“Come to the table of grace.” It was the most profound part of our Council of Bishops meeting last week in Dallas, Texas. On our first three days together, we shared the sacrament of holy communion, a reminder that God was in our midst, binding us together in love and hope. The liturgies were rich, the music uplifting, and the words deeply moving, “Serve your God with patience and passion. Be deliberate in enacting your faith. Be steadfast in celebrating the Spirit’s power. And may peace be your way in the world.”
On the last day, we shared in the Love Feast, which is a Christian Fellowship Meal that recalls the meals Jesus shared with his disciples during his ministry. The Love Feast can be traced back to Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians in Germany. In 1727, they initiated a worship service that consisted of sharing food, prayer, religious conversation, and hymns.
When John Wesley was living in Savannah, Georgia, he experienced a Love Feast with the Moravians in 1737. He wrote this in his diary, “After evening prayers, we joined with the Germans in one of their love-feasts. It was begun and ended with thanksgiving and prayer and celebrated in so decent and solemn a manner as a Christian of the apostolic age would have allowed to be worthy of Christ.”
It was during the Love Feast where I had the flashback. Two of my episcopal colleagues and I were sharing bread and simple cups of water at our table when I remembered something I had forgotten for decades. I was a small child, sitting beside my mother in our Mennonite church and watching her take communion (my father was in the choir). She took a piece of bread from the tray that was passed through the pew, and I heard her chewing the bread slowly in her mouth. Then I saw her take a small cup out of a tray and drink the grape juice.
As I recall, we had communion just three or four times a year. I had a vague sense that it had something to do with remembering the Last Supper and the death of Jesus on the cross. I also remembered that before Communion Sunday, we had from time to time what were called “preparatory services.” These services were meant to spiritually prepare church members to receive communion by ensuring that our hearts were right with God and our neighbor.
Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will, we have broken your law,
We have rebelled against your love,
We have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I confess that I wasn’t particularly invested in communion because I was not allowed to participate. I was only an observer. I never heard these words, inviting to the table “all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another.” When I finally asked my mother why I could not take communion, she explained, “When you profess your faith, are baptized, and join the church, you will be allowed to take communion.”
In the Mennonite church where I grew up, we attended “catechetical class” once a week in 9th and 10th grade. We were instructed in the Christian faith and Mennonite theology and practice. In the spring of our sophomore year, we were encouraged to make our profession and be baptized. Only “believer’s baptism” was practiced.
Here I was, a Jesus-loving little girl whose life revolved completely around the church, and it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I was able to be baptized and receive this holy meal that seemed so serious and important. Because communion happened so rarely, I didn’t obsess about my exclusion … until the day a new girl in my junior high grade began coming to church with her parents. They were Mennonites who had moved to southeastern Pennsylvania from another state.
Not only did I notice Lisa’s presence in worship, but on World Wide Communion Sunday, I observed her receiving communion!! Stunned, I said to my mother, “I saw Lisa take communion today. I thought we had to wait until we completed two years of classes in high school before we could be baptized and take communion.” My mother spoke to Lisa’s mother, who said that in their previous Mennonite church, children could profess their faith and choose to be baptized in upper elementary school. “No fair!” I said indignantly. “Why do I have to wait?”
“Come to the table of grace. Come to the table of grace. This is God’s table; it’s not yours or mine. Come to the table of grace.” The flashback happened when we sang these words at the Council of Bishops, and I realized anew that the communion table is God’s table, not mine. One of the beautiful gifts of our Wesleyan heritage is that all are welcome to the table. We don’t have to wait until we are baptized or become a member of the church. We don’t have to wait until we understand the theological nuances of the sacrament. We don’t even have to wait until we are worthy, for Jesus invites us to come, just as we are. Children, especially, grow spiritually and experience God’s unconditional love and belonging by taking communion.
Come not because you must, but because you may.
Come not because you are strong, but because you are weak,
and in your weakness and frailty are in constant need of God’s love and care.
Come not because you are righteous,
but because your Savior has made peace between you and God.
Come now to meet your Lord and to pray for God’s Spirit.
Whoever you are and wherever you have come from, you are invited to partake.
I regret missing communion as a child, although I understand the reasons why. Because I could not partake, the sacrament did not mean much to me. It was only as I went off to a Lutheran College that I received communion on a regular basis. And when I worked at a United Methodist church as a Director of Music while in graduate school and seminary, I came to yearn for the sacrament in a way I had never felt before. To have the privilege of serving the bread and the cup as a United Methodist pastor and now as a bishop has become a treasured part of my ministry.
There is no greater privilege than to look into the eyes of children, youth, and adults and say, “The bread of life, given for you. The cup of salvation, given for you.” The vulnerability and humility that they bring to the table is overwhelming. It’s as if I can see into their soul and am thus transformed myself.
During our Love Feast, we sang Brian Wren’s beautiful hymn, We Meet as Friends at Table, and I flashed back again, this time to so many beautiful experiences of communion. It was a reminder that in the midst of our differences as United Methodists, the way forward may just be to meet as friends at table.
- We meet as friends at table, to listen, and be heard,
united by the Spirit, attentive to the Word.
Through prayer and conversation, we tune our varied views
to Christ, whose love has made us the bearers of good news.
- With food and drink for sharing, the table soon is spread,
The freedom meal of Jesus is crowned with wine and bread.
And all, without exception, may eat, and speak, and stay,
for this is Christ’s own table where none is turned away.
- We share our lives and longings, and when the meal is done
we pray as friends at table and promise to be one.
To Christ, and to each other, we cheerfully belong:
apart, our hope is fruitless; together, we are strong.
- Fulfilled, and glad to follow wherever Christ may lead,
we journey from the table to love a world in need
with patience, truth and kindness, that justice may increase
and all may sit at table in freedom, joy and peace.
(Brian Wren, tune: Ellacombe “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed”)