1966 was a special year for Highbury … and not just because
It was the year that Eric Burton came to be minister here. Eric brought with him vision and inspiration that he brought from the years he had spent working for the then Congregational Union of England and Wales as their Children’s and Youth officer.
He had just published a book outlining his vision for family church were people of all ages and all backgrounds were welcomed as one family of God’s people in church. No Walls Within was the title of his book and Eric’s vision for the church.
Eric was into the latest in visual aids and participative worship. Film strips, slide shows – this was state of the art technology. And things visual were all important. He had a picture board made that many will remember with fondness. He worked in collaboration with Roland Francis. Each Sunday one of the young people would open the curtain to reveal a poster Eric would relate his children’s talk to or a cartoon Roland had made specially for the occasion. They were wonderful and engaged the youngsters.
When we have visiting speakers we invite them to use pictures on the projector if they would like to. Some do, some don’t.
First time after we had had the projector Eric came to preach a couple of summers ago. And he set out instructions which Ian White took home and followed to create illustrations on the projector for his service.
This was Eric – approaching 80 and wanting still to innovate.
The other side of 80 Eric visited us again in the summer. Once again he set out detailed instructions for Becky to put into OpenSong to go with his service. Great to see his enthusiasm – took Becky quite some time – so thank you to her as well.
But this year was interesting for reasons that at the time Eric was not aware of.
A month before coming Eric rang me just to run past me his idea for the Sunday morning service.
It was to be a family service with all the children staying in as it was school holiday time. It was also to be a communion service.
Eric wanted to know if it would be all right to address Communion and what communion is.
Eric is one of those I look up to, one of those who has not only played his part in shaping my understanding of ministry and church life, but also one of those who has been Minister to me, in particular at the time of my father’s death when Eric was very supportive to us as a family as he took the funeral service.
To have Eric ask me whether it is OK to follow such and such a theme is great – it is so affirming. But also … if you think that’s the case then I follow your wisdom.
He built his whole service around the theme of Communion, and left for me in booklet form the text of what he had shared during the service.
If anyone would like to borrow it, it makes good reading as an explanation of Communion.
It is an outline of a Congregational interpretation of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It begins with reflections on its Jewish roots. It then goes on to explore what Christians mean and sees Communion as ‘an act of remembrance, an act of thanksgiving, an act of penitence and an act of devotion.
Reading what Eric had written and seeing what Eric had done in that service, and being aware of the theme he had chosen, something caught my attention.
I found Eric prompting me to think again. And Eric’s promptings chimed in with conversations I had been having with Becky.
What Eric writes starts with the Jewish roots of Communion in the Passover meal.
Passover is essentially a family gathering. It is not something you do in the synagogue. It is something you do at home. Insofar as it is possible the whole family will gather together for Passover in the family home. It will be presided over by the father of the family. And it will include everyone in the family – from the youngest to the oldest. Indeed the youngest will have a particular part to play, asking the senior member of the family what the significance of the Passover is and why it is celebrated?
In Jesus’ day it was celebrated in
If Eric began at that point he also set his reflections on Communion in the context of a service where the children were sharing with us for the whole service.
What we do on a Sunday when we meet is to meet with ‘no walls within’ as a church family.
We make a point of being welcoming to all and specifically invite all who love the Lord Jesus Christ to share with us at the Lord’s Supper.
Why do we share in communion when the children are not with us?
Our children’s leaders have fed back to us that it can be a very long time on a Commmunion Sunday when the children are in the back of the church.
Becky has prompted us to think again.
In her summer newsletter to parents and families she has suggested doing something different … and we are going to do that today.
More and more churches share communion at a point at which the children are in the service – when we joined with St Luke’s back in January we saw then that that is their practice.
And so after the sermon as the hymn begins, the deacon who has been on vestry duty is going to go through and tell the children’s leaders we are ready for the children to return to church.
When they come back they will go back to sit with their families.
We will then move into the communion part of our service.
I have grown up with a tradition that I waited until I became a church member, made my own confession of faith and became a church member – our equivalent of confirmation before taking communion. I recall therefore my first communion. I was about 12. I make much of the fact that for the most part I use the words that were used with me on that occasion at the heart of the service.
We do, however, have an open invitation to all who love the Lord Jesus Chrsit. I have come to learn that Passover includes all the family; young and old. Jesus was welcoming of all from the oldest to the youngest.
May it not be appropriate to share communion with the children as well?
What we want to do is to go with the wishes of the parents. If you think you would like to wait until your children have been confirmed, received into church membership, or maybe until they have been baptised, then we want to respect that.
So what we shall do is to offer the bread and the wine to parents first and it is for the parents to show that it is to be offered to the children as well. If they would rather not have the children receive, the deacon will say a simple God bless you to each of the children who are not receiving.
So what is happening in Communion for me?
I believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ in communion. I do not mean that the bread becomes the body of Christ, the wine becomes the blood of Christ and Jesus’s real presence is located in bread and in wine. I do not go with the idea that there is some substance in heaven that makes a thing on earth what it is and that the substance changes, the elements remain the same and so you can say the bread becomes the body of Christ. I am uneasy with all of that.
But I belive in the real presence of Jesus Christ in communion.
His real presence is there as we meet together in his name. It is rooted in the promise that where two or three gather together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Some people say that taking bread and wine is just symbolic. They are just symbols. The bread and the wine certainly is symbolic … but I believe that something more is going on when we eat and when we drink.
We are doing what Jesus commanded us to do. We are doing what every generation of Christians in one form or another has done ever since the time of Jesus.
As we eat the bread and as we drink the wine I believe that God is real and that God is really at work within us.
You can feel the bread as we eat going down. And sometimes it makes you splutter.
You can feel the wine – we use grape juice as you drink it.
What we eat and what we drink is real.
The love of God seen in the body of Christ broken for us and the blood of Christ shed for us is just as real – and that love of God in Christ is activated in our lives as it were by the working of the Holy Spirit.
Just as what we eat is real and what we drink is real so too the presence God at work in Christ and through the Holy Spirit is real.
It is not a theory. It is not something just symbolised.
Something real is happening. And it is the work of God coming alive in us.
As I hold the bread I think how real it is, as I eat it I think how I need things to eat to survive. And I think how real God’s love in Christ let loose by the Spirit is … and how I need that just as much.
I hold the glass – isn’t it interesting in the wake of the swine flu fears those who have a single cup have made special provision not to use the cup. We can see today our history being worked out. Originally in 1827 we had a cup. I think this is our original chalice. Then in the Victorian period at some point, when there was an awareness of hygiene and the danger of contagious diseases, lots of free churches were persuaded to switch to individual glasses. I have not qualms about using a single cup on occasion – but at the moment I am pleased to have individual glasses.
As I hold the glass – I think the same train of thoughts about the need to have something to drink.
But something else comes to my mind as well.
I hold the glass between my thumb and finger and as I look at the liquid I notice that I can see my pulse beating. Have you noticed that. It may just be me!!!
Just as the real beat of my heart can be seen in that cup, so too the life-beat of God’s love in Christ let loose by the Spirit is real within me as I drink that cup. God’s love in Christ by the power of the Spirit is my life-blood, it is the beat of my heart deep within.
Communion is most moving. It is something we share as a church family. With no walls within. It is something in a moment or too we will share with our youngsters as well.