It is a fundamental New Testament principle that for a church to function properly, every member has a role to fulfill. For a period of time when we were a part of a group of believers calling ourselves, “Bread Fellowship,” I had several responsibilities, not the least of which was to provide the bread for our weekly communion observance. During our history, we tried several different approaches, but it seems the one that worked the best was for me to simply bring a small loaf of bread.
I am not unfamiliar with the workings of the Lord’s Supper. When I was a young child after our church observed the Supper, my sister and I would finish off the juice and bread that was leftover. I’m sure we were allowed to do this because my mother has never thrown away anything in her life. We always considered it a treat to be able to recreate the event before being hustled off to bed on Sunday night. I will confess now that I always hoped for a small crowd at church since that meant more leftovers for us later.
Early in ministry, it was necessary for me to begin developing a theology of the Lord’s Supper. I grew up in Colorado where my father had been a tenured pastor and a highly influential patriarch in the denomination. After graduating from college in Texas, I enrolled in seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The expectation was that upon completion I would return to Colorado to serve as a pastor. Daddy was in a position to make that happen.
As seminary graduation approached, Daddy called and asked if I wanted to pastor a church in Colorado. After assuring him that was my plan, he mailed an information form that he would share with some available churches, and everything would be smooth. In addition to personal information, the form asked for my opinion on two issues—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
I knew that my position on the Lord’s Supper differed from my father, but he had also taught me to stand up for what I believed. I did and mailed it back to him. Since I was writing papers and reading textbooks, I didn’t give the information form much thought until it came back to me via the mail, along with a handwritten letter from my Dad. He asked me to change my answers to the two questions, and he would find a church for me. When I tell this story, people think I should have been surprised or offended or perhaps even insulted, but I wasn’t. Not only did Daddy teach me to stand up for what I believed, but he also taught me to expect the same from him. After I told him I couldn’t change my answers my fate was sealed. I never did serve a church in Colorado. The good news is that neither Daddy nor I had a problem with the interaction. Our relationship was not affected.
Instead, my incorrect Lord’s Supper theology led me to the Texas panhandle where I held the position of pastor for thirteen years. Being the pastor of the same church for thirteen years, I organized the Lord’s Supper in every way imaginable to avoid falling into a meaningless routine. One of the most memorable times was provided by an unexpected source. We had a young mother, Rosalinda, who gave her life to Jesus one evening in her home. She and her children began attending church every week, always sitting on the front row. She was growing in her faith every Sunday.
The first Sunday that we observed the Supper was a new experience for her. As the Deacons took the bread trays and began to distribute the wafers, you could see Rosalinda, sitting on the front row, trying to figure out what to do. As the dish was extended to her, she did the only thing she knew to do. She generously placed her meager offering on the plate, on top of the bite-sized wafers. From the front of the auditorium, I observed as people snickered at the bread tray, containing some stale wafers and a couple of dollar bills as it was passed around the room.
The event is nearly as memorable as the Gold Fish and chicken noodle soup fiasco in the early days of Bread Fellowship. Perhaps the one thing the Lord’s Supper and weddings have in common is that in spite of the most meticulous planning, something will go wrong. At least at a wedding, someone is usually ready with a video camera to capture the event for YouTube.
We had a homeless young man coming to our non-descript meetings, frequently arriving early to help set up tables and chairs if needed. We were grateful for the help, but truthfully, he saw it as a job because he expected to be paid. We obliged taking turns giving him some cash from our pocket. I think his name was James, but I’m not entirely sure. He participated enough in our worship times that it was apparent he had a smattering of religious background.
One evening as we were locking up the building before heading out into the night, or more likely the Fuzzy’s Taco down the street, James asked a few of us to pray for him. He found it challenging to manage consistent transportation to the clinic each week where he received his medication. As he talked, it eventually came out that he was HIV positive, and he didn’t want to risk missing the treatment. From that moment on, we frequently prayed for James and his situation.
A few weeks later, or at least long enough that James’ name had been supplanted from the top spot on our prayer list, he showed up late on Sunday night. We were nearly finished and preparing to share communion. Charlie, our leader, has the gift of making everyone feel special and needed, so when he saw James take his seat, he set out to make him feel welcome.
“James,” he said, “Would you like to distribute the bread for communion?
That was totally in character for Charlie. No one is unqualified for any task when it comes to serving God.
We could tell James was excited when he sprang to his feet. “Yes sir,” he replied. “Let me wash my hands first.” And with those words, he scurried across the room to the washroom as we sat and waited. It was a nervous waiting since most of us, except Charlie, remembered that James was a walking AIDS virus, or at least that’s what it felt like. At least we were glad he washed his hands.
James managed to distribute the Lord’s body without infecting anyone with a deadly virus. If I had a Catholic view of communion, then I could believe that Christ’s body destroyed any human virus on contact, but the truth is that washing his hands was all we needed. Later, when I spoke with Charlie, he confirmed that he forgot about James’ contagion.
At Bread Fellowship, when we finally settled on a routine where I was responsible for bringing the bread, Sharon and I developed our own method. The only grocery store on our route to the church was the Super Mercado on Northside Drive. It is not the kind of place where we would typically shop, but it has a fascination of its own. The grill in the parking lot is almost always billowing smoke passing over carnitas, chicken, or brisket and the aroma is intoxicating. I was tempted to get a few tacos on those trips, but we were always on our way to church. Few people inside the store, employees or customers, spoke English but it was never a problem.
As you enter the store, one of the first items you come to is a large cabinet with a glass front door. Inside is a variety of breads, I suspect most of it cooked fresh every morning. They sell a small loaf that was the ideal size for our little group at Bread Fellowship. The cost was three loaves for a dollar which means it only cost thirty-three and a third cents to remember the ultimate price paid by our Savior.
However, you must be careful in selecting the bread. They also sell a similar looking bread that is filled with jelly. Sharon ran into the store one Sunday evening, and as we approached the church, it hit her that she might have picked up the wrong bread. Sure enough, when the bread was broken open for the Lord’s Supper, we were surprised to see the grape jelly filling spill out. I guess we could have completed the service without the grape juice since it was an all-in-one loaf. Fortunately, we had a small group that night, so we all just pinched off the bread around the edges, without the jelly.
Being asked to bring the bread to Bread Fellowship was an honor. Even though we celebrated communion every week, the experience was always meaningful to me. I left with a new appreciation of Jesus’ sacrifice and a strong attachment to the others in the room. It was my way of doing my part as the body of Christ. Sure, I had other responsibilities, but this simple task was no less meaningful. Worship was enhanced by something I did. You see, we are all necessary. Remember, contributing may be as simple as stopping at the Super Mercado and getting a small loaf of bread.
These memories were conjured in my mind while reading a book by Rachel Held Evans. Rachel was a theologian, provoker, and thinker who died far too early at age 37 last weekend. In her book “Searching for Sunday” she reminded me of someone I had forgotten about. Sara Miles was raised with no religious training or experience other than fundamentalist judgementalism that made her skeptical of the whole Christian faith. Someone took her to an Episcopal church in San Francisco where she was invited to the table. This is how she described the experience: “And then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.”
She goes on to describe how after that first communion she wanted bread again and was pulled back to the table week after week. She not only found that she was a believer, but she also devoted her life to service. She created a unique dinner table that provides food for everyone who comes, where the despised and outcasts are honored.
“Holy communion knocked me upside down and forced me to deal with the impossible reality of God. Then, as conversion continued, relentlessly challenging my assumptions about religion and politics and meaning, God forced me to deal with all kinds of other people… I wound up not in what church people like to call ‘a community of believers’—which tends to be code for ‘a like-minded club’—but in something huger and wilder than I had ever expected: the suffering, fractious, and unboundaried body of Christ.”
Sara Miles advocates an open table where everyone who is physically or spiritually hungry is allowed to participate. This is the logical conclusion of my disagreement with my father. He belonged to wide element of the evangelical church that insists on church membership as a requirement for sharing the Lord’s Supper. At that point in my journey, I was not quite to the completely open table concept, but I was moving in that direction.
We set limits because we like to eat and fellowship with people like us. When was the last time you were invited to a dinner party hosted by strangers from a different economic level? How long has it been since you sat down and ate with a homeless person? Or allowed a person who was HIV positive to break the bread for you?
Just as I was responsible for bringing the bread, Charlie took on the task of the grape juice (we were both Baptist). One Sunday, Charlie was running late and stopped at a convenience store to get a bottle of grape juice, but they didn’t have any. Not having the time to find a more well-stocked market, he grabbed a cheap bottle of wine. That night about half our group opted out of the wine, not because they were tea-totaling Baptist or because of an aversion to drink, but because they were in recovery and unwilling to take the chance.
It didn’t matter, we continued, and everyone rejoiced and fellowship around the reality that Jesus was for all of us.
When I was the pastor of that small church, we observed the Lord’s Supper once a quarter. That last sentence is an accurate Baptist statement. I’m not sure what it meant to “observe” the Supper since a meal is a participatory event. The once a quarter thing was a way of doing it often enough to make it relevant, but not so often it loses meaning from repetition. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul encourages every person to examine themselves before partaking lest they bring shame to the experience.
Bill was a new church member who had been with us long enough to experience at least two of the quarterly events. As we were approaching the third, he stopped by my office late in the week to offer his services. Bill’s plan was to sit in the rear of the sanctuary and note who participated. He would then be able to present a list of those who should be excluded next time, and I could conduct a more biblical ritual. I don’t recall how I responded, but I’m confident it wasn’t with gratitude.
How dare anyone determine that another person is not worthy of Christ’s gift. None of us is worthy or deserving, but that’s what makes it such a beautiful meal. If you want to exclude someone from your dinner table that’s your choice, but we have no right to exclude anyone from His table.
I also arrived at this conclusion while reflecting on the words of Paul: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (I Corinthians 11:26) The Lord’s Supper is more than a fellowship meal, although it is that, it’s also a preaching opportunity. When we proclaim the Lord’s death, we want everyone to receive the message. It’s an invitation to come and receive what He has done for you. Jesus is inviting all of us to dine at His table.
It’s been a long time since my sister and I sat at our little wooden table and ate the leftover wafers and slurped the juice from the Baptist shot glasses. My early understanding of scripture taught me that church membership is not required. Rosalinda reminded me that I didn’t have to pay for the meal. Bill reinforced the truth that I have no right to judge and exclude another. James showed me how to share the bread with those carrying a deadly virus. Sara Miles helped me understand that the Lord serves more than a small mouthful of bread and sip of juice at his table. Rachel Held Evans provided the opportunity for me to put it all together.
“Long enshrined traditions around communion aside, there are always folks who fancy themselves bouncers to the heavenly banquet, charged with keeping the wrong people away from the table and out of the church. Evangelicalism in particular has seen a resurgence in border patrol Christianity in recent years, as alliances and coalitions formed around shared theological distinctives elevate secondary issues to primary ones and declare anyone who fails to conform to their strict set of beliefs and behaviors unfit for Christian fellowship. Committed to purifying the church of every errant thought, difference of opinion, or variation in practice, these self-appointed gatekeepers tie up heavy loads of legalistic rules and place them on weary people’s shoulders. They strain out the gnats in everyone else’s theology while swallowing their own camel-sized inconsistencies. They slam the door of the kingdom in people’s faces and tell them to come back when they are sober, back on their feet, Republican, Reformed, doubtless, submissive, straight. But the gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, ‘Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.’ This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy; it’s a kingdom for the hungry.” (Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday)