When Henry and I arrived at the church, we were directed to the smaller side chapel in the steeplehouse, since his choir was singing at the early 8:30 service. He went up and practiced their song and then came back to sit in the pew with me and his friend’s family. I noticed that a table in the front was set up for Communion, and only then remembered that since it was the first Sunday, this congregation would be having Communion today. I thought I should prepare Henry for what was coming.
I asked him if he remembered the time in First Day School when they acted out the whole Holy Week story – from palms to footwashing to resurrection appearances. (That was not my week to teach, but it was an amazing example of engaging religious ed. I should write more about that another time.) Anyway, Henry was dismissive of my explanations, yeah, Mom, whatever; and in fact, immediately after his choir sang, his friend asked him if he wanted to come to the nursery and they both left. But I was stuck there for the rest of the service.
The text for Sunday’s grown-up sermon was from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. (I Cor. 11:17-34 This isn't exactly the same translation, but it's close.) In this passage, Paul is admonishing them for their lack of faithfulness in observing the Lord’s supper. He scolds the Corinthians for not truly sharing – he says he’s heard that when they meet, each of them brings his own supper and some of them end up going away hungry and others of them get drunk. Pastor K. pointed out the phrase “discerning the body.” He explained that he thinks this means not only treating the wine and bread reverently, as befits Christ’s blood and body, but also paying attention to who else is among the body of the church. It is important to notice who at the Lord’s table (at our table) is hungry, who does not have enough. This was an important lesson for the people of Corinth and it is important for us today.
The pastor of this small, middle class Presbyterian church is not a radical theologian, as far as I can tell. But his simple words were very meaningful to me. It was a nicely put together worship service. The reading from the old testament was the 23rd Psalm: “thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies...” The hymns and prayers all hung together well. To me it was largely about eating mindfully, a topic which has been on my mind lately. The sense that eating together is always a form of communion. The reciting together, “Give us this day our daily bread…” Pastor K. made direct connections between the Corinthian’s version of the Lord’s supper and the potluck they were planning for lunch that day.
It really helped me to consider how I am part of this 2000 year old tradition of people who have been touched by Jesus. Who gather again to eat together and to remember what he taught us about loving one another, about caring for our neighbors – paying attention to who isn’t getting enough, and sharing what we have.
So I can’t really explain what happened except to say that it was laid upon my heart fairly early that I was to partake of the Lord’s supper today, as it is practiced by the Presbyterians in their worship service. I was deeply challenged by the very idea. I said to myself, “But I’m a Quaker. We don’t take bread and wine in worship.” I haven’t taken Communion in maybe 25 years. I have been in plenty of worship services where I have chosen not to participate in this ritual, even when it was offered to me. But today felt different. When the pastor explained that you don’t have to be a member of the Presbyterian church, or any church to participate, he said, “You are welcome if you love Jesus Christ.” I asked myself, “Do I?” And the answer, at least for that moment, was, “I have to try.” So I stood up and got in line.
The pastor had explained that you could either break off a piece from the communal loaf or pick one that had already been cut, and you could either dip it in the communal cup or choose one of the tiny pre-poured individual cups. (Presbyterians are big on hygiene.) However, I knew I was meant to break a piece of the shared loaf and dip it in the shared cup. I had forgotten that the people holding the bread and cup would say, “The blood/body of Christ, given for you.” I was briefly surprised by the rough texture and sweet taste. I think I had forgotten for a moment that it was just bread and grape juice. And then I sat down and prayed. A wordless, heartbroken prayer. I cried a little. And then I wished I was at Quaker meeting so that the silence, the infinite communion with God could have gone on and on. I think there were announcements about adult religious education and about other ministries of the church. And then we sang another hymn and the pastor said another prayer and it was over. I had to collect myself, and my belongings, and my child, and make chitchat for a few minutes before we left. I couldn’t tell you anything that was said in this part of the service. But I will not forget that it was a powerful, religious experience for me.
My husband asked me that afternoon when I told him about this, “You’re not going to become a Presbyterian on me, are you?” The answer is no. I treasure my Quaker faith, my Quaker practice, my Quaker community, my Quaker values and testimonies too much. But I am humbled by this experience. I am reminded not to be dismissive of other Christians’ practices. I know that bread and juice are not necessary for communion, but they are not necessarily barriers either.
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