March 24, 2013
Background Scripture: Luke 22:14-30
Devotional Reading: 1Coriunthians 10:14-22
Back in the late 1950s just after ordination, when I was serving my first parish church just outside Harrisburg, Pa., I was serving on an ecumenical committee to plan a statewide Christian youth convention.
We were at the point of discussing how we would bring the conference to a close, and I suggested we do so with Holy Communion (I hadn’t been in the ministry long enough to have learned Holy Communion can be a sticky subject). One gentleman of another denomination responded with, “Impossible!”
“Why?” I wanted to know.
In a demeanor that asked How could you not know? he replied, “Because we do not all believe that Communion means the same thing and therefore, we cannot have it together.” He was adamant; subject closed. Communion rail closed as well.
While I have come to learn the various arguments against celebrating Holy Communion beyond our denominational walls, I still find it incredible that these barriers are often still in place. Today, I understand these barriers but I do not agree with them.
Since my earliest days in the ministry until just a few years ago, I was involved in organizing and leading groups to the four corners of the world. Almost invariably we would visit cathedrals, holy shrines and other places of worship in the midst of Christians whose church life was sometimes radically different from our own.
Many of these encounters were a “we” and “they” experience: We were tourists and they were locals. Generally, we did not think of them as “brothers and sisters in Christ” and they seemed to feel the same sense of detachment.
The elite table
Somewhere between those early years and now, however, I slowly began to realize these people, in a way distinct from my own, were also disciples of Jesus Christ – as I purported to be. Yet, why did we feel no tie, nothing that made us one in Christ?
Today, I realize that most Christians, practically everywhere they are to be found, assume their way of acknowledging and following Christ is THE WAY. Without necessarily acknowledging it consciously, we assume we are real Christians and they are something else. And the communion table is one of the places where that attitude is most evident.
I confess, although I have never barred anyone from the Communion table or rail, I have unwittingly participated in an elitist Communion and a dreadfully divided manner of Christian consciousness.
As a former Evangelical United Brethren and United Methodist by adoption, I remember the first Sunday of October was to be celebrated as “Worldwide Communion Sunday.” In actuality it was hardly “worldwide” and even less “Communion;” at best it was a common celebration of Communion among churchgoers just like us.
In the Bible “communion” generally connotes “sharing” among people who are in covenant with one another. Paul regards it as a mutual “participation in Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16). In some denominations the communion service is called “the Eucharist,” a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving” and relating to the phrase, “and when he had given thanks” (Mt. 26:27; Mk. 14:23; Lk. 22:17).
We need also to remember that the Last Supper was a celebration of the Jewish Passover (Lk. 22:14), God preserving the Hebrew people during their Egyptian servitude. Christians regard Communion as a sacrament, a means of grace offered to all his disciples.
The last meal of Jesus was not a solitary meal, but a banquet of fellowship, a symbol of their constant duty to one another – even though they were a diverse group: Simon the Zealot, a revolutionary; Matthew, a tax collector; Simon, James, Andrew and John, fishermen.
I am reminded of an incident recorded by E. Stanley Jones. A minister was asked if he would allow Jesus to preach from his pulpit. “Certainly,” the pastor replied.
“Would you allow him to administer communion?”
The pastor hesitated before answering: “I’m afraid I couldn’t, for he wasn’t ordained.” Closed mind, closed heart, closed table.
Matthew and Mark both take up the subject of greatness in the kingdom of God before the Last Supper (Mt. 20:25-28; Mk 10:42-45), but Luke places this topic at the conclusion of the Upper Room experience.
It doesn’t matter, because the subject of greatness in the kingdom of God helps us to understand why our communion tables are often closed instead of open – human ego: “A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them …
“But not so with you: rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves’” (Lk. 22:26,27).
In Lloyd C. Douglas’ novel, The Big Fisherman, Voldi says, “The man Jesus has a compelling voice. I can’t describe it or the effect of it. It’s a unifying voice that converts a great crowd of mutually distrustful strangers into a little group of blood relatives.”
“Mutually distrustful strangers” – that could even be an apt description of many congregations. But if we are true disciples of Jesus Christ, we must see all Christians as “a group of blood relatives.”
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Those with questions or comments for Rev. Althouse may write to him in care of this publication.