The Lord's Supper

The feast is only the feast because of the host. Throughout June and July, as our worship focuses around the table, we are taking a closer look at what it means when we gather here: our practices, our habits, our customs, even our language. I know that we come from many different backgrounds and traditions, which are all, somehow, brought together in the feast. Today, we consider what it means to call this the Lord’s Supper.

There are really two poles around which the Lord’s Supper hangs. And both of them derive directly from Christ’s own words at the table. When he broke the bread, he said, “This is my body.” When he poured the cup, he said, “This is my blood.” And he commanded his followers to do likewise, saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

For some of our co-religionists, it is the statement about body and blood that is most important. When they gather, and when the priest says the words, the bread and cup are transformed literally into body and blood. For them, there is no scientific claim at stake – it becomes a mysterious, holy, sacred moment when ordinary things achieve unrivaled perfection. Time and space are suspended as the congregation becomes, for that moment, connected with the ancient meal and with Christ’s sacrifice.

I remember attending a Catholic service, where a bishop was presiding over the feast. Among the many who responded to the invitation to come forward was a bee. As the bishop waved it away, he knocked the chalice held by the deacon next to him, sloshing wine to the floor. Priests and seminarians sprinted to the scene, like an Indy 500 pit crew. They dove on the floor, wiping with special cloths and pouring holy water to clean up. After all, this wasn’t just a party foul in need of some Morton’s Salt or seltzer water – sacred blood had been spilled!

On the other end of the spectrum are those Christians who believe that what we do at this table is simply a memorial meal. The real thing happened once, and only once. All we do when we break bread and drink cup is remember. It is a sacred memory, to be sure – but what begins as bread and cup continues as bread and cup and ends as bread and cup. We are here, quite simply, to be reminded of what Jesus did for our sake. But this body and blood stuff? No thank you.

Based on what we have etched into our table here, you might have a guess toward which end of the spectrum we fall. And yet, in historical and theological terms, this is a bit misleading. You see, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, there was real wrestling going on within the European Church about this whole notion of body and blood. The dominant Roman Catholic Church held fast to this concept of the transformation of the elements, on a real, material presence of Christ.

The leadership of the Protestant movement pushed back with different concepts, which they also insisted came from Scripture. Martin Luther claimed there was a simultaneous kind of change going on. He agreed about the real, material presence of Christ, with a slight nuance. The bread was still bread, but at the same time, it was also body. The cup was wine, but it had also become blood.

Then there were the Radical Reformers, the theological ancestors of the modern-day Baptists and Congregationalists. Not only had they gone so far as to stop baptizing infants, a capital crime in some regions. They also insisted that there was nothing more at stake than sharing a meal together, just as Jesus had done with his disciples.

John Calvin, the theological fore-runner of the Presbyterians, was actually much closer to the Catholics and Lutherans, but with an important difference. He spoke of a real presence of Christ – but it was a spiritual presence, not a material one. The bread stays bread, and the cup stays cup. But Christ is truly present in Spirit when we break and bless. After all, as Jesus told his disciples, “Where two or more are gathered…I will be in their midst.”

My own theology of communion holds pretty close to Calvin’s, that the change taking place is a spiritual one, transforming the elements and those who receive them. At the same time, I draw some wisdom from older Eastern Orthodox traditions. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Orthodox Church had a more limber sacramental theology. There were ancient church theologians who held close to this Catholic notion of transubstantiation, or bread becoming body, and cup becoming blood. And they had contemporaries who sounded much like the Congregationalists, that the meal was an opportunity to be reminded of the ancient meal. As long as you were somewhere in between these two, you were on firm ground. It wasn’t until both Catholics and Protestants headed East to recruit the Orthodox to their side in the debate that their sacramental theology become more rigid.

As far as I’m concerned, I am grateful that I don’t get to set the standards or of what kind faith others bring to the celebration.

After all, it is the Lord’s Supper. Jesus, not Aquinas or Luther, was the one who broke the bread, poured the cup, and uttered the words. Jesus, not Calvin or Zwingli, was the one who suffered, died, and rose again. If the feast is the building, then Jesus is the architect.

The feast is only the feast because of the host.

We can see how central Christ is in all of this in our Scripture lesson from today. The Psalm, attributed to David, is one of desperation. The King cries out to God for salvation. He feels as though he is stuck, sinking, drowning. He is humiliated, ashamed, insulted, rejected. And in that moment, the only thing he can do is cry out – cry out to God, and God alone.

I don’t know about you, but when I read this, David comes across as pretty whiny. He is the greatest king in all of ancient Israel’s history – greater than those who have come before, far greater than those who will come after. And yet, he sounds as though he has never been able to catch a break. It can be hard to feel sympathy for David.

Even so, there is something in this attitude that can point us toward faithfulness. We may not be among the pantheon of kings, but few of us have suffered the kinds of suffering that fills our 24-hour news cycle. When we hear about what is happening in other parts of the world and even in other parts of our own city, we get a glimpse of the horrors that others face. For them, this psalm surely strikes home.

And yet, we, too, have experienced pain. Desperation. Disappointment. Loss. Many of us know what it is like to be humiliated, driven as low as dirt. Life overwhelms. Exhaustion sweeps over us. When we try to keep up, it can feel like we’re being pulled under. Those are the moments when our cries become one with David’s: help me, O Lord. Save me. Give me sure footing. Help me to breathe again. Answer me. Turn to me.

And that, my friends, is what this feast is. It is God’s answer to our desperate pleas. I pray that you never experience material hunger and thirst. I hope you never know that gnawing, life-threatening, bodily emptiness, or that your lips and mouths never swell because you cannot get enough water to sustain you. And yet, I am sure that each of us has had and will have moments where we feel caught in a kind of spiritual vacuum. If there is any wisdom in how Calvin understood this feast, it is in the fact that this spiritual void can be just as real, eating away at us from the inside.

And that is why we come to the table to be fed.

After all, it is a Supper. There are material things on the table: bread and cup. They are an answer to our material need for food and drink. And when we share them, when we are fed, they become not only a tangible reminder of the provision God gives us. They also become our salvation, pulling us up from the mud, lifting our heads above the overwhelming waters. They are our spiritual nourishment, filling those real, empty places within us.

And, so filled, we leave the table in order to feed the world in its hunger and thirst. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” it was not a dismissive statement. It was a charge: to face the world and its imperfections head on. We are called not only to recognize the very real, material, spiritual pains that surround us and afflict our sisters and brothers, but to do something about them: to be balm, to be healing, to be embrace.

This past week, as our Mission Committee met, we talked about the various outreach ministries that we support. And in them, there is a common theme: Home. Our Habitat builds put a literal roof over families’ heads. Our partnership with Journey Night Shelter and Interfaith Outreach Home and Mercy Community Church work to be hope and promise for those who have no place to lay their heads. Our leadership in AMIS offers a sense of belonging to the thousands of international students that come to Atlanta. Our support of Thornwell Home works with children and families at risk, both to provide a safe home for those who have none and to bring healing into homes that are desperately hurting.

In each of these ministries, we do not, even for a moment, assume that we are the ones doing them. We know that it is Christ, working through us, that provides this real, material, spiritual hope to those who need a place to call home.

The table is in the midst of a sacred home – Christ’s home. After all, the feast is only the feast because of the host.

I am not the host. You are not the host. This church is not the host. Jesus alone is the host.

And so, we are the guests. It doesn’t matter if you have been to the table 100s of times or never before. It doesn’t matter if you have been to other tables or one table. We are, all of us, guests here. We are, all of us, invited by Jesus to this feast. And so invited and fed, our charge is to make room at the table for all.