As we move through “Lent” and are confronted with the love and mercy of God we find ourselves peering at the communion table and the cross. The table of our Lord is where we are transformed, where our burdens are taken from us, and where we are given new lives to truly live.
Many of us have grown up with an understanding that gathering around the table of our Lord is a solemn event, one filled with repentance. People approaching the table with bowed heads and eyes downcast reinforced this view. And gathering like we do during Holy Week, the week which our Lord was betrayed and began his journey to the cross for our sake and the sins of the world, we do look into our hearts with some sense of saddened awe.
Despite this, I personally was struck by a sudden change in emphasis that came with the liturgical reforms of the late 1970s when a joyful chord was struck in Holy Communion. “This is the feast of victory for our God” and “Thank the Lord and sing his praise” were two among many canticles connected to celebrating communion in this more festive manner.
Feast? Victory? Celebration? This is quite a different vocabulary from that which held sway in our communities of faith for so long. But then, I thought, if we do indeed come into the presence of God with repentance in order to hear the good news; the good news of forgiveness and love, to receive a real sign of Christ’s presence with us, then we have something to celebrate.
Yes, a feast! Yes, victory! A feast as we proclaim the meal to be a foretaste of the feast to come, a vision of the heavenly banquet. This is a victory because sin and the power of the devil have been thrown out the door of the banquet hall as all are invited to feast at the table of new life.
As much as celebrating the meal of the Lord is about proclaiming this truth of the gospel, we may be left wondering whether anything has been forgotten. I’m not talking about what Christ may have forgotten in the invitation to us to come to the table. Of course Christ doesn’t forget anything, for Christ invites us without pretense. Jesus even acknowledged that one among his disciples was not clean, the one who was to betray him, yet still carried on in the invitation. Rather it’s what we believers may be forgetting as we gather around that table.
Yoshiro Ishida, a noted Japanese theologian, was privileged to travel to South Africa in the mid-1980s. This was a time when apartheid still reigned and was reaching a decisive moment in its existence. While there and visiting with leaders of the black church, he wanted to host them for a nice meal. But he encountered a terrible difficulty in that country. At the time, all public spaces were segregated – with separate
toilets, trains, restaurants, and beaches for whites and nonwhites. His problem was that because he was Japanese he was considered an “honorary white” in the eyes of the scrutinizing laws; he could not invite the black church leaders to dine with him. The nice restaurants where he would have liked to host a celebration meal were labeled “For whites only.”
While eating is a most basic of human activities, eating together around a table is essential for community. For us, in the midst of the Christian community and the common faith we profess, I ask is not eating together around the Lord’s Table even more profound? The reality of apartheid, which separated even the church, aggravated the already deep sin in which we live, thought this Japanese pastor. This tore apart even the table that ought to be the focused gathering point of sharing the meal.
The table of our Lord ought to be a celebration, one of joy and life at which we are truly fed. Apartheid in South Africa may be gone and the burden that separation at even the communion table may be overcome. What is often forgotten is that we continue to carry to the same table some of our own baggage. Oh, the baggage we carry is great! Martin Luther King Jr. once said that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. He was talking about racial segregation, of course, at a place that ought to be a welcoming place to all.
We really ought to look around. Who has been forgotten here on account of our own baggage? This, my friends, is a time to look around us as we look deep into our hearts. The tragedy of poverty and hunger remain not just far away, but often right next to us. The reality of hatred and distrust take hold of our hearts and minds, all the stereotyping, prejudicing, and out casting of one another tears apart the human family.
I know we deny that these struggles exist. I know we want to forget them, leave them at the door as we enter church. But deep down, they still exist. It is these burdens and many more that we bring to the table, to the cross that Jesus carried and upon which he was nailed.
In the Louvre in Paris, there’s a painting of the crucifixion by the Italian artist Francia. At first glance, there’s nothing special about this painting. But there is an unusual sign on the cross. As you look to the kneeling figure at the foot of the cross, you see that he is looking up to the sign placed above Christ’s head. Et maiora sustinuit ipse, it reads: “And greater pains than yours has he endured.” In times of pain, plague, and torture, this 15th-century artist evidently felt that this would be a comforting message of the meaning of the cross.
Yes, Christ took our baggage with him to the cross, and died with that baggage. That is far more than we ever would endure. As often as we eat and drink around the communion table, we indeed proclaim the Lord’s death; a death that carried with it that very baggage we otherwise would be carrying. Over and over again, we bring our baggage. Over and over again, that baggage is taken from our shoulders, from our minds, from our hearts, and for the sake of the new covenant, is placed on the cross.
Repentance. Yes. This is a time and place to come and turn to God. We come to this table looking and turning to God for help with the baggage we carry. But we also come with joy, because we are relieved of our baggage. We are transformed from burdenladen beings to renewed creatures of God, fed with new life and sent forth into the world.
It is here that we indeed proclaim Jesus’ death until he comes again; around this table, around the world in the communion we share. Because it is from here we can emerge with renewed vigor and new life. Amen!
Remember, eat, drink, serve, love, and live. Pastor Ed