Text: Luke 24:13-35 (the Road to Emmaus)
Introductory words to worship service . . .
Sometimes church involves strange elements. Today’s service includes two of my favourite things that might seem strange to some: communion, and an anthem the choir will sing, “Christ the Apple Tree.”
I first sang “Christ The Apple Tree” at a Christmas Eve service at Kingston Road United Church in Toronto in 2003, and I loved it. The words are evocative but difficult to understand. The first verse goes like this:
The tree of life my soul hath seen / Laden with fruit and always green
The trees of nature fruitless be / compared with Christ the apple tree
This old American carol is associated with Christmas, perhaps because of wassailing, a tradition where people go door-to-door singing carols and offering a drink from a wassail bowl of apple cider.
At a recent choir practice, Wendy Edey asked if there was any connection between the image of Christ the Apple Tree and the Bible. I don’t think there is, although the words bring to my mind the Garden of Eden, the Cross, and resurrection.
When Bryan told us that he had chosen “Christ the Apple Tree” for our anthem this Sunday, I remembered a sermon I had written in 2009 that ends with a reference to this strange carol. Since I believe this sermon fits well with communion, with today’s Gospel reading, and with Mother’s Day, I reprise it today.
My hope is that all the elements of today’s service, including those that may strike us as strange, will combine like the spices in hot cider to remind us of our calling and perhaps even to transform us a little from glory into glory.
Do you remember your first communion? Perhaps you were quite young at the time and don’t remember. Perhaps like me your first communion was part of a Confirmation service when you were 13 or 14. For some of us, it may not have seemed important. For others, it may have been life-changing.
In today’s reflection, I look at the stories of three first communions.
The first comes from 2009. On a Thursday evening that summer, I sat beside a 14-year old boy named Mitchell at a worship service, and it was the first time that he took communion. Mitchell lived in London Ontario; and although he seemed like a trouble-maker, I liked him. He was restless and sceptical. He kept up a running stream of critical comments during the sermon. But he took communion.
The were 600 of us, mostly teenagers, in a gym at Brock University in St. Catharines Ontario. The service was part of a five-day youth conference of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and I was there as part of a credit course on youth ministry given by Knox College, the Presbyterian seminary at the University of Toronto.
The first thing Mitchell noticed when he sat down beside me in the bleachers of the gym was the table set up on the stage. I told Mitchell that it meant we were probably going to have communion on this, the fourth of five evenings. The stage was beneath huge video screens; and each night of the conference, a worship service of 90 minutes to two hours happened there.
Before the Thursday service, the video screens were devoted to a display of text messages, which people in the gym broadcast from their cell phones to a number displayed on the screen. I watched Mitchell as he texted “I am amazing!” on his cell phone, and then about two minutes later, I pointed out to him when his little quip joined the scroll of messages unfurling on the screen.
When the service got around to communion, Mitchell was sorry to hear that they were serving juice and not real wine. Then when the minister directed us to not dip our fingers into the chalice of grape juice, Mitchell blurted out “Gross!”
Mitchell told me that he didn’t believe in God. He had come to this event simply as another week at summer camp . . . except that, unlike his other camps, this one had a steady drumbeat about Jesus going on in the background.
Most of my ancestors were Presbyterian. Many of the original members of the United Church of Canada in 1925 were Presbyterians. And the church I attended when I was a child in Cornwall ON and where I first took communion had been Knox Presbyterian church before it became Knox United in 1925.
But despite my Presbyterian roots, I sometimes felt like an alien at the Presbyterian youth conference eight years ago in St. Catherine’s.
Not that I didn’t enjoy the week or the course of which it was a part. I learned a lot from our professor who was an expert on youth ministry from Minneapolis. I also got along well with the 13 other students, all but one of whom were Presbyterians. But I didn’t like the tone of the worship services: there was so much emphasis on the triumphal side of Jesus as King and not much on Jesus as a Suffering Servant. I believed that my grandparents might have felt at home there — well, not at home with the praise songs, the video screens, the strobe lighting, and the rock music; but perhaps at home with the theology! Not me, though.
I worried about Mitchell encountering Christian worship for the first time with such an exclusive focus on Jesus as a powerful King. That evening, we sat through a rap video called “That’s my King: do you know him?” A bass voice asked if we knew the King of Kings, the King of Israel, the King of the Jews, the King of Heaven, and the King of Righteousness. Added to this was an endless string of rhythmic superlatives. “He is endlessly merciful. He is enduringly strong. He is entirely sincere. He is immortally graceful” and on and on. I turned to Mitchell and whispered, “Who do you think he is rapping about: Michael Jackson? Harry Potter?”
When the service was over, I wished Mitchell a good year and said that my prayer for both of us was that — with or without God — we might live lives filled with love. And then we said goodbye.
So, while I was impressed by the size and ambition of this national Presbyterian youth conference, I fear that this was not a perfect first communion experience for Mitchell. I worried that he might have found it to be phony or forced.
On the other hand, worship involves lots of hard work, and luck; and theology is an ongoing challenge. So who was I to criticize this worship service? It didn’t “work” for me, but maybe it was a moment of grace for Mitchell. I pray that it was . . .
Our Gospel reading this morning tells of another first communion. It is about two followers of Jesus who discover at the dinner table that they are in the presence of the Risen Christ.
The two had gone to Jerusalem with Jesus for Passover, and it is now seven days since they entered the city on Palm Sunday. As they walk back to their village, a stranger joins them to talk with them about the terrible events of the week. When they arrive home, they invite him to dinner. And when the stranger breaks bread, they become aware he is no ordinary companion. He is the Risen Christ.
This story is a reminder of why we celebrate communion. In the breaking of bread, we too hope to catch a glimpse of the Risen Christ, which is a divine spark that lives within us. Sometimes we glimpse this spark around a family dinner table, especially when the family is a community of faith and the table is the Lord’s Table . . .
To finish, I will read an account of another first communion experience, one that was momentous for the author. I am reading from Sara Miles’ 2007 memoir, “Take this Bread: a radical conversion.”
Her book begins like this: “One early, cloudy morning in 1999 when I was forty-six years old, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine. This is a routine Sunday activity for many. But not for me. Up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life. At best, I had been indifferent to religion; more often I was appalled by its fundamentalist crusades.
This was my first communion. And it changed everything. It led me against all expectations to a faith that I’d scorned. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food — indeed, the bread of life . . .
She continues: “Mine is a personal story of an unexpected and inconvenient conversion, told by an unlikely convert: a blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian; and a left-wing journalist . . . I stumbled into a radically inclusive faith centered on sacraments and action . . . I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcomed and the despised and outcast are honoured” (pp. xiii-xiv).
That’s how Sara Miles begins her book. All four of her grandparents had been Christian missionaries. But both of Sara’s parents had rebelled at a young age against their parents and become militant atheists. This explains Sara’s surprise and awkwardness when she became a Christian at age 46. I recommend her book.
Here is more of what Sara Miles’ wrote about her first communion.
“When I walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco, I’d never heard a Gospel reading and never said the Lord’s Prayer . . . On many walks, I’d passed the beautiful wooden building, and this time I went in . . . A man and a woman in long tie-dyed robes stood and began chanting in harmony. There was no organ, no choir, no pulpit: just the unadorned voices of the people, and long silences, framed by the ringing of deep Tibetan bowls. I sang, too. It crossed my mind that this was ridiculous . . .
‘Jesus invites everyone to his table’ a woman announced . . . and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me a goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ . . .
I was in tears and physically unbalanced . . . I wanted that bread again . . . It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger . . . And so, a pattern developed — me going to St. Gregory’s, taking the bread and bursting into tears, drinking the wine and crying some more. I knew I couldn’t say a word about it to my mother: the idea of her scorn filled me with dread. Communion? Jesus? What was I thinking?” (pp 57-62).
But at the end of the book, Sara writes how she at last did confess to her atheist mother. She writes, “it turned out that I had to cook for my mother to do it . . . the table was set with bread and wine and lamb . . . I broke the bread and lifted my glass and said, ‘Mom, I have to tell you something. I’ve become a Christian. I’ve started going to church.’
I can’t remember exactly what the two of us said, but as our conversation spilled out slowly, then in little rushes, I felt fear evaporating — not just mine but hers.
My mother was kinder than I deserved. ‘I guess I’m a bigot,’ she said. ‘It’s just that I had to fight so hard against my parents’ religion. It cost me so much. I can’t believe in it.’
I blurted out the stuff that I loved about Jesus. ‘It’s about food,’ I said. ‘And being with people who aren’t like me.’
She looked at me. ‘I get that,’ she said. I could see the rigid, frightened mother and the rigid, frightened child. ‘But,’ she said, ‘I told my mother when I was ten that I didn’t believe in God, and I haven’t believed ever since.’ She took a bite of her meat. It was dark outside now, the last light gone down over the hills to the west, and I thought of my mother listening, unbelieving, to her missionary parents pray in Baghdad, in Damascus, in Baltimore and New York, until they too were gone, and she was left with her yearning and her refusal.
‘I loved the hymns, though’ she said. ‘I bet I still know all the verses.’
And I remembered my mom singing to me, long ago. ‘Time like an ever-rolling stream’ she’d croon, ‘bears all our cares away.’ And the Handel tune about Zion, and ‘Love Divine,’ with its amazing flourish at the end, proclaiming that we would all be ‘changed from glory into glory.’
‘Do you know this one?’ I asked. It was a clean, odd Shaker tune. I’d learned it at morning prayer, and I loved the minor, shape-note harmonies. I sang, ‘For happiness I long have sought, and pleasure dearly I have bought. I missed of all, but now I see, it’s found in Christ the apple tree.’
‘Christ as an apple tree?’ my mother said. ‘Huh.’
She poured me some more wine.
It wasn’t official Eucharist. It was real communion . . . made by human hands out of meat and hope. It was what the Russian mystics called ‘a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where none are left behind’” (277-8).
This morning, my prayer is that our celebration of communion will remind us that God’s Love lives within, between and all around us.
May it be so. Amen.