THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 94
Made for communion
Made for communion
We are made for communion. Material things, in themselves, just don’t give us the same satisfaction that a relationship does. Work may satisfy for awhile, but eventually even that turns to dust. Status and prestige are clearly ephemeral things that do not reach the deepest human capability.
If we settle for anything less than communion we are short-changing ourselves.
But what do we mean by communion? If communion is a state of relationship between two beings, how do we attain that state? And has it got to be between two human beings, or can it extend to God? And if God is unknowable and invisible, and out there somewhere, what use is it trying to get into relationship with him?
As a dog lover I know the wonderful devotion and friendship provided by a pet. They rush to welcome you home and sit looking into your eyes, trying to understand what you want. As a substitute for a real relationship with another person they are pretty good - but there is still a lot missing! You cannot really explain your problems to them and they certainly cannot really advise you!
A friend is a better example of communion. Someone who knows a lot about you. Of course no one (except God) knows everything. But they know a lot and you have, perhaps, shown them your worst side as well as your best side. They can sympathise and understand where you are coming from. An old friend is better still, because they also knew you years ago and have an even truer picture of you.
Closest of all, perhaps, is family. The people who really know what you are like at breakfast! A partner with whom you have shared many years knows you almost as well as you know yourself. And the older you get the more you recognise and value friendship and closeness in understanding that have survived many years.
Why are we made like this?
Why do we desire these deep relationships more than anything else? Is it just a part of the evolutionary development of human beings? Did we need to be able to identify with our tribe for the sake of the survival of the group? Is that the reason why this desire for communion is so entrenched in our makeup?
A Christian believes that our desire for communion with another being is implanted into the very makeup and fabric of humanity as the primary purpose of our existence.
Think about it - a lot of money does not satisfy us, a large house or even a second house in the Caribbean doesn’t satisfy us, success at work or play gives us no lasting satisfaction, no medal or accolade deals with our deep down hunger. The Christian believes that God placed in each human being the primary need to be in relationship. Why?
The Christian answer is that our nature is the mirror image of God himself. He created human beings in his own image, and being in relationship is of the very nature of God. Before the world existed, we believe, God communed within himself - that is the essence of the meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity - God in three persons, who is one - a tripartite being in total harmony. For harmony you could read communion. Humans were created to share with God the ability to give their inmost selves. When we open our inmost selves to God, we discover that we are in a the deepest relationship possible for a human being - which in itself is a unique gift. But who is this God?
When we look at Jesus we see God - that is the astounding claim of Christians. You want to know what God is like? Then look at Jesus. Watch him as he walks through his day. Listen to how the speaks to people. Look at the way he deals with all sorts of problems which come before him. Look at the way he related to his disciples. Examine his management style.
The essence of God is love in communion, and Christ is our bridge who explains that and enables us to begin to understand it.
If we look for example at the hugely important story that is placed in the period between the life and death of Christ and the subsequent preaching of St Paul - the walk of the disciples to Emmaus - we catch a glimpse of what all this is about. You remember the story.
The truly shocking actions of the Jewish Leaders and the Roman Overlords had nailed Jesus to the cross. He hangs there. His blood drains away, his life slowly ebbs from him. For his disciples the scene is that of a light being extinguished. No hope for anything now. How can anyone make sense out of such a death that happens to such an alive person? Despair grips them. They scatter initially - a knot of men and a few women, shattered and bereft of all purpose - utterly at a loss to know what to do next. Two of them strike out for home - about five miles away - a two hour walk. As they go along they turn over with each other the events of the last few days and the terrible end to all their hopes.
Then a stranger joins them. Nothing uncommon in that. At some time or another every fell walker has experienced another walker joining them for a while as they travel the same path. The newcomer starts to reframe the recent events of which they talk for them. He points out the verses in the Jewish Bible - our Old Testament - that point to a messiah.
The time speeds by, as it does when you are deeply concerned with what you are discussing. Soon they are at the home of the disciples and the two of them invite their fellow traveller in, as any of us would. He enters and shortly they all sit down to eat. As the stranger breaks the bread they recognise that it is Jesus - and at that very moment he is gone - they can no longer see him. He didn’t go out through the door - he didn’t say cheerio to them - he didn’t thank them for the meal - he just wasn’t visible any more. The text says he ‘vanished’ from their sight.
Stand back for a moment and ask yourself what the effect on you would have been if you had been one of those disciples. They knew he was with them when they say down, then they knew he was no longer there, but they didn’t see him go. He was teaching them that his death was part of God’s plan and that, clearly, he was alive and able to talk and eat bread. Wouldn’t you feel that he might reappear at any moment? What sent those two disciples on another two hour walk back to Jerusalem as the evening drew in was wild excitement, because they realised that Jesus was alive. The way he gave thanks before the meal, or the way he broke the bread - in some way he showed them who he really was - and changed everything for them.
What was the purpose of that visitation by Jesus? He was teaching his disciples that he was in communion with them all the time, whenever, wherever, whatever they were doing.
Today he is here - communing with our hearts through his Holy Spirit. When we leave where we are he will go with us. The communion will not be broken. Through his Holy Spirit he is now an integral part of our lives - all who have accepted him into their lives as Lord experience this.
This communing with Christ is what we were made for. It is the highest pinnacle of achievement of which a human being is capable. Cattle and dogs and cows don’t do this. To commune with God is to reciprocate a mirror image of what God himself is like. What we can feel for him, he can feel for us - although he is so much greater than us that we cannot know or understand how God, who is eternal, ‘feels’.
When we come to the Lords Supper or Holy Communion or Eucharist or whatever you call the actions that we make in response to the command in John 13 to 15, he is not visible - all we see is the bread and the wine, elements of the sacrament.
When we join together at the Communion Rail (the very name is evocative) we are expressing our communion with him and with each other as followers of Jesus Christ. He meets us and we commune with him and, equally, with each other.
That communion doesn’t stop as we move away from the rail, it continues with us as we walk out into the week ahead. Our relationship with each other is strengthened because we have met with the Lord together in the sacrament he instituted.
That act of communing together with our Lord is what makes us tick as Christians. As we commune we open ourselves up to his love and grace. And we open up to each other and barriers collapse and love overtakes us and we are better people for it. Our time of communion at the rail is but part of the companionship of Christ throughout the week.
This is radically different from the fellowship at the golf club or the cricket club. Soldiers who go through active service together and thus have a close bond will experience a deeper emotion than the golfers. But for Christians, instead of it being our common humanity that joins us, we are joined because we have opened ourselves to God and are consequently open to each other.
Family members are drawn together by bonds of love and memory and in other ways. But Christian unity is more than that. In part it has to do with the direction we are facing in our lives. We have faced the cross and its demands on us and we are following the Master.
If we play false at Holy Communion - go up for the bread and wine without an open heart, without really giving ourselves to God, or perhaps withholding a part of ourselves by retaining a wrong or resentful spirit, then of course it is an empty act on our part. A sham. A ritual, without inner meaning or significance.
The Christian way works when we give ourselves. That is why the refusal of fourteen of the Primates at the recent meeting in Newry is so tragic. Apparently fourteen of the Archbishops and Heads of Communions refused to participate with the other Primates when there was a Communion Service. They were all invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury - but fourteen stayed away, refusing to join the other Primates at the Communion Rail. When love is withheld in that way what hope is there for unity? The unity is fractured. Such behaviour cannot be said to reflect the life and teaching of Christ.
The action of those fourteen Primates has shown us that we are already in schism, in the Anglican Communion. There are further phases still to be played out, but the situation at the moment can only be called schism.
If you have anything against your brother, go and deal with it before you come to the Communion Rail. That was the old advice. At all costs come to the Communion Rail - how can you keep away? You must come in a spirit of repentance - for your own spiritual health and for the sake of the rest of the Body of Christ. Be repentant for the one percent of sin on your part, ignoring the ninety nine percent of sin on someone else’s part. If you go off and try to build you own Communion Rail you will have displayed a confusion about what the love of Christ really means. That would be very sad.
But if you are able to preserve love in your heart, no matter how much you disagree with other Christians, and still extend the right hand of fellowship to fellow believers who also trust in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then you will truly be in the line of succession to the disciples and the early Christian Martyrs. That’s the way forward - that is the way to deal with heretics - that is the future of the true Church of Christ.