Week 2 – Come to the Table: Diving into the why of Communion
I pray you enjoy this message and God speaks to you through it. To listen to this message you can hear it on the Beech Grove United Methodist Church Podcast (podcast releases Monday mornings), or by clicking here.*
Also every week I offer sermon notes as an opportunity for folks in my congregation to have something to take with them for reflection on the sermon or to help in sharing with others. Check them out here!
*Note: Sermon audio does not match the manuscript…sometimes the Spirit moves
27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax-collection station, and he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And he got up, left everything, and followed him. 29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house, and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others reclining at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick; 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”1
Invitation to the Table
“Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another.”2
Before we ever come to the table, before any of the other prayers and liturgy we hear, this is what makes it known to us that the table is set and Jesus is present, awaiting our presence. We hear these words as we prepare to come to the table.
These words came alive for me:
In my sophomore year of high school, I had been serving on the District Youth Council (of the now very former Norfolk District) for a few years and was a part of the planning for the retreat. I somewhat remember the theme for this particular retreat being centered around God working in our lives and how we respond. Beyond that, I cannot remember the speaker, nor even what the speaker said during the retreat. However, what I do remember, (to this day) is what happened during communion at that retreat.
Since I was a part of the district youth, I was asked to help serve at one of the communion stations. While serving, and almost oblivious to anyone but the person in front of me, a friend of mine from the youth group I attended walked down to receive communion. As with all the people before him, he received the bread in his hand, dipped it in the cup, and returned to his chair. I was almost dumbstruck. I had never seen him take communion. He had always passed on it at church, other retreats, or any time it was offered. He said he was Catholic, but he always attended the worship at the church I went to and was a part of our youth. He never gave a specific reason for not partaking, but I could always hear hesitancies in his voice towards the table.
Because of many theological differences in our understanding of Communion, the Catholic Church does not allow people who are not baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church to take communion. Typically Catholics will feel comfortable taking communion at non-Catholic churches, but this is not all-inclusive to all Catholics (and I didn’t want to push in his reasoning for not taking communion in these settings). However, I did become aware over knowing him, that this young man did have a complicated relationship with the church. Either way, I just hadn’t imagined what would have led to his desire to partake in communion on this particular evening.
However, at this moment, for some reason, he felt the desire to come forward. When I talked to him afterward, he specifically said it was the invitation. He said for the first time he truly felt like he was wanted at the table. I look back and wish I had asked why he had not felt welcomed other times, especially knowing our United Methodist doctrine around what we call the “open table”.
God as Giver of Grace
That is this reminder that within both of the acts we view as sacraments, we recognize that it is God who is the primary actor through the offering of grace (oh look there it is again). Therefore, when we come to the waters of baptism or the table of communion we are responding to the work that God is doing, and the work that God does is not overshadowed by human actions. This is why we believe in infant baptism, why we don’t “re-baptize” people, and even believe in the open table. This idea punctuates this understanding of grace in that it is God’s table and who are we to place barriers around it (we will dive a bit more into how this is fully understood in later weeks).
However, in the context of my story, it felt baffling to think that someone would feel unwelcome or even “unworthy” to not come to the table. This story rolls around my head every time I proclaim that invitation.
There is so much embedded in that invitation that tells us “come to the table and allow the table to transform you.” You don’t have to be a certain way to come, but you do need to be willing, and that is the understanding we receive as Christ plays out his ministry.
The only thing keeping us from approaching the table, or even Christ in general, is ourselves and our willingness to be a part of what Christ is trying to do in our lives.
The Calling of Levi
In the scripture before us today we have a story of Jesus calling the disciple Levi (Matthew as we may more commonly know him). This story shows us what an invitation from Christ means by looking through the lens of how he called one of his disciples.
To begin our exploration, we have Levi, a tax collector. A tax collector is exactly what the name suggests, except this is not your normal IRS employee, because in biblical times tax collectors controlled what the tax was. They received what needed to be collected and given to the Roman Empire, but they could charge beyond that and keep that money for themselves. Tax collectors in the time of Jesus were seen as thieves, they played on the poverty that existed in society and tried to create bigger gaps between the rich and poor. Mainly seeing themselves, and their “friends” as the rich, and treating the poor as if they owed more for being poor.
As far as we know Levi was a traditional tax collector in this sense, but when Jesus walks past he does not look for perfection. Rather he looks for someone who needs help and is willing to follow him. We read in the text,
“Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Levi got up, left everything behind, and followed him.”3
Now first of all I am sure there was something more than Jesus just saying “follow me” and Levi going, but the willingness to follow expresses Levi’s desire to not allow himself to get in the way of following Christ, or let alone what Jesus is offering. Levi then throws a large banquet for Jesus and includes, as guests, many of these least desired in society. We mainly hear of the tax collectors, but I like to think that the others were others whom society may have seen as liars, thieves, unclean, or any other demeaning name we give to those who do not look or act like us. This is important because in being invited we are being invited to be a part of a rainbow collective of persons all across this world. We are not brought together through the invitation as perfect souls, but as souls that need Christ to work in us. This is the peace we seek to be a part of.
Then we get the reason behind the action.
Of course, because Jesus is doing something blasphemous, the Pharisees are going to come and try to entrap him in matters of the law. We read them say, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 4
You see in the “law” you have the worthy and the unworthy. The unworthy have no place among the worthy, nor could they receive the gifts that only the worthy could receive, including a grand feast, put on by a rabbi (a teacher and embodied faith representative). Jesus’ response, however, grounds itself in the manner that we are all meant to be worthy to come and receive, solely based on God’s love for us and our willingness to be a part of that inner transformation.
Jesus responds, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives.”5
Do We Feel Unworthy?
The invitation is for all of us who may feel unworthy by the way society and even sometimes and more pointedly the church tries to put restrictions on why we can or cannot experience that which Christ is offering to us. Yes, the Pharisees look like jerks in this passage, partially because they are jerks. They are saying that because these people do not act a certain way or because they have done certain things in their life they cannot come to the table. Christ comes in and he says “NO, come and dine.”
In the invitation to the table, we make known that this table is open to those who are willing to receive all that Christ offers to us through God. When we believe all are worthy of God’s grace, no matter how unworthy they might feel, we recognize that it is not our job to turn people away from a meal that can fundamentally transform their lives.
All are welcome at the table, through Christ’s invitation.
The question though gets posed, should anyone not take communion?
I would say that is a decision based on their own hearts. If one has a willingness in their heart to be transformed by God’s love through confession and partaking in the meal with Christ then the invitation is meant to welcome them forward, not to hold them back. Who am I to police the Lord’s Table? I have seen and heard of many people who have been transformed by this sacred act. People whom others may have judged for their beliefs or even practices as “unworthy.” They have come to the table because they opened themselves to the work of God’s grace.
Unpacking The Invitation
The declaration of all who love Christ embodies the nature in which we express our desire to receive God’s grace that is already there.
The declaration of repentance of sin expresses our desire to be convicted by God through grace to live into the perfect love God gives us.
The declaration to seek peace with our neighbor expresses the desire to not only receive God’s grace, but that we are called to give that grace as well as to live in unity and harmony with those in our community, this is an ideal echoed in our understanding of confession and peace we will explore next week.
So what does all of this mean for the table as we celebrate it here at Beech Grove?
It means that everyone who is in these pews on Communion Sundays is worthy to come forward no matter what is going on in their life. We believe that because God’s grace works within us, and Communion is a chance for us to respond to and receive God’s grace that nothing should stand in the way of coming to the table. If you are not coming to the table it is something in your heart that is keeping you not God. Hear in that invitation that Christ invites you. The invitation does not stem from me, from Beech Grove, or even from the United Methodist Church. The invitation is from Christ because Christ is the one who is offering the grace we are receiving in our partaking.
The Communion table is like that feast that Levi offers. That is what our table looks like. I am sure even the Pharisees and legal experts were invited to join the table and had a place at it. In God’s Kin-Dom, all are welcome to come and partake, we are the ones who try to chain and barricade the table and prevent people from getting there.
I promise as your pastor that I will never prevent you from coming and receiving, and I invite you to live into that invitation as well.
Remember the invitation to the table is the same invitation we practice in our lives of reaching out to others.
Christian invitation means that all are welcome. So let us leave the table open, so that all may receive.
How are you practicing Christian Invitation?
How are you making others, no matter who they are or what they believe, feel like they are welcome in the arms of Christ?
Luke 5:27-32 NRSVue