A Place at the Table 1: The Table Amidst Us
January 13, 2013
Rev. Jan Wiley
Over the next four weeks we focus on the spiritual practice that Jesus initiated with his disciples shortly before his death. This very simple act of eating bread and drinking wine has layers of meaning. In fact, it is known by different names.
Some call it the Eucharist which in Greek means ‘thanksgiving’ and we remember the words from the liturgy “when he had given thanks, Jesus took bread and blessed it.”
Others call it the Lord’s Supper taken from a scripture passage in First Corinthians.
Methodists tend to use the term Communion or Holy Communion derived from the Latin word communio, meaning ‘sharing in common’, which was based on Greek word Koinonia. If you know the history of Habitat for Humanity, you might know that the founders Millard and Linda Fuller spent five years at the Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia. Koinonia, communion, sharing is one of the ancient meanings of the sacrament.
Some religious communities call it The Breaking of the Bread and Roman Catholics, who share the meal in every worship service, simply call it The Mass.
But by whatever name, it is an integral part of our community life together. As one of only two sacraments in the United Methodist Church, it has a sacred place in our tradition and has had a renewed interest in the last 50 years. Many of us were raised celebrating Holy Communion on a quarterly basis. Now almost all UM churches commune monthly and some weekly.
As we explore our Place at the Table we focus today on setting the table and on the first part of the Great Thanksgiving as the presiding pastor it begins by reciting:
The Lord be with you.
And the people respond: And also with you.
Like a family getting ready for a big meal, we all help set the table. So today we moved the table down to be closer to us to remind us of how important this table is to us. There is a power in the table being up in the chancel as it marks it as special but there is also a power in moving the table and seeing it anew and as an integral part of our common life together.
Just as we sometimes move or enlarge our dining room table at home when company comes, so moving the table for this series A Place at the Table positions it in a place of prominence and reminds us that all are welcome at the table.
In some of our families we don’t have enough room for everyone to eat at the same table for big holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas and so we have “The Kids Table.” And it is almost a rite of passage when you grow up enough to move from the kid’s table to the adult table or what feels like the real table. We sometimes had a kid’s table growing up. But I also remember the year my dad chose to sit at the table with all the kids. It seemed an act of love. Although careful remembrance tells me it wasn’t us kids, it was actually the grand kids. Go figure!
But the act of love by my father is symbolic of the even greater love of God, who invites us to a table in which there is always room for everyone who wants to join in the holy meal.
Even though we as pastors preside regularly, there can still be unexpected things that happen at the table. One of my seminary roommates, Rev. Paula Ferris, shares the story of her first Sunday when she was appointed to a new congregation at the Covina UMC. She really didn’t have time to prepare and being a seasoned pastor trusted that the communion steward would have everything on the table for Communion on her first Sunday. So during the service, when she came forward to preside at the table, she was a bit concerned as she was reading the liturgy that she saw the bread but she didn’t see any juice in the cup. She kept reading while pondering what to do. She thought maybe they had a tradition of pouring the juice from a pitcher into the cup. So she surreptitiously while reading tried to see if there was a pitcher off to the side. No. So when she finished reading, she looked behind her thinking there was another little table with a pitcher of juice. No. Now she was beginning to panic. Her first Sunday and no juice. When she turned back around she accidentally hit the table with her hip and her eye caught movement in the empty communion chalice. That’s when she realized they used white grape juice (which is clear) and it had been there all the time.
The color of the grape juice isn’t really important but we have a history as Methodists of using Welch’s grape juice. That tradition comes from a long history which is both theological, historical and practical.
The method of pasteurizing grape juice to halt the fermentation has been attributed to an American physician and dentist, Thomas Bramwell Welch in 1869. A Methodist and a communion steward, he was a strong supporter of the temperance movement, and produced a non-alcoholic wine to be used for church services in his hometown of Vineland, New Jersey. His fellow parishioners continued to prefer and use regular wine. His son, Charles E. Welch, who was also a dentist, eventually gave up his practice to promote grape juice. In 1893 he founded Welch’s Grape Juice Company.
He marketed the pasteurized grape juice to temperance-minded evangelical Protestants as authentic biblical “wine.” As word spread and as the temperance movement grew among evangelical Protestant churches, Welch’s grape juice in place of wine became more popular.
The impact of the temperance movement and the availability of the “unfermented juice of the grape” can traced in our Methodist Book of Discipline and actions of the General Conference of the then named Methodist Episcopal Church.
In the 1864 General Conference it was “recommended that in all cases the pure juice of the grape be used in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.”
The 1876 permissive rubric based on 1864 recommendation is added at the head of Ritual for Holy Communion so was more obvious to pastors and congregations.
In 1880, the General Conference added a semi-mandatory rubric “let none but the pure juice of the grape be used in administering the Lord’s Supper, whenever practicable.”
In 1916, the General Conference adopted a mandatory rubric when they deleted the words “whenever practicable.”
The 1964 Book of Worship rubric or instruction is emphatic: “The pure, unfermented juice of the grape shall be used.” Yet now our current ritual texts and rubrics in our Hymnal and Book of Worship do not explicitly define what form of the fruit of the grape shall be used but almost all UM churches use juice.
Though we now have a long history of using juice from our roots as a temperance movement when we believed no one should drink alcohol, the current use of juice is an expression of pastoral concern for recovering alcoholics and enables the participation of children and youth, and supports the church’s historic witness of abstinence.
So as we set the table, we have a better understanding of our own history. The elements, the bread and the cup are to be available to all. In the last decade we have seen another transition as we now offer gluten free wafers for those who need them. This is another expression of our theological belief that all should be able to participate in the holy meal and the practicality of finding a way to accomplish that – changing the tradition a bit so that all are included.
But deeper perhaps than the form of bread or the form of wine is why we set the table with it in the first place. It is because this is what Jesus used as he said, ‘this is my body and this my blood poured out for you.’
Part of the power of this meal as Kevin Witt writes is that “the basic elements of this meal are common foods even among the poor of Jesus’ day. Instead of opting for fancy dishes, Jesus purposely chooses the everyday food and drink of the time. Meals themselves are part of our daily existence. The meaning here is that this meal is available to all. Notice that before they eat the bread or drink the wine, Jesus blesses it, he thanks God for it. Thanking God for the bread and drink is a recognition of its sacredness. It comes from God, so it is called the Eucharist—a meal of sacred thanksgiving.”
And so as we begin the liturgy called the Great Thanksgiving we start by recognizing the relationship of God and our relationships to one another.
“The Lord be with you!” “And also with you!” This prayer is something we do together as community. It is the Creator who first “set the table” of abundant gifts in which we now share. It is the Creator’s hand that guides, guards and directs us now, as always throughout history.
And so we continue by blessing God as we ‘lift up our hearts’ and repeat that is right to give our ‘thanks and praise.
Our first action in our long prayer is to offer God our thanks and our praise.
And then the presiding pastor elaborates on that basic thanksgiving that we thank God with joy and we do it always and everywhere. If we were to write the liturgy today we might include the litany of response popular today (that I keep trying to teach you as we say: God is good / all the time ‘all the time/ God is good.) It captures the same basic thought as we begin the prayer of thanksgiving. That our thanks and praise is not dependent necessarily on how we feel on a particular day. But that we always start, no matter our condition, with thanks and praise to God.
And we are reminded that we don’t do it alone. Join with your people on earth and in heaven. It is a holy meal which connects us across time and space. Heaven joins us in offering praise. The physical table which is before us is actually much larger and includes all God’s people in this place and beyond, in this time, including God’s past and God’s future for this is the table of love. For today and for always. Here and everywhere.