The Communion Table Is Open

03/03/2015 11:31 am ET | Updated May 03, 2015

I live in a retirement community of about 300 persons, where I preach occasionally. Last summer I was asked both to preach and to preside over a Communion service. I had just been reading Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, by David Nirenberg, which reinforced my view that when the Communion Table is not open to everyone it does more harm than good. The result was the sermon posted here. My friend and former student, Cláudio Carvalhaes, recently read the sermon and suggested that I post it for any and all to read. Claudio has himself just published a stimulating book called Eucharist and Globalization: Redrawing the Borders of Eucharistic Hospitality.

I hope my sermon will give you something to think about. It was first preached at the Meadow Lakes Retirement Community in Hightstown, NJ, on July 6, 2014.

The Body of Christ and the Non-Christian
A sermon by Tom F. Driver

Although it is the 4th of July weekend, I am not going to talk about that. I do have in the back of my mind our increasingly diverse American society, but in the front of my mind is the community we have right here at Meadow Lakes.

My sermon is a Communion Meditation. The gist of what I want to say is in the sentence that is printed near the top of the bulletin in your hands. It says: "Since we believe that Christ is God's gift to all the world, everyone who desires to live in love and freedom is welcome to share in the Sacrament of the Lord's Table ...."

At Meadow Lakes we are fortunate to have a loving and caring community. In many ways it is a like-minded community -- except when it comes to religion. Those of us who gather here on Sunday mornings for Protestant worship are a small minority. Many of the residents at Meadow Lakes, perhaps most, have no religious practice. Many are Jewish, some of them observant Jews and others not. I know of a few residents whose practice is Buddhist, and there are many whose religious thoughts and practices I do not know.

It is this loving, caring, and mostly non-Christian community at Meadow Lakes that I have in mind as I reflect this morning on what our liturgy calls 'the body of Christ.' When Jesus broke the bread at what we call the Last Supper, he said, "This is my body, ..." and you will hear those words again this morning. My sermon title is, "The Body of Christ and the Non-Christian." I turn to a very familiar New Testament story we call "The Walk to Emmaus."

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to set Israel free. ..."

Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! .... Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem .... Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Most of us Christians love this story, because we like the idea that Christ is known in the breaking of bread. But the Jewish eye and ear are likely to hear something quite different in the story, something that has led to persecutions. And that leads me to ask: Can we Christians partake of what we call the Body of Christ without causing harm?

Let me give you a few images to think about. The first is my memory of a certain Communion service many years ago. On a Sunday morning in a small church in New York City, I was the preacher. A good friend of mine, not a church-goer, came that day out of friendship to hear me preach. I was pleased by her presence, which I had not quite expected. But my pleasure turned to pain when almost everyone in that little church came forward to receive Communion while my friend just sat by herself, all alone in the pew. And then I realized why she did not come forward. She is Jewish.

That memory, with its twinge of pain, has been present for me at every Communion service in which I have taken part ever since. For me, Holy Communion is about welcoming, and love, and the graciousness of God; but for her it was something divisive. It was something that excluded her, and implied that she was in the wrong. When I saw her sitting there all by herself I suddenly remembered that very long history in which most Jews and most Christians have behaved like enemies. I remembered that this history has scarred us all, and that it was never more terrible than it has been in our lifetime -- the age of the Holocaust.

So I think about that again this morning, when I am about to lead a Communion service at Meadow Lakes, where we have so many Jewish members of our community. It is a community for which I am very grateful, so grateful that I don't want to put its non-Christian members out of my mind during the breaking of the bread.


There is something in the Emmaus story that I had not much thought about until I recently read a book called Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. It's about the pervasiveness in European and American history of language that uses "Judaism" and "Judaizing" as terms of disparagement. I was dismayed when the book's chapter on the New Testament began with the Emmaus story, which I have always thought of as benign. The author points to these verses:

"Then he said to them, 'Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?' Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures." (Luke 24:25-27)

In other words, in this story Jesus is giving a re-interpretation of Jewish scriptures. So far so good. People re-interpret things all the time. But the problem is that, by the time the gospels were written, one or two generations after Jesus was crucified, a bitter dispute had begun between those Jews who were followers of Jesus and those who were not. People were being asked to choose between two different ways of reading the Jewish scriptures. And it's not just that the interpretations of Scripture were different. It's that Christians were starting to believe that their interpretations were right and the Jews were wrong. It is that sense of the wrongness of Judaism that has plagued Western history ever since. It has haunted our very language, and it has led to terrible things.

Ever since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th Century, Christianity has often been interpreted in a triumphalist way. It became orthodox to believe that there is no salvation outside the Church. Churches sang, "At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow. (And too bad for those that don')t." Christian self-satisfaction is part of the baggage we need to discard when we break bread together.


I turn to another image. This week I watched again a movie from 1987 called Babette's Feast. I think it was shown here at Meadow Lakes a few weeks ago, so you might remember it. It's about a small Christian sect in a coastal village in Denmark. The leaders of this tiny church are the two elderly, unmarried daughters of the sect's founder, who has died. Over time, the church members become self-righteous, and small-minded, and quarrelsome. It happens that the two sisters have a French maid (I skip over the reason why), whose name is Babette and who works for them without pay. There comes a day when Babette wins the French lottery. She decides to spend all her winnings on a lavish meal that she will prepare for the tiny congregation. They are so rigid, so opposed to anything that suggests physical pleasure, that they resolve not to enjoy the meal. However, the delicious food and the superb wine soften them. They begin to relax and to warm toward one another. The film is so beautifully made that we in the audience begin to feel the change of heart that takes place during the meal. The movie ends with the dozen or so congregants dancing in a circle and singing a hymn outdoors in the moonlight.

The film is a parable, really. A kind of sermon. It would be deadly if it were not so beautiful. The dialog contains a reference to Psalm 85, verse 10: "... righteousness and peace will kiss each other." The film is about the unlimited abundance of mercy that surrounds us, if only we will let it in.


When I was teaching in the seminary, I used to give a course called "Ritual and Sacrament." I encouraged many kinds of innovation and experiment in order to help people think about what we are doing when we worship. On one occasion, some years before Babette's Feast came out, we turned to an old type of church service called an Agape meal, sometimes called a Love Feast. It is like a Communion service with a few changes, sometimes the use of water instead of wine or grape juice. We decided to build our service on the imagery of a circus, remembering the Medieval idea of Holy Fools. At a certain point in the service, the rear door of the chapel opened, and in came a man wearing a chef's hat and pushing a food cart loaded with hot dogs and beer. Coming down the center aisle, he called out in a loud voice: "Free food!"

To me, that's what Communion is all about. It is God's free food for the whole world's soul and body. In theological language, it may be called God's gracious gift, but in circus language it is free food. Later that day one of my faculty colleagues called me on the phone. He said, "Tom, I don't know what to say about the theology of what you did, but what I can tell you is that when they came in there with the hot dogs and beer, I knew that they loved me."

Traditional Christianity has insisted upon what is called the "real presence" of Christ in the Eucharist. I believe the tradition has been right to do this. But I think it has been a mistake to locate that presence in the physical elements, the bread and wine themselves, rather than in the act of eating them together. I think of Christ as present in the measure in which love abounds when we break bread together.

If love is what this sacrament is about, then it has to be open to all. Not just open to all who think alike and believe alike, but to all. An old Christian prayer puts it this way: "You that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins [i.e., your wrong doings], and are in love and charity with your neighbor, draw near with faith."

Faith -- meaning "draw near with confidence or trust." It's not what you believe in your head. It's the sense of trust and love in your heart. Today, as we pass the bread and the grape juice, we are going to sing "Ubi charitas." It's Latin words mean, "Wherever there is love and charity, there is God." We will also sing, "Holy, holy, holy." It is not the bread and wine or juice that are holy. It is the love and charity surrounding them. It is not that God erases our religious and cultural and other differences. It 's that God draws us into love across those differences.


In Christ there is both East and West

In Christ there is both East and West, in Christ both South and North
And many fellowships of love throughout the whole wide earth.

In Christ let peoples everywhere their true communions find;
Their service make an open door as wide as humankind.

Join hands then comrades near and far, what-e'er your faith may be!
For all the children of the earth are surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West, in Christ meet South and North
And bless all strangers at the gate throughout the whole wide earth.

(Words by John Oxenham, 1852-1941,
adapted by Tom F. Driver, 1986, 2010)