Table fellowship and pandemic realities
Rev. Bryan Jackson
October 1, 2021
Jesus’ table fellowship philosophy has remained the same despite COVID-19 and its horrible trajectory: Anyone may come to the table and be blessed, no matter the circumstances.
Depending on one’s personal beliefs, the living Jesus may or may not have foreseen the current pandemic. In any case, it is through faith in him that propels all—sick and dying or robust and healthy—to a place of new beginnings that can start with the sharing of a meal or hospitality that elevates the human race. In a society that struggles mightily to be inclusive, the best example of that inclusivity has been there all along: Jesus waiting patiently at his table, the bread of life with his usual outstretched, loving hands. How can one best go about imitating this Divine behavior?
The idea of open communion extends to that which happens beyond the Lord’s Table when the Eucharist is being celebrated. Jesus’ table fellowship was one of hospitality during the day-to-day crunch in the ancient Near East. Our pandemic realities can mirror the harsh times prevalent two thousand years ago. At times, people seem less patient, more aggressive, less forgiving, and unwelcoming due to the ever-present Covid stress. On the other hand, amiability and joy have not vanished. They are qualities that are still as achievable as they ever were. It is in the context of communion that these characteristics can be relied upon the most.
Thomas à Kempis had some thoughts on the matter. For him, the concept of grace abounded within the Eucharist:
In this Sacrament spiritual grace is conferred, the soul’s lost strength is replenished and its beauty, once disfigured by sin, is restored. And sometimes this grace, flowing from the fullness of devotion, not only fortifies the recipient’s mind, but also gives strength to the body debilitated by sin.[i]
This spiritual grace that is embodied at the Lord’s Table is the apex of the tree of life. The branches were designed to extend to the community that is the creation. Unfortunately, those wonderful aspects of Holy Communion are not always actualized when individuals clash with one another. Behavior meant to help change the ills of society sometimes goes awry and self-expression disturbingly transforms into a tool that rips and tears at the fabric of another’s character. It is now far too easy for common markers of discourse to become politicized, overflowing with contempt.
The most natural way to make restoration possible is to carry the sacred discoveries found within the Eucharist to one’s neighbor as a matter of course. The forgiveness that can come so easily at the table is transferable to each person within one’s purview during the course of the week. It might take special effort to follow through, especially during our current pandemic times, but it could be the only way to fully realize this ordinance of the church. Jesus certainly managed to do it, and humankind has been charged to imitate him.
If a person’s approach to others during a typical day’s difficulties was as contrite as their approach to Jesus’ holy table during a predictable Sunday morning worship, positive change would, of course, be more likely. It’s hard to say on most days if the COVID-19 pandemic has taxed humans to the point where their behavior is truly different than it usually is, or if it has simply highlighted the traits in so many that have been there all along. The soul’s beauty as mentioned by Kempis, reaching restoration via the sacrament of communion, can be discovered in those other interactions to which the people of God often engage.
The most natural way to make that possible is to carry the sacred discoveries found within the Eucharist to one’s neighbor as a matter of course. The forgiveness that can come so easily at the table is transferable to each person within one’s purview during the course of the week. It might take special effort to follow through, but it could be the only way to fully realize this ordinance of the church. Jesus certainly managed to do it, and humankind has been charged to imitate him.
Jesus said, “I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12 CEB) To do great things on this World Communion Sunday, as well as any other day of challenge and opportunity, is a chance to branch out and offer the measure of hospitality that Jesus has always expected of his followers.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll in lives taken. Yet, in the midst of this heartbreaking distress, the chance to contribute spiritual grace and beauty by offering others an avenue of restoration is ever present.