When I was ready to give up on the Church, it was the sacraments that pulled me back.
When my faith had become little more than an abstraction, a set of propositions to be affirmed or denied, the tangible, tactile nature of the sacraments invited me to touch, smell, taste, hear, and see God in the stuff of everyday life again. They got God out of my head and into my hands. They reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own.
Perhaps the most powerful of those sacraments is communion.
In the video above, Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, tells the story of a young woman who became an Episcopalian in the 1940s.
One Sunday, she invited the man she had been dating to join her at morning services. Both of them were African American, but the church they attended that day was all white, and right in the heart of segregated America. The young man waited in the pews while the congregation went forward to receive communion, anxious because he noticed that everyone in the congregation was drinking from the same chalice. He had never seen black people and white people drink from the same water fountain, much less the same cup.
His eye stayed on his girlfriend as, after receiving the bread, she waited for the cup. Finally, the priest lowered it to her lips and said, as he had to the others, “The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.”
The man decided that any church where black and white drank from the same cup had discovered something powerful, something he wanted to be a part of.
The couple was Bishop Curry’s parents.
Communion, he says, “is a sacrament of unity that overcomes even the deepest estrangements between human beings.”
In his book, Unclean, Richard Beck puts it like this:
“Participation in the Lord’s Supper is an inherently moral act. In the first century church, and in our own time, people who would never have associated with each other in the larger society sit as equals around the Table of the Lord…The Eucharist, therefore, is not simply a symbolic expansion of the moral circle. The Lord’s Supper becomes a profoundly subversive political event in the lives of the participants. The sacrament brings real people—divided in the larger world—into a sweaty, intimate, flesh-and-blood embrace where ‘there shall be no difference between them and the rest.’”
I would be lying if I said I relished this “sweaty, intimate, flesh-and-blood embrace” without reservation. Sure, I’m happy to pass the bread to someone like Bishop Curry or the neighbor who mows our lawn when we’re out of town. But Ann Coulter? Mark Driscoll? Those gatekeeper types I like to complain about? Not so much.
On a given Sunday I might spot six or seven people who have wronged or hurt me, people whose politics, theology, or personalities drive me crazy. The Church is positively crawling with people who don’t deserve to be here...beginning with me.
But the Table can transform even our enemies into companions. The Table reminds us that, as brothers and sisters adopted into God’s family and invited to God’s banquet, we’re stuck with each other; we’re family. We might as well make peace. The Table teaches us that, ultimately, faith isn’t about being right or good or in agreement. Faith is about feeding and being fed.
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