“Think for a moment about a special time with your family or extended family. Chances are that it centered around a meal. Perhaps it was Thanksgiving or Christmas. Perhaps it was a wedding with the reception that followed. I remember the surprise 40th-anniversary dinner my siblings threw for my parents, and I surprised all of them by flying in from Minnesota.”
Now think for a moment about a time of conflict that happened with your family or extended family. Chances are that it also centered around a meal. The worst fights in my family happened around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when expectations and stress are high. It can also happen around funerals, particularly when the family is gathered together afterward.
“Why then should we be surprised that such celebration and division happen around the meal we celebrate in the church? The Last Supper can sometimes be the last place we want to be. The Eucharist — a Greek word that means “thanksgiving” — often expresses not our thanks but our judgment. And Communion often shows our lack of community.”
And it has been this way since the beginning of the church. The earliest recorded testimony of the Last Supper occurs in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians — written at least 15 years before the first gospel! There we hear the familiar words said every time that we celebrate this meal: “’This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ …. ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” (1 Corinthians 11:24,25).
Yet, Paul reminds the Corinthians of these words, because of the divisions occurring within the church. Indeed, with the practice of communion at that time, the divisions became such that “when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.” (1 Corinthians 11:21) Paul reminds them of the Last Supper, because Jesus intended this meal to be an open table for everyone, a place where all are reminded of the presence of Jesus that is meant to animate the community.
“Martin Luther says that the most important part of communion are the words, “given for you” and “shed for you.” When we trust these words that this meal, this partaking in the real presence of Jesus Christ, are intended for each one of us, then we also know of the grace and forgiveness that God bestows on us. We Lutherans call this meal “a means of grace,” because in this meal we get a taste of what God’s love and grace is all about.
“We are meant to celebrate this meal! Not just for ourselves, but for and with all who claim the name of Jesus.
That is why I get disheartened when this same meal becomes a source of division. I get discouraged when some churches practice communion as a means to exclude others, rather than seeing it as a powerful expression of God’s all-inclusive love.
And though I cannot do anything but continue to pray over the divide this meal still presents to some of our churches, I can encourage us to see the powerful unity to which this meal witnesses.
“Consider the power of what happens when we gather around the altar. We come to the altar with the weight of our baggage and sin, and we trust and seek to live in the forgiveness given to us through Jesus. We come to the altar, perhaps not even liking the person across from us, and we trust and seek to live in the reconciling love of Jesus. We come to the altar with all our diversity, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, immigrant and native-born, sinner and saint, and we trust and seek to live in our unity in Christ.
My prayer and my hope is that we may continue to be nourished by the presence of Jesus in bread and wine so that we might live out the presence of Jesus each day of our lives. And may we do so until we are all gathered together in that great heavenly feast when all divisions cease and we all celebrate together forever.
David Armstrong-Reiner is pastor at Epiphany Lutheran Church, 2375 Ga. Highway 20 in Conyers. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.