A Gospel image which informs how we understand communion
he Gospel reading from the last Sunday evening was the very familiar story of the feeding of the 5000, as told in Matthew 14:13-21. As I suggested in the sermon, I believe that these stories of the feeding of the multitudes should inform how we understand table hospitality, including that of the communion table. This is a subject that is treated at some length in the little book we’ve published, Come to the Table: a reflection on the practice of open communion at saint benedict’s table. After taking a look at the shape of the last supper, the book moves to a discussion of the feeding miracles. What follows here is a brief excerpt from that section of the book:
There is actually one other situation in which Jesus is portrayed as something of a host for a meal, though it is certainly a less conventional form of table practice. The various accounts of the feeding of the 5,000 (Matt 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-15, as well as the additional feeding of the 4,000 in Mark 8:1-10 and Matt 15:32-39) all show Jesus as very much in charge of things, whether directly (“Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass,” Matt 14:19) or through the disciples (“Make the people sit down,” John 6:10).
Of these various accounts, Gil Bailie (in his book Violence Unveiled) writes: Given the role of table fellowship in Jesus’ ministry, it is my view that it was not primarily the lateness of the hour that made the unexpected sharing of a meal necessary, but rather that Jesus decided to drive home the points he had been making in his preaching by inviting his audience to sit down then and there for the purpose of sharing a meal with those around them. The point of the feeding, in my opinion, was not food; it was the breaking down of religious and social barriers that Jesus had been challenging as spiritually inconsequential in his preaching. It was hands-on learning. It was practice for living in the kingdom.
It almost goes without saying that the “religious and social barriers” to which Bailie refers were no small thing. To be willing to sit down with a crowd of strangers and to partake of food of unknown provenance was, for this presumably largely Jewish crowd, all but shocking. Yet apparently Jesus, by force of his innate authority, was able to see those barriers toppled.
I like Bailie’s line about that great shared meal being “hands-on learning” and “practice for living in the kingdom.” There was a moment during communion on Sunday night when for me that was vividly illustrated. In the communion circle, one of the young pre-school children was standing with his parents, and though he’d stood there to receive a blessing many, many times before, this time he looked up with great interest at the bread that I was offering to his parents. He didn’t actually put out his hands, but with his eyes he expressed both an openness and a desire to take part in this meal. I quickly checked with his parents, and then went down on my knees to offer him his first ever communion. He took the bread in his hands with confidence, looked me straight in the eye and said “Oh yes,” and then proceeded to eat his little piece of the shared bread. “Oh yes,” which is really a nice paraphrase of the Hebrew word “amen,” or “so be it.”
Jesus has some very strong things to say about children, and about their place and presence in our communities. Jesus says things like, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt 19:14), and “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3), which means, among other things, learning to say “oh yes” with the confidence of that little boy.