This post originally appeared as the cover article for our parish newsletter, The View. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about what's happening at St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, AL, please click here.
I do not enjoy telling people no. Saying yes is a great deal more fun, and in Christ we discover that God’s answer to us is always yes. Despite our rejection of his love and our refusal to stay in covenant relationship with him, in Jesus Christ God reaches out to us in a gesture of unbreakable, undeniable love. The resurrection is God’s pursuit of us with his yes despite our resounding no, and that part of us that is a fragile child who seeks only affirmation and love is desperate to hear that eternal yes from our heavenly father. It is my own need for that yes that makes it hard for me to tell someone else no—especially when I am speaking as a minister in God’s church—but sometimes my no is the only way to invite someone to hear God’s yes.
Every Sunday we celebrate God’s great and redeeming yes by gathering at the Lord’s Table to partake in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As I explain to newcomers, I do not know exactly how that happens—how bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ and how receiving it unites us to him—but I trust in my heart what my mind cannot grasp. Our invitation to Communion, therefore, should be broad and wide and inclusive. It is, after all, his table—not ours—and who are we to stand in the way of anyone who desires to commune with the Lord? As one who has been turned away from the sacrament in churches that belong to other denominations, I have felt the heartbreak of hearing that I am not welcome—that I do not belong—and I rue the thought that I would be the one to turn anyone away from God’s presence. Still, though, there are times when my answer to one who seeks a morsel of bread or a sip of port wine must be no.
On Sunday, we will continue our lectionary’s exploration of John 6. For five weeks in a row, we will hear gospel lessons that center on Jesus’ invitation to receive the Bread of Life. Last week, we heard how Jesus fed the five-thousand with only five loaves and two fish. Starting this Sunday, we will hear how Jesus explained that act to a still-hungry crowd. Through it all, we will experience the tension between those who seek a transformative encounter with God and those who just want a little bread to eat. As would-be followers of Jesus Christ, we must ask ourselves into which category we fall. Do we come to Jesus because we want a little more sustenance for our life’s journey, or do we approach him because we want to be transformed?
The sacramental meal of Holy Communion is an opportunity to present ourselves to God as those whom God has changed and is changing and will change until we are made perfect. We come as hungry, broken, sinful people, and we leave as filled, restored, reconciled children of God. The Lord’s Supper is not a dinner party. It is a celebration of radical conversion. It is a foretaste of God’s kingdom feast. The invitation to Communion, therefore, is not based on hospitality but on participation in the transformative life of Jesus Christ. We dishonor his death and resurrection if we, as Eucharistic Prayer C puts it, come to his Table “for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” “This is a life-changing encounter,” the clergy might say to the congregation. “If you like your life just the way it is, please stay in your seat. But, if you seek new life in Christ, you will find it here.”
Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” In order to partake in that bread, we must recognize what is being given to us—not merely a morsel to fill our stomachs but a bounty to satisfy the longing of our souls. Jesus is the one who offers us new and abundant life, but the path that leads to that life takes us first to death. If we want to live with him forever and never be hungry again, we must die with him first—a death that is revealed in the waters of baptism. Only then can we participate in the life of the risen one and gather at his heavenly banquet.
If you ask me whether your atheist cousin can receive Communion while visiting our church, my answer will be no. If you ask me whether your unbaptized friend can receive Communion after spending the night at your sleepover, my answer will be no. If you tell me that you do not believe in Jesus Christ or have no interest in participating in the transformed life of a disciple, I will tell you that you are no longer welcome to receive Communion. Please know, however, that doing so causes me great pain, and please hear my “no” not as an end in itself but as an invitation to something bigger—to further conversation, to baptism, to conversion, to renewed faith, to real transformation. No matter what, God’s answer to you is still yes. It always will be. But we cannot afford to take his yes for granted.