At the heart of the biblical story is a meal. Israel tells its story at the Passover meal, one of deliverance from slavery and entrance to the promised land (Exodus 12). Jesus shares this Passover meal with his own disciples (John 13), and commands them to eat this meal in remembrance of him (Matthew 26). Jesus feeds the multitudes (John 6), eats with sinners (Luke 15), and shares a mysterious meal with two of the disciples on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24). The first Christians break bread together with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2). Later, there are abuses in the practice of the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11). One of the most misunderstood concepts in Christian faith and practice, the reference to eating the Lord's Supper in an unworthy manner, referred to the experiences of gluttony and poverty at the common meal. The Christian hope was also shaped by the expectation of a Messiah who would preside over a great banquet (Luke 14).
At the heart of the biblical story is a meal. Yet many Christians misunderstand what is happening here, or they avoid communion, or see it as an option.
So think of the next few minutes as an explanation of the meal we are about to receive, what's on the menu and why. It helps to connect this meal to our common experiences. Family meals can take on different connotations; sometimes there is a special occasion, sometimes a sense of urgency, and at other times the meal is a common experience of nourishment and sustenance. Or think about the truly significant meals across your life. A few come to mind: as a teenager I ate many meals at my grandmother's home---she was an amazing cook and I was a voracious eater! When Pam and I were dating we had one of those coupon books, we were students with almost no money and so we would eat wherever we could find a "buy one, get one free" meal. There were some terrible meals along the way, but it didn't really matter-we were together. I think of our wedding rehearsal dinner; the venue we had selected burned to the ground ten days before our wedding! Once we got over the shock, we finally had the meal in my wife's parents' home.
I think of other meals that, in hindsight, were also unique. Our older daughter's best friend in high school and college is of the Muslim faith. We had dinner, our family and her family, at a Chinese restaurant in Chapel Hill and at a Thai restaurant here in Charlotte. A year later her father, who was my age, died unexpectedly. I think of a meal in Jerusalem with an orthodox Jewish family on the Sabbath, and another with a community of Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, just a few miles but a universe away. I think of the meal we had for our younger daughter in the City Club here in Charlotte on the day she graduated from high school.
Meals are the occasions for many of life's richest experiences. This is true for the Christian and faith. "Do this," Jesus said, "in remembrance of me". And so we eat this meal together. But what is really happening?
At the conclusion of the service I will say, "Communion draws us closer to God and closer to one another." Communion has a vertical dimension and a horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension has to do with grace. Holy Communion is a sacrament for us, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. What is grace? Something we did not earn, something we do not deserve, something we can never repay. And so those who take communion are not the deserving, those who have it all together. Those who take communion are hungry and thirsty for love, for grace, for God. That is the lesson from Isaiah. "You're invited, come, sit down at the table, it has been set for you"....and then, "put that money away", it is as if God is saying, "your money's no good here", you could not afford this meal and besides, I have made you a part of the family."
That's grace, the vertical dimension of communion: something we did not earn, something we do not deserve, something we can never repay. So it is a meal, but it is a meal that we eat together. It is spiritual but it is also social, it is vertical but it is also horizontal. And so we come together, we kneel together, we confess together, we receive together.
At the conclusion of worship I will ask us to join hands ---communion draws us closer to each other. There is a wonderful image of a wheel, as the spokes come nearer to the center, they are in closer relationship to each other. And this too is the grace of God, for we need human community. Someone commented to me, in the midst of the heightened H1N1 media focus, that some churches were bypassing the joining of hands in worship, the passing of the peace, and even communion itself. In that same week a member of our church told me, in a conversation in the Atrium, that since her husband had passed a few years ago she often goes days without touching another human being, and to grasp the hand of a friend beside her in worship is not something that she takes for granted. It is a blessing.
An additional word about the horizontal and social dimensions of the meal: it was very clear in the gospels that Jesus ate with sinners. He was criticized for this very purpose at the beginning of Luke 15, and this occasioned three parables---the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost (or prodigal) son. Methodist tradition grasps this in the hymn of Charles Wesley,
Come sinners to the gospel feast
let every soul be Jesus' guest
And so we practice open communion: if you feel led to receive the grace of God (that's vertical part) and if you will seek to live in peace with your neighbor (that's the horizontal part), you are welcome. Just as you are.
Communion is a meal-providence, sustenance and grace; it is a meal that we share together; and it has a larger purpose. I thought this week about a common prayer that is often said in the contexts of fellowship dinners, and usually by members of the church, who are generally less wordy than preacher types. The prayer might go something like this: "Bless this food for our use and us in Thy service." I have heard some variation of this prayer all of my life. Sometimes an addition phrase is added: "Bless this food for our use and us in Thy service, and make us mindful of the needs of others."
So what is the larger purpose? The meal is not only for us, the meal has been prepared for all. Again, the communion hymn of Charles Wesley:
Come sinners to the gospel feast
let every soul be Jesus' guest
You need not one be left behind
For God has bid all humankind
Or we can go back farther in the tradition, to a story about a hungry crowd, and the disciples who wanted to send them away, and Jesus' comment, "you give them something to eat", and the appeal to a little boy, "what do you have in your basket?"
Five loaves, two fish--That turns out to be sufficient for the multitudes and the lesson is clear: God's grace is available to all and sufficient for all. And this is our mission: to connect the love and grace that we find here with the world. In the Great Thanksgiving, we say, about the elements,
Let them be for us the body and blood of Christ
That we may be for the world, the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
The gospel for this morning describes the human reality that the guest list is enormous but not all accept the invitation. We live in a culture that views worship in general, and Holy Communion in particular as an option. And so this morning, a brief argument with a culture (and it is present inside the church) that has marginalized the experience of communion for a variety of reasons: We do not feel spiritual, or we know that we are imperfect, or we simply do not have the time.
We are overwhelmed, and yet we are also undernourished.
In a culture that hungers for the Spirit, we have not maintained the centrality of the Table as the source of life-giving food for the soul. We have allowed our spiritual lives to become isolated from the body of Christ that sustains it, and we have become anemic in our response to the great challenges of the world. The Table is a reminder of our human need for communion with God and with each other, so that we might engage with the world that also needs this grace.
It is a busy week, and I do not have an appointment for lunch. So I gather some work and drive a couple of minutes to a nearby restaurant. I know them and they know me, and I order my usual: unsweetened tea with lemon, a Reuben, and a cup of the soup of the day. They take the order, bring the tea. I get involved in my work, the Sunday sermon, the calendar, the to-do list. I get more involved in it. The time is passing, but it is fine, it is quiet, they refill my tea. I am thinking about a meeting that is in the not to distant future, but I am also thinking,"I have really been here a long time!"
Then I look up from my notebook and realize that there is a bill for the lunch. There is one problem: the meal never came!
So I walk over and get someone's attention: " I'm not sure what happened....the food never came". They are extremely embarrassed and profusely apologetic. It's really not a huge problem, I say, they are trying to figure out what has happened, I am saying "I would still like to eat lunch while I am here!"
The waiter brings the soup, and quickly the Reuben, and will not let me pay, and then the manager comes by and gives me a card for two dinners there in the evening. I tell them it's not necessary, I go there often, it's not a big deal. Being the cheap person that I am, I am also thinking, "this is turning out pretty good." To finish the story, I did leave a much more substantial tip than usual, and Pam and I enjoyed dinner there one evening the next week.
I share this to confess that what we do together, on Sunday mornings, is important. To be prepared for guests, to be prepared with music, to be prepared in prayer and with the words that are spoken. In our culture people are hungry and thirsty for something and they do not always find it in the church. The vertical dimension---that is between the individual and God, and so we ask, in prayer, for the outpouring of the spirit on us and on these gifts.
But the horizontal dimension---that is within our power. And this makes all the difference---when we welcome, or better yet invite someone we know to share a meal with us, or to share this meal with us, we are creating a space where our greatest gift and our more compelling need come join hands.
So, the invitation to a meal: when you commune, you are in a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. That's grace. When you commune, you are not alone, you come with others, other sinners. That's community. And if we have met God in this meal, if we have met each other, in this meal, we go into the world as different people: more aware of the faithfulness of God, more connected and less isolated, and, yes, more mindful of the needs of others. Amen.
Sources: Charles Wesley, "Come, Sinners to the Gospel Feast", United Methodist Hymnal, 616.