The Ministry of the Table
Text: John 6:51: “ I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Once or twice a month or so I bring Holy Communion to someone in the parish who for some reason or another can’t be here with us. It may be that they have mobility challenges and can’t get to church so easily anymore, or it may be that they’re in the hospital, or maybe a nursing home, for the moment. Some of you have hosted me for one of those visits.
I bring with me my communion kit, and typically what’s in it is bread and wine that we have blessed here on Sunday morning-—for the church geeks out there, the “reserved sacrament.” I do that because I want people who can’t be here to feel connected with what we do together here on Sunday morning, to know they are part of our celebration, part of our worship, even though distance may separate us.
In the kit is basically a miniature version of what you see on the altar during communion; a silver chalice, and a silver paten, and a white corporal laid out under it all, and a white purificator for cleaning up any spills. I set this up on whatever flat surface I can find, and then we share the same celebration that all of us here have shared together.
The service we use is something called “Communion Under Special Circumstances,” and just about anything can constitute “special circumstances.” My little kit has been in a pretty amazing variety of places. Maybe because of all that variety there is a kind of comfort in the simplicity and the predictability of that little liturgy.
If you open your prayer book to page 396 you’ll find it; it’s not a page you’ve probably come upon a lot, unless you’re the sort of person who pages through the prayer book for something to do until the end of the sermon. So now I’ll give us all permission to do that—open your prayer books to page 396 an have a look at this little, four-page service.
It basically has six parts: a brief scripture reading; a collect; the confession; the Lord’s Prayer; communion; and a closing prayer. And what I especially want you to notice is that among the few little excerpts from scripture that we can share together in this little service is the one we read this morning from the sixth chapter of John’s gospel; “I am the living bread that came down from heaven...”
Every seminary student learns that there are seven ways in which Jesus describes himself in the gospel of John by saying “I am,” and eight if you count the time he says “before Abraham was, I am.” Two of these are right here in the little scripture choices for communion under special circumstances: “I am the vine,” and “I am the bread of life, the living bread.”
These statements of Jesus in John are not merely explanations, they are claims. They are statements of identity. Ultimately in John’s gospel Jesus will identify himself with the God of all creation, but not before these statements of self description; I am the light of the world, I am the door, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection, I am the way, the truth, and the life.
When we gather as a community of followers of Jesus around the table of the Eucharist, we are doing more than reenacting the words and actions of that Last Supper in the upper room with Jesus and his closest friends. We are joining in that statement of identity Jesus makes, and by faith claiming it as the truth that stands in the center of who we are. We are saying that we are the people whose lives depend on the sustenance of this bread, and that sharing it is what makes us who we are.
And that’s why sharing the celebration of the table is something we take very seriously here. It’s why we take the table wherever our people are, wherever they may be.
Sharing the ministry of the table, sharing in the living bread that Jesus has given to us by giving himself for us, that is what makes us a Christian community. It’s not somehow that we become Christian and then earn a seat at the table. It is that by coming to the table, by sharing the table with others, we begin the work of being transformed into the community of disciples, the community of ministers, that we are called to be. The table makes us who we are.
Today marks a year since the events in Ferguson, Missouri that have brought us again to confront the enduring divisions of race in our nation, the bitter fruit of our country’s original sin. Today Michael Brown’s family will mourn him again, and today his friends and neighbors will take their cries for justice into the streets of their city. In the sad sequence of similar tragedies in the year since then, it seems harder and harder to catch a glimpse of a future of social harmony, of a vision that has a power to unite us greater than our tendency to stigmatize and demonize those who are unlike us.
At the very center of our existence as a Christian community is this single, profound act that Christ instituted for us, knowing that if we got it right it would bring us together as equals and work to break down the barriers that we so easily build. Sharing the bread as we gather around the table reminds us that each one of us is dependent on God for all that we have, for our whole lives—and that the greatest gift God gives us in making the most of this gift of life is each other. Our dependence on God is mirrored, is made real, in our dependence on each other. As the old Irish proverb says, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”
That is the wisdom we have to offer our troubled and torn society as we all seek together to find some way beyond our divisions and our mistrust. We have at the center of our life as community a practice, the gathering at the table, that breaks down our barriers and helps us to see clearly and vividly what makes us alike, instead of being seduced by what we imagine makes us different. Dr. King, in the language of an earlier day, called it the “table of brotherhood.” It is the place where, no matter who is gathered, unity is possible because of what is shared there—and what, through that sharing, is realized there.
None of us gave ourselves the gift of life by ourselves; and all of us depend on the support and sustenance God gives us in the bread of life we share at the table. When we gather there together, we are connected to each other in our radical dependence, and in our essential equality. There is no force greater for breaking down the divisions between us; I doubt there is any other force able to. That is why the ministry of the table is no mere ritual of faith; it is an act of discipleship, a means of justice, and a sign of how God intends for us to live, gathered, sharing, and at peace. Amen.