People of the table

People of the table
Michael Kinnamon
Michael Kinnamon

“We gather for the Lord’s Supper as often as possible, experiencing at this table the gracious, forgiving presence of Jesus Christ.”

This may well be our most obvious, defining mark as a church. Disciples are like the Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal churches in our insistence that the Lord’s Supper is the center of our worship and, thus, of our life as a community of Christian faith. Preaching alone, or some private experience of the Holy Spirit, is no substitute, we have said, for the community’s public celebration of the supper — at least every Lord’s Day. We are like “free-church” Protestants, however, in our conviction that formal orders of worship — especially when coupled with creeds and ministerial hierarchy — can actually hinder Christians from gathering at the table. Each congregation, while informed by the wider church, is at liberty to shape this supreme act of worship in ways that fit its own situation. It’s hard to think of another church that combines this focus on the table with such freedom of practice.

Disciples are also like many other Protestants in our wariness of doctrinal statements about what some churches call the Eucharist or Holy Communion. The Commission on Theology, a working group of our Council on Christian Unity, put it this way in its “Report to the Church on the Lord’s Supper” (1991): That the Lord’s Supper is a means by which we are nourished in the love of God in Jesus Christ and united with the church universal “is a truth the Disciples are made aware of more surely by our partaking of the Supper than by any statements we make about it.” Recent responses of our church to ecumenical documents show a growing appreciation for the importance of theological reflection; but deep in our DNA is a conviction that theories about the supper — useful as they may be in helping us to understand our practice — should never justify turning Christians away from the meal.

Historically, the point of greatest theological contention has been how to interpret the words attributed to Jesus in the Upper Room: “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Disciples have resisted the idea that the elements of bread and wine literally become Christ’s body and blood; but we have also resisted the notion that the Lord’s Supper is simply a time for recalling past events. Just as the remembrance of the Exodus makes that act of divine liberation a vivid reality for Jews each Passover, so our remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice enables us to experience the gracious, forgiving presence of Jesus Christ.

Barnett Blakemore, a leader in the Disciples “restructure” of the 1960s, captured our position very effectively in The Revival of the Churches (Bethany, 1963): “The role of remembrance is not that it brings the Lord into our presence, but that remembrance opens our eyes to him into whose presence we have already been brought by faith.”

This understanding is reflected in most of the communion prayers found in Chalice Worship (Chalice Press, 1997), including the following: “May your Spirit transform this bread and cup into signs of Christ’s living presence and engrave upon our hearts the life-transforming image of Christ.”

One way Disciples affirm the Lord’s “real presence” in the supper is through the invitation we give each Sunday: This is Christ’s table! We come because he invites us. For generations, Disciples have called one another to this holy meal with these classic words:

Let us come to the table of communion, not because we must but because we may,

Let us come, not that we are strong but that we are needy,

Not that we have any claim on Christ but that he invites us to receive his grace and experience his presence.

Let us worthily partake, that he may be made known to us in the breaking of the bread.

This is the very basis of our mission. Having been renewed by our experience of this gracious, forgiving presence, we go from the table to love as we have been loved, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to serve as we have been served.

Thanks be to God!

This is the fifth in a series of columns exploring a new Disciples identity statement developed by the 21st Century Vision Team, an advisory group to General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins. For the full statement, go to www.disciples.org.