“These are the gifts of God for the people of God. Come to the table.” Two simple sentences that transformed my understanding and practice of the sacred communion. Transformed from a simple wafer and mini shot glass full of grape juice passed from pew to pew on oddly-shaped, stackable, saucers into a tangible experience, a communal gathering and a transcendent reality. A reality, lived and partaken in around a table that calls us into a dysfunctional family, an on-going justice, and, for me most importantly, an inclusive community.
Before hearing those two sentences, my thoughts of this sacrament were wholly separate from my life outside of Sunday mornings. But these statements made sense to me. These statements reminded me of the warm, intense, and often challenging times that I experienced around a number of different tables. Tables around which I was welcomed, invited, nourished, and accepted regardless of my imperfections or differences. Hence, why I decided to write this blog series about such experiences in hopes to explain both my fear and my love of this particular Communion table.
“These are the gifts of God…” Nana knew that everything on her table from the food people enjoyed to the imported china was a gift. She intimately knew what it meant to have nothing but through this knowledge she learned how to cherish every good thing. She prepared her food as if it was a spiritual exercise and for her it was. For what she knew even more than the gifts of such precious physical nourishment was the irreplaceable gift of those around the table through which her soul was nourished.
Thinking of this image of my Nana’s joy in preparing her table brings a new depth to the image of Jesus around the table at his final meal. A meal with imminent importance and unimaginable finality. Yet this meal was most likely seen as a rather ordinary Passover celebration to those others around the table. Many meals had been shared between Jesus and his apostles, many blessings and most likely they didn’t realize the extreme importance of this final meal.
Thinking about this, though, I wonder if part of that was because Jesus was present this meal in the same way he had been present his entire relationship with them. I imagine that Jesus saw each meal, each gathering around a table as a important ritual. One where those present found nourishment both in body and in soul.
“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said as he broke the bread before them. My body is for you. My body is broken for you. I am for you. I live and I will die for you. Through me the spiritual is made tangible, as tangible as this bread. And just as I have shown you complete sacrificial love and selfless giving, you too must sacrifice and give in order to nourish your souls and through that refresh in them my spirit.
That’s what I see when I partake of this sacred gift: a more perfect version of how my Nana cared for her table and those around it with an unassuming, selfless offering of her love and soul. When the meal was complete, she would sit silently, lovingly and be nourished by the love shared through the breaking of bread. For as we partake of the gifts of God around the table, our souls and bodies are meant to be nourished both by the sacrificial love of the incarnate God but also that same love alive in all those around us that are welcomed at the table.
“…for the people of God…” My family never really agrees on much. Maybe a sports team here and there but often any table with all of us around it carries only a mere semblance of harmony. In fact, shallow table conversations between my family members often carry the depth of past wrongdoings, painful words, or disappointing choices that are present in most significant relationships. And yet the table remains our table and we are welcomed however we are.
Hearing “…for the people of God…” for the first time in reference to communion frightened me. Ringing in my ears were the arguments from each side of the never-ending debate among churches, sects, denominations, or religions over who God’s “people” really are. ‘Yeah, because, yah know, sure they are Christians or spiritual people or humans, but obviously we are the real Christians…you know, the enlightened truth-telling ones. And, let me tell you, what a burden that is…’ Does that illustrate my fear well enough?
In the midst of my minor panic attack over the complicated debate my mind had just witnessed,I returned to Jesus around a table with his disciples, his family. Something that had always seemed significant to me when I heard this story is when Jesus points out that one of the men around this sacred, communal table would betray him and another would deny him. In fact, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus even says “one who is eating with me” will betray me. Someone around this celebration table.
But Jesus goes on to break the bread and share such a meal with the man that will go out and betray him later that night. This is a meal for the people of God. So what does it mean for our communion sacrament that even a denier and a betrayer shared in this gathering? What does it mean for our communion practice that even after this betrayal was announced, Jesus chose not to withhold the nourishment of this meal and blessing from this man?
I think that it means that this act must offer individuals hope and mercy, even if they are not ready to accept or fully understand it. I think it means that the definition of “the people of God” must be all that are called to the table. I think it means that even though my family is not the perfect family and is sometimes not even the family I wish they could be, they are always my family. The mess and the resentments, the hurts and the apologies, the uncomfortable silences and the inaudible whispers do not change the transcendent power of belonging to a family.
If we had to make amends, confess our sins, and right our wrongs before gathering around our table and receiving nourishment, then we would never come to the table. I think this is the beauty of the communion table. We trust in the sacrificial love of that it represents to be real and present regardless of our own heart and wrongs. Our imperfections, our mess could never decrease the spiritual presence and power of this sacred meal.
While this meal did not reconcile Judas to his community or change his decision to betray Jesus, it presented him with the mercy of still being a part of this gathering and the choice to seek reconciliation through the love experienced around the table. Sometimes I choose to not forgive my family members, I choose to intentionally hurt them, or I choose to disassociate myself with them. In those moments I reject the opportunity or the moment to create reconciliation. But sometimes I ignore the burning pride within me and ask for help or forgiveness. Sometimes I choose the reconciliation against all human odds and it’s in those moments that I see importance of always being welcomed at the table just as I am in that moment. For only at the table am I present to the hope of possible redemption within my messy existence.
While this suggestion in particular is a controversial one, it is one that I hold strongly to because I believe that if one is never welcomed or accepted at the communion table, the sacred gathering, the experience of sacrificial love, one would never see the opportunity for reconciliation and redemption, let alone choose such spiritual hopes. Judas was given the vision, the opportunity for reconciliation and even though he chose not to embrace it, he was still radically welcomed at this communion, celebration table.
“Come to the table.” An announcement that, in my Amate House community, could mean a variety of different gatherings from an actual meal to a house meeting to a skit video-taping. But such an announcement never failed to invite us all to gather together after long, exhausting days at our individual volunteer placements. A repeated invitation to be refreshed and remember each other.
Another reason why these words, “Come to the table,” uttered by a pastor at LaSalle Street Church before communion one Sunday, still echo within my mind is that they were accompanied by a movement by the congregation to approach the alter. While I had been to many churches where the congregation approach the front of the church to receive the elements, never had I seen it done quite like this. Instead of individually receiving the bread and the wine and then moving quietly back to your seat, we stood in a line probably ten or so people long and we each partook of the meal, waited for each other to be finished, and then the individual that gave us the bread and wine blessed us saying, “Go now in peace to love and serve the world.”
Come to the table. Come to the table together to be nourished. Come to the table together to be nourished so that you are reminded that you are not alone. So that you are reminded that you have a community. So that you are reminded that you do not bear the burdens of injustice, disappointment and pain on your weak, frail shoulders. So that you are reminded that people that may not even know you are united in love to you through this table.
Amate House taught me more about the communion table than any church service or minister could teach me. My community taught me how to come to the table without fear that I would destroy the bonds of our community with my own struggles and mistakes. My community taught me how to come to the table daily despite my desire to isolate myself and bear the burden on my own. My community taught me to come to the table so that I could finally be nourished instead of worrying about nourishing others. My community taught me to come to the table so that I would have the courage and strength to face the next work day full of injustice.
I came to the communion table every night around my Amate House table for I was surrounded by sacrificial love, offered the opportunity for reconciliation with others and redemption of my own story, and reminded of the presence of a community around me.
No wonder Jesus says in Luke’s gospel, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” For only through being surrounded by a community, by being nourished along side someone that is as desperate for nourishment as you are, by celebrating small mercies around a table, would even the son of God, Jesus, have been ready to endure future suffering. Suffering increases our desire to be alone but it increases our need to be with each other. We come together weekly, daily, hourly, to remind each other that we are safe to take risks even if we fail, suffer, or make a fool of ourselves because we are sure of the community waiting to celebrate with us regardless of the result.
Communion must be about nourishment for both body and soul, but it must always be an act of unity and community. Only around the table, any loving community table, can I muster the strength to do the work of justice every day. And on the days that I’m unable to see the hope and promise of redemption, the community that gathers with me at the table is living proof of the reality of this promise. We must always respond to the call of community, which we most frequently hear during this call to communion, but is also present around other tables. Responding to the call means giving up the crushing weight of the whole burden to instead carry your portion arm in arm with the person next to you.
I have not explained nearly half of my thoughts about this all important topic, but I have given you a glimpse into the tables of my life and how they inform my understanding of communion. May we never forget that despite our beautiful, human imperfections the power and the sanctity of this communal meal never changes. Each gathering brings a new experience, insight, and understanding. And through this we are changed by it.
“These are the gifts of God, for the people of God. Come to the table.”
If you missed this blog series, you can find the other posts here:
Picture from: By Victorgrigas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons