A couple years before our own wedding, Nelson and I went to the wedding of a family friend, in Medford, Oregon. There were a lot of weird things about this wedding, not the least of which was that the bride kept handing me her wine glass so that her Southern Baptist teetotaling grandparents wouldn’t see her drinking. But the strangest thing at that wedding happened at communion. See, it was a Catholic wedding. The bride had joined the Catholic church so that they could have a full mass wedding. And when the time came for the distribution of the wafers, the Southern Baptist teetotaling grandparents got confused. They didn’t know exactly what was expected of them, so they went up to the altar rail, where the unsuspecting priest, not knowing who they were or what their affiliation was, went ahead and gave them the host. Which they accepted. And then pocketed. Being Baptists, they weren’t used to receiving communion, as most Baptist churches don’t serve it regularly. But they knew enough to know that this right here, this wafer and this wine, this Body and Blood of Christ, wasn’t for them.
You probably have at least one similar story from your own life. At least one time when you have seen someone held back from sharing in the Eucharist because they weren’t part of the in-group. Because they didn’t belong. Because they weren’t allowed. And that is why I want to make sure that, if you don’t take anything else out of this sermon today, you take these words: for you.
I was trying to think of ways to explain the importance of these two little words, for you, to our communion assistants. I reached out to my colleagues for help, and got a flood of stories that brought it home to me.
There was the man who was HIV positive, and dying. He had been excluded by everyone – at work, in the neighborhood, even by many of his friends. Nothing was for him, not even longtime friendships. But this, this meal, this promise came with the inclusive and specific – for you. It was what he needed to hear.
There was the pastor who told about his 18-year old son, who has Down Syndrome, who always comes forward for communion, and one week asked, as his father placed the bread in his hands and spoke the promise, “The body of Christ, given for you,” “Why do you keep saying that?” Now, this young man, because of his Down Syndrome, has been told many times by many people that he was not enough. That he was less than. If he is like most people with disabilities, like my brother-in-law, he has been kicked out of churches for being too loud or disruptive; he has been separated from the main stream of kids in school; he has been made to feel different in everything, from what work he can do to what bus he can ride. He has been told time and again that what others have is not for him. But here, at the altar rail, it was different. Because this, this promise, this thing that others are receiving, this Body of Christ, Matt, is for you.
There was my classmate Beth who was serving a meal to people experiencing homelessness in San Diego. The church relied on donations for the meal, and this particular week, there was no dessert, and the people receiving the meal were disappointed, but took it in stride, because they were grateful for what they were receiving. After everyone had eaten, and were milling around outside chatting, someone showed up with a surprise donation, donuts, hundred and hundreds of donuts, enough for everyone to eat their fill, with some left over. And they set these all out, and went out and announced that there was dessert after all, and as the word spread, people began filing back in, and the first woman to come in was a woman, bedraggled, with a dirty face and ragged clothes. She walked hesitantly, slowly, toward the tables of donuts loaded with frosting, sprinkles, glazes, and decorations, and then she stopped and stood, looking at this feast of sweetness spread before her. And she just stood there. And Beth invited her to go ahead, to choose her dessert. And suddenly this homeless woman had tears running down her face, and she said, “But I don’t deserve this.” And Beth replied, “It’s for you.”
The thing is, theologians will fill volumes and volumes, and argue for centuries and centuries about what communion is. Is it transubstantiation or consubstantiation, is it the real presence of Christ or just a symbol, did that grandma and grandpa put Jesus in their pocket or did Jesus maybe know enough to get out of that wafer before it was desecrated by pocket lint and hand sweat? But at the end of the day, they’re asking the wrong question. It’s not about what it is. It’s about what it does. And what it does is to bring us into God’s forgiving, reconciling, life-giving love.
The writer Sara Miles describes her first communion in her book Take this Bread. She was a non-believer, participating as a journalist in an Episcopal communion service in San Francisco. This is what she says:
…we gathered around that table…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. I still can’t explain…it made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced…The disconnect between what I thought was happening – I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone say was happening – the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ;” … and what I knew was happening – God, named “Christ” or “Jesus,” was real, and in my mouth – utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry. …that impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb…and was indisputably in my body now, as if I’d swallowed a radioactive pellet.
It’s about what it does. For you. Remember the prophet Ezekiel, eating the Word of God, and it was sweet as honey on his tongue? It’s like that for some of us. But by the Book of Revelation, that scroll turns sour in the stomach, as the Word of God lodges in us and begins to change us, not just change our minds, but our very bodies. This is personal. Remember the man of God, Elisha, who fed a hundred starving men with only 20 loaves? Or the man who was God, Jesus, who fed 5000 with only 5 loaves? When you’re starving, when its been a lean year and there is almost no food, and suddenly someone multiplies the loaves and the donuts and there is food to be had, you might very well feel like you don’t deserve it. But there it is, for you, and it is real and it is personal. And at that moment, it does not matter what the theologians think, because the Word of God, the very flesh of God is working its way into your body, into your very molecules, getting into your system in a real and visceral way, like a radioactive pellet. And it is for you.
They say you are what you eat. And here you are, each week, eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus Christ, being formed into the very Body of Christ, each and every week. Not because you deserve it. Deserving has nothing to do with this meal. But because it is what God wants for you. For y’all.
I once shocked a room full of lefty, progressive Christians at a New Years’ Eve party. I was talking about how much I like the gospel, and they were okay with that, but then I said, “I love it because it’s all about me! And I love things that are all about me!” This social justice crowd looked at me like I was growing Joel Osteen out of my head. But then I added, “And it’s all about you, and you, and you.”
And that’s what makes that sweet scroll turn sour. Because if I am what I eat, that’s fine. I want to become more like Christ. But the problem is that the guy over there, the one who isn’t like me, the one with HIV, or the kid with Down Syndrome, or the homeless woman crying over the donuts, they are becoming the Body of Christ, too, and that means that they are yoked with me, formed together with me into the Body, inseparable from me, a part of me in a way that goes down to the molecules of our very bodies. And that is not what I bargained for. I was okay when it was for me, but when that for you become for y’all, I want to start drawing some lines, and putting up some fences. I want to guard the Table from those who don’t think or look or act like me.
And so we’re back to the wafer in the pocket. I have a colleague in Denver, Nadia Bolz-Weber, she has a church called the House for All Sinners and Saints, and she serves a lot of people who were unchurched or shall we say mischurched, who have found their way to her congregation because they hear there that God is for you. One Thanksgiving, one of her newer members went home for the holiday, and went to church with her family. Where she was told that she was not welcome at the Table. She had no idea that the family’s Lutheran was different from her Lutheran, and she called Nadia in tears, horrified and humiliated at being turned away from the rail. Nadia shared this phone call with a couple other people in the church, and they decided this was not okay. So they got together a group, and some bread, and some wine, and they headed for the airport. They met this young woman’s incoming flight and took her down to the airport chapel and shared the Lord’s Supper together there in the airport, reminding her that, whatever she heard elsewhere, this Body and Blood, this forgiveness of sins and reconciliation of differences that draws us together into One Body, the Body of Christ, this promise, is for you.
There is nothing you have to do to deserve it. There is nothing you have to earn. There is no club that you have to join. Christ has already chosen you. This is what Jesus came for, Jesus, that impossible word, that man who was God, born in Bethlehem, a town whose very name means “the house of bread.” This is why Christ became human, to invite you in, to bring God to you, into you, in this incredibly real, wondrously concrete way. To draw all y’all together, into One Body. And today, you are invited to this meal. Because this meal, with all its benefits, with all its promises, this meal is for you. This is most certainly true. Never let anyone tell you differently.