The sacrament of service

The first time I count receiving the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, I was in seminary, serving as the student pastor of a small congregation in New Jersey. Since I was confirmed as a youth I had frequently received the bread and cup. One of my earliest memories of the church is the taste of communion. For two years or so I had served communion in my parish. But I never received it sacramentally until I was in my mid thirties, and then it wasn’t even in a church.

Feeling more fatigued than usual after leading worship on Sunday morning, I went for lunch to a newly opened restaurant – an attractive, well-designed place, doing a brisk business – and as I waited for my meal to arrive, I began to notice the décor and people around me.

The softly lit dining area, appointed with warm wood and lots of greenery, was painted in calming shades of gray; gentle music played in the background. The wait staff, decked out in Izod and khaki, took orders and served meals. Through a large window, I could see chefs working at their stations. Then I started noticing the other diners around me.

At a nearby table were two people who looked as if they might be Hell’s Angels. Near the serving window, two businessmen poured over paperwork while sipping drinks. To my right an Oriental couple talked with their children in their native language. A few other diners – singles, couples, small groups – were scattered through the room, talking about who-knows-what over their meals or while they waited.

Suddenly it dawned on me: despite our many differences – and they were big ones – we all had one thing in common. All the furnishings and decorations, all the wait staff and kitchen staff, all of us diners occupied with our many different concerns – everything was organized around one thing, the simple act of lifting fork from plate to mouth, yet it was the one thing to which no one appeared to be giving their attention. In that moment of recognition, a simple Sunday meal became a sacrament of God’s presence, as I found myself united with everyone there in the ordinary act of being fed.

Was it like that during Jesus’ last meal with his friends? Think about the conversation that evening. Was there some continuing discussion about who was greatest among them? Were they still griping about the guy who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name but wasn’t part of their group, and were they still sorting out who had the right to speak and act for the church? Were there seeds of differences that would grow into disagreement about the meaning of that meal and result in John leaving it out of his gospel entirely? Judas was there, so perhaps there was a simmering tension about financial stewardship that would soon boil over in betrayal. Did anyone there have a clue what was happening beneath their notice, how they were being fed?

And what about the concerns that occupy us and the differences that divide us today? This is perhaps one of the most bittersweet celebrations of the Lord’s Supper I have attended, as professing Christians domestically and around the world argue and fight and kill each other to settle political and social and cultural disagreements.

Sometimes I wonder if we in the church have become so distracted by our conversations and disagreements that we have forgotten the holy banquet that is spread under our noses. When will grace bring us to our senses so that we see how graciously and universally God feeds us? When will we remember that we are all, every one of us, hungry beggars who have been given a place at a bountiful table?

“Having loved his own who were in the world,” John writes, Jesus “loved them to the end” (John 13:1b). And Christ loves us still, those of us who are still in the world. Could it mean we are called to love each other – value each other as equally essential to God’s work in the world – even if we take radically different sides on critical issues of faith and politics, even if we have trouble living and worshiping together under the same roof? I hope so. I pray so.

There is a way to do so, and that way is simply to serve one another, without judgment or discrimination, without prejudice or exception. Aldous Huxley, the twentieth-century English philosopher and author of nearly fifty books, once confessed, “It is a little embarrassing that, after forty-five years of research and study, the best advice I can give to people is to be a little kinder to each other.” It’s advice I received from my grandmother Edith when I entered seminary. “Just love the people,” she said, expressing a theology she seldom if ever talked about but one she embodied as deeply as anyone I have known.

It was a concept of service so central to the evangelist John that when he wrote his gospel, exactly at the point in the story when the other gospels recall the institution of the Lord’s Supper, John leaves it out entirely and puts in its place Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet, setting us an example, that we should do as he did and serve one another in love, and giving us not a sacrament of eucharist but a sacrament of loving service.

God does not call us to think alike or practice our faith alike or support the same political candidates. God calls us to love alike; to value one another with the same intent and commitment with which Christ loves us; to stay at the table with one another despite our differences and disagreements and betrayals; and in everything, to serve one another in love and work for the welfare of all. Just so will we drink the cup of true and abundant life, and we will feast on the bread of heaven together.

Prayer — “Love divine, all loves excelling, / joy of heaven, to earth come down; / fix in us thy humble dwelling; / all thy faithful mercies crown! / Jesus, thou art all compassion, / pure, unbounded love thou art; / visit us with thy salvation; / enter every trembling heart.” —Charles Wesley

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