Late last week, I was contacted by fellow pastor and blogger Drew “Pastor Mack,” who was planning to write about the communion witness in which I participated at General Conference on May 3. He asked for my permission and to further pick my brain a bit, which I gladly granted, and I feel that his resulting post was a fair representation of what I said.
I subsequently posted his link on my facebook page, and followed the comments there and on his blog. Some common threads emerged, which I would like to engage a little bit further. A central critique by both Drew and many commenters centers around whether the action (commonly called a protest– I’ll get to that later) was inclusive or exclusive, unifying or divisive, and potentially politicized (in a bad way). All of it centers on what we believe about communion.
So if you will, take a journey with me through some sacramental theology.
Who Can Serve Communion (and When)?
One early response on my facebook page suggested that because the General Conference schedule already offered communion once a day, consecrated by a bishop, that this communion witness on the floor was offensive or divisive. A commenter on Pastor Mack’s blog stated that she assumed in the context of General Conference that only a bishop would be eligible to preside over communion. Both of these statements run counter to how I understand the sacrament of communion. As a sacrament, Eucharist is a sign (and outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace, if I remember my sacramental theology definitions correctly). It is a visible, tangible way of us living out our belief. It is a gift from God to us. Celebrating Eucharist once a year, once a month, once a day, or one hundred times a day cannot diminish the significance or holiness of this act. Any diminished sacredness is in us, not in the sacrament. And any ordained elder is eligible to preside at the communion table. In fact, the effectiveness, so to speak, of the sacrament is not contingent upon the presider, because the one truly offering the Eucharist is God. No one can appropriate or steal communion. I can’t make “mine” what already belongs to God. Whenever two or three gather in Christ’s name, he has promised to be among us; whenever those two or three break bread and share a cup, they remember him. As a means of grace (Methodist church speak word), communion might be the place where those who do not yet know or experience Christ find a moment of grace, a beginning on the journey. As such, no celebration of communion trumps any other. We never know where and how grace might be made known.
Is the Table Open?
“This was communion for a fragment,” one person wrote.
My reply, “No. For the fragmented.”
Several people seemed to feel that this service of communion was a private one, only for the GLBTQ community and their allies. It’s sad to me that people would assume that, and I’m actually not sure why they did. We were a big honking clump of people (what I’ve learned my friend and colleague Elissa calls a “holy blob”) in the middle of a huge room, at a communion table. Once the elements were prayed over, wafers and cups were taken out from the table and offered to those around the room and outside the voting area “bar.” We were presumably all Methodists to some extent, and one of the most powerful and profound points of Methodist theology is the practice of the open table. All are welcome at the table. Always. That doesn’t mean all *feel* welcome at the table, and I can understand if one is not feeling in the spirit to take communion, or not feeling part of the body. Again, that is the spiritual place of the individual, not a reflection on the sacrament.
We did anticipate at some level that people might not feel invited to the table. Those of us who planned the witness wanted to issue an invitation, but didn’t want to “mic check” it, so we went with song. What we would have loved to sing was “Welcome” (all are welcome in this place/all of us are welcome here), but while we had the, ahem, magnificent songwriter Mark Miller in our midst, we had no piano, and it’s a harder tune to carry if not everyone knows it really well. We also ruled out “One Bread, One Body,” because the marked contrast between the preceding vote and the words of all of us being one with differences washed away was a bit too much. So we sang “Let us break bread together.” Together. Lord, have mercy on us.
Anyway, it is again counter to my very understanding of the sacrament of communion to ever presume that a table at a Methodist gathering is closed. Our communion table is always open– well, always open on one side, the receiving side. On the side of the presider, we have a closed communion table, but that’s the big question isn’t it?
Now, I have been on the other end of things, and been invited to a worship service where it would be rude not to attend, but where it was made clear I would not be welcome at the communion table. It was in the context of a Roman Catholic colleague renewing his vows to his order, and it was known that I was a former catholic now Methodist candidate for ministry. I had felt that this had been thrown in my face a few times recently, and was hurting, and in thinking about going to the service, realized that I wanted to go up to the altar with my hands outstretched and make the priest look me in the face and deny me the body and blood of Christ. Out of my own pain and anger. I chose not to attend the service, rather than either sit sullenly in the pew or come to the table of the Lord out of spite. This illustrates both the importance to me of the open table, and leads me to our next question.
In What Spirit Should We Preside Over & Take Communion?
I hear the word protest a lot, associated with the action on the floor at General Conference on May 3.
There was a protest that same day. It happened just a little later, and I participated in that too, although less visibly and less stridently. When the people who were on the floor around the communion table refused to leave, when they prevented the business of the conference from resuming with their presence and their singing (“What does the Lord Require of You?”), that was an act of protest.
It followed on the heels of an act of witness. An observation of a sacrament. A moment of prayer and worship, offered publicly and in response to a public vote, but not as a way of swaying anyone or articulating any message apart from what is always articulated in communion: our brokenness and God’s grace.
Pastor Mack wrote, “no matter what our divisions, some things should remain sacred. This should be true, most of all, for the Lord’s Table.” Another commenter described the use of the elements of communion as “props” in a political scheme.
At the same time, many people who were present in Tampa and those who were watching from the live stream describe their experience of the moment as spiritual, powerful, prophetic, or pastoral. One person wrote: “You all stayed and performed an act of Christian faith that reached across the world through this picture. You hallowed our denomination by this holy act performed in the center of a broken place.”
Much of this seems to hinge on the spirit in which the communion was offered and received. Was it offered out of anger? Taken out of spite? Lifted up to drive home a point? Some saw it this way. I knew there was a danger of that.
But, as I wrote and as Drew quoted on his blog, those who decided to offer communion in that moment saw it as “one standout example of what it means, theologically and spiritually, to live in the broken but believe in the whole and hope for the future we cannot see. Was there ever greater brokenness than the division, distrust, and ungodliness that led to Christ’s sacrifice? Is there any better example of how the broken becomes whole than the bread shared, the cup poured out to make us one?” Elsewhere, “what we decided was that the moment, no matter how the vote went, would be one of brokenness and deep pain for roughly half the room no matter what. And yet, in this brokenness and division, we are still one, and we still believe that God is able to bring healing, indeed salvation, out of the deepest pain and division.”
Even Drew acknowledges this in a comment, before restating that the “private” nature of the action (see above) was what he took issue with: “It is always a broken body that gathers at the table, and always one desperately in need of grace…”
Not everyone was in the same spirit that day. Are we ever when we celebrate the Eucharist? For me and for many, the act was one of deepest reverence, a witness and testimony to the belief in a God of justice and liberation, compassion and deep grace, in a world that has not always demonstrated those traits.
Can Communion Be (Over) Politicized?
This brings us to the most common critique I have heard following the May 3 witness: communion should never be political.
Now, I went to Boston University School of Theology, so all my theology has a strong social justice theme laced through it, for the better if you ask me, and all of my understandings are peppered with a preference for the radical, political, earth-shaking nature of Christ’s life and ministry. Jesus was a consummate political strategist. He was a master of metaphor, using story and parable, and reinterpreting ritual and pomp to articulate a new worldview, one we call the Reign of God. This is not a bad thing. I’m not saying Jesus was a politician in the way we think of our politicians today– sleazy, selfish, pick a disparaging adjective. Nor am I claiming that Jesus manipulated the people around him (although all speech, particularly rhetorical, prophetic speech, is manipulative in the best possible way). Rather, what I am saying is that Jesus was a savvy, brilliant man, who used the secular and religious rituals and symbols of his day to cast his vision, and who flipped and reframed the symbols around him into vessels for the Gospel he was preaching.
Consider the triumphant entry into Jerusalem (see Borg and Crossan, The Last Week), a dramatic and brilliant reimagining of the Roman governor’s show of might and worldly power the week of the Passover. Jesus flips this pomp and circumstance on its head, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a war horse, surrounded by children and peasants with palm branches rather than soldiers with spears. That’s not an accident. That’s brilliant political symbolism. Choose this day, his actions scream: who is your King? Under whose Reign will you live?
So when we come to the Last Supper, we also can’t ignore the religious symbolism Jesus is playing with here. It’s a Seder, a central focus of the Passover observance, a time of reflecting on suffering and bitterness, on God’s deliverance. Jesus layers on top of this ritual a new meaning– the present suffering and that which is about to strike the disciples, the tears and sweat that will be shed, the blood that will be spilled, not to mark a doorpost, but to seal a heart. He creates a new Body, a new people of God, and he enacts a new covenant, signed with his own sacrifice. Then he throws himself on the mercy– or lack thereof– of his enemies, refusing to meet their violence with violence, offering forever a different Way to live and serve and die, in service to the Holy, out of love for the broken.
That’s beautiful, human, pastoral, Divine, tender, daring, spiritual, theological… and it’s also political. And communion remains political to this day. In the moment of the Eucharist, we remember what Jesus did and who he was, we proclaim his victory in the face of the world’s violence and the crushing weight of sin, and we envision the Reign of God that is a completely different spiritual, social, and political system than anything the world knows. When we hold up the bread and cup, we also hold up another Way.
Communion sets a table in the misdt of the world’s power and proclaims a new kin-dom. Communion says all when the world says some. Communion says whole when the world says broken. What’s more political than proclaiming Christ’s reign in the midst of the world’s power? What’s more political than saying all are invited to the banquet when the world teaches the wealthy and powerful 1% get the feast, and the poor must beg for crumbs?
And so to the charge of allowing communion to speak its political message, a message of wholeness in the midst of the fragmented, of liberation for all the oppressed, of unity in a moment of deep division, of hope for those who have been trod under, of welcome and inclusion for all– most especially for those who were told yet again that their lives and loves are incompatible with the Gospel when nothing could be further from the truth, of peace and healing and love and tenderness from and through a body that has allowed violence and hatred to fester in its heart– to the charge of allowing communion to be political, I plead guilty. And may I be guilty of that for many years to come.
Reflections on Romero
A final comparison has frequently been made in this conversation: the links to Archbishop Oscar Romero, the visionary and prophetic martyr for justice, who was shot to death in his mission field in San Salvador the week after Easter, 1980, just as he turned to the altar to celebrate the Eucharist.
Now I am no Oscar Romero (nor, I must emphatically state, am I suggesting above that I’m Jesus of Nazareth), and much of the theological reflection surrounding Romero and communion comes from his Roman Catholic tradition. However, I too have Roman Catholic roots, and the sacramental theology of sacrifice and witness as linked to the Eucharist resonates strongly with me.
In this 2001 essay, “Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed by It”, William Cavanaugh explores the links between martyrdom (from Greek, “witness”) and communion. He cites Romero’s decision to hold one Mass in the entire archdiocese the week following the assassination of Rutilio Grande, effectively “forcing” the body to commune together. Cavanaugh writes: “Romero intended the one eucharist to be an anticipation of the kingdom, of the day when rich and poor would feast together, of the day when the body of Christ would not be wounded by divisions… Under these circumstances, the single mass also served to illumine and to judge the ongoing divisions between rich and poor. The single mass, just like the martyrs, did not create conflict, but rather shone a light on it and revealed the truth about it.”
Like Pastor Mack, Cavanaugh ties this conversation about the meaning of communion to Paul’s words in the first Letter to the Corinthians about “discerning the body” as an important criteria for receiving communion in the proper spirit. Cavanaugh writes, “Discerning the body must mean being able to identify truthfully where the body is not whole, where divisions exist.” You see, breaking bread in the midst of the broken is not a failure to discern the body, but a proper response to it. To break the bread and deny the brokenness in the body, that, Cavanaugh claims (and I agree), is a failure to discern the Body of Christ in all its messy complexity.
Fortunately, our eucharistic communion gives us hope that this is not the final word. Besides shining a light on the divisions that exist, discerning the body includes an exercise in dissolving those divisions, blurring the lines between “them” and “us.” In the body of Christ, Paul continues to tell the Corinthians, people are distinguished from each other, not by class or race or nationality, but by charisms given them by the Holy Spirit. Each has a different role to play in the service of the whole, and the weakest members are the most indispensable, to be treated with the greatest honor. Therefore, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). The eucharist gives us hope by helping us to discern the deep reality that all people are members or potential members of the body of Christ. The body of Christ transgresses artificial national borders that separate the United States from El Salvador or Iraq.
That is the truth I hope I lifted up on May 3, in an act of worship, prayer, and witness. By naming the division and brokenness in the body and refusing to sweep it under the rug, but choosing instead to stand in the very heart of that brokenness, I hope I was part of God’s reminder to all people: no matter how much we tear at each other, no matter how divided, no matter how vile our treatment of our siblings in Christ who are GLBTQ is, this division is not an act of God. Violence, oppression, hatred, bigotry, ignorance, apathy, and holier-than-thou piety are not acts of God. Scheming and manipulation and infighting and vote counting are not acts of God. Weaving the broken and whole together, drawing the circle wider than human arms can reach, extending forgiveness and grace that are never warranted or earned, casting a vision of a more radical, more inclusive kin-dom than the world can possibly imagine, this is God’s work, and the work to which Christ’s Body is called.
May we remember. Not to simply call to our minds. To reflect– and by reflect I mean as a mirror– the life and witness of Christ. May we relive and retell and re-be the Body, broken and whole, the life poured out for the world. Every time we break the bread and share the cup, we proclaim a victory, we offer ourselves as a sacrifice alongside Christ, and we re-member his fragmented yet gloriously whole Body.