This is no ordinary thing we do here this morning. We use ordinary thingsa building, benches, juice, and breadbut it's no ordinary thing we do together. This is not an ordinary sack lunch we might pack with us to work or to school and eat at our convenience. It's not a fast-food fill we take as a break. It's not grazing our way through the leftovers in the fridge, stuffing our faces as we watch the clock. Nor is this a frozen dinner, thawed and microwaved mercilessly, stripped of its plastic, and eaten alone in silence in front of the television.
This is no ordinary meal. It won't fill, but it will satisfy something deep within us. It can't last, but it will linger in our souls. It holds no great variety, but it does carry the truth of love.
William Willimon recalls the first time he was asked to teach a seminary class about Communion. He went to an older colleague and said, "How shall I begin? What should I do?"
The older colleague said, "The first thing you must do is go to a kitchen and learn how to cook."
Willimon said, "Why should I learn how to cook if all I want to do is teach the meaning of Communion?"
"Ah," said his older colleague, "you will never be able to understand the meaning of Communion until you know the love of cooking and the joy of those who are satisfied."
That's what we do this morning. We celebrate a feast of lovenot so much in the meal, but in the joy of what takes place here.
This is no ordinary meal.
No Ordinary Host
We are aware that the host at the table is no ordinary host. We've read the Scriptures, and we know who stands here at the table with us today. He is not a maitre d' in a restaurant: friendly, efficient, and aloof. He is not a supervisor at a buffet or a nameless supplier, lurking between counter and kitchen. He is not a cafeteria server ready with another scoop on another plate and another rehashing of old hash. He is not a paid caterer who enters unobtrusively, fixes your food, and leaves you to your business. He is no ordinary host, this Jesus.
George Herbert, the great Anglican poet, once pictured himself coming to Communion. He saw himself coming to the outside door of a house. The door was opened, and the master of the house welcomed him in. But as he stepped through the threshold, he began to feel he was in a place he didn't belong. He felt that way because suddenly he was the focus of attention. It was as if he had been stripped of his masks. He fully became an individual for the first time in his life. There was no crowd to hide him.
That can be frightening because we live in a society that places us all on equal footing. We protect the rights of the individual. We legislate equality as much as possible. It's a way of protecting ourselves. We know what comes of it all. We know the impersonal feel of modern life. We know the broad equality of society that often forgets to treat each of us as a person.
"Wait your turn."
"Take your number."
"Fill out this form."
We know the peer pressures that force the individual to step back into the crowd. Life is leveled. We're all the sameall equals. Nobody is special anymore.
C. S. Lewis once heard of parents who were teaching their children to call them and their adult friends by their first names. Lewis said he understood what they were trying to do. They wanted to show their children "we are all fellow citizens of the human race, equal partners in the race of life." But Lewis said it was a perverse thing. The strength of the family isn't that each person is counted equal. Persons aren't equal. That's precisely the meaning of being a person. We're each unique and not equal. The strength of the family is in its ability to affirm the uniqueness of each person. Families don't foster equality. They foster the community of persons, each of whom is unlike the others but belong to the rest.
Lewis said there are two ways we can lose our names in society. First of all, there is the democratic way. He pictured prisoners in jail cells. He said each one of them is equal to all of the others: no names, only numbers.
Lewis says we can also lose our names when we're given a new name by someone who calls us unique and sees us not as equal to everyone else, loving us for who we are individually.
I lose the name Wayne when I'm given an even greater name. My daughter calls me Daddy. She doesn't call anybody else Daddy, only me. No one else in the whole world gets that name from her. That's mine, and I'm unique. I'm loved. I'm a person not equal to anyone else in this world.
The same thing happens to each of us. A teenager is no longer called Sarah, but someone calls her best friend. A child is no longer called Ben because a grandparent gathers him into her arms and says, "How's my little honey today?" When a woman is called Dear and a spouse is called Sweetie, we lose our names because someone else has given us a new name, a special name, a name no one else can share. And we gain a new name when Jesus elevates us through love. He calls us to the table by name.
Return with George Herbert to the house of his master as he is invited to the Communion table. What makes George Herbert feel so out of place? It's because he realizes who he is for the first time. He realizes that out of the masses of equality that have been stripped away, he walks with Christ in a unique relationship of deep love.
That can be a frightening thing. What lover hasn't said to her lover, "I don't deserve you. I'm not good enough for you. You should have found someone else instead of me. How can you possibly love me?" When we walk naked before the eyes of a lover, all pretense is gone and so is the safety of equality. I am who I am and nothing else. Then the doubts come: Why should I be loved so? I'm not really worthy of this love. If you only knew who I was, then you wouldn't love me so much.
No loved person is ever truly worthy of that love. That's the whole point of love! We don't love those who are worthy of love. We may like them. We may want to be with them. But love is what brings worth to another person. We are not loved because we are worthy; we are worthy because we are loved.
And so it is with us this morning. Love meets us at the door. Love welcomes us into his house. Love brings us to his table. It's his love that makes us squirm, and it's his love that makes us feel uneasy. It's his love that does away with all of the equalities of society. He says, "I no longer call you servants." He gives each of us an identity. He gives us new names. There is a name card for each of us at the table. "You are my friend," he says to each of us.
No Ordinary Table
This is no ordinary meal and no ordinary host. Nor is this an ordinary table. It's not one of those fixed seats at a McDonald's restaurant: plastic top held firmly in place by individual tubes and seats of welded steel. Only one can sit there. Nor is this a foldaway table on an Air Canada flight. Nor is it a single-serving tray brought around by the nurses in Victoria Hospital, where your bedside stand becomes a table for one. Nor is this a takeout bag of goodies from a restaurant drive-thru window.
This table is none of those things. This table doesn't belong to you. You are called to it by someone else. You are called away from isolation into a gathering. You are called away from your loneliness into a community. You are called away by your host into a place where he has set a table for you with your name on it. Jesus says: You did not choose me, but I chose you. I called you to my table. I make a place here for you.
There is a funny thing about this table: it expands. There is no limit to its size. It cannot be confined. It cannot be fenced. This table expands with the love of the host, and it grows with the grace of his invitation to us.
Here comes the thief on the cross. Here comes the woman taken in adultery. Here come the puny and the pompous, the guilty and the gutsy, the sensitive and the simple, the indecent and the intemperate, the foolish and the fickle, and the hopeless and the hopeful. They're all here at this table.
This is no ordinary table. It expands with mercy, it lengthens with love, and it pushes to the ends of the earth with the gospel of peace.
No Ordinary People
This is no ordinary meal, the one who stands among us is no ordinary host, and the table itself is no ordinary table. And we who gather here today are no ordinary people. How can we be ordinary at a moment like this?
Jesus said, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you."
Why would Jesus need to command love at a time like this? Isn't it enough to experience love and then to be love to others? You and I know that's not true. The ordinary way of life, which is still within us, fights against the extraordinary command to love. Saints are sinners, even the greatest among us.
During the Middle Ages, Dante penned his classic vision of hell and heaven in The Divine Comedy. When Dante takes you into the presence of God, you feel all the power and light coming alive inside of you. He stirs the grace of Christ within you. When you put down the book, you feel you're a new child of God.
In other parts of the book, Dante takes you for a walk through the lower regions of hell. All the faces he sees in hell are the faces of people from his own community whom he didn't like when he was alive. He sees people he can't get along with and people he resents. You think to yourself, How can he who sees so much heaven live in so much hell? This saint of God takes all of his non-friends and his enemies and puts them in the pit of hell to show the world what he thinks of them. Fine revenge!
It is that way with us, too. We read these marvelous stories of the Last Supper. We read of Christ's tenderness and compassion, his service and his love. What else do we read? Luke tells us that while the disciples were sitting round the table that night, they began to argue among themselves as to which of them was the greatest.
There is something extraordinary about what Jesus commands us here. It's not the ordinary way we tend to live. When we leave this table, we must do things in a way that people will notice. We can no longer be ordinary people.
The ordinary within us finds its identity in performance. "I am what I do. I am what others see of me. I am what I display through my job, my athletic abilities, my wit and wisdom. And in order to be more certain of my identity, I must be more successful in my performance." But there will always be someone able to deny me that. Someone will be stronger than me. Someone will be brighter. Someone will perform more sales, win more friendships, or produce better goods. Someone else will challenge my identity by doing greater things than I do, by horning in on my territory or denying the greatness of my skills. It will probably be somebody close to me. We don't have any problem with someone who lives in another town and excels above us. We can feel good about the great athletes of the world; they're idols, not real people like us. We can enjoy our superiority over persons in other countries; they can't bother us. We save our irritation for our marriage partner, and we foster our indignation at our brothers and sisters. We train our anger at our rivals at school or work. We even grow in resentment against those who came to this table with us.
This morning, the ordinary within us looks at someone else who is sitting right here and asks, "What right does she have to partake? Who does he think he is anyway? I don't know how they can live with themselves." It's like the story of Cinderella and her sisters all over again. No one ever needs to explain jealousy to little children. When they read it, they know how true it is. The deepest jealousiesthe strongest resentments and greatest antagonisms of lifeare most often found inside families. It's sisters who hate each other most. It's brothers who are willing to cut one another down. It's siblings who will find ways to criticize exactly where it hurts most. You know of families who have been ruined by envy. You know of marriages that have been destroyed by bitterness. And it's the ordinary in useven in the churchthat wants to make our lives ordinary as well.
Some of us have come here this morning with anger in our souls. For some of us, our marriages are on the verge of collapse. Some of us have come here this morning with self-centered pity. Someone in this congregation has done us wrong. Some of us have come here this morning with resentment. We see the happiness in other lives, and we cry out, saying, "It isn't fair!"
The ordinary within us wants to abuse or accuse, obliterate or isolatewants to bite back or attack. Then we come to the table together, and here we're received in grace. We listen to the word of our host: You are my friendsall of you, each of you. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.
We are not ordinary people, and something happens to us here at the table. The ordinary is swallowed up into the extraordinary. The usual vanishes into the unusual. The worst of us is crucified with Christ. The best of him takes its place in our lives.
Lewis Smedes once told of a woman who taught with him at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. She was once an ordinary person, a content unbeliever. She walked with the masses of society in the usual state of affairs. One day, she ran into a group of people who seemed very unusual. They were Christians, and they didn't play the same games she saw others playing. They didn't push the same values she was pushing for in her own life. They seemed strong yet soft, deep and real.
She said to herself, If Christianity were true, this is how I would expect Christians to live. These people live that way, so maybe Christianity is true.
She went to church, she read the Bible, and she learned what those people had learned about the love of God and the sacrament of Communion. She learned this is no ordinary meal, and Jesus is no ordinary host. She learned this is no ordinary table, and those who eat here are no ordinary people.
She soon went back to school to earn a second PhDthis one in theology. Today, she teaches in a Christian seminary because of the love of those extraordinary people, a community of those who are like us.
This morning, we are at the table of our Lord, too. We're not perfect by any meansthat's why we need Jesus and the Cross and the grace of God. We're not perfect, but we're no longer ordinary people either.
One of the great privileges we have as pastors is to hear the things people say to us when they first join us for worship and for fellowship. Seven times this past week alone, I've heard things like this:
"I didn't know what Christianity was about until I came here."
"You made me feel welcome, even when I didn't know what I needed in my own soul."
"You know," said one person, "I dropped out of church for many years. I didn't think I needed it. And then my friend brought me here one day. Now I know what I've been missing. I'd like to become a member."
"People here really live their faith, don't they?"
That's what they're saying about us. Actually, they're saying it about "Christ in us" because we've been at his table. We've heard his command, and we've grown in his grace.
Wayne Brouwer teaches in the religion department at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.