1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Several years ago now, when I was setting out on a fabulous, fully grant-funded sabbatical, I chose to begin my time away with a retreat. I felt I needed some transition time, and I wanted to establish a good spiritual foundation for my time of rest and renewal.
My first choice for a retreat location was unavailable, but I discovered a Trappist monastery not far from us where monks sing the hours. That sounded just lovely to me, and so I arranged to make my retreat there.
In the retreat house, I came across a bulletin board covered with information, including some rules about the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. I read the rules, first out of curiosity and then in great distress because it seemed the monks didn’t allow non-Catholics to receive Communion.
This can’t be right, I thought. Maybe the bulletin board just hasn’t been updated to reflect more modern practices. So I decided to ask the monk serving as retreat master, who knew I was a pastor.
The monk confirmed that, no, I was not welcome to receive communion. I was stunned.
Still, I went to evening prayer along with the other people on retreat. The sanctuary, made of stone and wood, was gorgeous, and the Gregorian Chant was transporting in its simple beauty. The next day, when morning prayer ended with the Eucharist, all the other retreatants stepped forward to receive the gifts while I remained in my seat. I could feel my face burning with an unexpected shame.
The next two mornings were just the same: Any peace I experienced from the singing and the prayers was replaced by feelings of rejection and shame when I was not allowed to receive Communion. I found myself beginning to fantasize about approaching the altar anyway, and for the fourth morning I concocted a plan to sit in the guest chapel, where the celebrant might not recognize me as a retreatant—only to find that the celebrant that day was the retreat master. On my final morning there, I simply chose not to attend morning prayer.
Unfortunately, being barred from Christ’s table overshadowed everything else about my retreat experience. I couldn’t get past the fact that I was not welcome to Christ’s feast of love.
It was only later that I was able to see in my painful experience of exclusion at least two spiritual gifts: a greater awareness of my deep hunger for the Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing, and a new kinship with the untold millions who, over the history of the church, have been told they were not worthy to receive Communion.
On this World Communion Sunday, yet another Sunday on which our sense of one bread, one body and one cup is challenged by our physical separation from one another and countless different tables, cups, and forms of bread, I want to invite us to reflect on what Communion is about and who it is for.
Time prevents me from providing a full history of the Eucharist in the church, but to my mind it is somewhat emblematic of the many ways the institutional church has moved away from the simple Way of Jesus and his earliest followers. Over centuries and across various church splits, reformations, and refinements, the ritual of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples has been overlaid with elements of Greek philosophy, theologies of sin and atonement, competing doctrines of transubstantiation and memorialism, and changing liturgical practices, as well as formality, solemnity, exclusivity, guilt, and even fear.
While Jesus shared the bread and the cup with everyone—including his betrayer—at his Passover table, most Christian denominations have strict rules about who can and cannot receive communion. While sharing the bread and cup at table is something Jesus, his disciples, and the early church did together, in our country at least, the Eucharist, which means giving thanks, has become individualized. Some bishops and priests and pastors have gone so far as to deny communion to certain Christians because of their views on abortion or sexuality or because they are divorced.
Now, I want to be careful here. It is far too easy to blame anything and everything on The Church—capital T, capital C—and far too easy to consider ourselves and our own views and practices the true and enlightened ones.
But I am more interested in trying to understand what Jesus was all about. I am more interested in what keeps bringing us back to Christ’s table after all these years and centuries and different understandings.
Because while I was not here at the time, I don’t think First Church Amherst members decided to make the celebration of some form of Communion a weekly, instead of monthly, thing shortly after 9/11 because they wanted more formality or to make the service longer.
I think they decided to make Communion a weekly thing because they were hungry for the comfort they found in the shared bread and cup. And I believe that is why most of us keep coming back to Christ’s table: because we are hungry.
We are hungry for connection with the Great Mystery and with one another. We are hungry for the presence of the One who loves us no matter what. In a world where so much feels ever-changing or random, we are hungry for ritual.
We are hungry for food for the journey. We are hungry to belong to something bigger than ourselves. We are hungry for the sustenance we need to keep going in a world that tries to treat us as little more than consumers. We are hungry for meaning in a world that tries to tell us nothing matters. We are hungry for healing and hope. We are hungry to know that we are not in this alone. We are hungry to be not just accepted but actually cherished just as we are.
We are hungry to know that our flesh is holy and that the fruit of the earth is sacred. We are hungry to remember Jesus and what unconditional, no-holds-barred love looks like. We are hungry to be reminded that our lives, like Jesus’, have the capacity to give life and power even—and especially—when broken open and poured out for others.
We come to the table needing to be reminded that Jesus was forever eating with people the religious authorities had judged and rejected, and he was forever feeding people he thought might be hungry, whether they were the thousands who came to hear him teach or a few of his grieving and traumatized disciples out fishing in the pre-dawn darkness.
In a world that judges, categorizes, ranks, and rejects, we come to Christ’s table to learn and relearn what it feels like to be accepted, to be welcomed, and to be nurtured. And as we eat and drink we remember that we, too, are called to be welcoming, accepting, and nurturing.
Just as the Jews’ Passover meal is a celebration and remembering of liberation from slavery, so our Communion meal is a celebration and remembering that Jesus calls out of the limitations and failings of our past and into the promised land of grace, community, healing, and wholeness.
Theology, sacrament, belief, and even doctrines have their place. But at the Communion table we remember that the Word became flesh, the Almighty became vulnerable, the Creator became the created, the Savior became the lost, and the Ground and Source of All That Is surrendered unto death that we might know life abundant and union with the Divine.
This is why here at First Church Amherst we practice what is called an open table. Communion is “y’all come.” Because we value belonging over belief, inclusion over exclusivity, community over individualism, mercy over judgment, nurture over hunger, and the open hand over the closed heart.
On this World Communion Sunday, let us give thanks for Jesus and for the bread, the cup, and everything that binds us together in love and hope with searching, hungry people the world over.
Let us “do this” in memory of the one who gave his all to bring us all, together, to life.