I continue to look at prayers that have pulled me through hard times, continuing to look at the prayer over communion from my own tradition, the United Church of Christ. As a chaplain and pastor, so often when people face crises and trial, I am asked to bring simple bread and juice as a blessing of communion to them. I feel taking some time to consider what that acts as prayer means is important in reflecting how prayer pulls me and others through.
The words from the prayer for communion follow:
“God be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your heads.
We lift them up to God.
Let us give thanks to God Most High.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.
Our loving Creator,
Close to us as breathing and distant a the farthest star,
We thank you for your constant love for all you have made.
“We praise you for Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection
And for the calling forth of your church for its mission in the world.
“Gifted by the presence of your Holy Spirit,
We offer ourselves to you as we unite our voices with the entire family of your faithful people everywhere:
Holy, holy, holy God of love and majesty,
The whole universe speaks of your glory,
O God Most High.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God! Hosanna in the highest
“Merciful God, as sisters and brothers in faith,
We recall anew the words and acts of Jesus Christ.
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples
And said: ‘Take, eat: This is my body’.
“Jesus took a cup, and after giving thanks, gave it to the disciples and said: ‘Drink it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin.’
“We remember Christ’s promise not to drink of the fruit of the vine again until the heavenly banquet at the close of history, and we say boldly what we believe:
“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
“Come, Holy Spirit, come. Bless this bread, and bless this fruit of the vine. Bless all of us in our eating and drinking at this table, that our eyes may be opened that we may recognize the risen Christ in our midst, in each other, an in all for whom Christ died. Amen.”
And then following communion, we pray: “We give thanks, almighty God, that you refreshed us at your table by granting us the presence of Jesus Christ. Sustain our faith, increase our love for one another, and send us forth into the world in courage and peace, rejoining in the power of the Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.”
What stands out to me as I reflect on these words is where the Holy One is found. The Living God who enriches us, refreshing, granting us strength to keep faith, to practice love, to live in courage, is not described in these prayers as dwelling in some distant palace in heaven or even in some cathedral big and beautiful. Instead God is depicted as present in the words and acts in a real life: Jesus’. We see God at work in Jesus’ teaching, Jesus’ healing, Jesus’ loving, Jesus’ serving, Jesus’ hunger and thirst, Jesus’ despair and experience of being rejected, Jesus’ laughter and joy, Jesus’ death and discovery of new life on Easter morning.
There are really two ways that are meaningful to me I can make sense of such a way of encountering God out of the embodied prayer we participate in at communion.
The first, is how God is uniquely present in this life of Jesus. Hebrews 1 beautifully sums up what it means to see God uniquely present in the life of Jesus: “In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways. 2 In these final days, though, he spoke to us through a Son. God made his Son the heir of everything and created the world through him. 3 The Son is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being.” There is something about the life of this man of Nazareth, Jesus son of Mary & Joseph, that uniquely pictures God for Christians.
In my own life, I have moved away from reading this language as if it is saying all other ways of hearing about and knowing God, all other faiths, all other figures that point to God, are somehow wrong and second-rate to Jesus & my Christianity. I truly do think there are people outside my faith who encounter God in deep, meaningful, life-giving ways without Jesus being the central figure through which this experience occurs. Many of them have a depth of spirituality and compassion from which I can learn a great deal. Some have carried me through dark days, shedding the light of what I call God (but they use other names to describe) into my heart and life.
But the significance of this way of looking at what communion prayer pictures is a priority for me in how I interpret what matters in my own faith. If as a Christian the life of Jesus as I heard it described in the Gospels is the clearest picture I have of who this God that I cry out to, that I yearn for in moments of pain and despair, and encounter in my awe and wonder at life, then that lens needs to be my focus.
And so I can hear people describe God in many ways – as a God who rewards hard work so that the wealthy are closer to God than the poor; as a God about individual emotional fulfillment; as a God angry and vengeful who is ready to throw down judgment; as a God full of prejudice who treats some as second class citizens or outcasts in God’s world; as a God who elects some to everlasting torture in some concentration camp-style hell… in so many different descriptions of God. When I hear such descriptions of God, I can get caught up in weighing Bible verses, considering theology, looking at how this connects with the raw pain I carry in my soul.
Yet also I can ask the simple question: how much does this look like Jesus? So often what we heard being described is not a God that looks at all Jesus, not one toward which Jesus’ life and words would ever point. Who can we imagine Jesus saying is poor and suffering, or sick, because of sin? Who can we imagine Jesus being quick to do vengeance against? Who can we imagine Jesus electing to torture, or for that matter to exclude as different? No, this picture of God could not be further from Jesus!
And so though I do not believe that the language in Scripture about God being uniquely present in the life of Jesus means other paths and other figures can’t get people to God, nor that we ought to fear folks in other faiths are on the path to perdition, but I do think for those of us who identify as Christians it challenges us to look at Jesus for our model of thinking about God and our faith.
Ultimately communion calls us to see God as the sort of God present in the life of one on the fringes, one who tore down barriers to exclusion, who spoke up graciously against injustice, who called people to a radical life of compassion and forgiveness, nonviolence and sharing. God is not sitting there punishing us in our illness or loss, but becoming broken and poured out with us in those moments.
The other side of this, of course, is that this image of God present in a broken and poured out life is not just about Jesus. In coming as one of us, present in the flesh and blood life of an ordinary man, God is not showing us how utterly unique this man of Nazareth is alone, but rather how ordinary. If God can be so present in the life, experience, trials, joys, and pains of this man, God is just as present in each of those moments in our own lives. God is fully and completely present for you, for me.
This means that we can look and listen for God in our own experience. We can look for and listen for something the experiences of our day to day lives, of our upbringing, of our new and radically surprising experiences, and expect to find lessons, calls to new patterns of life, affirmations of who we are, and most importantly know we are not alone.
This is so important when we go through times of disorientation, loss, and trauma. I remember feeling God was unreachable when I lost my late wife, and then as I began to make sense of the new life the loss produced, having trouble trusting my feelings and hopes. When we realize that God is present in our lives we can know even in the darkest moments when it is hardest to feel and see, God is present. We can know that in the most of our lives, God is present leading and opening up new paths.
May you find yourself not just broken but broken open to new beginnings and new hope.
Your progressive redneck preacher,