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Saturday, March 3, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: What’s With Communion?

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.

Luke 14: 12-24

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”


The small town/suburb of Baltimore called Parkville, where I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s was white. It’s hard now, given the world we live in, to imagine what that was like, but that’s the way it was. There weren’t any laws that said black people couldn’t live in Parkville or go to its schools, but that’s just the way it was. So, I went all the way through childhood and teenagerdom without a single black – or brown, or yellow, or red – friend.

The scenes we watched on the television news in those years – of governors of Arkansas and Alabama and Mississippi standing in schoolhouse doors to prevent black children from entering those schools – were foreign to us. Stories about massive resistance in Virginia, including the 1968 Green vs. New Kent County Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court ruled that New Kent’s system of segregated schools was illegal, didn’t make sense to us. They weren’t foreign because we had black classmates, but because nobody black lived in our school district.

My Uncle Don and Aunt Helen lived on a farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Also living on the farm was Jake, a black hired man, and his wife Peggy. Jake and Peggy lived in the tenant house just down the lane from my Aunt and Uncle’s house. Jake and Uncle Don worked side by side every day, and one day, when Uncle Don was stung on the ear by a bee out in the field and collapsed from anaphylactic shock, Jake fell to his knees, sucked the stinger out of Don’s ear, picked him up and carried him to the house and called the rescue squad, saving his life. And, in the middle of the day when all work stopped for what farmers called dinner – not lunch – Peggy came from her house and she and Jake sat at the kitchen table with Don and Helen and everyone else and ate. Those dinners at Don and Helen’s were my first experiences eating with people of color. Years later, at Aunt Helen’s funeral, Jake stood weeping with my cousins and their children as the family said goodbye at the casket. My cousins’ children always referred to Jake as Uncle Jake – their parents’ brother.

To be invited to table is the most intimate act of friendship and family we can bestow. I have friends that I work with and meet with, but we don’t eat at each other’s houses. Schoolchildren have certain friends that they sit with at lunch, and others they avoid: with whom a new student sits at lunch is a very big deal. When I was in the Bishop’s Cabinet, meeting at the Conference office building, during a dinner break it was telling who went off to eat with whom. It’s a huge moment when children graduate from the children’s table at Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter to the grown-ups’ table. There is a pecking order at formal banquets for who is seated with whom at which table. To eat with someone is an indicator of friendship and intimacy. To continue the theme of Uncle Jake at table, I will never forget my first invitation to dinner in a black household in Charlottesville when I was in college. I was incredibly aware that I had crossed an important bridge in my life, and felt so honored and so grateful for the hospitality and warmth of the Wells family who fed me.

There are a hundred ways to talk about how important Holy Communion is – or should be – for Christians. One way would be to talk about how Roman Catholics believe that during the priest’s prayer, bread and wine are miraculously changed into the literal body and blood of Jesus, even though they continue to look and taste like bread and wine; and how Baptists believe that Communion is a memorial meal in which we remember what Jesus did for us but nothing else miraculous happens; but we Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians believe that it’s still bread and wine but also the body and blood of Jesus, in the same way that Jesus is both 100% human and 100% God at the same time. Or we could look at the three essential parts of the prayer at the table: thanksgiving – in Greek, eucharist – where we thank God for all the ways God has shown love for us; re-membering -- in Greek anamnesis – when we recount the story of Jesus at the Last Supper; and epiclesis, when we invite the Holy Spirit to make the bread and the wine to be the Body and Blood of Christ, and us into Christ’s Body united by his Blood. Those are all good ways to talk about Holy Communion.

But this morning I want to present an image I’ve been wrestling with for a couple of years now – it’s the image you saw in the Called to Step Outside video (
 you saw a few minutes ago. It seems to me that in both our lessons this morning God is telling us that the church is to be a place of radical hospitality, demonstrated by our invitation to the whole world to come to dinner. 

Not too long ago – indeed, when I was a child – the church believed that communion was only for a few people. In the Methodist church in which I grew up, one did not receive (you do not take communion – you receive it) communion until confirmation as a youth. You were supposed to understand or appreciate communion before receiving it. And I remember being left behind in the pew as my parents and other grown-ups went forward for communion. That message – that I wasn’t welcome – was clearly communicated to me. Other denominations still say that if you don’t belong to that denomination or perhaps even to that congregation, you’re not welcome at the Lord’s Table.

In this morning’s reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing the practice in the early church when the congregation would meet at the houses of the wealthier members, because those houses were larger. The friends of the wealthy would arrive first for what was a covered dish dinner, and they would start eating and drinking the good food before the poorer members arrived. By the time the other brothers and sisters arrived, the rich would be well fed and well lubricated. So, when Paul talks about the sin of eating and drinking without “discerning the body,” he’s not talking about some mystical understanding of how wine and bread are really Jesus: he’s talking about not discerning that the whole congregation is the Body of Christ together, and one part of the Body can’t say to another part they have no need of them. Paul is saying that the Holy Table must be absolutely inclusive, else it’s a sin.

That’s the same message as the gospel lesson, in which the friends of the rich man – and here Jesus means those who consider themselves the friends of God – make excuses for why they can’t feast with him, so the rich man – God – sends his servants – apostles and prophets – out to invite the poor, crippled, blind, and lame to take their place. As I say every time we celebrate Holy Communion, this is not our congregation’s table, it’s not our denomination’s table – it’s the Lord’s Table, and he invites you to feast with him.

The conversion I’ve had about Holy Communion isn’t about who’s welcome at the Table – I’m so glad we now understand that children, or special needs people, or outsiders are welcome, because they may be the only people here who really understand it. My conversion has been about my role at the table. I have come to understand that my job is to proclaim God’s radical hospitality at this meal in two ways. First, it is to make sure that we invite God into the meal. The most egregious failure I’ve seen over the years by clergy is not to pray the epiclesis: Send the power of the Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts. Make them be for us the Body and Blood of Christ, so we may be the Body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. If we don’t include God, then this is just a Baptist memorial re-enactment, not a sacrament in which God is present in outward signs with an interior and spiritual gift.

The second role of the celebrant at the Table is to make sure that the Table is open to everyone. There can never be any such thing as a private and closed communion. If a bride and groom celebrate communion at their wedding, as Grace and Mark Fulcher did at theirs last year, then everyone has to be welcome to Table as well. If we have communion at a funeral, which is a powerful and wonderful thing to do and you must do at mine, then everyone has to be welcome. And on Sunday mornings strangers, children, and the physically and mentally challenged must be included.

A few of you have asked what happened to our fifth Sunday covered dish dinners. The answer is nothing – it’s just that no one has assumed leadership for them and no one has explained how they help us Love God, Follow Christ, and Serve Others. So let me propose that yes, our church needs to eat together more often. A very few people – not enough -- have told me they liked and miss our Wednesday night dinner experiment from last fall. But let me suggest that we connect Holy Communion and these lessons from Scripture and radical hospitality and covered dish dinners. When we eat together, Jesus said, we need to invite the people around us, especially the poor, the crippled, the bind, and the lame. Not just our church friends, but those not like us. Jesus said that the way he wanted us to remember him was to eat together. That means that every meal we eat with someone else – at home, at school, at McDonalds – is a communion meal we eat with Jesus. That’s why we pray over the food – to invite Jesus to be present and thank him for showing up.

But what if we decided to have meals here on a regular basis and specifically invited the poor? Not have a soup kitchen so poor people can come and eat while we watch, but invite them to sit at table with us, as part of our family? That would be Loving God, Following Christ, and Serving Others. It would also be a lot of work, and it would change our lives.

What’s with communion? Why is it so important? It’s the primary way that Jesus said to remember him. Last year when Rabbi Arian and his wife, Keleigh, stayed at our house, on Friday night at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath they asked us for two candles – the candles of observance and remembrance – for a roll of bread, and a glass of wine. Keleigh lit the candles, then Charles took the bread, thanked God for it, broke it, and gave it to us to share. Then he took the glass of wine, prayed over it, and shared it with us. For the first time, I saw that Christian Holy Communion is not rooted in the Passover Seder, but in the Jewish Sabbath dinner. Jesus is saying whenever you gather with loved ones to remember and observe, I will be with you when you break bread and drink together. Now, he says, invite the poor and the broken to your family dinner, because that’s where you’ll find me, with them.

What’s with communion? If you want to understand what it means to follow Jesus, the answer is at the Table.

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