May 2, 2021
I Corinthians 11:23-26
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
In 2010, an Anglican minister in Toronto ignited a Canada-wide controversy when she gave communion bread to a German Shepherd named Trapper. The dog’s owner had been harassed by the police earlier in the week for sitting on the church’s steps and when he called the church to complain, they apologized and in a gesture of reconciliation invited him to come to worship with them that Sunday. He accepted their offer and when he came, he brought his dog Trapper with him. Trapper was quite friendly and well behaved, and when, during the time of eucharist, the dog’s owner approached the altar to receive communion, Trapper followed and obediently sat by the man’s side. The minister shared the bread and cup with the man, and then, charmed by Trapper’s attentiveness, impulsively handed a piece of bread to the dog as well. The dog’s owner later said that he thought the gesture was very welcoming and noticed a number of people in the congregation smiling as his dog accepted the bread, but not everyone was happy. One member of the church was so offended that he reported the priest to the diocese and the diocese reprimanded the priest, calling her act “strange and shocking.” Soon the incident was being reported in newspapers throughout Canada and Christians from around the country weighed in with their opinions.
One person said, “Communion is a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus’ body; he died for all of us but I don’t recall anything from the scripture about Jesus dying for the salvation of our pets.”
Others argued that animals are included in God’s love and that even St. Francis preached to the birds.
One person said, “I feel sorry for the dog. Those wafers taste terrible.” (1)
I learned about this incident this week when I googled ‘dogs’ and ‘communion’ in preparation for Dexter Time. For those listening by podcast, when the pandemic required social distancing during worship, I began to bring my dog Dexter to church. Every week, he participates in worship by greeting people before the service, helping me do a time for the children, and sleeping through my sermons just like a real member of the congregation. I have not, however, ever offered him communion. Today, during the time for children I gave him bread and grape juice, but it wasn’t from the Table, and it hadn’t been blessed so there was nothing sacramental about it. Now, I’m a Baptist, and Baptists don’t have sacraments so for me, the bread and cup are never sacramental. I was raised to see the act of communion as a time when Christ is present in the body of people who have gathered in remembrance of him, not in the elements per se, so I personally wouldn’t be bothered if Dexter ate the communion bread with us. Nevertheless, we are a multi-denominational church and I know that many of you are from traditions that view communion as a sacrament, who see the bread and cup as consecrated — set apart — to confer grace on those who receive it and bring union between the faithful and Christ. In those traditions, to offer the elements of communion to a dog who has no comprehension of what Christ’s sacrifice means for him or the world would be to profane a sacred rite. Consequently, though it is not my tradition, I try to treat the bread and the cup with the sacred respect that some people here would desire.
Our theological understanding of the Lord’s Supper differs considerably between traditions, and the way it is practiced differs as well. In some churches, the bread shared during communion is cut up Wonder bread from Wegmans, while in others it is paper-thin mass-produced unleavened wafers. The cup might be an ornate chalice with wine, a tiny glass of grape juice, or during the pandemic, a plastic disposable cup that comes with the grape juice sealed inside a tear-off lid. We even call this act different things — eucharist, mass, communion, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper — and in some churches it is celebrated every day, some every week, some once a month, some just once a year. When I first came here as a minister, this church only did communion every quarter and we switched to a monthly communion because the Elders complained that they couldn’t remember how to do it when they only did it 4 times a year. Nevertheless, however we do it, whenever we do it, and whatever we call it, it is for almost all Christians a central act of their worship life, and it is one of the oldest rituals of the church. The apostle Paul traces it back to a directive of Jesus himself who instituted the ritual with the command to “do this is remembrance of me,” or better translated, “Keep doing this in remembrance of me.” The people of the early church actually differed just as much as we do today on the meaning of the ritual but though Christians have not always agreed on its meaning, for two thousand years we have agreed on its importance. We are called to gather at this Table, to share the bread and the cup, and to keep remembering Jesus’ death on a cross and his resurrection to new life.
“Keep doing this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said.
Now, there are a lot of important stories about Jesus in the Bible and a lot of his teachings that we study and discuss, but the Bible doesn’t tell us to rehearse any of those other stories on a regular basis. We don’t cut a hole in the roof of the church every month and lower a person on a pallet to re-enact Jesus’ healing of a paralyzed man, so why does the Bible tell us to continually reenact Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in the ritual of the Lord’s Table? The apostle Paul says that it is because the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are central to our identity as Christians. In fact, Paul says, you could have faith if you knew nothing but Jesus crucified and resurrected. For Paul, you could know nothing of Jesus’ birth in a stable, never hear of how he walked on water, or healed the paralyzed man, or welcomed the children to him; you could go your whole life without singing, “Tell me the Stories of Jesus,” and yet, in Paul’s mind, you would still know the whole of the gospel message if you sat at the Lord’s Table and heard the words, “This is my body, that is for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
It is Christ’s death on a cross, and his resurrection to new life that makes us who we are as Christians. Whether we view the bread and cup as the mystical body and blood of Christ or whether we think of it as simply a symbol of his sacrifice and the life he offers us, when we taste that bread and lift that cup to our lips, we remember. We remember that Christ went all the way to the cross for us. We remember that nothing could stop his love. We remember that he suffered and was tormented and took on the worst the world could do to him in order that we might not despair in our own times of pain. And we remember that on that first Easter morning, God’s love triumphed over the powers of cruelty and death, and that Christ was raised again to new life. We remember that Jesus promised that even when our own future looks dark and grim, God can raise us to new life as well. And we remember that he promised to stay with us and walk with us, and give us the strength to live in hope and love for others. Our regular re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper is a living experience of a continuing present truth: Christ poured out his life for the people and Christ is poured out again and again in a love that continues to save.