Day by Day

Lesson: Acts 2:42-47

My first thought, when I hear this passage in Acts, is, “OK, well, that communal living thing lasted for about – what – a day?” In fact, there are still a few Christians who model their economic lives after these verses in Acts. My mother was from Alberta, Canada, and her sister married a farmer near the Saskatchewan border. One year when we visited my aunt’s farm, we were invited to the nearby Hutterite colony. The Hutterites have no personal property. Everything is owned in common by the community. They’re “plain;” that is, men have beards, women cover their heads, and they use almost no decoration, like the Amish – but unlike the Amish, they are not at all opposed to technology. They have a website.  And they’re exceptionally successful farmers, in part because they use the latest farming technology.[1]

But the Hutterites’ success is the exception. Only three chapters later in Acts, things get ugly. A husband and wife defraud the Jerusalem community by pretending to turn over all their property, when in fact they’re holding back some of it.[2]   After that, the commune idea seems to go out the window because it’s not mentioned again in the New Testament.

Still, this description of the early church draws us in because it’s dripping with joy and hope. This is a, “You should have seen it!” or “You should have been there” story. The people devote themselves to learning from the disciples – presumably about Jesus and his teachings. They spend time in prayer. They see signs and wonders; they feel awe. Two aspects of their life together are mentioned not once, but twice: fellowship, and breaking bread together.

Fellowship, and breaking bread together. These are staples of church life, even today. They are staples, because they feed our faith, both literally and figuratively. They help us build faith and grow in faith day by day. The word “fellowship” is a translation of the Greek word koinonia. It’s a good word, probably the source of the exuberance, because it describes something much more radical, more transformational than hanging out together. It describes a kind of belonging that isn’t based on status, achievement, or gender, but instead is based on a deep belief that everyone matters, everyone is welcome, and everyone is loved, no conditions, no exceptions. Brian McLaren writes, “It’s not the kind of belonging you find at the top of the ladder among those who think they are the best, but at the bottom among all the rest, with all the failures and losers who have either climbed the ladder and fallen, or never gotten up enough gumption to climb in the first place. … A community where anyone who wants to be part of us will be welcome.”[3]

Breaking bread together seems to be essential to expressing this. The passage doesn’t tell us whether “the breaking of bread” refers specifically to what we think of as the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or more generally to shared regular meals. The answer is probably both. Scripture suggests that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated as a part of regular meals in the early church.[4]

I expect most of us have discovered that our affection for and understanding of people grow when we share a meal with them. It’s the reason our small group dinners here at First Presbyterian have been so popular. All you have to do is sign up, and Martha Wall magically shuffles people into groups. The hosts help everyone settle on a date, and everyone contributes, potluck style. Conversation over a meal is always more relaxed, more intimate, more in depth than we ever could have during coffee hour or at a committee meeting. We experienced this at the women’s retreat this weekend, and our new routine for new members is dinner at my house the night before folks join the church. The soon-to-be new members who gathered at my house a week ago Saturday night arrived as relative strangers but left, bonded, as the self-proclaimed Class of 2017. I’ve heard it suggested that many of our world conflicts could be resolved if leaders just sat down and shared a meal together with open hearts and minds.

The meal we share as the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper might seem both too ritualized and too routine to mimic a relaxed dinner party. But at the core of this meal is koinonia, that sense that this is a community where anyone who wants to be part of us is welcome. Absolutely anyone. The communion table at St. Gregory’s of Nyssa, an Episcopal church in San Francisco, has two inscriptions in gilt letters. On one side of the table, in Greek, is an insult leveled at Jesus from the Gospel of Luke: “This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them.” On the other side are the words of the seventh century mystic Isaac of Nineveh: “Did not our Lord share his table with tax collectors and harlots? So do not distinguish between worthy and unworthy. All must be equal for you to love and serve.”[5]

I’ve had people ask me what’s supposed to “happen” during communion. It’s a fair question. We know that the Lord’s Supper is a symbol. In our contemporary culture, when we talk about symbols, we tend to add the modifier “mere.” It’s a “mere symbol.” We act as though being able to describe something with words rather than a symbol makes it somehow more “real.” But when we use symbols, it’s often because there aren’t words that are adequate. It’s because whatever we’re experiencing is bigger than words. A friend told me last week about driving to his father’s funeral with his mother in the back seat of a limo. He said they did not speak. He held her hand. He said, “Sometimes the only word is holding a hand.” Likewise, sometimes the only word is looking into someone’s eyes, or a hug, or a belly laugh. Sometimes the only word is bread broken and shared with others regardless of who they are because Jesus’ invited us. That is not “mere” anything. That is cosmic. That is mystery that is communion; that is the Lord’s Supper.

In Sara Miles’ writes in her book, Take This Bread, “What happened once I started distributing communion was the truly disturbing, dreadful realization about Christianity: You can’t be a Christian by yourself. While I’d been lucky to discover a church where I liked the liturgy, and while I was beginning to feel comfortable among some of St. Gregory’s less reverent members, I couldn’t count on it. Sooner or later, if I kept participating in communion, I’d have to swallow the fact of my connection with all other people, without exception.”

“Just like the strangers who had fed me [when I was] in El Salvador or South Africa, I was going to have to see and understand the hunger of the other, different men and women, and make a gesture, and eat with them. And just as I hadn’t ‘deserved’ any of what had been given to me [in those other countries] – the fish, the biscuits, the tea so abundantly poured out …. – I didn’t deserve communion myself now. I wasn’t getting it because I was good. I wasn’t getting it because I was special. I certainly didn’t get to pick who else was good enough, holy enough, deserving enough, to receive it. It wasn’t a private meal. The bread at the Table had to be shared in order for me to really taste it.”

“And sharing it meant I was going to be touching Christ’s body at St. Gregory’s, through Donald and Rick and the angry older deacon with the clenched jaw. Looking into Christ’s eyes outside of church, through the cheery atheist yuppie with the sports car and the veiled Muslim clerk at Walgreen’s. Listening to Christ’s voice in other churches, through the woman with the annoying nasal whine, and the self-righteous homophobic radio evangelist, and the conservative African bishop. I was not going to get to sit by myself and think loftily about how much Jesus loved me in particular. I was not going to get to have dinner, eternally, with people just like me. I was going to get communion, whether I wanted it or not, with people I didn’t necessarily like. People I didn’t choose. People such as my parents or the strangers who fed me: the people God chose for me.”

“I ate the bread. ..Conversion isn’t, after all, a moment: It’s a process, and it keeps happening, with cycles of acceptance and resistance, epiphany and doubt.”

Fellowship, and breaking bread together. It sounds mundane. In this world, in our world in 2017, my friends, it is anything but. It is cosmic. It is life-changing. It reminds us everyone is deserving and welcome just because we are human beings, regardless of past or present or future or pre-existing conditions. And it sustains our faith, day by day. Even though words fail when it comes to communion, poetry comes closest, so I will close with a poem by Jan Richardson[6]:

And the table
will be wide.
And the welcome
will be wide.
And the arms
will open wide
to gather us in.
And our hearts
will open wide
to receive.
And we will come
as children who trust
there is enough.
And we will come
unhindered and free.
And our aching
will be met
with bread.
And our sorrow
will be met
with wine.
And we will open our hands
to the feast
without shame.
And we will turn
toward each other
without fear.
And we will give up
our appetite
for despair.
And we will taste
and know
of delight.
And we will become bread
for a hungering world.
And we will become drink
for those who thirst.
And the blessed
will become the blessing.
And everywhere
will be the feast.

 

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] The Hutterites website states, “Hutterites share a common ancestry with the Anabaptists, along with the Mennonites and Amish and as would logically follow, share many of the same beliefs and doctrine. Hutterites differ in one major aspect: they believe in sharing their possessions in commons as demonstrated by Christ and His Apostles and as later further refined and described in the Book of Acts.” http://www.hutterites.org/history/.

[2] Acts 5:1-11.

[3] Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 175.

[4] 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.

[5] Sara Miles, Take This Bread (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007), 95ff.

[6] Jan Richardson, “And the Table Will Be Wide: A Blessing for World Communion Sunday.” http://paintedprayerbook.com/2012/09/30/and-the-table-will-be-wide/.

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