*This is the second installment in the blog-along to Mike Graves’ Table Talk: Rethinking Communion and Community
Graves’ folksy style in his first chapter weaves together tales of meals shared around tables that naturally (and sometimes sluggishly) transition into eucharistic practice. As part of his description of these meals he makes an important point that I will expand as we discuss restoring and enhancing your congregation’s practice of Holy Communion.
Holy Communion is a multi-faceted experience. I grew up in settings where Communion (or, the Lord’s Supper) was a solemn, personal, almost funeral-like event that happened a few times each year. Emphasis was placed on one’s personal relationship with God, an acknowledgement of sin, and a sorrowful reflection upon the death of Jesus. But as Graves’ tells in his stories, just as sermons, music, prayers, and our fellowship all have a variety of emotional and experiential dynamics, so must Holy Communion. It is a practice of the church that can and should reflect the full range of the human experience. Graves’ points to the traditional words of institution often spoken as part of the Communion prayer, words from the last supper account in the Gospels. He is quick to remind us, however, that the last supper was only one of many times Jesus ate with people. In the previous post I discussed how Luke’s Gospel account alone tells ten meal stories with Jesus. The act of sharing bread and wine together is, in my belief, the defining characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. In doing so, Jesus is taking the basic practice of humanity – eating – and drawing our attention to the holiness of the ordinary. And a major part of the human experience that even Jesus endured is its ordinariness.
Not every meal we eat or share with others is something we are sure to remember, but ultimately meals aren’t about creating memories. A meal is about nourishing our bodies so that we can live and move and thrive as humans. The practice of Holy Communion is the symbol of Christ’s nourishment for us. It is a gift, a way to remember that Jesus is feeding us along the journey of life. So, it reasons that not every experience of Holy Communion will be a memorable event. To make it so is to force it to become something it’s not. Sometimes we will be moved to tears, brought to laughter, overcome with wonder and awe, stunned in silence. But many times – and this is perhaps the hardest thing to grapple with for those who don’t celebrate Holy Communion every week – it will be ordinary and uneventful.
Here I want to offer a major point of pastoral counsel to leaders and parishioners alike: ordinary is not the same as unimportant. Graves’ discusses both ordinary meals and extraordinary meals. Do we remember what we had for lunch two weeks ago? Probably not, but it served an important purpose by nourishing our bodies and minds to do the work that was set before us until we ate again. Do we remember a first date with a spouse? Probably, because it nourished our spirits and our hearts with a passion that (hopefully) still burns today. It would be unfortunate for a person to say that they would only eat again after that first date if it promised to be as memorable. What would become of the body and mind then? The expectation of emotional experience would become unsustainable.
If we believe Holy Communion to be a gift from Christ to the church to nourish our spirits with a tangible symbol of God’s love, isn’t a symbol of God’s love something we would want often, even if it was something ordinary? I would argue that God’s love for us doesn’t always move us to deep emotional response. Sometimes – and I would argue, frequently – God’s love is a steadying hand and an ordinary meal along the journey toward the place and time of promised peace in God’s reign. And it’s okay to not be overcome with emotion when that constant and steadying help is given and received. Often, a simple “thank you” is sufficient.
John Wesley in “The Duty of Constant Communion” says,
[Another objection] against constant communion is, that it abates our reverence for the sacrament. Suppose it did? What then? Will you thence conclude that you are not to receive it constantly? This does not follow. God commands you, “Do this.” You may do it now, but will not, and, to excuse yourself say, “If I do it so often, it will abate the reverence with which I do it now.” Suppose it did; has God ever told you, that when the obeying his command abates your reverence to it, then you may disobey it? If he has, you are guiltless; if not, what you say is just nothing to the purpose … Reverence for the sacrament may be of two sorts: Either such as is owing purely to the newness of the thing, such as men naturally have for anything they are not used to; or such as is owing to our faith, or to the love or fear of God. Now, the former of these is not properly a religious reverence, but purely natural. And this sort of reverence for the Lord’s Supper, the constantly receiving of it must lessen. But it will not lessen the true religious reverence, but rather confirm and increase it.
Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message, died this week. Among his most famous works was a book called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. I reflected on this book as I read through the chapter in Table Talk. In Peterson’s work he notes that the nature of faith is long, spanning years and even decades. One could picture a line of moving from one place to the next. Zoom in and you see the ups, downs, jolts. Zoom out and you see the ultimate direction and the steadiness of purpose. Consider this long arc when you think about weekly Communion, and maybe we’ll begin to see Communion’s “meaningfulness” as a deep reverence for the way in which individual times at the Table all contributed to a long and steady reliance on God’s love.
For those of you who are part of congregations that do not celebrate Holy Communion weekly, I would encourage you to experiment. Set aside eight consecutive weeks to practice it. Don’t force a particular emotion from the experience; instead, pull stories from the Gospels of Jesus eating with people and use those as a framework for the way in which you celebrate it. Gather your people together to talk about the experience. And, perhaps most importantly, give everyone who participates the same permission you give for music and sermons, permission for it to be an ordinary time that doesn’t necessarily emotionally move them the way it moves others. Open up space for your brothers and sisters to share stories of God’s long arc of love as part of the experience, and highlight the times that God worked in their lives where a simple “thank you” was the best response.
Give it a try, and I suspect that your congregation will begin to think differently about how you think about faith and God’s presence among you.