion, we are in full communion with Jesus Christ. Or as Paul once said, “I have been crucified with Christ, and yet I am alive; it is no longer I, but Christ living in me” (Gal 2:20). In participating in the holy communion, we become like Jesus!
Whichever the tradition, in celebrating the holy communion, we are reminded the fact that Christ suffered and died not only for us, but for the whole humankind. Moreover, whenever we partake in the communion, we acknowledge not only the human frailty, but also because of our human failure, our world is in calamity. But as a result of his sacrificial love, Jesus has overcome all the difficulties and made this seemingly impossible world possible (c.f. Jn 16:33). Therefore we dare to affirm despite all, God is still in charge. We dare to hope against hope.
According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ last supper with his disciples was a passover meal (c.f. Mf 26:17ff; Mk 14:12ff and Lk 22:7ff). It was not a co-incidence. It is precisely because the last supper was a passover meal, it has the overtone of God’s salvation. In the Exodus event, we learned that the angels of Yahweh leaped over the Israelite households who were marked with the blood of the slain lamb and spared the lives of their eldest sons (Ex 11). Hence the festival of the Passover was to commemorate God’s saving acts to God’s chosen.
Let us now go back to the oldest record of the institution of the Eucharist, namely, I Corinthians 11:22-26. The institution consists of Jesus’ three acts to be followed by a commandment.
The first act was that Jesus took bread and later similarly he took up the cup. What Jesus used in the institution of the Eucharist were very ordinary materials: unleavened bread and grape wine.
Bread is made up of wheat flour. Wheat is crushed so that flour is produced. Similarly, grapes are crushed so that wine or grape juice can come about. The simple fact is that sacrifice can and do bring about new things. Everyday, countless animals and plants lose their lives so that human beings have food to sustain their lives.
Many of us eat rice for our evening meal. Do you have any idea how many people are involved in preparing a bowl of hot rice for our use? There are farmers who have to toil in the fields under the hot sun or heavy rain for months. Then the transportation laborers, the retail shop-keepers… and finally the cook: at least a score of people participated. Think of the sweat they have shed in order that we can eat a bowl of rice.
I am the homemaker in our home. So I am responsible to prepare the evening meal. Our small kitchen is not air-conditioned. In the hot months, I have to work in that kitchen for two periods of at least 20 minutes each – one to wash and prepare and the other the actual cooking. Eventually, when I put the food on the table, I was still sweating. No pain, no gain. No sacrifice, the good things will never come about. Life is possible only when sacrifice takes place. Our life depends on so many people: our relatives, friends and colleagues, and we also depend on the many more we do not know personally – street cleaners, transportation workers, government officials, and entrepreneurs… Do we want to think of ways to live for them, to make their lives slightly better as well? Whenever sacrifice takes place, the ordinary becomes the extra-ordinary. New things can come about. “Unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and die, it remains only a single grain, but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.” (Jn 12:24). How true!
The second act at the institution was that Jesus gave thanks. The act of thanksgiving from a thankful heart can often perform miracles. All of you are familiar with the miracle of Jesus feeding 5,000 (Mk 6:30-44; Mt 14:13-21; Lk 9:10-17 and Jn 6:1-13). After giving thanks, Jesus was able to use five loaves and two fish “to feed 5,000 men, to say nothing of women and children.”
The act of thanksgiving acknowledges the fact that in final analysis, we are not in charge. God is. As King David in one of his prayers of offering intoned, “Everything (which includes our own life) is a gift from God.” (I Chron 29:14) and what Jesus once told his disciples, “By human resources, it is impossible, but not for God: because for God everything is possible.” (Mk 10:27).
One of the greatest educations of the last century was Helen Keller. Surprisingly, Helen could not see, hear nor speak. The world marveled at what she accomplished despite all her disabilities. In her autobiography, she wrote (and I paraphrase), “I thank God for giving me these disabilities; and thank God also for giving me strength and courage to overcome them and thus was able to see the beautiful world God has created.” A thankful heart can indeed bring about miracles.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, once the priest has finished saying the great prayer of thanksgiving in the Eucharist liturgy, the bread and the wine will be changed into the body and the blood of Christ respectively. Transubstantiation is not only a matter of doctrine, but a life reality as well.
The third act Jesus did after he gave thanks to God was that he broke the bread and shared with his disciples. Likewise Jesus shared the cup. This act of sharing is another component for miracles. It is generally accepted that the worst global problem today is POVERTY. There are many causes: overpopulation, desertification, deforestration… etc; simply put, lack of resources to sustain about 6 billion people. However, Robert McNamara, the President of the World Bank in the 1970s told us that the root problem for poverty was not because there was not enough resources on earth, but it was because the rich nations did not want to share their abundance.
To-day, the poverty problem has become more acute, much worse than 30 years ago. Generally speaking, human beings, Christians included, are too self-centred and self-seeking. Fortunately, a couple of candles have been lit recently. Bill and Melinda Gates together with Warren Buffet have decided to donate a good part of their fortune to combat this problem. Bill Clinton and Barbara Bush have joined hands to invite wealthy people throughout the world to do likewise.
Many Christians come to participate in the communion service if not any other service. Their intention is to get something from the communion: it may be for spiritual edifice or for the remission of their sins… But holy communion is not about receiving. It is about sacrifice, thanksgiving and sharing. By the way, these three are essential elements for an enriched life. So when we come to communion service, our lives are transformed: we become like Jesus. This is the meaning of Jesus’ commandment, “This Do in Remembrance of Me”. When we partake in the holy communion, we remember what Jesus did, not only for us, but for the entire humankind. In this solemn commemoration, we too must be like Jesus: to live a scarified life. Always remember these words of Jesus, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him/her renounce himself/herself and take up his/her cross and follow me.” (Mk 8:34)