I remember the first time I took communion. My family was living in Hudson, New York, just south of Albany, where my Dad was serving as pastor of First Reformed Church. I was seven, or eight, and it had been agreed upon by the consistory (the Reformed Church’s equivalent of the Session) that children would be invited to the table, to participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, but first, we had to learn, in Sunday School, from the pastor himself, about what the meaning and significance of the meal was.
There are many things I remember about this experience. First, I remember how I don’t remember anything my Dad taught us in that gathering. I know he said something about the bread being Jesus’ body, and the cup being Jesus’ blood, which to a seven-year-old would have been quite intriguing, but specifics? I have no clue!
Second, it strikes me as rather amusing that the “meaning and significance” of the communion meal was something that children would be expected to understand because let’s be honest, how many of us as adults completely understand what happens here at this table? I’m the preacher, and I don’t! At least, not completely!
I also remember how, that first time the plate was passed, that I took a piece of the bread, neatly and perfectly cut into a tiny, bite-size square, and while waiting for everyone to be served (an eternity for a seven-year-old), I played with the bread. I balled it up, rolled it in my fingers, and maybe even tossed it like a baseball from one hand to the other.
Until my mother saw what I was doing, grabbed me by the arm and, pulling me close so her mouth was right against my ear (a most uncomfortable feeling that my brother and I felt whenever we misbehaved in church, which was more often than I’d care to admit), and whispered, “DO NOT PLAY WITH THAT! IT IS THE BODY OF JESUS!”
Now that’s a pretty humorous memory in retrospect, but it is also something that has lingered with me and has quite powerfully influenced my understanding of the eucharist. We come to this table and we partake of the body and the blood of Christ; these are not merely symbols or replacements of them, but they are, at the same time that they are bread and juice, his actual body and blood. My handling of the elements grew much more caring and reverent after that scolding.
The most significant thing that has stuck with me from that first communion, though, was the feeling of inclusion that I felt afterward. I felt that I belonged; that this was a place for me; that here, at this table, I was not only partaking of something mysterious and significant and special but I was also joined together with a community of people, both visible and invisible to my eyes. Not only was it the community of the congregation that was gathered there that morning, but all of the generations of the faithful back to the early days of the Church. That is a powerful knowledge and feeling.
Communion and community are central to my theology, particularly the community we find at this table. I think this has been influenced by all of the tables I have found myself gathered around throughout my life. Sunday dinner was always a special time for our family. Mom would make a really nice meal, and in the few hours between church and whatever the next thing was, we would be together, at the family table, sharing a meal. When we would gather at my grandparents home on holidays and special occasions, the table was always the central place of togetherness. Those tables were, for the most part, filled with lots of joy and laughter. In college and seminary, I would find myself at lunch and dinner tables in cafeterias and diners, lingering over refilled cups of coffee, just talking.
Leonardo Boff writes, “Table fellowship means eating and drinking together around the same table. This is one of the most ancient signs of human intimacy, since the relationships that sustain the family are b built and rebuilt continuously through it. The table, before being a piece of furniture, marks an existential experience and a rite. It is the foremost place of the family, of communion and kinship. Meals are shared; there is the joy of gathering, of well-being without pretense, and of direct communion, which translates into uncensored commentary on daily activities and local, national, and international news”(249). When we celebrate, when we mourn, where do we end up? Around a table, sharing a meal.
That is why it is so significant and so unsurprising that Jesus gathers at table so many times throughout the gospel narrative: at the table, amazing things can happen. Levi’s first instinct after being called to follow Jesus is to invite him to a great banquet at his home. Gathering, eating, fellowship; these are the things that make for community.
“Table fellowship is so crucial that it is linked to the very essence of the human being as human… Ethno-biologists and archeologists call our attention to an interesting fact: when our anthropoid ancestors went out to gather fruit and seeds, to hunt and to fish, they did not eat individually what they were able to collect. They took the food and brought it to the group. And thus they practiced table fellowship- distributing the food among themselves and eating communally as a group.
“Therefore, table fellowship, which assumes solidarity and cooperation with one another, enabled the first leap from animality to humanity. It was only a beginning step, but a decisive one, because it initiated a basic characteristic of the human species that sets it apart from most other species- table fellowship, solidarity, and cooperation in the act of eating. And that small distinction makes all the difference” (Boff 250).
It is our fellowship at the table that renews us. That is why it is so important to share meals together, in our families, in our congregations, and in our communities.
And the invitation is always open, at least to this table. In the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, the communion liturgy has a couple of options for the “Invitation to the the Lord’s Table.”
“Jesus said: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 11:28,29; John 6:35; Matt 5:6).
“Jesus said: Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if those who hear my voice open the door, I will come in to them and eat with them, and they with me. O taste and see that the Lord is good! Happy are all who find refuge in God!” (Rev. 3:20; Ps. 34:8).
Both of these invitations contain words of welcome and of hope. The invitation draws us in, reminds us why we are here, but also who is welcome here, a reminder that is made starkly clearer when we read Luke’s account of Jesus’ call of Levi. Tax collectors and sinners? The Pharisees and their scribes, in their complaining, could not see what Jesus was accomplishing. He was introducing God’s grace and mercy to those who needed it most. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “In a singular way, the daily table fellowship binds the Christians to their Lord and one another. At table they know their Lord as the one who breaks bread for them; the eyes of their faith are opened” (251). By inviting these tax collectors and sinners, the lowest of the low in his cultural context, Jesus was not only raising them up in the world’s eyes and their own but bringing them back into God’s community of fellowship and love.
Throughout this Lenten season, I would like to invite us all to consider the role the table plays in our lives, both individually and as a community. How have we lived in the table fellowship Christ has invited us into? Are there ways in which we have failed to live into that community of grace?
But also think about what pushes you to come to this table. Next week we will be celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and like all times we celebrate it, we each come with a choice; we can participate, or we cannot. It’s quite simple. When we do participate, though, why do we? What drives us to reach out our hand to take a piece of the bread, the body; what inspires us to drink deeply from the cup the juice and the blood?
Shauna Niequist, who wrote the book Bread and Wine, has some beautiful words that I would like to end with. She writes, “We don’t come to the table to fight or defend. We don’t come to prove or conquer, to draw lines in the sand or to stir up trouble. We come to the table because our hunger brings us there. We come with a need, with fragility, with an admission of our humanity. The table is the great equalizer, the level playing field many of us have been looking everywhere for. The table is the place where the doing stops, the trying stops, the masks are removed, and we allow ourselves to be nourished” (emphasis mine).
Friends, the invitation is open. The table is set. Come. Feast. Fellowship. This is the body of the Lord. The blood of our Christ. Amen.
Boff, Leonardo. “At Table.” Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People. Walden, NY: Plough House, 2016. 249-50. Print.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “At Table.” Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People. Walden, NY: Plough House, 2016. 251. Print.
Niequist, Shauna. “Come to the Table.” Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life around the Table, with Recipes. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013. 258. Print.