Harold Babcock's Sermons

March 28, 2013

Communion as Invitation to Love

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 2:47 am

March 28, 2013
Maundy Thursday

“I give you a new commandment: that you love one another.”
– John 13: 34

One of the most profound religious experiences I have had in recent years has been my participation in several communion services at our UnitarianPartnerChurch in Ujszekely in the Transylvanian region of Romania.  Two years ago at Easter time I was in Transylvania and had the privilege of sharing in the celebration of Easter communion with my colleague Zsolt Jakab.  Though I had previously conducted a yearly Maundy Thursday communion service during my ministry to the MurrayUniversalistChurch in Attleboro, there is something very special about the manner in which our Transylvanian Unitarian brothers and sisters participate in this ancient ritual.

Transylvanian Unitarians celebrate communion four times a year: at harvest time, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.  These services are by far the most popular religious services among them.  Communion Sundays are among the few times during the year when a majority of the congregation is present at church services.  Those who are unable to attend because of age or infirmity are brought communion in their homes following the service in the church.  These home visits to deliver communion have been some of the most moving religious experiences I have ever had.  To see the tears start in the eyes of an elderly parishioner no longer able to get to church is a reminder of the power of both religious symbolism and religious community.

Let me be clear: there is nothing supernatural about communion in the Transylvanian practice of communion.  If there is magic, it is in the moment when the minister, looking deeply into the eyes of each communicant, delivers the communion bread and wine and blesses him or her by saying, “Isten aldja meg”: God bless you.  As my Transylvanian Unitarian colleagues Csaba Todor and Kinga Reka Szekely have written, 

We do not believe that the bread is the real body of Jesus.  Nor do we believe that the wine is the blood of Jesus.  There is no metaphysical meaning in the wine and the bread.  There is no theological speculation.  The bread and the wine symbolize the substance of our life now and the possibilities for the future.  The focus of communion is on the people who are here for communion.  We believe in a community of people who are alive, and community with a world of faith beyond physical reality.

Communion for the Transylvanian Unitarians is about remembrance of Jesus, who is venerated not as a deity but as a nearly perfect human role model; about gratitude for all the gifts of life, but in particular for the gift of community; about making a clean start, unencumbered by all the ways that we have missed the mark; and, especially, about love: the love of God for us and us for God, as well as our love for one another as human beings.  As Csaba and Kinga explain, 

Communion is a sacred moment when we look at ourselves in the light of God’s radiant love.  People who believe they were born with a divine spark in their hearts know that human life is a short but wonderful opportunity to experience love and connectedness.  In order to do this we need moments of depth.  We need to stand in silence for a moment, to look in the mirror of our consciences and in the mirror of our partner’s eyes. . . .  Communion is an opportunity—an invitation—to focus our lives on love.  The love we can give, the love we can receive.

In delivering the communion, some old-world rules apply: first the men line up, in order of age, the oldest first down to the youngest participants.  As the women sing together, the men come forward to receive the bread; the women follow, oldest to youngest, as the men sing.   Then the action is repeated as first the men and then the women come forward to receive the wine from a common chalice.

When I have participated, I have distributed the bread while Zsolt shared the cup, thus saving one of the trips to the communion table.

Either way, the experience is one that every member takes with deep seriousness.

I have always been impressed by how willingly I am accepted as a minister at occasions like this.  No one seems to question who this strange interloper is, or what business he has participating in this most intimate of religious celebrations, and most are pleasantly surprised and even amazed when I speak the words of the blessing to them in their native Hungarian language.

Imre Gellerd, a Unitarian minister who took his own life after repeated harassment and imprisonment under the formerly Communist government of Romania, and one who is considered almost a saint for his steadfastness in the face of oppression, once wrote that, “As far as the Lord’s Supper is concerned, the Unitarian position seems to be the closest to the early Christian principles.  Jesus clearly said: ‘Do this in memory of me.’”  Dr. Gellert wrote that “The Lord’s Supper is the liturgy through which we remember Jesus’ life and death, and we receive encouragement to follow his example. . . .  Repenting our mistakes and our sins, we must promise that in the future we will endeavor to better preserve the purity of our hearts, and to live a life worthy of God and ourselves. . . .  It is a communion with the divine and with our neighbors: a communion of ourselves with our highest values.”

These are ideas and ideals to which I find it easy to give my assent, and I hope that you will too as we join in this ancient ritual this afternoon.  Though we will partake in a somewhat different manner than our Transylvanian friends in the communion celebration, I hope that you will think of our faraway brothers and sisters in faith and consider the profound meaning that this invitation to love holds for them, and might come to hold for us, also.  As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

May it be so for each of us.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

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