Have you noticed the way themes have the capacity to bubble to the surface of our attention at different times? In certain seasons, if you pay attention, it may seem like everywhere you turn there are markers, conversations, or things pointing your energy towards a similar question, topic, or content. There may be apparent reasons for whatever that topic is in a moment – perhaps there are cultural or world events driving our subconscious reflections and demanding our processing energy. Other times, it is less clear why a topic has risen to the surface, and yet, there it is – again and again presenting itself for consideration.
In this season of Growing Boldly here at HMC communion has been one of those topics bubbling to the surface. Questions, curiosity, and gratitude about communion have been swirling around such as: The question of why we only have it four times a year? Alongside a murmuring desire for us to consider having communion more often as a community. As well as a growing awareness that some people carry hesitancy and, in some cases, trauma around participating in communion. And explicit gratitude for the ways HMC practices communion when we do. When it is less than clear why a theme is bubbling to the surface, yet it is clear that a theme is swirling around, it is usually the moment to give some energy and attention to that theme and so here we are, in the midst of a mini worship/sermon series considering communion.
Last week, Jeanne Davies, executive director of Anabaptist Disabilities Network was with us and while her sermon wasn’t explicitly about the practice of communion. It was a message about the interconnectedness of us all and an invitation to intentionality around welcoming all – and making accessible space for all at the table of God. Communion is one of the explicit ways we gather around God’s table together.
It was Jesus, gathered around a table with his chosen community celebrating Passover, that first extended an invitation to what we now call communion – or the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus took a place at the table with the apostles…Jesus took bread and gave thanks for it, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which will be given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus did the same with the cup after supper and said, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood, which will be poured out for you.
I think it’s important to note here that some folks don’t participate in communion because of the imagery and allusions to the blood, sacrifice, and the violence of Jesus’ death that are part of these words.
What is also important to make note of is the context in which scripture has placed Jesus extending this invitation to communion. It is in the midst of the passover meal. There is some debate about whether the last supper was actually a Passover seder or simply a shared meal – however the connection of this moment to the Passover as recorded in scripture is something to pay attention to – and also be mindful of because it can offer rich meaning and connection to Jesus’ invitation to memory – and we must also not use it to say that Jesus overwrote the Passover ritual – as Passover is an actively rich and significant part of Jewish practice.
Passover is the celebration of freedom from bondage of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt who were spared when the Angel of Death hovered over Egypt as a tenth plague – killing all the firstborn Egyptian sons and passing over the houses of the Hebrew people as they gathered together sharing a special meal as preparation to leave Egypt. Passover is a practice of memory that remembers the struggles that are part of life, the presence of God in the midst of those struggles, and the power of God to bring about freedom and justice. The elements of a Passover seder include food, song, and storytelling rituals – which each play their own role of symbolism in remembering the Exodus experience.
It is in the stream of this context of symbolic storytelling, ritual, and memory that Jesus institutes elements of remembrance and connection. Jesus, as a practicing Jew, understands the significance of memory and tying symbolism to specific elements. In a Passover seder the bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery, an egg represents spring and the cycle of life, matzo serves a reminder of the unleavened bread carried by the Hebrews as they left Egypt, salt is a reminder of the tears of the slaves, and so on and so on – it is a meaningful meal full of meanings. Jesus, familiar with the power of this kind of ritual and symbolism, takes the bread and the cup, offers them to his beloveds, attaches meaning to each of these elements, and says do this – eat and drink – in remembrance of me. Communion is, in part, a holy act of remembrance.
When I remember communion as I experienced it in childhood – my memory is of a very sensory experience:
- Touching the small, shiny glasses as we pastor kids helped place them in the trays in preparation for Sunday service.
- Hearing the juice squirting into each cup.
- Smelling the sweetness of grapes and the dusty yeasti-ness of the bread.
- Seeing the trays wobble precariously as they were passed down the pews – each person wrangling a tiny cup out of the silver holders – and later the rippling wave of clinking sounds as those cups, once empty were placed into the small cup holders on the back of each pew.
- Witnessing the words of institution being spoken, the invitation offered, the eating and the drinking of those around me tasting the mystery that would only be revealed to my taste buds after the service when my siblings and I would sneak behind the stage/alter area and joyfully consume the leftovers, slurping down glass after glass of sweet grape juice and soaking it up with morsels of crusty white bread. The illicit flavor combination so foreign and familiar at the same time. Still, to this day, I sometimes get a wave of surprise when I encounter it in a piece of toast with grape jam, a jelly dotted cookie, or jam cake.
- Listening to the soft spoken blessings offered to the unbaptized in lieu of receiving communion.
Communion days were always special days in my memory of them. Yet, as kids who were not yet baptized, we were not allowed to officially partake of the communion table. The church I grew up in practiced a closed communion table that was reserved only for those who had chosen baptism, those who had chosen to join in the flow of practicing the ways of Jesus in the world and in community – and only to those baptized participants who were in good standing with that community.
Closed communion table practices are not unusual – in fact it may be more of the standard. Many traditions hold requirements of baptism, membership, and right relationship with God and community in order to partake of the Lord’s Supper. This desire for accountability and right relationship as a prerequisite for participation is due, in part, because the act of communion in this way of practicing it is a reflection of the sacrificial reconciliation between humans and God through the presence of Christ. It is also a response to a few verses in I Corinthians 11 that call for self examination prior to participation in communion and warn the community against people partaking of communion in an unworthy manner. Closed communion practices reserve communion for those who, in that moment, fit within predetermined boundaries of approval.
Open communion table practices are another way of offering and receiving communion. We here at HMC practice open table communion. This means that all are invited to receive the bread and the cup, regardless of baptism status, beliefs, or agreement. An open table approach to communion offers communion that is not so much focused on the sacrificial reconciliation of humanity and God, it is instead affirmation and a reminder of the constant presence of God in the world and the connection between God and humanity. Open communion practices invite all to the table and each person makes a choice for themselves, in that moment, about if or how they will participate.
These differences between closed and open table communion practices are some of what can make participation in communion so complicated for people. Those uncertain about open table communion may be uncomfortable with the practice because it doesn’t require an explicit affirmation of faith or accountability to the community first. Those who have been denied communionion at a closed table practice may hold grief or trauma around their experience of rejection. I, myself, have held various opinions about communion practices over the years, sometimes understanding the motivations for a closed approach and, at other times, adamantly affirmative of an open table. I continue to be open to diverse perspectives, ideas, and opinions on the topic.
For the sake of this communion exploration and inviting us to continue to stretch and grow boldly, I will share a few reflections on how I am holding thoughts around these approaches at this time…
As a kid who grew up in a setting that practiced closed communion, the open table practice at HMC was a new experience for me when we first started attending here. As a participant and then member, I wasn’t fully sure what to think of offering communion to anyone who chose to receive it. And yet I was super curious – there was something wonderfully expansive and freeing about it. My queer self has a lot of reservations about the concept of accountability and reconciliation within church structures. My personal history has instilled within me hesitancy over who gets to make judgements and decide what is in line and what is out of line for others. And at the same time, I also value relationship focused approaches to reconciliation.
A closed communion table approach means using the service of communion as a tool to encourage reconciliation between members of the community. And while, in theory, this is a beautiful prospect, in action we have not always facilitated reconciliation well. Too many times the church has expected and enforced unity, forgiveness, and peacefulness instead of justice and reconciliation. This has been harmful. The need for reconciliation will always present because we are people in active, dynamic relationships which means that we make mistakes and we hurt each other in the process of living and loving each other. The realities of war, systems of injustice and oppression, and even interpersonal relationships remind us that systems and relationships are always ebbing and flowing between connection and strain. We are never fully right with each other. And yet God, as love, is present in the midst of all things anyways.
This is where I experience the gift of an open table communion practice. In its persistent reminder that God is with us in and through all things – in spaces of reconciliation and in the midst of suffering and injustice. And God isn’t just with us as individuals, God is with us in and through each other, connecting us through community and connecting us to people near and far. All things are interconnected all the time, communion is an expansive reminder of this reality. Jesus welcomed all people – all ages. God welcomes all people – all ages.
When we celebrate communion at HMC these are some of the words of institution and invitation that you will often hear:
This is the table, not of the church, but of our God,
It is made ready for those who love God
And those who want to love God more.
So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
You who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time,
You who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
Come, to the table of our God,
the loving creator who meets us here with open arms of welcome and love.
We don’t have to choose to receive God’s love for it to be present in our lives. God is a God of presence. What we get to choose is how we will receive and interact with that presence.
As followers of Jesus we look to him for wisdom and examples of opportunities to interact with God’s presence and love in the world. At the beginning of the Luke passage today we see that Jesus has been longing to share a meaningful meal with friends – he deeply desires connection. Connection with each other is part of how we lean into and experience the presence of God in the world. Through the act of communion, of sharing bread and cup with each other to remember Christ, we also create space for and remember God’s presence as we invite and acknowledge that presence which is always in our midst. The Christ connection is the point where God and humanity meet. Communion is a space in which the elements of bread and cup serve as a reminder, as a representation of Christ – in that space Christ is re-present with us – present again – and represented by us gathering together – connecting with God and each other in and through love.
Here again are some of the words we use when we practice communion here at HMC:
Send down your Holy Spirit on us
and on these gifts of bread and cup
that they may become for us your body,
healing, forgiving and making us whole;
and that we may become, for you, your body,
loving and caring in the world until your kindom comes.
I know I have spoken before about the beautiful imagery imparted to me through one of my seminary professors who would talk about holy moments of serendipity, or spirit presence, or whatever you want to call it, in which something happens that doesn’t quite compute solely in one’s head or heart, it activates both, and in those moments the head and heart come together forming a lump in the throat – causing us to pause and drawing our attention to the moment at hand. Communion is an act that also traverses that holy channel between head and heart. It passes through our throats and travels deeper into our waiting bellies from where it flows on as nutrition into our whole beings – body and soul. It is a literal embodiment of love.
Whenever we are sharing love in the world – we are representing Christ/re-presenting Christ and through those acts of connection and love we are participants in communion regardless of whether we are gathered at a table or not.
This week most of us will celebrate Thanksgiving. We will gather together with family or friends, or share love at our places of work, or through service at the Day Center meal. As we gather around our thanksgiving tables, whatever shapes they take, remember that when Jesus first taught us communion, it began with giving thanks:
Then taking a cup of wine, Jesus gave thanks and said, “Take this and share it among you.” Then Jesus took bread and gave thanks for it, broke it, and gave it to them.
Communion, The Lord’s Supper, is also known by the name Eucharist from the Greek – Eucharista – meaning: thanksgiving.
The sustaining presence of God is in the midst of all things, committed to just reconciliation and the interconnectedness of life. We tap into it through gratitude. Communion is gratitude in action. Communion is an invitation towards remembrance and reconciliation. Communion is nourishment and sustenance for the ongoing work of love in the world. Communion is a gift that fills us and reminds us of God’s persistent presence in what has been, what is, and that which is to come.
Thanks be to God.