When I was five years old, we visited my grandmother's church when they were having the Lord's Supper. The worship service had nothing to do with Communion, but after the long invitation that closed the service, the preacher said, "It's a fifth Sunday so we're going to have the Lord's Supper- just like in the Bible."
My parents would not allow me to eat the cracker or drink the thimble of juice for several years, but on this occasion I was sitting with my aunt, whose theology is suspect. When the tray came by, she handed me a broken piece of Saltine and whispered, "Eat it before your mother sees it."
The cracker was fine, but it was the grape juice that I had been eyeing for some time. I could not let myself believe that this was finally going to happen, but it did. Aunt Hilma Joyce handed me a shot glass of Welch's. The nectar of the gods tasted even better than I had imagined. It was enough to make you want to be baptized.
Since then I have learned a few things about the theological significance of the Eucharist, but five-year-olds are not the only ones who do not know exactly what is going on. Why do we call it the celebration of the Lord's Supper when people look sad? If this is supper, why isn't there more food? Some of us ask why the cups are so small and we don't get to drink real wine. What are we supposed to be thinking? How do we need to feel?
The only instruction Jesus gives is "Do this in remembrance of me." We need to remember the story that started it all. In paintings of the Last Supper Jesus' friends look wise, but the gospels make it clear that the disciples are several peanuts short of a Snickers.
Jesus picks up the bread and says, "This is my body."
He breaks it in two and gives it to his disciples, "Take, eat."
"This is my blood which is poured out. Drink it."
While the wine still darkens their lips, he says, "I won't drink this again until I drink it with you in my Father's house."
They sing a hymn, but the tune drags like the funeral dirge it is. The disciples gradually remember their way to a tattered courage. God eventually makes saints out of them.
When Elie Wiesel was asked to summarize all of Holy Scripture in one word, he answered, "Remember."
In the Lord's Supper we remember. We pretend that the one who breaks the bread and blesses the cup is Jesus. We make believe that bread and juice are flesh and blood and that by swallowing them, we swallow God's grace into our lives.
One of my minimum-wage jobs during seminary was as a maintenance worker at an evangelical church. My favorite part of the work was setting up for the Lord's Supper service each Friday evening. The building was quiet on Friday afternoons. The only other person working was Larry-a good-hearted, mentally challenged janitor.
Preparing the elements became my time of prayer. One Friday was particularly holy. As I took bread and grape juice from the refrigerator and set them on the counter, I thought about how amazing it is that these elements become so important. For two thousand years, Christians have been taking bread and cup and remembering.
As I set up chairs I thought about those who would participate. Would they realize how much they are like the first disciples? Would they be awake enough to be humbled?
As I hooked up the microphone I put myself in the place of the leader, "This bread is my body broken for you." How can you say that without a lump in your throat?
I reverently walked back to the kitchen to find my high holy moment shattered. Larry was chug-a-lugging the blood of Jesus. I grew angry for just a moment before I saw it. Larry and that irreverently tilted mug of Welch's define the word preposterous, but my place at the table is just as preposterous. What could be more preposterous than people like us sharing in the goodness of God? What could be more surprising than grace that pours itself out for us?
Some argue that every meal in literature is a communion scene. Could every meal in the Bible or even every biblical text be a communion text? The Lord's Supper is betrayal in the upper room, but it is also dinner in Emmaus and breakfast by the Sea of Tiberias. The themes of the Eucharist are sorrow and hunger, and also joy and nourishment. At the Lord's Table, we experience gratitude, fellowship, forgiveness, and sacrifice. We learn the myriad ways God invites us to gratefully, reverently, joyfully chug-a-lug the cup of Christ.
This column is an excerpt from the recently published Time for Supper: Invitations to Christ's Table (Smyth & Helwys / helwys.com).