Sit, Kneel and Stand
I Corinthians 11:23-32
Around Christendom almost every church celebrates the service of communion on a regular basis. But though most churches celebrate this service, there are great variations in the way that it is done.
This is true in terms of the type of bread. Some insist on unleavened bread while others are comfortable with leavened. Some use the whole loaf while others use morsels from a loaf.
There are variations too on the wine. Sometimes it is drunk from a common chalice, or individual cups, sometimes fermented wine or simple grape juice is used.
There are variations in the frequency, with some celebrating each week, some monthly, while others only occasionally.
And of course, the words spoken take on multiple variations from church to church.
But I want to dwell upon the issue of posture. There are some traditions that sit when they take communion. Others kneel as they partake, while others stand. All three of these postures have great significance. Let me introduce us to the implications of the three postures.
Sitting at the Lord’s table is a very vivid reminder of that very first communion service, when Jesus sat with his twelve followers around the table in the upper room.
After his resurrection, Jesus encounters two people walking on their way to Emmaus. When they get to their home, they sit around the table. They had not recognized him, until he was known to them in the breaking of the bread, as they sat around that meal table. This was the first communion service after the resurrection.
When the 5,000 were fed, Jesus instructs his disciples to have the people sit down and then he broke the bread, gave thanks, and gave them all the meal of their lives.
Sitting at the Lord’s Table reminds me of two of the elements of every communion service.
A table is a place where people are fed.
A table setting is a place where nourishment is received and strength is renewed.
The 23rd Psalm says that God prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies. That was particularly true for Jesus on the night of that first communion service. He faced adversity and opposition and needed to be strengthened for the hours ahead.
This communion service is for each of us a moment of nourishment of the spirit for whatever lies ahead of us. It is in such a moment that new reservoirs of strength can be found for the living of life.
A Place of Fellowship
A table in most cultures, however, is not only the central place for feeding, but the focal place for fellowship. It is at the table that we can relax at the close of a day. The workday may have been long. We have been separated from one another. And at the table, we gather together with our Father for companionship with Him and with one another.
The word Companion is an interesting word. It comes from two Latin words. Com means “with” and Panion comes from the word “Bread”. A companion is one with whom we share bread. This service is called a COMMUNION service because it is a place of meeting with another over a meal.
In Revelation 3:20 Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock, and if anyone hears my voice, I will come in and eat with him and he will eat with me.”
Did you notice that during the days with his disciples Jesus spends enough time eating with people that he is called a glutton and a wine bibber? The charges were wrong, but the evidence was there, that he spent a lot of time at the table with disciples, tax collectors, pharisees and friends. 27 times Luke’s Gospel alone tells of Jesus and his followers eating together
To this very day Jesus wants to spend time in fellowship with us, and this hour reminds us of that glorious possibility.
But there are other traditions where the primary posture is not sitting but kneeling. Kneeling says something that sitting does not. Those that kneel, say that God is our friend with whom we share life, but he is more, much more. Kneeling implies two additional truths about every communion service.
To Make Petition
To kneel before a person is to come with a petition, often a cry for mercy. Peter, when he encounters Jesus on board his boat, falls on his knees before Jesus and says, “Lord, depart from me for I am a sinful man.”
To come to the table to eat says “I am hungry,” or “I have been lonely” but to fall on our knees says, “Lord, I am sinful, and need your mercy.” To kneel is to announce my feelings of unworthiness before Him.
To Submit to Lordship
But to kneel often means more that confession. To kneel indicates submission. Paul tells of the day that shall come when every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. To kneel before someone is to declare that His is the right to rule. He is the master of my affairs. His is the authority over my life.
In medieval times when a knight was dubbed by a King, the knight would kneel before the king, and the king would take the man’s sword, and lift it over the man’s head. He brought it down upon the man’s shoulders and invested him as a knight. But the knight was saying something too. He surrendered his sword into the hands of another. He knelt before him is a position of great vulnerability. The sword that descended could come flat side down and make him a knight. It could come down edge first and make him dead. But in the act of kneeling he was vowing loyalty to, and trust in, the one who held authority.
Alfred Lord Tennyson describes such a scene in the story of the knighting by Arthur of the knights of the round table. Listen to his words:
Arthur sat, crowned on the dais, and his warriors cried
“Be thou the king, and we will work thy will
Who love thee.” Then the king in low deep tones,
And simple words of great authority.
Bound them by so straight vows to his own self
That when they rose, knighted from kneeling, some
Were pale as at the passing of a ghost,
Some flush’d, and others dazed, as one who wakes
Half-blinded at the coming of a light.
But when he spake, and cheered his Table Round
With large, divine and comfortable words,…
I beheld from eye to eye through all their order flash
A momentary likeness of the king.
Kneeling at the moments of communion is a yielding to the authority of Christ the King.
But there are other traditions that neither kneel nor sit when taking communion, but stand instead. At the time of the Passover from Egypt, when Moses was to lead the people out of slavery, God gave some rather particular instructions. “Thus shall you eat the Passover. Your loins shall be girded, your shoes shall be on your feet and your staff shall be in your hand.”
To stand while eating connotes two other truths about a communion service.
Standing at Attention.
To be standing is to be ready to receive orders. It is waiting with expectancy that action will soon be in the offing. It is waiting with a readiness to go at a moment’s notice. It is waiting with alertness. When a person eats standing it often indicates that he is about to be deployed and wants nothing to make him forgetful about his commission.
That is why the loins were girt. When a person intended travelling a long distance, he hitched his long robes up under his belt to get them away from the feet so there would be no impediment for the journey. The feet were shod with shoes for the long-distance walk. The staff was gripped in the hand. There was the recognition that a long journey with tough terrain lay ahead.
Every Communion service is a waiting and a willingness to take direction for the days ahead.
The Sending out
In the Roman Catholic tradition this service is called “The Mass”. A strange word to us. It too comes from the Latin language. It means “to dismiss” or “to send out.” In some traditions the communion element is taken almost while moving, as people file past the table. They have not come to stay; they have come to the service in order that they may leave. But leave re-commissioned. In the Greek language the word “to send” gives us the word “Apostle“- a sent one.
The communion service is a commissioning service of the apostles of God’s church. We pause here for a moment, but we are soon on our way, back into the world, as God’s sent ones.
Obviously, the posture of our bodies when we take communion is incidental and may be trivial. But the inward posture of mind and emotion is crucial and pivotal. Communion is never to be an empty ritual that we go through, because we have always done it this way. It is a moment in our lives that can add meaning to the rest of our days.