Rev. June C. Goudey Th.D
For much of my life I have had a love affair with the sacrament of Holy Communion. Bread and cup are powerful symbols of acceptance, deep communion and worthiness. As with all love affairs, however, there are moments that test our resolve. Whenever this rite is celebrated with an air of exclusion or tempered by somber self-assessment I experience a heart wrenching dissonance. This dissonance heightened my resolve to understand the role of atonement as it shapes communion imagery. In 2002 Pilgrim Press published my book: The Feast of Our Lives: Re-Imaging Communion
My sensitivity to the funereal dimensions of Holy Communion and my desire to embrace the imagery of feasting emerged from my experience as a child growing up in a funeral home listening to funeral dirges. As I listened to the language of joy used in Communion celebrations I found little joy in the practice itself. I often felt I had wandered into a funeral not a feast.
I was also highly sensitized to the theology of sin and suffering after I spent 14 months in a TB sanitarium at the age of 4. Because I was quarantined from my family and friends, without the benefit of fully understanding why, much of my adult life has been devoted to undoing the emotional suffering that ensued. The notion that Jesus had died for my sins, but had not been able to alleviate my suffering created an unbridgeable crevasse in my ability to consider Jesus as my Lord and Savior. It is from this vantage point that I share with you today.
Despite a steady shift towards a more progressive understanding of this sacrament its enactment often demonstrates a lingering attachment to a medieval cosmology that favors sacred food over sacred fellowship and individual salvation over communal well-being. Despite the recovery of meal imagery related to the image of a messianic banquet, this imagery remains exclusionary as only those worthy enough to be saved are actually invited. The proclamation: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again” references an apocalyptic end time where Jesus returns to judge and destroy. To truly celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and eliminate apocalyptic imagery I suggest we say: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is with us now.
My multi-disciplinary research reveals that far from being a Passover meal, the communion rite is rooted in the table fellowship of Jesus. This welcome table theology is closely aligned with Dominic Crossan’s understanding of open commensality- the celebration of a meal that breaks social barriers by excluding no one.
The writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as well as the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians clearly demonstrate that liturgical diversity has always been the mark of Christian practice. Thus I believe that the continued liturgical enactment of medieval imagery cannot be supported as normative either historically or theologically.
The role of imagination in human becoming teaches us that symbols, however strongly perceived, eventually break. We have seen this with the cross as well as the bread and cup.
The Protestant Reformation failed to question images of Jesus’ death as sacrificial because the reformers were driven by apocalyptic imagery and the fear of eternal damnation. Those who claim the mantel of reformation today, whether they call them themselves emergent or progressive, must come to terms with this legacy and the consequences it occasions.
Examining the images we use liturgically in order to understand how they shape our congregational life– for better or worse– remains key to the future well-being of our communion celebrations and our Sunday gatherings. Because each of us is shaped by a vast array of experiences we see and interpret the world differently. These varying interpretations shape our interactions. To the extent that love orders our imaginations- inclusivity and openness order our connections. To the extent that fear orders our imaginations, exclusion and isolation rule.
Amos Wilder’s insight on the role of imagination is crucial: “Imagination is a necessary component of all profound knowing and celebration, all remembering, realizing and anticipating, all faith, hope, and love. When Imagination Fails doctrines become ossified, witness and proclamation wooden, doxologies and litanies empty, consolations hollow and ethics legalistic”
Because we are meaning-making beings who thrive when our sense of safety and selfhood is strong we suffer most when our imaginations become constricted. Ellen Langer’s research on mindfulness versus mindlessness demonstrates this in profound ways. The fruit of postmodern scholarship calls into question a monotheistic template for understanding our relationship to God and one another. Because our understanding of cosmology has broadened and our evolutionary knowledge has deepened we can no longer rely on a binary view of life that forces us to imagine ourselves separate from one another. Einstein called this state of mind “an optical delusion of consciousness.”
On the contrary we are relational selves not separate selves, we are the universe conscious of itself and we have learned that shame based religions bring shame on us all. For these reasons and more Brené Brown calls us to consciously loosen the power of shame and live wholeheartedly. Brown’s research on shame leads her to offer this insight: “Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The power that connection holds in our lives was confirmed when the main concern about connection emerged as the fear of disconnection; the fear that something we have done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of connection.”
Listen again as I substitute communion for connection “Communion is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The power that communion holds in our lives was confirmed when the main concern about communion emerged as the fear of excommunication; the fear that something we have done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of communion.” The day the church overturned Jesus’ welcome table and embraced excommunication, I believe Christianity made shame its underlying message. Again in Brown’s words “Worthiness doesn’t have prerequisites.” This is why I believe that the confession of sin has no place at our communion tables.
Let me conclude by sharing with you the Welcome Table Philosophy of the United Church of Christ in Simi Valley, where I recently retired as pastor after celebrating a Welcome table communion from 2005 to 2014.
We teach that all of life is sacramental. God is present in all things, but no one thing is God. Every Sunday with our children, we sing: “The Spirit in Me greets the Spirit in You” By this we understand that our nature is both divine and human. In the manner of Jesus, we seek to be Icons of God’s Generosity. We strive to have our lives be windows into a divine love that seeks communal salvation not individual salvation. No one is excluded from God’s love. Period! Therefore we invite everyone to the table, whether baptized or not.
While some seek salvation for themselves in a heavenly afterlife; we seek salvation for all through acts of justice in this life. The word salvation in both the Greek and Hebrew language is rooted in well-being in this life. What lies beyond death, none of us knows for certain. Thus we follow Jesus’ advice “be not anxious” and trust that all will be well, in this life and whatever life is to come.
We teach that Holy Communion is not a sacrifice or a proclamation of Jesus’ sacrifice “once for all.” We believe we are saved by Jesus’ life and teachings not his death; and we honor the expansive table fellowship of Jesus. Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Matthew 11:9) To those who say, Jesus ate with all manner of sinners, we say, “guilty as charged” and thank God!
Even though the early church fathers overturned Jesus’ table fellowship and ex-communicated sinners, Jesus did otherwise and so do we. We understand that all human beings are imperfect. Through the grace of radical acceptance received in Holy Communion, all of us open ourselves to be better human beings and better Christians. We celebrate the living presence of God and the resurrected Christ in word and sacrament as well as in community.
Our celebration of Communion is not a memorial but a fully participatory expression of divine light and love—a force field of grace that transforms our hearts and minds when we are open to becoming more fully human. To partake of the bread of life and the cup of blessing in fellowship with one another is to commune with all of life and all that is holy. For this we say: “Thanks be to God!”
Delivered at the Disciples Seminary Foundation, Claremont CA, October 2, 2014