This was communion Sunday, and I found the texts very helpful in interpreting why we still have this sacrament in Christians churches. Acts 11:1-18; Rev. 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
It’s not a new commandment. You’ll find it in the ancient Jewish teaching- the Torah. Love your neighbour as yourself- and the Torah and prophets make clear this includes whoever is vulnerable , the ones in need, the ones to whom Jesus and Jean Vanier reached out. The mark of a faithful Jew, not just the mark of a faithful Jesus-follower, was to show forth love in deeds of kindness and compassion.
It was not a new commandment then- and it’s not a new commandment now .But we are called to apply it in new ways, as we meet new situations.
In the book of Acts Jesus’ followers keep having to apply this not very new commandment in new ways in new situations. Love one another – but who is one another, whom are we supposed to love?
Take Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius attends synagogue and he’s an all-round good guy. In a dream he hears a message- send for Peter, a leader of the Jesus movement .
Great- a new recruit to the Jesus’ movement!
But wait- this early on, the Jesus movement is still a Jewish movement. And Cornelius is not Jewish. He’s not circumcised. He does not keep Jewish dietary laws. Plus he works for the enemy- he’s a Roman military leader- and he lives in Caesarea Maritima- a bastion of the Roman Empire.
If Peter visited Cornelius, the norm would be to sit at table – And then where would Peter be with those Jesus followers who cared about dietary laws? And what would they think of him dining with the enemy?
But before Cornelius’ messengers reached Peter, Spirit got to Peter through an extraordinary dream. He was invited to kill and eat all kinds of animals, presumably including rabbits, pigs and others not allowed under the dietary laws he’d observed all his life.
This was very difficult for Peter in ways we as non-Jews probably can’t understand. Except perhaps – when your religious and cultural group is trying to survive under an unfriendly regime- as Jews often have done through history- you have to try extra hard to remember who you are, not to give up too much of yourself, and what you stand for.
Plus if you’d gone your whole life not eating certain foods, your body might even resist it- religion aside, there are dishes other cultures find palatable , even delicious, which we might find repulsive- because we just don’t think those foods are fit to eat.
Plus Peter was a leader – all eyes were on him- even if he gave up worrying about dietary laws, what religious and cultural practices would be next to go? Would the present Jesus- followers decide this was just too risky?
Nonetheless, Peter believed God was speaking to him through this dream, and so he had to listen . So when Cornelius’ messengers arrived, he asked them in- which meant, in the ancient world, they’d be eating together.
And then he visited Cornelius- did not just hover at the door- went right in. He preached his new understanding of the love commandment: “God has no favourites- anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God”. [Acts 10:34-35] Plain and simple. The gift of the Spirit given at Pentecost was for anybody. Anybody who wanted to could be baptized.
And so Peter baptized Cornelius and his family and friends. And then he stayed with Cornelius for days- which meant of course eating with him.
This shocked the Jerusalem community of Jewish Jesus-followers. Here they now were at a crossroad- Spirit was inviting them to live the love commandment in a new way, a way that required them to let go of what they’d always been, what they ‘d always done, in order to take a new direction, who knows where?
Over and over again, we their successors have had to relive and reinterpret the love commandment.
Who’s in? Can women speak in church? Are only people who can attend every Sunday welcome?
Do you have to be baptized to take communion? Can children take communion? Will we make our community welcoming to you if you have mobility problems or hearing problems or dietary issues?
If you have mental health issues? Can gay and lesbian and trans people be welcomed as who they are? Does everyone have to believe the same? Are you welcome if you can’t afford to put anything in the offering plate? The love commandment often questions us: whom will you love?
And who is welcome to use our space? We’ve been invited to make room for a complex wider community of Open Door volunteers clients, of parents and toddlers, of arts Council students and faculty, community choir practices, theatre auditions. And now there’s Country Music bridge players, classical chamber orchestras, there are retreat groups, there are whoever might want to walk the labyrinth? The love commandment often questions us: Whom will you welcome in ? How will you be hospitable?
The central act of Christian worship is communion. It has many meanings. But the most radical meaning of all is welcome table, open to all. Everyone, no exception, can dine here.
You cannot make a meal of a meagre scrap of bread dipped in grape juice . Early on, it was probably always part of a proper meal. But even by itself it symbolizes that table where Cornelius and his family and friends could sit down with the Jewish Jesus-community -widening the scope of Jesus community to include anyone who wanted to be there.
So that today in a church like Wesley , communion is an open table for everyone here, never mind your age, your status, your life circumstances, even your beliefs. And to share at table is to say; – we belong to an open community where bread and love and belonging are for all to share- and we express a longing for a new heaven and earth- a new human condition – where everyone gets to drink from the well of life.
Often church-people have tried to limit who gets the bread, who gets the welcome, who gets the love. And they’ve tried to make God over in their image- one who would leave some out, or worse still consign them to the burning lake of sulphur. This creeps even into the Gospels , even into some other verses of Revelation. And we see this small-mindedness, mean-spiritedness and worse in our world today, And some think this is Christian- but we say no, not so!
As we share bread and cup, we do so to open our hearts wider, to expand our vision, and to show forth to the world what it is to love one another, not just the few in this room, but all beloved beings , as we all drink deep at the well of life.
May it be so!