Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
October 2, 2022, World Communion Sunday
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:27–32
For a long time, communion was the sacrament I considered the most forbidding and unwelcome part of the church experience. It was the one sacrament that the church seemed to police strictly, judging who was unworthy to partake. In my experience, whatever the Christian tradition, the clergy often suggested, implicitly or explicitly, that if you did anything wrong, had not confessed and received forgiveness for any sin, or were not spiritually and religiously unimpeachable, then perhaps, to be on the safe side, you should not take communion. This is why we still hear today about some churches denying communion to same-sex couples and divorced people or clergy threatening to refuse participation in the sacrament to pro-choice elected officials.
Even as I began my studies in seminary, the history and liturgical practices we learned appeared to reinforce the divisions among traditions, denominations, and theologies that prevailed in how they conducted communion. We got ringside seats to the ancient debates about what different traditions and faiths thought happened to the elements when ministers recited the words of institution. We learned what it meant to believe in transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or memorialism. So much energy, intellectual and spiritual, has been spent on these debates about Jesus’ actual or symbolic body in breaking the bread that we have given far too little attention to the Apostle Paul’s invitation to discern what we are doing as the body of Christ and to the body of Christ.
In the biblical renderings of what we have now made sacramental, from the understanding of what Jesus may have conceivably passed on to what the oral tradition of the Gospels portrays about the institution of the meal, the very act of breaking the bread and sharing the cup inaugurated a new covenant between God and God’s people and a new understanding of what it means to be community. Jesus had shared many meals with his disciples and followers during his years of ministry with them, but what distinguished the meal that we now hold to be sacramental is that the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup was an affirmative act of sharing in the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. It was not about reserving the shared meal only for those who are perfectly righteous. It was about the counternarrative and the counter-reality of an inclusive, egalitarian community within the reign of God against a world of violence, poverty, and inequality. Sharing in Christ in the Lord’s Supper was testimony to the world that this body of followers, believers, and disciples was unified in re-enacting Jesus’ transformative offer of amazing grace and enacting the equality, mutuality, and radical inclusion of Jesus’ ministry and message.
If we have any doubts about this understanding, Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth is a reminder to a people who had forgotten all about what it meant to share in Jesus. There are factions and divisions in the church, most explicitly visible in how wealthier Corinthians leave out the less privileged in sharing the common meal because they have the means, time, and ability to get to church early and eat the best food. The wealthier, more powerful Corinthians were re-establishing within the body of Christ the same inequality, prejudices, and oppression found in the world. And so even the act of communion, the sharing in the Lord’s Supper, does not reflect the unity, covenant, and fellowship that Jesus imbued into the practice. And if the Lord’s Supper does not reflect the unity, covenant, and fellowship of one body partaking in the one bread, then Paul declares they are not discerning the body of Christ. They are not reflecting on what Jesus did and is doing in the beloved community. Paul exhorts the church in Corinth to remember that sharing the bread and the cup indicates their partnership with and participation in Christ. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). This cannot be like all the other meals, practices, and institutions that divide, polarize, and oppress the world.
So eating the bread and drinking the cup in an unworthy manner is less about private piety or whether we have confronted all of our sins and more about whether we eat and drink in the spirit with which Jesus instituted the meal. Jesus instituted this meal as an outward and inward sign of the new covenant. To eat and drink in an unworthy manner is God’s judgment on our refusal to wait for, receive, and welcome at God’s table all God’s children, no matter who they are. We must be careful that we do not recreate and reinscribe the divisions, hierarchies, and prejudices of the world into this sacred act of communion. We must be clear that in breaking the bread and drinking the cup, we participate not in securing our own spiritual aims and goals but in declaring that we are the body of Christ. At this table, we shed the privileges, advantages, and power over our neighbor and live out the equality, mutuality, and radical inclusion of Jesus. If we come to the table with all the intentions, baggage, and injustices of the world, we are not likely to receive grace; we receive more of the same that the world heaps on us . . . the judgment of hate, division, disconnection, violence, and—yes—death.
I will be honest and admit that while I have partaken of the Lord’s Supper many times since I was twelve years old, it wasn’t until 2011, when I took an immersion trip to Guatemala, that I learned what it means to eat the bread and drink the cup in a worthy manner. Some nuns we traveled with invited us to the Church of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, the Roman Catholic Church in the region. Even though the civil war in Guatemala had ended several years before our trip, there were still death squads roaming the country, killing their enemies and indigenous peoples, and I was paralyzed with fear. But as we arrived at the church, I saw a sight that blew me away. It looked as if the temple were held aloft by flowers. The eighteen steps of the temple, which we were told symbolized the 18 months of the Mayan calendar, were covered with flowers and candles, offerings from the region’s indigenous peoples.
Inside the temple was a sight worthy of Isaiah’s vision of a house of prayer for all peoples: Ladinos, indigenous Mayans, Americans, Europeans, Catholics, Protestants, and nonbelievers all gathered in worship. A young priest delivered his sermon in Spanish, in Ki’che (the indigenous language of the Mayans), and in English so that we all would receive the revelation of God in our own tongue. When the time came for Holy Communion, I assumed that all of the ways we are divided from one another would prevail as it does everywhere else. Those of us who were Protestant, nonbelievers, and LGBTQ assumed that we were not welcome to enjoy the service of the table. So, we did not move to receive the bread and the cup. When the ushers beckoned and offered, we raised our hands in refusal. One of us even tried to communicate in broken Spanish the reason we could not partake. Without realizing it, we brought into the space the divisions and factions I knew so well. By our refusal to take the elements, we were more concerned about propriety than discerning the body of Christ. But the young priest insisted that we all take communion, grabbing our hands and gesturing to the ushers to embrace us. There was no language barrier, and he did not misunderstand us. He would not take no for an answer, and he waited. He waited for us. He received us unconditionally. The service would not go on until the whole body had eaten the bread and drank the cup. Nobody would be left out. No borders, boundaries, divisions, no walls, no deportations. All God’s children, citizens of heaven, imitating Jesus and sharing in his body in mutuality, equality, covenant, and fellowship.
Today, all over the world, churches in every tradition and denomination gather around the table to break the bread and drink the cup. We come reenacting the power of God’s salvation in the selfless sacrifice of Jesus for his unwavering solidarity with us. We remember being included, embraced, and satisfied with the bread of life and the cup of salvation that alleviate our hunger and thirst. And we do so knowing but forgetting that too many still languish in bodily hunger and thirst. We indulge in the symbol and ritual in full knowledge of the suffering and oppression that infect the world. As we partake of this meal, I pray that we reflect on what it means to wait on, receive, and welcome the most vulnerable among us; that we may find a way to reject and interrupt the divisions that threaten the body of Christ. May it be so.