We are receiving new members here at St. Sociable Church today, and since this will be their first time as members of a Calvin-descended church, I thought it might be fun to share just a bit of Calvitrivia, a perhaps little known fact about our history.
Many of you know that John Calvin is considered the father of our denomination. He was without a doubt one of the greatest thinkers and theologians of the Reformation. Calvin has gotten a bad rap in the modern era, a reputation as being a kind of harsh, repressive curmudgeon. I am here, first of all, to stand up for the Calvin I know and love. The man was a poet, and his poet’s heart was filled with a fervent love of Christ and the church. Listen to these words, his meditation and teaching on the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which we are going to celebrate today:
We shall benefit very much from the Sacrament if this thought is engraved and impressed upon our minds: that none of the brethren can be injured, despised, rejected, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time, injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs we do; that we cannot disagree with our brethren without at the same time disagreeing with Christ; that we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren; that we ought to take the same care of our brethren’s bodies as we take of our own; for they are members of our body; and that, as no part of our body is touched by any feeling of pain which is not spread among all the rest, so we ought not to allow a brother to be affected by any evil, without being touched with compassion for him. Accordingly, Augustine with good reason frequently calls this Sacrament “the bond of love.”[i]
How beautiful, and how perfect. These are the tangible effects we can hope for in our sharing of the Lord’s Supper: it is an expression of our deep communion with one another and with Christ, our deepest expression of the love we hold for one another and for God. Calvin has stated it so perfectly. And yet, followers of John Calvin instituted a practice that was, at the very least, startling in light of the paragraph I’ve just read to you. This was the practice of Communion Tokens.
There was a concern, in an earlier day, with “irregularities” in the Lord’s Supper, and by that I do not believe they meant the use of pita bread and tortillas. Rather, they were concerned that no one who was unworthy should receive the sacrament. And so a practice arose, by which the elders of the local church would visit all the members prior to their annual celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The purpose of the visit was to ensure that the members had been accurately instructed in the faith, and that they were leading lives worthy of their calling of the Lord. In this country, the use of communion tokens was common in Cavin-Descent Churches, especially those of Scots heritage, well into the 19th century. (I don’t know for certain, but I imagine the tokens were used at St. Sociable at some point.)
This practice doesn’t exactly describe what I like to think of as “the Welcome Table.” Jesus told us, again and again, by word and by action, that God invites us to a banquet, and all are welcome. Calvin wrote so eloquently of how the Lord’s Supper should bind the community together, of the ways in which it should remind us so strongly that we are all members of the Body of Christ. It’s odd that his followers should have been such strong proponents of “fencing” the table. And, of course, use of the tokens ended eventually. Churches changed their thinking about who to welcome to the table and how to welcome them. I suspect stories like our passage from Mark’s gospel had something to do with that.
It’s déjà vu all over again! Yes, this is the same basic story we treated at length during the summer, as the lectionary served it up to us no fewer than six times. The story of the feeding of the multitudes is retold no fewer than six times in the New Testament… twice in Mark’s gospel alone. It is an event that is surely at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. It tells us volumes about how Jesus looked at and listened to and responded to people.
Jesus had compassion for the people. That means, Jesus looked at people and saw their need. Jesus listened to people and heard their pain. Jesus taught people and noticed their hunger. Jesus put his hands on people and responded to their injuries and illness. All these things are happening right here, as Jesus is in the presence of a large crowd of people who are in need, in pain. Jesus is seeking to feed people who are hungry, and heal people who are ill. Nowhere in this story—or in any gospel story—does Jesus look for a token, or check someone’s credentials before deciding to feed them. The only “credential” anyone must present is their rumbling stomach, their desire to take in what Jesus is serving. Jesus’ feeding them does not depend on their worthiness; it depends on his compassion.
As the years have gone by our church has relaxed many of its restrictions on who may receive the Lord’s Supper. We no longer require tokens testifying to people’s “worthiness.” We no longer require communicants’ classes, or that people be a certain age. We now regard the Lord’s Supper just as we regard Baptism: it is not our Sacrament, but God’s. God’s grace is more powerful than our understanding or lack of understanding. God’s grace is real and effective. God’s grace works best when we simply get out of the way, and let it flow into the world.
In the end, it is not our table. It is Christ’s. And Christ, by his example, shows us a grace that is all too willing to be spent lavishly on the unworthy, which, of course, includes all of us. Christ, by his example, sets a table that has room at it for you and for me and for all God’s children wherever they might be. Canada. Mexico. Peru. Indonesia. Afghanistan. China. Christ gives us a sacrament that can be beautifully summed up as “a bond of love,” and demonstrates that that bond extends beyond our expectations. Christ reminds us that when our sister in Ethiopia has no bread, we should feel her hunger. Christ reminds us that when our friend in OurTown has no home, we should feel the harshness of the elements on his skin. Christ reminds us that when our brother in Laramie is beaten, we should feel his pain.
It is not our table. It is the table of Jesus Christ, which is here in this place and in every corner of the world. It is not our table. But we are welcomed to it. We are received with open arms. It is not our table, but it is surely our responsibility to extend the welcome. Thanks be to God.
[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960) ed. John T. McNeill, Translated and Indexed by Ford Lewis Battles, [VI, xvii, 38], 1415.