Who Comes to the Table?

Job 1:1; 2:1-10

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Mark: 10:2-16

I grew up in a Midwestern Methodist Church that celebrated the Lord’s Supper because it had to, and only because of that. The Methodist rules in those days said each congregation had to serve communion once a quarter and most of the people in my church thought that was much too often. A great many stayed home on Communion Sundays because the service was too long, running over into the Sunday dinner hour. My parents used the excuse that my brother and I would fidget too much if we tried to sit through the service. Perhaps this was after he and I poured grape juice on each other from those little cups that were in vogue then.

The Eucharist, along with baptism, is a nearly universal sign of the unity of the Christian movement despite the diversity in how it is done. Christians of all kinds have celebrated some form of the Lord’s Supper in every culture since the beginning. The only exception I know is the Salvation Army which does not use that rite but considers every member to be part of the communion loaf. Some Christian communities celebrate the Eucharist daily, others weekly, monthly, or quarterly. The forms of the liturgy have varied greatly, as well as the languages used. The theologies explaining the Eucharist have also varied, and often been at odds with one another. Some Roman Catholics believe the elements are changed into the very blood and body of Jesus; some Protestants believe the service is just a memorial; some Orthodox believe it is an enactment of heaven; and there are many positions in between. In point of fact, the Eucharist is a symbolic act with many meanings all interwoven, and to single out any one as theologians like to do nearly always results in a distorted abstraction. Whatever our theologies, nearly all those meanings are operative in the soul of individuals and communities when they come to the Eucharistic table.

The placing of the table itself has variable theological significance. More common when I was young, and more among Roman Catholics and Anglicans than liturgically free Protestants, was the practice of putting the table against the wall at the back of the Choir. The presider at the Eucharist, that is, the minister or priest in charge, turns his or her back on the congregation to face the table, usually called an altar, and enacts the sacrifice of handling the symbols of Jesus’ body and blood. The theological significance of this is that the presider leads the people to God and reaches up at the moment of consecration. God descends to meet the people in the consecrated elements. The wisdom in this way of performing the Eucharist is that it breaks the congregation’s sense that it is whole and complete in itself. No matter how harmonious, no congregation is complete in itself. No matter how cozy we are with the confidence that God is in our midst, we should know that God is wild, not a tame lion as C. S. Lewis warned in his Narnia books. We need to reach up beyond our boundaries to hope that God comes. And when God comes that is a mystery breaking in upon us that is not entirely predictable, not entirely contained in the consumption of bread and wine, and not entirely safe. That’s the good part of the Eucharistic practice of leading the people to God. The difficulty felt with this form of the Eucharist is that it seems to make the presider too special a person, a mediator, who in fact separates the people from God. The presider, a priest or minister, is a specially trained and accredited representative of the people, but only one of the people, not someone more holy than the people.

The more common Eucharistic form now is to move the altar forward and call it Christ’s table with the presider and helpers behind it, beckoning the congregation to come sit at the table as at a dinner party, or at least as close as can be arranged in a large group. This form runs the risk of domesticating God as a foodstuff in our midst. The Lord’s Supper is not merely a gathering of pals to remember good old Jesus. The virtue of this form, however, is that it symbolically establishes the context of the Eucharist as Christ’s table. Jesus’ dinners were the context in which he taught, learned, and practiced the love among friends that was his ideal and lesson. We are invited to go to dinner with Jesus, and though you might think rightly that we ministers have been a sorry lot of substitute hosts these last two thousand years, this still is Jesus’ table.

His table was no ordinary one, and never entirely domesticated. Like God breaking in upon a worshipping community, Jesus broke boundaries with his dinners. He ate with friends, but also with strangers. He brought tax abusers and prostitutes to his table. He ate with rich people and poor people. He ate with strange women, which Jewish men were not supposed to do. He healed Peter’s mother of sickness so she could cook his dinner. He ate with at least one man he had brought back from death to life. A woman washed his feet with tears and dried them with her hair at the table. Another poured embalming perfume on him. The crumbs under his table healed people. He washed his disciples’ feet before dinner. It was at the table that he asked to be remembered in the form of his bloody death, with bread as his broken body and wine as his spilled blood. At the table, the last night, as the Beloved Disciple lay against him, he told his friends that the community of love they had formed was what his whole work was about, that it was made possible because of God’s love which he had taught them, that this community of love would sustain them through troubles and persecutions, and that they should extend the circle of loving friendships around the world. It was at the table that Jesus said goodbye to his friends, knowing they would betray, deny, or desert him. Jesus’ table broke all the rules about who could eat together and what table fellowship means. God was at his table making all things new.

So we are all invited now to Jesus’ table set in Marsh Chapel on October 5, 2003, with just this present company. Some Christians believe that special requirements of confession and good faith with God must be met before coming to the table; our ritual has a confession, absolution, and a passing of the peace to symbolize a renewed people. But we do not require that you be right with God before you come. Jesus did not do that at his table. Some Christians insist that participants be baptized members of the community before being allowed to receive communion, and that is a conventional assumption. But Jesus had no such strictures for his dinners. Following John Wesley, the Methodist founder, who taught that the Eucharist is a means of grace, not only a privilege of membership, we say that Jesus’ table is open and invite you all.

If you feel guilty for sexual thoughts and misdeeds, there is an honored biblical place for you at this table. If you cheat and exploit others in business, crooked tax collectors were at the table before you. If you are an outsider, unused to our ways, remember the strange diversity of Jesus’ crowd for which he was criticized. If you are a devoted friend of Jesus, lean on him here. If you think Jesus has some good reason to judge you harshly, know that instead he invites you to dinner, leaving you free to mend your ways or not. If you feel uncomfortable with all these unlikely people Jesus has brought to the table with you, you need to laugh at your own discomfort when Jesus breaks the rules. This is not a domestic table. This is the table of a new world. God comes to this table. Come lean on him, and know that you are touching something holy. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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