I grew up in a tradition, the tradition in which I still participate, that practiced the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. It was impressed upon me by those presiding at the table that this was not a practice to be trifled with. We were exhorted to participate in a “worthy manner” so that we would not eat and drink judgment upon ourselves. I’m not sure that it was ever spelled out exactly what constituted a “worthy manner,” but I was pretty sure it had something to do with the alignment of my heart and mind. I needed the proper focus. I needed to be worthy, thinking the right thoughts, having the right feelings, having not done anything for which I might need to publicly repent.
Worthy manner meant to me a sense of my own purity, or holiness.
My understandings of the Lord’s Supper have certainly changed a lot. I now think of the table as a place of Christ’s welcome. It is his table, his invitation, and his welcome. Worthy manner to me now means that I welcome others the way Christ has welcomed them. I think this is what Paul had in mind as well.
When I attended Luther Seminary, I often worshiped at St. Matthew’s Episcopal church in our local neighborhood. Unlike the foreboding words I heard around the table which put the onus on my purity to participate, the words of welcome at the table at St. Matthews were full of grace. They made me marvel each time at the welcome of God. I can’t tell you all of them from memory, but I do remember some. Like…”all are welcome here…whether you often come to the sacrament or have not been in awhile… whether you have followed Jesus or have failed…all are welcome here.” And when you watched the congregation move to receive the bread and wine, you knew that these words had meaning. As a group, we could only come together by the mercies of God.
My early experiences were by the way of sacrifice where the table was protected by standards of purity. My later understandings are more in line with the way of mercy, where the table is a place of welcome for those of us otherwise unclean.
Richard Beck’s book, Unclean: Meditations of Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, writes similarly of the “therapeutic” potentialities of the Lord’s Supper. We have a considerable psychological apparatus dedicated to maintaining purity, which when it plays out religiously favors exclusion. The way of sacrifice comes easy to us. But the table is the place where we learn about the contagion of mercy. That this way in the world, the way of Jesus, creates space for the other. It teaches us hospitality and renews our minds along the lines of the welcome of Christ.
Richard’s insights are fascinating and important. It’s why we’re featuring his work at Streaming, (Rochester College, June 18-20), and why we think its important to bring his work into dialogue with Walter Brueggemann. You should be there for this important conversation.
Here’s a clip of Richard talking about Unclean.