“Around This Table”
The two men shuffled along. On the road somewhere. A village called Emmaus….
A stranger sidled up beside them. Curious. “What are you talking about?”
It took them a minute to answer. The Gospel writer puts it plainly: “They stood still, looking sad.” Who wants to be the first one to explain? To find the words, which will force them to relieve the painful reality. Finally, Cleopas answers with something like disbelief: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem….?!”
They explain. They explain that Jesus – a “prophet mighty in deed and word – was handed over to be crucified.” And then he explains…“We had hoped…” “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.”
They are disappointed. Angry. Confused. Grieving. This thing – this promise – this person – in which and in whom they had staked everything was gone – the promise: gone. The hope for the future redemption: gone. Now what?
They’re shuffling along the road – they had hoped…
I can only speak for myself, but often in the days following Easter – the weeks where we proclaim Easter is not yet over! It’s still Eastertide! – and I feel some of the same pangs of disappointment. It’s hard to believe, and I am left with the words “but we had hoped…” Maybe Easter would feel different this year. Maybe we’d finally understand – or feel more.
Here we are shuffling along the road with the two travelers – we are having a hard time with our belief. The men on the road talk about the women who shared their tale of the empty tomb, and yet they find no hope in their story. It’s deeper than disbelief – it’s the hollow aching of grief and loss that has left no room for hope and faith.
We wander down the road and feel their disappointment.
Their loss is so powerful and palpable that they nearly missed Jesus in their midst.
Did you catch what happens next?
First, this stranger (who we – with a wink – understand to be the risen Christ) begins interpreting scripture to them – which is odd, okay?
It’s odd. But it certainly got their attention. Although – they still don’t quite realize who this stranger is. They might have had some clue – some sub-conscious inkling, but they don’t know. Here’s where it gets really good.
They invite him in. They invite the stranger in, which maybe seems radical enough for some of us – inviting an odd stranger into our midst. They invite Jesus in – and after settling around the table, Jesus takes the ordinary bread on hand for the meal. He takes it, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the men at the table.
They see immediately. They understand. They recognize Christ in their midst in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of the meal, in coming to the table together.
Jesus was there all along.
It’s interesting to me that after Jesus leaves the room – leaves their presence after the meal – that the disciples engage in a bit of revisionist history. They didn’t recognize him until he broke bread – and then they say “Were not our hearts burning…?” Surely we weren’t that dense to miss the risen Christ in our midst. Surely even as he walked with us we knew. And yet – they did not. The loss and disappointment was so deep it clouded their vision. (We know this experience well.)
In order to recognize Christ they had to gather around a table.
In my estimation, for my part, the table is central to how I understand this Christian faith. It is central to understanding my identity and my call – not just my vocation as pastor – my call as a follower of Christ.
In order to recognize Christ in our midst, we also come to the table. We must come to the table. We must all come to the table.
Around this table – we encounter the risen Christ.
The table points to the entirety of the Gospel – and the entirety of our faith.
Around this table we learn who we are and whose we are.
Around this table we welcome – we are welcomed, invited, by Christ, and we welcome others. We call it the Lord’s Supper because it is first and foremast Christ’s table – it is his meal to which he welcomes and invites us. When we offer an invitation to the table, it is not our table, but an invitation to join us at Christ’s table.
Around this table we share – we are one – we find unity. We call it Communion, which is to say we find unity – we are made one when we share the meal together.
We find unity as a community gathered in the name of Christ. The way we take communion – the form of the meal matters. We didn’t always take communion from individual wafers and grape juice in miniature shot glasses. And we didn’t start taking communion with individual wafers and miniature shot glasses by accident. (And by “we” here, I generally mean most Protestant churches).
Here’s a little history lesson. The shift away from a common cup and a common loaf (what we so gracefully refer to as ‘intinction’), and the shift from wine to juice, emerged out of social movements that began in the church, but sought to change the entire society.
The move away from wine as the assumed contents of our Cup began with the Temperance movement, led by a host of lay Protestant women. (I’d like to point out spear-headed by the Methodists and Presbyterians – we Baptists joined in but did not instigate!) The temperance movement began in the early 1800s, and took root in evangelical Protestant circles as a movement not just celebrating moderation in drinking, but complete abstinence.
In 1874 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was formed, and one of their banner issues was ridding churches of wine at the Communion table – they promoted the use of grape juice and provided it for churches. (Conveniently enough, Charles Welch, a Methodist, was getting his start as a grape juice maker, motivated by the Temperance cause. Welch’s grape juice dominates the market today because of Christian Temperance and shifts in substance of our Communion Cup.)
As the contents of the cup changed, so did the shape and size of the cup itself. The individual communion cup emerged as a result of sanitation concerns, which “revealed deep anxieties about cleanliness and the borders of the church and of society.” Now that the cup was filled with juice, and not wine – which contains germ-killing alcohol, fears intensified about contamination and disease.
Physical cleanliness and purity were not merely associated with godliness, they were equated with it – the cleaner and purer the person in physical forms, the cleaner and purer their soul. What better way to represent and preserve this than keeping communion contained, clean, and pure?
Other people nervous about the common cup were squeamish about “sharing a Communion cup with strangers – particularly the poor and other social outcasts.” The shift to individual cups, one social historian observes, has resulted in a shift in the meaning and theology of communion, “making it a solitary sacrament rather than a communal one,” by “focusing on the Communion of the individual and God rather than the Communion of the entire church.”
I find this history interesting for many reasons, partly as trivia, but also because it points to how important even the things that we call mere symbol can be. The Communion meal that Christ instituted was a meal, shared among friends – how different would it look to him today to observe bites of bread that could barely sustain and individual cups – and a ritual where we barely have to look into the eyes of our brothers and sisters – our fellow children of God.
How much are we really sharing at all?
The meal is intended to bring us together – in the shared cup and the shared loaf, we find equality and unity in our identity as called and blessed by Christ as God’s children. The ways we share in communion as this body can help us understand that (or prevent us from the same).
We ought also to recognize our unity at this table with Christians around the world – with all persons – all persons created, known and loved by God. Instead, our churches have so often used the table as a weapon, or a way to build walls between who belongs and who is left out.
We welcome only those who are like us, leaving out those whose theology is different. How heartbreaking it is that we have, throughout the two millennia of the church, used the table as a means of radical exclusion than radical inclusion.
We have decided that others cannot come to the table for various reasons – because they do not believe the right things, because they do not belong to the right tribe, because they aren’t members of us, because they aren’t old enough because they do not know the right three-point summary of what it all means.
Around this table we are not passing a test – at the table we embrace mystery.
Tasting the bread, sipping from the cup is not about knowing some kind of secret information – could any of us really know what it means – do any of us really understand what we are doing when we gather – when we break bread and eat together? Of course not. There should be no barriers on the table – age, gender, race, class, orientation. Those are our barriers, not Christ’s.
Around this table we find liberation. We call it Eucharist – which is a fancy way of saying it is a table of Thanksgiving. Remember that Passover is a time to celebrate, remember and re-enact God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery. It was during the Passover festival that Jesus broke bread with his disciples and now we celebrate and remember. Likewise, even in this post-Resurrection meal in this Gospel story, the disciples were liberated from their grief and their false expectations. Christ was in their midst – they were free to share and tell.
We are to celebrate, remember and re-enact this transformative meal. In celebrating the Eucharist along with the risen Christ, as we do like Cleopas and his fellow traveler, we project our hopes for the coming Kingdom of God – already in our midst, and not yet fully realized.
As Brian Wren puts it, “The Eucharist is not simply a celebration of small historical victories, but a token of the final and full realization of the Kingdom of God. Thus it is not only a subversive memorial, but a source of hope and the beginning of transfiguration.”
Around this table we share a meal – we are invited to be fed, and then we are called to feed. Jesus shared meals with all kinds of people – eating together, he recognized is one of the most intimate things you can do. Don’t we all know, that it is often over a plate of food that communion happens – conversation, sharing, laughter, tears, togetherness, hopes and fears. In the same way that sharing food with strangers can transform us into friends – and sharing food with friends can transform us into family – the communion table invites us into not just a ritual where we barely get a snack, but is an invitation to a radical and transformational meal – with strangers, friends and family – where we are all transformed because we are all called children of God.
And then we are sent from the table. It is only after they share the meal – they are fed by Christ – that the disciples are compelled to go out and share. They call of Christ, though, is not merely to go and tell – it is to go and share, to go and feed. Because Christ invites us to the table, we invite others to the table. We break bread with others and are fed together.
The table is missional – meaning it points us to our mission. To break bread with other people – with all people, and to welcome all people. The table of Christ is a table with room enough for all. The kind of hospitality that we respond to at the table, and that we, then, imitate is one of “expansive welcome.”
When Christ invites us to share this meal with him, he is inviting us to transgress boundaries. This was never meant to be a safe table. This was never meant to become mere ritual. I would even posit that this was never meant to be mere symbol. It is a radical act – and is radical every time we share a common loaf and a common cup – even something as ordinary as that is revealed as incredibly counter-intuitive in the midst of a culture that tells us to remain safe, insulated and independent.
In Luke’s Gospel, we hear the two disciples invite Jesus in. They invite Jesus to their table – and at the table Jesus is revealed to them. Or more to the point, their eyes can finally recognize the risen Christ in their midst. What they realize is that the table to which they invite Jesus is Jesus’ table all along. They extend hospitality to the stranger and find Jesus in their midst – they find Jesus inviting them into sharing a meal of grace. We understand that our own acts of hospitality offer us “doorways to grace.”
The table points to the heart of it all – it points to the presence of God in our midst. At the table we are fed – with real food, in community with one another. Our spirits are fed – in community with one another. At the table we meet the risen Christ – he is in our midst in our invitation and inviting us to share and share again. We are sent from this table – to feed others, to offer nourishment of body mind and soul.
 Daniel Sack, Whitebread Protestants, 11.
 Sack, 35.
 Sack, 57.
 Brian Wren, “Justice and Liberation in the Eucharist,” Christian Century, 1 October 1986. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1051
 Molly T. Marshall, Feasting on the Word, 422.