Tuesday, August 28, 2007

let every soul be jesus' guest (why we practice open communion)

The book of Hosea is a meditation on the love of God for his people. But this is not a typical “love story”. In the story a prophet of God is commanded to marry a prostitute, and have children with her.

Hosea is placed late in Old Testament, categorized as one of the “minor” prophets by the scholars, because of the book’s length, compared to Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. But there is nothing minor or insignificant about the content of this book. Flipping through the Bible it is easy to miss (it comes right after Daniel), but Hosea is worth knowing about.

The first three chapters of this prophetic book describe the relationship between Hosea and his wife, Gomer, which is a parable for the relationship between the Lord and Israel. It is a long and rocky relationship: there is anger, bitterness and self-destruction. It is a miracle that the relationship endures; but relationships do endure. It is the story of a love that will not let us go.

In the eleventh chapter of Hosea the perspective shifts slightly, from husband and wife to parent and child. Israel was adopted, out of Egypt, to be the Lord’s son. We might think that Israel would display gratitude for this act of rescue, even salvation, but no; instead, Israel called upon other gods, bowed to other idols, gave the credit to other benefactors.

God, in the parable, is somewhat bewildered.

“Who taught Ephraim to walk?” God asks. I did. I took them in my arms, I healed them, I was compassionate, I bent down to them, I fed them”. Not those others. Me.

You can hear the resentment, the hurt, can’t you? Ephraim, who represents the whole northern kingdom of Israel, these were God’s very own people. “They are determined to run away from me”, God says, they are backsliders. They’ve gone to the far country, Assyria, they have returned to Egypt, where they were slaves. Why would that do that? And you can hear, in the parent’s voice, if you listen more closely, something deeper: “What would they do this to me?”

Now think about the relationship:

“The parent owed this child nothing, but decided to love him, adopted him, delivered him from the place where he was being abused, taught him to walk, tended his hurts, protected him, nourished him…but he has made no response. The child has treated other people as his providers and not recognized who his parent was”…(472, Lectionary Commentary).

If you are the parent, what do you do? The story of Hosea is a parable for God’s relationship with Israel, with us. Here are the words that come from the mouth of God, this bewildered parent: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I give you up, O Israel! How can I make you like Admah and Zeboim---these were cities that shared the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah---how can I destroy you?”

Notice what happens: The child turns away from the parent, but the parent turns toward the child. God turns toward us: “My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim, for I am God and not human, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy…”

I want you to keep this parable in mind as you think about a simple idea in the New Testament. Jesus is mixing with the people, all kinds of people, and there is murmuring among the scribes and Pharisees: “He welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15. 2).

These two passages of scripture lead us into the very heart of God, into the nature of salvation and the experience of grace. God’s compassion grows. Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.

The sign of God’s compassion is that the relationship endures. The sign of Jesus’ reception of sinners is that he eats with them. The sign of the relationship is the meal. A sacrament, defined in the early church, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. How do we know that we are in a relationship? We come to this meal, we eat together, and it is grace.

Grace might be defined simply as something we do not deserve, something we have not earned, something we can never repay. Years ago I heard about an experience of a Lutheran pastor, and the story made the rounds. My friend had moved to the south from another part of the country, and met a member of his church for breakfast. He ordered sausage, eggs and toast, and when his order arrived he noticed a light colored grainy substance on his plate.

He got the attention of the waitress and asked, “what is this?” Those are grits, she responded. He thought for a moment. “I didn’t order grits”. That’s okay, she said, they come with it. She went about her business but my friend was perplexed. “Grits”, he mumbled to himself…he moved them around with his fork…she wandered by again. He looked up at her. “I won’t be charged for these, will I?” By now she is a little frustrated. “Honey”, she said, “you can eat them or you can leave them….they come with it; the grits are free!”

Any southerner knows that there are few analogies for grace that are more perfect than an order of grits. Grace comes to us as a gift. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Grace is something we do not deserve, something we have not earned, something we can never repay. Grace comes as a gift.

Jesus’ life and ministry was a gift; we see this throughout the gospels. He takes the loaves and the fish and feeds the multitudes. He tells a story about a dinner party and the invitation to guests, some who respond and some who do not. In his life, in his relationships, Jesus was always reaching out to others. At times some would complain about this. There was the idea that the righteous associated with others who were righteous, the clean ate with those who were clean and did not associate with those who were unclean. A physician goes to the sick, Jesus would remind them. The son of man came to seek and save those who are lost.

The core question was a simple one: how could a holy God be in relationship with an unholy people? How could Jesus (God forbid) eat with sinners? From a human point of view, it makes no sense. From a human point of view, there is no relationship. But, the prophet reminds us, in Hosea 11. 9: “I am God and not human…I will not come to destroy”.

Holiness does not destroy sin; through compassion, it saves. Perfection does not destroy imperfection; through love, it heals.

And so, God must wonder, how do I get this message across to my people, that I love them, that I want this relationship to endure, that I am the one who gave them life, not those other gods, that I want the best for them.

“We will sit down together, at a meal”. My son, Jesus, will preside. And he will eat not just with the worthy people but with the unworthy, not only with the righteous but with sinners, not only with the faithful but with the unfaithful, not only with the older brother who has done everything right (a story Jesus would share with those who were critical of him, as Luke’s gospel unfolds in the 15th chapter), but with the prodigal son who had done everything wrong. God seems to be saying, through one of his servants, Charles Wesley, who would come along much later, “Come, sinners to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus’ guest, you need not one be left behind, for God [I] have bid all humankind”.

Come, sinners to the gospel feast. Come sinners, that’s all of us. And so we come, all of us, in humility. This was captured in the prayer of humble access that many of us learned, found in the Book of Common Prayer that John and Charles Wesley used and in the Methodist ritual (it is on page 30 of our hymnal).

“We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.”

It is grace. Now we do have a responsibility in receiving the grace. 1 Corinthians 11 tells the story of abuses of God’s grace among the early followers of Jesus, some arriving early and gorging themselves at the fellowship meal, others, the laborers, arriving later and finding nothing to eat. There was division in the church, and so Paul said, discern the body, examine yourself, then receive the grace of God. Eat your meal at home, and then come to the Lord’s table. When we do not share the grace of God with others, we bring judgment upon ourselves.

And of course, the grace changes us. In the prayer for humble access, we “partake of the Sacrament of Jesus Christ [so] that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us”.

As in the best of relationships, the couple take on the best of the other’s traits, the children exhibit the best of their parent’s characteristics, we receive this grace, something we do not deserve, something we have not earned, something we can never repay, and we want to live in this amazing grace. We want to become more Christ-like.

And so the invitation: Come sinners to the gospel feast.

The grits have been poured onto your plate, all is ready. God wants the relationship to endure. God says, my love will not let you go. And so it is not for us to say, from a human point of view, who can come to this altar and who cannot. It is enough to say that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. For all of these reasons we practice open communion.

Wherever you are in this life’s journey, whatever your experience of turning away from God has been like, whoever you imagine yourself to be in his sight, the table has been prepared, it is the Lord’s table, it is open communion, this is the spirit’s entry now, thank God that Jesus still welcomes sinners and eats with us.

Come sinners to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
You need not one be left behind, for God has bid all humankind.

(Hymnal, 616)


Blogger James W Lung said...


Wonderful job. It's interesting that this meal is the mystery that our early ancestors prohibited the unbaptized from even being present in its preparation and celebration.

They preserved the mystery of the meal. Our forebears passed on to us the meal, so that we too can eat and drink of it, even as we offer it to those whom Jesus came to save.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross writes of his conversion to and subsequent disillusionment with radical Islam in "My Life Inside Radical Islam-- a Memoir." He recounts an unsettling moment when, early in his confusion and disillusionment, he finds himself taking communion with a UM congregation.

We are never closer to God than in those times when we feel we are farthest away. Thanks for reminding me of this, yet again.


11:18 PM  

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