1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
What is mealtime like at your house? For some families, it’s quiet, respectful conversation, an opportunity to check in on the happenings of the day. In others, it’s loud, boisterous even, hands reaching past those at the table to get the best piece of chicken or the last roll. For some families, the table is full, with lots of food left over. For other families, there is barely enough to satisfy the hunger of those at the table, and there is absolutely nothing left over.
This was true in ancient Corinth, too. Those first believers gathered each week for a pot luck supper. We remember that early Christians met in large houses for worship. The problem was that the wealthy folks brought high-quality food, sat in the main dining area of the house and ate it all. They left with full bellies. The poorer folks sat in another area of the house and brought bread to share. They left with empty bellies.
Paul wrote rather angrily to the people of the congregation with a reminder of how it was supposed to be. Above all, he wrote, when you come to share in the Lord’s Supper, pay attention to that meal. If you are hungry, eat at home before you come. In that way, all may partake of the Lord’s Supper together and in community with each other.
Holy Communion is shared by Christians all over the world, in lots of different ways. Here, ushers help us take turns in a very polite fashion. We come to the table a few at a time, as we fit at the rail. Or, we stand in the aisle, a few at a time, as it makes sense. The bread is a wafer, or pita, or a brown bread baked by one of our members. The wine or juice is served in small cups, or soaked up by the bread as we dip it into the beverage.
I’m remembering my trip twenty-five years ago with about 20 Lutheran women to the Communist countries of East Germany, Poland the USSR. We were in Poland on Holy Thursday, and worshiped with a Lutheran congregation. Everyone who wished to partake of the meal gathered in a bunch near the altar. We still politely waited our turn, but being gathered in a large group reminded us of how we were all family, even if we couldn’t understand each others’ languages.
When I was in Moscow, I noticed that the wine and bread of Holy Communion were mixed together and served on a spoon the priest dipped into the mixture. In Russian Orthodox churches, people stand and move around and chat with each other during worship. During the serving of communion, they politely took their places at the rail as the priest placed the mixture into their mouths. Since we Lutherans were not Russian Orthodox, we were not permitted to share in the meal, even though we were warmly welcomed by the members of the congregation.
In several congregations, Holy Communion is served to the folks as they stand in a circle around the altar. This makes it easy to look at each other as they commune, and recognize that even though they may be very different, they are all part of the same Christian family.
The ELCA document Use of the Means of Grace makes the point that the congregation, the pastor, the child, and the child’s family decide when a child may receive communion. I have always believed that it is not our job, nor our right, to decide who is eligible to receive communion. Here’s a story -- I tell it often, so you may have heard it before -- of why I know it’s best to welcome all at the table.
When I began as the pastor of my first congregation, seven-year-old Anna was happy to learn that she could receive the bread and wine of communion. The first time she had communion, she was beaming with excitement and love. A few weeks later, she had a little friend, Sally, with her. As I went from person to person, I saw Anna elbow her friend and show her how to hold out her hands. I had never met Sally before, but it wasn’t up to me to deny this child of the gifts of God in the Lord’s Supper. And, so, I gave Sally communion, too. And she also beamed with joy at being part of the family eating at the Lord ’s Table that day. Sally joined us many times after that when she and Anna had a sleep-over.
Since communion is a meal, even though we only taste small amounts of bread and wine, it is good to imagine that we are filled with these earthly elements. As food, the wine and bread flow through our bodies, nourishing every cell in our body from the tops of our heads to the tips of our toes and fingers. At the same time, the body and blood of Christ flow through our spirits and nourish our hearts, our souls, our spirits. We are nourished so we may go out and serve those in need.
In this meal, we receive the gifts of God’s love and forgiveness, and we are reminded to pass them on to others, just as Jesus passes them on to us. The gifts of Jesus’ body and blood were not given easily; the price was his suffering and death on the cross. So, the bread and wine which carry these gifts is precious to us and worth sharing with those who do not know of the blessings they bring.
Do not hoard these gifts to yourself; instead pass them on.
Be the first to forgive;
be ready to greet one another as family;
be willing to invite others to the table;
be available to serve, even if it means washing someone else’s feet;
be prepared to love as Jesus loves, with open arms and full hearts.
Please pray with me: Loving Lord, we often come to your table full of our selves, distracted by the cares and worries of this world. Help us to give ourselves to you as we eat your meal, and to receive you, all of you, as we celebrate your sacrificial love for us. And send us out, nourished, and ready to nourish others with that same love. Amen