Can you think of a stranger ritual than the one that has been shared by Christians for more than 2000 years, during which we talk about eating the body and blood of our Lord and Savior? I’m not sure I can. The Lord’s Supper is a mystery.
Last year, my church received a year-long Vital Worship Grant1 starting in June 2020. Our topic: to learn about the Lord’s Supper, the meal that feeds us and forms us. We submitted our grant proposal already in January 2020. The pandemic resulting from the spread of the novel coronavirus meant our project plans needed to shift significantly. We had to rethink our plans for in-person workshops and retreats–and how do you even celebrate the Lord’s Supper when worship services turn virtual and when physical contact could transmit the virus? Though our project ultimately looked different than we had planned, all along it had three parts: listening; learning; and leaning in to the practice.
For the listening portion, we met last fall via Zoom with each of our church’s pastorates (geographical groupings of families) in turn, for a conversation about people’s previous experiences with the Lord’s Supper.
The learning portion of our project had two parts. First, we bought copies of N.T. Wright’s book, The Meal Jesus Gave Us, and distributed one to each household in our congregation. Each week we read a chapter from the book. Second, we hosted five different learning events over Zoom during the fall and winter, all of them related to the Lord’s Supper.
The learning during this grant year has been rich! As one example, we learned about the unique way the Lord’s Supper impacts time. During celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we often recite, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” N.T. Wright describes how, when we partake of the Lord’s Supper, the past (Jesus’ death and resurrection), the present (our celebration), and the future (Jesus’ return) come together in a surprising way. “Past and future give meaning to the present…Christians believe that in Jesus God’s future came rushing into the present to meet us.”2 He adds, “We find…at every celebration of the Jesus-meal…that God’s past catches up with us again, and God’s future comes to meet us once more.”3 Jesus himself is present at the Lord’s Supper!
We also learned about the Lord’s Supper and its connection to hospitality. Sam Kamminga, currently working with Resonate Global Mission in Halifax, shared a Zoom presentation in which he described the Christian life in terms of three tables. The first is the Eucharist, the Beloved Table, at which Jesus is our host. He invites us to come and nourishes us with himself. The second, the Feast Table, describes our dinner and coffee tables, where we act as hosts. Kamminga described the Feast Table as an extension of Christ’s table. In a paper on the topic, he wrote, “The Feast Table is necessary for those who are excluded from the Beloved Table to experience Christ in one of His best forms of witness: Christian community.”4
Third, Kamminga described the Marginal Table. “The problem with stopping at the Feast Table is that many people can’t come to us, so we need to cross a third border.”5 Many people, including those in prison, new immigrants, and others on the margins of society, are uninvited to our Feast Tables or unable to come—so we are called to enter their spaces, however uncomfortable that might be. Kamminga wrote,
Our Eucharist celebrations are not as rich when the marginal voices are not included. In the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate the God who crossed the heaven-earth border to have communion with us. Following suit, we also are to cross borders by inviting the other into our homes and go vulnerably as guests on the margins—attending to the presence of Christ at each of these tables in hope that both our friends and [we] would have a deeper fellowship with each other and with God. My hope is that we as the Church would open our tables and offer ourselves to be guests so that we might all receive a foretaste of the reconciliation of all things in Christ.6
I now see definite connections between the Lord’s Supper and hospitality. But after learning this year about the Lord’s Supper during a time of lockdowns and physical distancing, I wonder: how can we practice hospitality during this time of pandemic, when we are very limited in how much physical contact we have with people outside our own household? And while I mourn the loss of Feast Table fellowship due to COVID-19, I am disturbed by my relief at having an excuse to avoid the Marginal Table. I still have so much to learn.
We are currently in the third part of our project. We “leaned in” by participating in the Lord’s Supper every Sunday during Advent and Lent (for years, our church’s practice has been to celebrate the Meal once per month). We encouraged members of the congregation to respond creatively to what they have been learning, for example, by painting a picture or writing a poem. We also commissioned two creative responses. A local potter and member of our congregation made a small communion plate and goblet for each household from our church. Also, an artist from our church family created a painting for the sanctuary and arranged for a print to be made for each household.
During this pandemic, we moved to at-home communion, led by the pastor during our online services. This is far from ideal. In fact, a friend described being all alone at home one Sunday and feeling unable to participate in the Lord’s Supper because of it. Yet, a local pastor recently commented that in a world gone virtual, celebrating the Lord’s Supper in our homes gives a three-dimensional way to experience the gospel, as we touch, smell, and taste the elements. More than ever, we need the tangible reminder of Christ’s presence.
Our initial idea behind the pottery commission was to help foster a connection between the Lord’s Supper we have partaken of at home during this past year and the Meal we are used to celebrating together in our sanctuary. Kamminga’s description of the three tables makes the communion sets meaningful in another way—a reminder that what we do daily at home, sharing food at our tables with family members or housemates (and, eventually, with guests), is an opportunity to extend to others the same grace and welcome that Christ extends to us in the Lord’s Supper.
In a sermon on the first Sunday of Lent, our gospel reading was from Mark 1:9-15, which speaks in abbreviated fashion of Jesus’ baptism, temptation in the wilderness, and proclamation of the kingdom of God. Our pastor described these three experiences of Jesus. Lent, he said, is a time of radical repentance, both personally and collectively. During this time, we can learn to embrace our own belovedness (as baptized children of God), enter the wilderness (which will look different for each of us), and learn to live by kingdom priorities. Just as at the Last Supper, Jesus blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples—so he blesses us (through our baptism), breaks us (through our wilderness experiences) and gives us for the sake of the world, so that his kingdom will come.
As I have participated in the Lord’s Supper this year, most often at home with my immediate family, I have been thankful for the reminder of Jesus’ death and resurrection and for the assurance of his presence. The longing for his return has been more intense than usual. Lament has been part of the experience, too, as I grieve that we cannot yet all celebrate together in person as a church family. Perhaps the lament and longing are appropriate, living as we do in a world that still bears the weight of sin.
Living in the Light of Easter
A few days ago, we began the Easter season with a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. This joy, too, is part of what it means to partake in the Lord’s Supper. Each time we eat the bread and drink the juice, we remember Jesus’ death, celebrate his resurrection, recognize his presence, and long for his return, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus.” How good to know he has been with us during this past strange, lonely year, and to know he is with us yet. He feeds us with himself and calls us to extend fellowship to those we encounter. He is with us—mystery indeed.
N.T. Wright. The Meal Jesus Gave Us. p. 49. ↩
Ibid., p. 50. ↩
Samuel Kamminga. Attending to Christ’s Presence at the Three Tables: The social implications of the Eucharist. Unpublished article. 2017. p. 15. ↩
Ibid., p. 16. ↩
Ibid., p. 20. ↩