Prayer: O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.
On this holy night, when we recall the institution of Holy Communion, that blessed meal of reconciliation, it’s good to remind ourselves how radical Jesus in giving us a meal to remember him by.
Prior to Jesus, holiness for the Jew was defined in ever decreasing circles. Thus:
• The closer one got to the Holy of holies the more access was
• Israel was the holy land
• In the holy land was the holy city, Jerusalem
• In Jerusalem there was a holy temple
• The temple had a court for Jews only, from which Gentiles were
prohibited from entering
• The temple had a court for men only, from which women were
prohibited from entering
• Then there was a court for priests only, from which all lay
people were prohibited from entering
• Finally there was the Holy of holies where only one person was
allowed to enter - the high priest - and that ever only once a year.
Now think what Jesus did. His most common picture (metaphor) for the Kingdom of God was a feast or banquet. In Luke’s gospel alone there are over 30 references to Jesus eating and drinking.
Each of these meals is an announcement that the Kingdom of God has come, and a prophetic picture of what happens when God comes to rule.
And notice Jesus shared his table with all the wrong people - the lost, the least, the excluded, the outcast, the ashamed, the ignored and the friendless, the sinner: and you and me included. All are welcome around Jesus’ table; all are welcomed to share a bowl of food with God himself, while he is at table. Jesus himself prophesied this, “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the Kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” (Luke 13:29,30) Jesus’ behaviour hadn’t gone unnoticed: the Pharisees were outraged, “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them”, they exclaimed (Luke 15:1,2). Why, that was unthinkable, and totally undesirable. Their indignation was the springboard, though, for Jesus telling three of his most beloved stories - the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son, who only had their ‘lostness’ to commend themselves to the mercy of God. And that’s exactly how he likes it. Even today.
You see, Jesus makes the unclean clean. He gives sinners hope not shame. He takes away their sin. Think of the woman with 5 husbands and a live-in lover; think of the woman with the haemorrhage; think of the widow of Nain’s son; think of any leper; think of any of the demonised - all these, under the Law, will have had prohibitions slapped on them, and thus prevented anyone from having contact with them. That Jesus had dealings with them at all made him ritually and ceremonially unclean. But Jesus wasn’t infected by their sin - instead he spread life and health and joy and goodness and forgiveness in its place.
Such restrictions speak of the Temple’s rules. But salvation is not centred on the Temple anymore. Salvation is found, rather, around a table. Jesus set up a gospel banquet in his Kingdom at which all are welcome. Access all seats.
So let’s contrast Temple and Table:
• Temple was exclusive - Table inclusive
• Temple was hierarchical - Table egalitarian
• Temple was authoritarian - Table was affirming
• Temple was uptight and status-conscious - Table was relaxed
• Temple worked on a rigorous enforcement of the purity code -
Table was a ‘welcome home’ party for all sinners who wanted to
return back to God
• Temple was temporal - Table was eternal
God was not a deity stuck in the Temple, remote and only found by a few at the end of a maze of ritual religiousness - but a Dad at a table.
To help us grasp what happens at the Table, I want to use the letters of the word C-R-O-S-S.
Community: As we have seen, Holy Communion, as Jesus instituted it, is a festal meal of the family of God. It is never just a personal encounter between the individual and God. When we come to the Table (not an altar, because no sacrifice takes place there), we inevitably come with others, and we are reminded of spaces around the Table, where people should be - but absence through illness or death has deprived us of their physical company. But there is many more around the Table than we at first realise. The communion of saints (see Hebrews 12:1-3) teaches us that we are one with all those who have gone before us; we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; and they are
no less part of the family, even though we can’t see them. Communion implies community.
Remembrance: This is not quite the same as merely remembering. Rather, it is ‘a standing inside’ the events, to which the bread and wine point. (You can kind of see this, say, standing on Hadrian’s wall and imagine the Roman soldiers standing guard there, feeling their cold and vulnerability.) Remembrance makes a past event present and vivid to both the mind AND the heart. In our case, the events are twofold: one, the death of Jesus Christ for our sins; and two, his defeat of all evil through his mighty resurrection.
Offering: We bring our lives to God, we come with nothing to commend us, we come with empty hands (“nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling”), and in return Christ gives us his life, his peace, his power, his healing and his forgiveness. Actually, when we approach the Table, it is as if our hands are full - full of concerns, anxieties, sicknesses, worries, sins, and all the stuff that makes us human. We are in such need of grace. And at the communion, a love union takes place, where we give ourselves away to Christ only to have accept what we give him and (wonder of wonders!) he gives himself to us afresh in renewing love and power.
Spirit: It is easy to forget the Person of the Trinity who makes all this possible - the Holy Spirit. But it is he who knits us together in one Body. It is he who reminds us of the lengths Christ went to to make us his own; it is he who floods our hearts with the love of God; it is he who meets our weak faith and strengthens us with gifts of grace; and it is he who empowers us to go out in Christ’s name, armed to rout Christ’s foes. The Holy Spirit makes every Holy Communion a foretaste of the heavenly banquet we shall
one day all enjoy with our heavenly Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Service: Taking Communion is not the end but the beginning - the beginning of our vital service in the world. It matters more that we see Communion is making something of us, rather than we understand it. It is a means of grace - that much is certain. It is our spiritual rations, iron for the soul. Treating it apathetically or disdainfully is a stupid thing to do. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Do this in remembrance of ME”?
In the early days of the charismatic renewal we used to sing the following - and it is an apt summary of all that I have been trying to say:
“O, welcome, all ye noble saints of old/As now before your very eyes unfold/The wonders all so long ago foretold /God and man at table are sat down.
Worship in the presence of the Lord/with joyful songs and hearts in one accord/And let our Host at Table be adored/God and man at table are sat down.
Elders, martyrs, all are falling down/Prophets, patriarchs are gathering round/What angels longed to see now man has found/ God and man at table are sat down.
Beggars, lame, and harlots also here/Repentant publicans are drawing near/Wayward sons come home without a fear/God and man at table are sat down.
Who is this who spreads the victory feast?/Who is this who makes our warring cease?/Jesus, Risen Saviour, Prince of peace/God and man at table are sat down.
When at last this earth shall pass away/When Jesus and his Bride are one to stay/The feast of love is just begun that day/God and man at table are sat down.”