I remember vividly the most heated theological debate during my time in theological hall. It wasn’t about a doctrine or creed as such, it was whether a dying person had really received the ‘host’ at Holy Communion just before death. There were a number of student theologians present including Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Catholics.
The debate included a wide range of opinions such as if the person vomited immediately after taking the bread and wine can we honestly claim they had received the ‘last supper’. Or if they died within a few minutes of receiving Holy Communion had they actually participated in accepting the body and blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Many in the debate argued that if a person held the elements in their mouth for more than three minutes it was sufficient to claim that they had received the ‘host’. Others argued that they would have to digest the elements to the point that they had entered the blood stream before such a claim could be made.
During this animated discussion I was aware of an anger rising within me. I was mentally asking myself the question, “Have we lost our way? Here is a person dying and wanting to be comforted, the bread and wine are symbols only. Was it possible that our supportive presence at the bedside was really the Holy Communion, in that we were sharing the presence of the God we had found in Jesus whilst recognizing the divine spirit in the person seeking our offer of comfort and assurance? Is it in the sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings and particularly those, of a spiritual nature, that is in reality Holy Communion? Why would we want to waste precious moments in being concerned about whether someone had ingested the elements or not when the suffering person is seeking assurance that they are worthwhile, and they are surrounded by a powerful source of love.
There is general agreement amongst biblical scholars that eating together and sharing are central elements in the life of Jesus and his followers. The emphasis on his eating habits is so pronounced that in Matthew (11:19) we read that Jesus is labeled a ‘glutton and a drunkard’. There does not appear to be any evidence that Jesus himself initiated the ‘Eucharist’ or ‘Holy Communion’ and it is more likely that it was a practice established some time after his death.
There are four significant accounts of the tradition of the ‘Lord’s Supper’ in the New Testament, these being; Paul in 1st Corinthians 11: 23-26, Mark 14:22-25, Matthew 26: 26-29 and Luke 22: 15-20. We have an account also in John’s gospel (John 13: 1-15) of Jesus at supper with the disciples and it is interesting to note there are no special words or actions used. Hence, rather than one single format there is a multiplicity of supper styles.
What was Jesus attempting to convey in his emphasis on table etiquette? John Dominic Crossan writes that meals for Jesus were a practice of ‘Open Commensality’, or simply ‘Open Table’ (the term ‘mensa’ coming from the Latin meaning ‘table’). They are egalitarian in style and format in that all are welcome as pronounced in his Parable on the Great Dinner (Luke 14: 15-24).
Does our current practice of Holy Communion convey the message of Jesus or has it become some secret little ritual where the terms we use, such as ‘body’ and ‘blood’, are an anathema to many of our members and total confusion to outsiders. Like the theological student debate are we more concerned with ritual than conveying the message of Jesus, which is to accept all people and welcome them to share the table with us?
Table fellowship is not just eating and drinking together it is a sharing of ourselves, the giving of ourselves to each other in the spirit of love. In our current practice are we sharing the spirit of God in Jesus with each other in a concrete practical way?
In his excellent book “The God of Jesus” Stephen Patterson states that many Christians discover the spirit of Jesus more in the sharing of meals than in contemplating the execution of Jesus at the hands of the Roman Empire. The open table fellowship means being accepted for who you are and being forgiven for your human frailties which is a profound spiritual experience.
Therefore, is it time to give our current practice of Holy Communion the ‘Heave Ho’ and replace it with the ‘Celebratory all-inclusive banquet of Jesus’ where all are welcome?
In our Church liturgy is it time to give all of our rituals a contemporary overhaul instead of preserving traditional forms developed by an early church, but with little relevance to 21st century language and practice. The language we use in our liturgy is more suitable to the first century of Imperial Rome and the life of Caesar Augustus who was referred to as: Lord, Almighty, Saviour of the World, and Son of God than to the historical Jesus.
We should welcome people with a real sense of hospitality to the banqueting table, where all human beings are considered equal and all life forms are respected. It is here that we can enjoy the hospitality of the God that we have experienced in the life of Jesus. It is here that we can witness to the transforming influence of God’s spirit.
John W H Smith