Recently I read a very absorbing book entitled Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (British edition, Canterbury Press, Norwich 2012) by Sara Miles. It tells the story of Sara’s conversion from militant atheism to whole hearted commitment to Christ – and what a story it is! For one Sunday morning Sara just happened, on an impulse and out of curiosity, to walk into St Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco.
We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. ‘Jesus invites everyone to his table’, the woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda. It had some dishes on it, and a pottery goblet.
And then we gathered around the table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ’, and handing me the goblet of sweet wine , saying ‘the blood of Christ’, and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.
From that moment her life was transformed – and soon the lives of others were transformed too. For in an amazing way Sara went on to turn the bread she ate at communion into tons of groceries piled on the church’s altar to be given away free to the poor. It is a powerful and gripping story. It is also theologically challenging – for the bread and wine proved to be the means of her conversion.
Traditionally Methodists have viewed the Lord’s Supper as a means of evangelism. John and Charles Wesley believed that Holy Communion could be a ‘converting ordinance’, and so they invited sinners and seekers to the Table. In their collection of Hymns on the Lord’s Supper one hymn (no 8) begins:
Come to the Supper come
Sinners there still is room
Every Soul may be his guest
Jesus gives the general Word.
However, the second verse of this hymn shows that they expected a response of faith and allegiance to the Triune God. The Lord’s Supper was not a ‘free-for-all’ with no demands. Rather as another hymn (no 10) in the collection shows, the result of the ‘open table’ (i.e. ‘open to sinners’ as distinct from the traditional Baptist sense of ‘open to believers from other church traditions who have not been baptised as believers’ – recognising of course that believers are also sinners, albeit penitent sinners) should be:
Resolved to lead our lives anew
Thine only glory to pursue
And only Thee obey.
But is there theological justification for viewing the Lord’s Supper as a ‘converting ordinance’. Some point to 1 Cor 11.26, where Paul wrote: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”, as if the very act of breaking bread and pouring out wine proclaims the Good News. But we need to remember that the roots of the Lord’s Supper are in the Passover meal. Paul had in mind the telling of the story of salvation that Jesus brings before the eating of bread and drinking of wine – just as Jews even today first listen to the story of their salvation as embodied in figures such as Abraham and Moses, before they eat the Passover together.
Others point to the radical inclusivity of Jesus as seen in his eating with sinners such as women who sold their bodies and businessmen who cheated others (see Matt 9.10-13). But do such meals actually prefigure communion? The reality is that Jesus did not invite anybody to these meals – he was himself invited as much as the ‘outsiders’ with whom he ate. Nor can we point to the Feeding of the 5000 as a justification for an ‘open table’ at Communion, for Jesus did not really act as host – he issued no invitation, and his hospitality seems a little reluctant: “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6.37).
Right from the very beginning, the Lord’s Table was for the Lord’s People. Bread is eaten and wine is drunk when God’s people “come together as a church” (1 Cor 11.18). The Didache, the oldest Christian catechism dating back to the first-century, states: “You must not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who are baptized in the Lord’s name”. It is at the Table that we renew our baptismal vows and experience afresh God’s ‘confirming’ grace for the continuing journey.
So do I object to the ‘Saras’ of this world coming to faith through receiving bread and wine? Of course not – the principle of the Table as a meal for disciples is trumped by the principle of God’s love for all. However, as Tom Wright so delightfully says in Holy Communion for Amateurs (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1999), there is a place for ‘Table Manners’!