In this sermon in our summer series on Holy Communion, I describe why the United Methodist practice of open table is so important.
13th Sunday After Pentecost – August 19, 2018
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
It may be the case that I am a part of the last generation to grow up in the suburbs and be able to experience summer by rising in the morning, hopping on my bicycle, and disappearing for the day. Looking back, it seems like a completely different world than the one in which I am raising my own children today, but there you have it. In the early 1980s, my brother Michael and I would spend much of our summer days outside, in Ednam Forest, either at the pool, a friend’s house, exploring the woods near our home, riding our bicycles, or playing football in the street. We would periodically check in with our mother at home, usually when we were hungry or thirsty, but that would be it. My parents trusted our neighborhood, our neighbors, and for the most part, us.
In the evenings, at the end of those long, seemingly endless summer days, my father would return from work in Ashland, and we were always expected to eat supper as a family. We knew enough to spend the latest part of the afternoon within earshot of home so we could hear (and ignore) our mother calling for us.
The first time she would yell to us from the front stoop, we, of course, ignored her and kept playing. We could recognize her first call because she placed the accent on the first syllable of our names “DOUGlas! MICHael! Come home for supper!” The second time, the accent would be on the second syllable, and this meant that the food was now ready for the table, and things were getting serious: “DougLAS! MichAEL!” It was time to start packing things in.
The third time, the accent was on both syllables: “DOUGLAS! MICHAEL!” This meant that the food was now on the table. No more messing around. Get on your bike and get home.
As an an oldest child, it was my persistent belief that my brother got away with too much, no, with everything. So it stood to reason that I was quite pleased the evening when he ignored the third call for supper and refused to ride home with me. In my mind, this was incontrovertible evidence that he, at long last, deserved to GET IT. I entered the house, washed my hands, and took my place at the table, doing my best to mask my smugness.
My mother was not having it: “Where is your brother?” she asked.
“I guess he is still down the street,” I said before adding, “I know he heard you, mother.”
With that, with an empty chair at the table and the food getting cold, she looked at me, unblinking and unimpressed with my showy display of false virtue and said, “Go find your brother, and bring him to the table. Now.”
Of course, no one in my family realized it at the time, but my mother, without meaning to, taught me an important lesson that evening about the meaning of Holy Communion, a condensed course in good Eucharistic theology and practice. There is something deeply rooted in humans sharing a meal, something almost mysterious and unexplainable that happens when people break bread together, something intimate whose intimacy is betrayed by even a single absence at the table. The shadows lengthened as the evening came and I mounted my bicycle and did what I was told: comb the streets, find my missing brother, invite him back to the table, so the meal may begin.
Here is the thing about those Christians: They initiate new members by baking an infant into a loaf of bread. Then, the person joining them makes the first cut into the loaf and takes the first bite before everyone else in their fellowship joins in. Then they participate in incestuous orgies.
Believe it or not, in the earliest days of the church, people outside the church actually believed that nonsense. You see, those Christians did indeed speak of sharing a “love feast,” and they did, in fact, refer to one another as sister and brother. They worshipped a God who they confessed came unto them as an infant, and they spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, all of which led to outsiders drawing some rather bizarre conclusions about this nascent movement that was originally referred to simply as “the Way.”
If anyone thinks that Christianity has a P.R. problem today (and it does), they have no idea what we have already overcome. It is nothing short of a miracle that our faith ever grew at all.
There are clergy all over the world this morning who regarded today’s lectionary readings and decided to preach on the Old Testament or the epistle reading. Jesus has been going on about bread a good bit the last few Sundays, and there is this strange sounding message in the gospel reading from John about eating flesh and drinking blood. Today is one of those Sundays where one worries what is going on in the minds of anyone who arrives at worship as someone new to the Christian faith: “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
The Levitical law found in the Hebrew Bible prohibits observant Jews from drinking the blood of a slaughtered animal, so the Christ’s image would have been particularly repugnant to his original hearers. Even today, as Bishop William H. Willimon reminds us, “Our Muslim friends are willing to walk with us along many mutual paths of ethics or noble ideas about the holiness and righteousness of God. But here at the incarnation, in this talk by Jesus of flesh and blood, eating and drinking, they part company. Islam finds the notion of God Almighty becoming our flesh, our blood, fully divine and fully human, a repugnant, self-contradictory notion.”(1)
And yet, here we have it: this God with skin on, this God in the flesh, this God who thinks and feels, even suffers, bleeds, and dies; a God of flesh and bone, organs, muscles, and sinews, a God who entered the world through the birth canal and entered the tomb covered in wounds, a God of emotions, of anger, joy, love, and heartbreak, a God who dines with us, a God who invites us to table and is present with us in the meal.
Hearing this morning’s text, it is easy for one to get lost in all of this strange imagery of flesh and blood and eating and drinking and miss a word that in so many ways characterizes how we comprehend this sacrament in our congregational life and witness here in the United Methodist Church. It is indeed difficult to see this one, short word in all of this talk about flesh-eating and blood-drinking, and yet there it is, right there in verse fifty-one, the first word of the second sentence: the word “whoever,” as Jesus says “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Like us, Jesus’ hearers seem to skip that word, fast-forwarding to asking “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Yet I believe that as religious people, and especially as Christians spending time contemplating that meaning of Holy Communion for how we live each day, we ignore that word “whoever” at our peril.
When people today object to religion, their objection usually falls into one of three major categories: that religion seems anti-scientific and therefore irrational, the frequent hypocrisy of religious people (this one drove Jesus crazy as well), and what is perceived as the extreme and unnecessary rules, doctrine, dogma, and structures of organized religion. These three categories, I believe, can help explain why so many people today characterize themselves as spiritual but not religious. The beauty and mystery of faith can be lovely and enticing if only one can shed the trappings of rules, and let’s face it, dealing with other people.
Throughout human history, most religion has been quite adept at the rules and strictures department, as classifying who is out and who is in. In Jesus’ own time, we see this played out within the sects of Judaism, especially as Jesus is dragged into doctrinal disputes between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. We know how Jesus was able to use to his advantage the theological conflicts between the Jews and the Samaritans for teachable moments as he pointed to a broader purpose that transcended the finer points of their doctrine.
In our world, as was the case in Christ’s day, religion can seem like privilege with a long, long checklist of qualifiers to be met if one is going to be invited past the velvet rope and into the party. And yet, in the midst of this kind of religious understand comes Jesus, with his endless seats at his endless table, beckoning “whoever” to come.
For one year between college and seminary, I lived in the white house at the corner of Gaskins and Three Chopt roads with three VCU students, one of whom was and is a dear friend also named Doug. Doug and I used to have long conversations that stretched well into the wee hours of the morning about life and faith and his particular struggles with religion. One thing that anyone who has spent any time with Doug knows is that he is a foodie who loves to eat, the kind of guy who would talk about plans for supper while eating lunch.
One night, Doug told me that he could not believe in heaven, a conviction rooted in an experience he had as a child in a Sunday school class where his teacher confidently informed him that, no, there was no eating or drinking in the afterlife. I remembered him saying this a year later when I was sitting in my first-year seminary theology class and heard a professor from England named David Lowes Watson remark how Holy Communion is, as he put it, a “foretaste of the heavenly banquet.”
Dr. Watson was fond of proclaiming to his students “If heaven is indeed a glorious banquet, then I tell you Holy Communion is the hors d’oeuvres.”
I believe he is right. The Hebrew Bible describes a God of miraculous feedings in the wilderness, a God who “prepares a table” for us. Jesus himself absolutely loved eating and drinking, both before and after his resurrection. It was one of the things his detractors criticized him for, that he was a glutton and a drunkard. Furthermore, they criticized him not only for all that eating and drinking he did, but they especially criticized him for the people with whom he shared those meals, those sinners and those tax collectors, those women of ill repute.
No wonder this is the same Jesus who describes this sacrificial meal as one for “whoever.”
I have, and I suspect all of you have as well, had experiences of visiting congregations and being denied Holy Communion because I was a member of another type of church. Once I was pastoring in a small town and the local clergy were planning an ecumenical Thanksgiving worship service when the topic of whether or not to celebrate the Lord’s Supper came up. For most of us, this made perfect sense, and was an opportunity for Christians of different denominational stripes to show a powerful witness of unity in the midst of such a polarized world.
However, other clergy objected vociferously. One even said to me that the risk of serving the Eucharist at a community service was too great: “What if an ‘unsaved’ person slips through and receives communion?” he asked, “What then?”
All of which brings me back to Jesus, to his self-giving, sacrificial meal, a meal of grace that is all about his giving and all about our receiving, meal where even the giving of his life was not too much to ask if it meant bringing us to table with him and with each other, this sacrament in which he is present with us, conveying God’s grace to us. In it, Jesus throws a party and when asked who is invited simply replies, “Whoever.”
Jesus spent his short time on earth eating and drinking with sinners, even entering their homes to do so, sinners like you and like me. Is it any wonder that it is sinners who he invites to his table today, sinners like you and sinners like me? Perhaps this is just the reminder that the church needs today, that when Jesus dictates “Whoever” on the invitation to his celebration, that it is not our duty or our right to add specifics to that invitation on our way to the printer.
It is not our right to add to the Lord’s “whoever” “whoever is old or young, whoever is male or female, whoever is rich our poor, whoever is educated or uneducated, whoever is Republican or Democrat, whoever is gay or straight, whoever is married or single, whoever is rural or urban, whoever has children or is childless, whoever is good or bad, whoever is this, whoever is that…” It is Jesus’ party, it is his table. He is the host, and he is providing the food and the drink at the greatest expense to himself.
Perhaps we should allow him to decide upon the guest list, too. Jesus does not need bouncers outside the door of his party.
As the shadows lengthened and the evening came, I sat there in my place at the table, smug and self-satisfied, looking at my bountiful plate, and I could feel my mother’s eyes looking through me. “Go” she said, “and find your brother, and bring him to the table, so that we can all eat.”
Is this not the message of Holy Communion for the church today, for us, “Go and find the others, your sisters and your brothers? Go in the name of the God of “Whoever” and find the people who belong in all of those empty seats, because the meal is not the meal it is meant to be as long as there are chairs that are empty, as long as God’s children are feeding themselves with the bread that does not satisfy when there is the bread of eternal life waiting for them, for you, for me, for everyone.
It is my prayer that as the future of the United Methodist Church is discerned, as terms such as schism and dissolution are bandied about, that this discernment will enable us to remember that, in the end, the church is not mine, the church is not yours, and the church is certainly not the property of any denominational body. It is Christ’s church. This is Christ’s table, and on it is Christ’s body and Christ’s blood. We come at Christ’s invitation, an invitation addressed to “whoever.” It is my prayer that we will dedicate our time, resources, and gifts to locating those absent from the table instead of spending the time God has given us debating who does and does not belong.
For it is then and only then that this sacrificial meal will be the foretaste of eternal life that it is meant to be. It is only then that this table will truly be Christ’s table. It is only then that, as we gaze into eternity and the feast of heaven, that what we do here today will be the hors d’oeuvres.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.