For almost ten years, Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church has had a fluid communion schedule. Rather than holding communion once a month as some congregations do, or having it once a quarter which is the bare minimum Presbyterian congregations are charged to uphold, we have followed the church calendar, celebrating communion on particular feast days. This includes Easter and Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, among others. It has become a way for us to mark the church year by heightening these particular days with a shared feast.
This morning, we begin a new worship series that carries through the end of July. And during that time, we will celebrate communion every Sunday. While worship is at 10am in June and July, whether we are here in the Sanctuary or over in the Chapel, we will gather around this table and celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
The hope in all of this is that each of us would grow in our understanding of this feast materially and spiritually; how it feeds us materially and spiritually; and how it knits us together as God’s people, so that we would be people of the feast, wherever we go.
As we say often, the table is prepared. Let us keep the feast.
For many of us, gathering around the table reminds us of our own experiences with communion. I am aware that we come from varied backgrounds: high church, low church, no church, and everything in between. Whether it’s processing forward, or kneeling to receive the elements, or having communion served to you on trays, or gathering to sit around a shared table, or no memory or experience at all, I am sure that a wide variety of experience is reflected in our shared history.
When I was a child, the church we attended did not allow children to receive communion until we had taken a special class. And so, on those once a quarter Sundays, seated between my grandparents, I remember the plates and trays being passed over my head, with their untouchable bite-size pieces of bread and little cups of grape juice. My grandmother, never one for playing by the rules, would pass the plastic cup to me after she had finished so that I could taste the little bit of sweet juice that still swirled around the bottom.
One Sunday, a large group of us gathered in Fellowship Hall where the Senior Pastor led us through the meaning of communion. The one thing that stuck that day was his suggestion that we pray after receiving each of the elements. And after that, we were approved to receive. I remember, after eating the bread and drinking the cup, that I would clench my eyes firmly shut, because that meant I was praying hard – really, really hard. What communion meant, in theological terms, was not something I grasped in the least. And yet, it expanded on the simple meaning implied by my grandmother, passing on that taste of juice: I was included.
Since then, I have experienced communion in a variety of ways. In Episcopal churches, Methodist, congregational, Vineyard, non-denominational, high church, low church. I have even received communion in churches where I should have been forbidden from the table, always by the gracious invitation of someone who valued welcome over doctrine.
I have knelt to drink from a shared cup of wine. I have had a wafer gently placed on my tongue. I have sat around a single table, as we passed elements to one another: “This is the body of Christ; this is the blood of Christ.” I have had a mix of bread and wine spooned into my mouth. And I am pretty sure that I have had crackers smeared with grape jelly. In all of it, what I have learned is something that I never would have known as a child. While I had been raised to assume that there was only one way to do communion, I had, instead, been exposed to simply one way among many; and that it had simply connected me to this remarkable feast in all of its varied expressions.
I do not consider these practices equal, by any means – at least, not to me. And it is now the element of extravagant welcome that I cherish the most. This, much more than any debate over consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation, is what I think this feast is ultimately all about. The bottom line is that the communion table should be a reflection of the tables around which Jesus gathered in his lifetime. Christ sat with people who pushed the boundaries of acceptable first century culture: the sick, the poor, the despised, the marginalized, the hated. He even broke bread with Judas, the one who would ultimately betray him, fully knowing what was to come.
The idea that we could or should set barriers to this table, that there should be hurdles or obstacles, that it should be marked off with barricades and velvet ropes, is something I cannot reconcile with Jesus. That is why we have both juice and wine here, recognizing that there are those for whom alcohol is not a drink of celebration, but a mark of addiction. It is why we have incorporated bread without gluten, because there are those with not only allergies, but debilitating illnesses brought about by wheat. It is why we welcome infants, children, and adults alike here, because ultimately, no matter how much we think we might have learned about the meaning of communion, the most important lesson is that is Jesus who welcomes us, who chooses us to be his guest.
For Presbyterians, our governance requires that a person be baptized before receiving communion. We do not specify the kind or denomination or age, but simply that there have been a baptism. Maybe I’ve got too much of my grandmother in me, but I’m not sure even that requirement holds up to theological or Biblical scrutiny. It is not the Presbyterian Church, or Oglethorpe, or the Pastor that welcomes us to the table. It is Jesus. And I am hard-pressed to remember a meal where Jesus waited to pass the bread until he had verified the baptismal status of all in attendance.
The kind of welcome that Jesus embodies, the radical inclusion of Christ’s table, is at work in the Psalm we read this morning. It is God alone who is seated on high, looking down on heaven and earth alike. It is God who lifts up the poor from the dust, the needy from the refuse, and seats them with the rulers of God’s people. It would be one thing to read this as beautiful poetry, as elegant verse pointing to a heavenly perfection of equality before God. It’s another thing to live this out, to practice this in time and space.
As a child of the Scriptures, Jesus took the meaning of this Psalm to heart. In it, and throughout Scripture, he learned that there was no division among God’s children, that there should be no hierarchy at God’s table. Instead, Jesus took these words seriously to make space for all. And this hospitality threatened the powers that be, those who had a stake in the religious status quo of the day.
With all of the meanings we might bring to this table, I think this is what it is meant to be: a place where we meet on equal footing, where the dusty and refused are made clean and welcome, where the rulers sit, stand, and kneel next to the ruled, where none is considered greater than another in the eyes and economy of God.
If that is how we come to the table, we lay claim to the world as God desires it – not as we would have it be. If we do this, we might become a challenge – even a threat – to the status quo. And I don’t care what your politics are: none of us accepts that the world is perfect the way it is. We may disagree about how it is that we got here in the first place or how we get out of it in the end. What unites us, though, should be our desire to forge this space to welcome the breadth and depth of God’s beloved children. This should a table of righteousness, a table of justice, a table of peace, a table of grace. When that happens, we become people of the feast. And so fed, we feed others wherever we go, extending Christ’s table to the ends of the earth.
My prayer for us, for our summer practice, is that we will reflect on our own memories of the table. And in doing so, that we will be both enriched and stretched as we encounter faithful ways of knowing God and God’s mercy.