Whose Table Is It Anyway?
John 13:31-35/Acts 11:1-18
I must confess that as the years roll by I am increasingly mystified as to how it is that the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, has come to be restricted in various traditions. Some, like the Roman Catholic Church, insist that for one to participate in the Eucharist one must first be baptized and also be a Roman Catholic. The Episcopal and Anglican traditions require baptism, but not membership in particular branch of Christianity. Some protestant churches offer “open communion,” which can mean anyone present may receive (many UCC churches), or, like the Anglicans, anyone who has been baptized. Finally, there are Christian denominations, like the Quakers and the Salvation Army for instance, who do not offer baptism or communion at all.
Enter once again Maggie Ross whom I mentioned last week about this time. Ross observes, correctly, that Eucharistic prayers often state that “Christ died for the sins of the whole world…”
Not some of the world, or a lot of the world, and surely not just a particular group of people, but the whole world – like the whole world God holds in God’s hands as we teach even our youngest Christians to sing.
From such an understanding of the Christ event one might conclude, as Ross does, that the table and the elements of Holy Communion ought to be available to the whole world for which Jesus lived, died and rose again. She goes on to suggest that we might then use baptism more like we use Holy Orders, ordination, today – those called to a special or specific ministry within the community of the faithful would be baptized. Further she suggests that those in Holy Orders be those people who are raised up out of the baptized by the community of the faithful – that is called to Holy Orders by the community. To make her point she says that those volunteering or seeking Holy Orders ought to be considered with some suspicion!
Indeed, no one less than John Wesley, however, believed that communion was a "means of grace". Therefore, it shouldn't be withheld from anyone--believers or non-believers. The idea here is that if someone wants to come to communion, we should not prevent them. It may very well be the means that leads to their salvation! Clearly that's not something we would want to withhold. And there can be found among early writings of the church that suggest there were times and places where participation in the Eucharist is what would lead people to become baptized members of the community of faith.
The texts in Acts and John this week, though not at all addressing this particular line of thinking, can point us in the direction of truly open communion. The 13th chapter of John, and several successive chapters, describe the Last Supper with no mention of bread and wine whatsoever. Jesus washes feet, and issues a new commandment to love one another “as I have loved you.” Jesus is portrayed as always meeting people where they are and as who they are with no requirements to sit at table with him, listen to him, be healed by him. Whenever his disciples try to keep certain people away from him – children, blind men, gentile women, etc – he rebukes the impulse to restrict access to him every single time. That is, to love one another as he loved us – all of us – seems to require full access without restriction of any kind. Or, as the controlling metaphor of John’s description of the Last Supper suggests, we are to wash all kinds of feet, not just some feet, not just our feet and our friend’s feet, but all kinds and conditions of feet!
Then in the 11th chapter of Acts is this incredible story about Peter having a vision, and having the vision confirmed in real life experience, about breaking down the barriers that would separate insiders from outsiders, clean from unclean, gentile and Jew – keeping in mind that the earliest believers were circumcised Jews. His vision, repeated three times, includes a voice that says to him, “What God has made clean, you must not profane.” Is it that much of a stretch to suggest that restricting access to the Lord’s table in any way is a sort of designating “others” as profane?
It is not “our” table. It is not “the Church’s table.” It is not the property of an exclusive cult. It is the Lord’s table – the same Lord who lived, died and rose again for the sins of the whole world. Or, as our Baptismal Covenant and I like to say, for “…all people.” All means all after all.
I admit, I grew up in Chicago influenced by people like Mike Royko who titled a collection of his opinion pieces for the Chicago Daily News, I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It. I admit to be wrong more often than Royko did, but I still find myself drawn to John Wesley’s and Maggie Ross’s views on access to the Lord’s Table. I recall sitting in the front pew of Trinity Church, Wall Street. Upon returning to my seat after receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, a man off the street sat down next to me, and with a huge grin on his face turned to me and said, “I just had the Body and Blood of Christ, and I’m Jewish!” It was a moment of grace and great joy for someone Jesus surely would have – and just had - welcomed to his table. I just looked at him and said, “Me too,” and now two of us were smiling for we had both been included in a moment of grace, and if just for one brief shining moment we were united within the household of Christ’s infinite love for all people. And that’s all I have to say about that!