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A few weeks back, I mentioned the thing I remember most from when I started going to Sunday church services on the regular. It was the time once a month when we would take communion together, eating these tiny bits of stale-tasting crackers and drinking these mini-cups of juice that were supposed to represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ crucified.
We were told to confess our sins before communion. And what I loved was that after the whole thing, the pastor would say to us that if we confessed our sins, God was faithful and just to forgive all unrighteousness so that before a holy God, we stood totally free and in the clear.
I didn’t understand what all that meant, but I loved the words free and in the clear. Like a lot of teenagers, I didn’t feel free very often, but I did in this moment. I felt accepted, good enough, satisfied. I also had this highly attuned sense of guilt and shame (probably for some good reasons and a few bad reasons) but I loved this moment of being told to let it all go – that I was in the clear.
Looking back, though, what’s odd are all the things that were never said. I mean, as a 15-year-old, I had bigger problems than my moral guilt. Parts of me were doing fine, but parts of me were lonely and scared a lot of the time. And I carried pain and even trauma in my life that I had no idea how to talk about or what to do with.
Yet here at communion, at what represented to us Jesus’ table, what to do with our hurt wasn’t talked about at all. We were told how this table spoke to our sin, but to our hurt and loneliness – not at all.
That was the situation for me, whose life was pretty stable and privileged in a lot of ways. But what if I was taking communion in a church full of refugees, fleeing persecution or genocide? What if we were in a community trying to rebuild after a devastating war? What if the majority of my faith community suffered under dehumanizing racism or poverty or other indignities? How would this communion table of Jesus’ sin-forgiveness speak to us? Would this message of freedom from guilt be sufficient for our salvation?
I love communion. Some of what feel like my holiest moments in my time at Reservoir have been serving communion to children excited to be part of it, or to adults in tears, feeling the power of God’s inclusion and embrace.
I love that we worship with communion every week in our in-person services. I ache that for those of us worshipping and gathering online, we’ve done this so little the past year and a half. (And at least today we’ll change that, as we remember together with whatever bit of food and drink you have available. Feel free to grab something now real quick – it doesn’t have to be bread and wine or juice – any scrap of food, any bit of drink will do in a pinch.)
But I’m aware that the whole thing can be kind of confusing. What’s happening in this moment of worship? What are we remembering and doing?
This has been a topic of discussion and even debate among followers of Jesus since people first started remembering Jesus together. So, I don’t pretend like I have the final word here. But as we get close to the end of our fall series on Jesus’ table, today I share my thoughts on what’s going on at Jesus’ communion table – way back at the first one we read about in the Bible, and especially at the table where churches remember Jesus today. I’ll share my belief on what’s mainly happening during communion, which in a lot of ways represents what I consider to be the primary aspects of the salvation God offers humanity in Christ as well.
The call, the purpose of a local church, is no less to be a place where liberation and healing begins. And the communion table is a place of liberation and healing for us all.
It has to do with this word “remember”, two different takes on that word.
Let’s start reading one of the four main passages in the Bible about Jesus’ table, the story of Jesus’ last supper with his students in the good news of Luke. It goes like this:
Luke 22:14-23 (Common English Bible)
14 When the time came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles joined him.
15 He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.
16 I tell you, I won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in God’s kingdom.”
17 After taking a cup and giving thanks, he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves.
18 I tell you that from now on I won’t drink from the fruit of the vine until God’s kingdom has come.”
19 After taking the bread and giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
20 In the same way, he took the cup after the meal and said, “This cup is the new covenant by my blood, which is poured out for you.
21 “But look! My betrayer is with me; his hand is on this table.
22 The Human One goes just as it has been determined. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays him.”
23 They began to argue among themselves about which of them it could possibly be who would do this.
First, at the communion table, we remember the death of Jesus, with its weird mix of tragedy and beauty. And we remember Jesus telling us we are forgiven, so that we can turn to more free and more just lives.
From the beginning, Jesus said this table was the start of a practice. He says to his students, and those of us to come in the future:
Do this in remembrance of me.
Jesus wanted to be remembered.
We remember Jesus’ closest friends falling asleep when he most needs their support. We remember how Jesus’ students forgot or ignored his teaching on non-violent peace-making, and tried to fight, until Jesus stops them. We remember how Jesus’ friends mostly abandon him, in one case betray him, right after sharing a meal at the table with him.
We remember that the most admired human in history was tortured and executed by the state. We remember that the human so many of us believe reveals the person of God to us was misunderstood, rejected, and killed.
We remember Jesus, and we remember the tragic folly of humanity, how whenever we see God, we’re liable to try to eliminate what we see.
We remember the beauty of this all too.
We see Jesus’ kindness toward an enemy who’s out to get him. We see his love and courage and grace under pressure. And I think we see what the self-giving, sacrificial love of God looks like. It’s beautiful.
There’s a phrase in the Orthodox Christian faith that beauty will save the world. And maybe if we kept remembering Jesus, the beauty of his love in the face of death would push us all to stop scapegoating. To stop bullying, to stop arming ourselves, to shut down cycles of blame and shame and revenge and violence. Maybe the beauty of love in the face of hate will save us still.
Part of the beauty of this we remember is God’s forgiveness of us expressed by Jesus too. It’s not the central theme of this Last Supper. Of the four principal passages on Jesus’ communion table in the New Testament, forgiveness is actually only mentioned in one.
Where Mark and Luke have Jesus sharing a cup of wine he calls the cup of the new covenant, Matthew adds that this new covenant includes the forgiveness of sins. Paul’s big passage in I Corinthians on communion doesn’t mention forgiveness at all.
So, forgiveness of sins isn’t the only or even the main thing we remember about Jesus, but it’s important still. Jesus proclaimed God’s forgiveness of sin throughout his ministry, and as he died on the cross, he also prayed:
Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.
And like most Christians, I read the “them” there as Jesus’ killers but as all of us too. God forgives us our sin – all the foolish and death-dealing and tragic ways we lose our way and hurt ourselves and one another and this whole world of ours. God recognizes that at least in part, we have no idea what we are doing. And God doesn’t want to hold it all against us. God doesn’t want payback or punishment. Have you ever noticed how many people who are blamed and shamed just get defensive and angry, or shrivel up in despair?
God doesn’t want that for God’s kids. God wants liberation and healing. God wants us to know the freedom of acceptance and a clear conscience, so we can live freely and make amends for the harm we’ve done – make it better – without fear of curse or rejection.
This forgiveness is an important part of the new deal with God Jesus inaugurates. That with God, we are never defined by our biggest mistake. We are not treated as the sum of our worst acts and biggest lacks. Before a holy and just and God, we are indeed loved and we are free.
So, I think it’s good to confess our sins to God when we take communion and even to do so daily in prayer. To say
God, this is what I’m sorry for.
People and communities that don’t confess sin are more likely to become smug, proud, violent, and entitled. They’re more likely to notice what’s wrong with everyone else, not themselves, and become embattled and embittered. In many ways, this is the drift of our world, certainly the drift of our culture. Confession of sin keeps us humble. And confession, and remembering we are forgiven, is a chance to find freedom and acceptance and to take the energy this brings to do better and make things right in the world.
So, confession and forgiveness are important things that are happening at the communion table. But as I said at the top, they are not the only thing.
At the communion table, a second thing is happening.
At the communion table, we remember Jesus, and the Spirit of Jesus also re-members us: puts us back together, heals us, reconnects us.
Here’s what I mean.
When I was a teen, I needed forgiveness, but more than that, I needed to know that I wasn’t alone. That certain things that had happened to me were not my fault. And that life could get better. That God, love, people, faith could possibly help.
When I take communion now, sometimes I confess my sin, but sometimes I tell God about who and what has disappointed me, or at the ache I feel from my worries and my hurt and from all that’s wrong with the world.
There’s a Korean theologian whose work I love, who I’ve had the privilege of speaking with – he’s named Andrew Sung Park. And he writes a lot about what he calls han.
Han is the great burden of most of humanity. Not so much the ways we sin and hurt others, but the many ways that we have been hurt.
Han is a Korean word that describes “the depths of human suffering,” “the abysmal experience of pain.” It is the condition of the sinned against, the victim, the abandoned, the oppressed, the harmed. Han can be expressed actively in hatred and aggression, as the will to revenge. Or it is expressed passively, through “self-denigration, low self-esteem, self-withdrawal, resignation, and self-hatred.” It can be unconscious or conscious.
Han is me as a teenager, the abuse victim who’s too distressed over his experience to tell anyone.
Han is the shame of the constantly criticized. It is the fear of the threatened. Han is the ache of those who grieve. It’s the loss of the abandoned.
Han can be collective too – the resentment and anger or the despair and lamentation of the targets of racism or violence.
Han can even characterize collective experiences, as active racial resentment or passive racial lamentation. Even nature itself experiences han. We consider severely befouled landscapes or the state of animals in factory farms.
To people suffering from han, if you say: it’s OK, you’re forgiven, what kind of message is that? That the suffering and hurt was their fault, but God turns aside. No, the suffering and hurt was the fault of someone else, or of some broken or corrupt system, or of chaos or chance.
But where we hurt, where we feel and experience han, we are not guilty, we are dis-membered. We are not at peace in our own lives and experience. And often our hurt pulls us away from loving connection as well so we are dis-membered from ourselves and dis-membered from community.
At Jesus’ communion table, God re-members us.
Jesus says my body is given for you. My blood is poured out for you.
I am with you. You have God’s feeling, God’s attention, God’s resources, God’s life with you.
At the communion table, our hurt is seen and felt by Jesus, the fellow sufferer who understands.
At the communion table, our hurt is validated by God, who has experienced violence and betrayal, who has been the victim of crime and injustice, who has had sneering eyes look at his poor, brown body and mocked and spat upon him. The God who knows these experiences in God’s body is in our corner with our hurt.
At the communion table, our lonely self is seen by Jesus who felt so alone in his death that he cried out loud:
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Our forsakenness is met by a forsaken God, who remembers us and is listening.
At the communion table, our hurt no longer has the final word. We discover a union, a connection, a fellowship, a friendship with an everlasting God, with everlasting creative redemptive stories of bringing good out of bad, growing in us an everlasting hope that with the help of God and friends, that will be our story too.
And at the communion table, we take and eat and drink together. We’re encouraged to look around, to look at the eyes and the bodies of a community of imperfect, han-ridden, wounded, sinning, beautiful, messy fools who have messed up like us, who have been hurt like we have, and who are loved by a beautiful God and are on the same journey of recovery and discovery as we are.
We are re-membered to a community called the Body of Christ, where we are encouraged to love and accept one another. To welcome one another – our whole selves, just as we are – as Christ has welcomed us, so that we can find our welcome, and our next chapters, and our new and beautiful stories and purposes together.
Sin lessens us and hurts others. Our pride, our violence, our misdirected or uncontrolled desires hurt others, mar community, and diminish people and places. We need forgiveness and freedom to find a better path.
And our hurt rips us apart and diminishes our whole minds and bodies. It can cast a cloud of negativity and doom over our whole lives. We need the power and presence of a loving God who knows our stories, who understands, and who will re-member us to a more whole and hopeful self, and re-member us to loving community as well.
So, here’s what I’m encouraging you to do.
Stay active in a section of the Body of Christ. Take communion as often as it is offered.
And when you do so, bring your whole messy self, honestly to the table.
Confess your sins to the God who is faithful and just, and who is eager to forgive you of all your sins and cleanse us of all that isn’t right – to give us a clean conscience and a new start, and freedom to make amends and do right.
And when you come to the communion table, name your hurts and wounds and loneliness and need to Jesus, the fellow sufferer who understands, and who by the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God will put you back together, re-member you to one who is more whole and hopeful.
And look around you, at the grace of a community of fellow travelers, and be re-membered to one another. Offer best as you can the gift of your real self and your real story to your community. And offer the welcome and encouragement and love of the body of Christ as well, since that is who we are.
Thanks be to God.
Take a moment and sit with this invitation, as Pastor Lydia comes our way to welcome us to this table.