“Communion is not Fast Food”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, October 1, 2023
Reading: 1 Cor 11:17-34
Let’s get something straight about my title: “communion is not fast food.” Fast food can be really, really good. There was a renowned food critic for the New York Times who would rhapsodize about McDonalds’ fries—the way they used to make them. So today is no moralistic scolding for a sector of the food industry. As you may surmise from my figure, I’m not above a combo meal or two.
Fast food makes its name by being, well, fast. And cheap. And anonymous. You don’t go there to build a relationship with your fellow diners. You don’t go there expecting church things. Like salvation. A word from the Lord. A life-changing friendship. You go hoping the food was made in the last few hours sometime, and that the ‘shake machine is working.
Communion, which we celebrate today with Christians all over the world, is another thing entirely. It’s just a touch of food, barely a taste of juice. But we claim all the life of God is in each. This is a mere appetizer. The feast is yet to come. And at this table we are friends, more than lifelong, but eternal ones. Because we all love our host. In the earliest churches, Christians gathered for the Lord’s Supper. A sermon seems to have been optional. Communion mandatory (please no suggestions we return to that, I’ll take it personally). Salvation is eating and drinking with Jesus and all his strange assortment of friends and enemies—made family.
Your views on communion may vary greatly depending on your past church experience. If you grew up Catholic or Orthodox you may have a powerful sense of Christ’s presence in the elements. That’s great. You’re right. He’s there. Really present. But don’t pretend to explain how. Unfortunately, those churches also tend to fence off the sacrament even from fellow Christians, which we’ll never do—Jesus Christ is the host, not us. Or you may have been part of churches like I was with a sense that communion isn’t really that important. It’s “just” a ritual, we often say. But rituals make us who we are. It’s a ritual where you work. Who you love. The way you play and celebrate. Rituals make us human. Or we might say it’s “just” a symbol. But symbols are everything. A wedding ring is a symbol. So is your country’s flag. So are the crosses we put everywhere in here. Communion is a symbol that we eat and drink. And once you learn to see Jesus hiding in a bite of bread, in lips just a little wet with juice, you’ll start to wonder where else he might be hiding.
You can follow the whole history of salvation by watching who eats with whom. Adam and Eve eat, and we fall. Moses provides manna in the wilderness, and we live. Jesus eats with sinners, and when the food or wine runs out—bam—he just makes more. And the church looks forward to a banquet without end, with a guest list full of people we wouldn’t have invited. Jesus describes that feast often. The poor and friendless are in the seats of honour. And maybe us respectable types sneak in at the back.
And then Paul, who we’re studying this fall. Beautiful, irascible, brilliant, difficult, Paul. Lots of accusations in his letters are that his churches are eating wrong.
In the New Testament churches, the Lord’s Supper was a full meal, like Jesus’ final one with his disciples. Everyone gathered to eat. They’d use the largest house of any member of the church—no public church buildings yet, just living rooms, so you’d need space for everyone to gather. And what it seems is happening is that wealthy people in Corinth, who don’t have to work for a living, are showing up early. Treating the Lord’s Supper like any other fancy party: gorging themselves, downing all the wine. Later the working people in church finally get there after labouring all day and are left with nothing. That doesn’t just mean they go hungry. It means no Jesus for them. Paul asks those with resources if they can’t just gorge themselves another time at home. Their hungrier, bone-tired sisters and brothers need to eat too. They’ve taken Jesus’ way of eating, with the first last and the last first, and made it any other meal in our world: the first, first, the last, last. Paul calls that a meal of destruction.
So, Paul re-describes Jesus’ Last Supper. It’s the only time Paul does this. It is very rare for a story to be repeated in three gospels and also in Paul. This might be the only time that happens, shows how important the Lord’s Supper is. Jesus, at table, takes bread, blesses, breaks, and gives it. He takes wine, blesses, pours, and gives it. This is my body. This is my blood. Do this forever until we all eat together in the kingdom. Being a Christian is learning how to eat properly. Not taking too much. Not going hungry. Just a little bit of Jesus will do you.
Some legends have grown up around this passage. I’ve heard of Christians of all kinds who hear about eating the Lord’s Supper “unworthily” (v. 29) and deciding it’s too dangerous to eat at all. They won’t commune. Because they know they’re sinners. And they don’t want to eat and drink destruction on themselves. The problem with such self-exclusion is that we’re all sinners. Look at Jesus’ original twelve. Did any of them deserve their meal ticket? They were all about to abandon, betray, deny, and flee, and he knew it. Are you really a bigger sinner than Judas? Still, he said, here's my flesh and blood, eat and drink and become part of me. In this passage eating the meal unworthily means failing to see Jesus in your poorer sibling, the one working on her feet all day while you and I laze around. No perfect people are allowed at this table. Because the only perfect person there’s ever been invites all the rest of us despite ourselves.
Paul summarizes this way: wait for one another (v. 33). Sounds simple, but it’s anything but. Don’t eat without one another. Rowan Williams as archbishop of Canterbury was trying to hold the Anglican communion together, had African and Asian churches that are fiercely anti-gay, where homosexuality can be outlawed, and gay people endangered. He also had western churches in North America and Britain pastored and bishoped by gay people. Each feared the other. What’d Rowan say? He quoted this verse from Paul: “Wait for one another.” Don’t eat until you all can together. ‘Why? Those guys are bad.’ But something is lost when your enemy is not at the table. Because Jesus meets us at the table as our enemy. We betrayed him. We have his blood on our hands. And he turns that blood into nurturing drink, life-saving food. This table turns enemies into friends. Don’t believe me? Let me tell you another story.
It’s the 250th birthday this year of the great hymn, “Amazing Grace,” maybe the greatest song in our language. I knew a bagpipe busker on the streets of Edinburgh, and every time he’d see a North American tour group, he would fire up “Amazing Grace.” Works like a charm, he said. Tourists would cry and empty out their pocketbooks. I, myself. don’t trust an instrument that when you put it down it keeps playing. John Newton, who wrote that song, had been a slave trader. And at his conversion he couldn’t believe God would forgive someone like him, the worst of the worst. But God did. Amazing. I know another man who became a Christian by singing drunk gospel. He was in a bluegrass band, and at the end of every gig the band would be hammered. And their last song was always “Amazing Grace.” Drunk gospel. Something about singing that song every night for years made it seep into his pores, and eventually he found he believed the stuff. Careful what you sing. It’ll make you different.
Here’s the thing about John Newton. When he wrote “Amazing Grace,” he was not a former slaver. He was a Christian, but he hadn’t given up his livelihood just yet. He was still dealing in human flesh. Like a fentanyl dealer who’s met Jesus but not found a proper job yet, or a pimp who’s done the same, Newton was only partially redeemed. Like all of us, honestly. Even at our best—amazing grace—we’re also at our worst—commodifying and marketing human beings. Newton had a long way to go. He needed not just to change his livelihood—that’s hard enough. He needed to see Africans as sisters and brothers in Christ. To be willing to eat and drink together. Have his children marry theirs and vice versa. Eating together leads to other things: like story swapping and laughter and asking where the other is if they’re not at the table. It leads to life together, marriage vows, lifelong friendship sort of stuff. Don’t be too hard on poor Newton—we haven’t solved racism as a culture or church either. Grace is amazing. But it’s not easy or fast. But we do have saints to show us the way. In 500 years of slavery and Jim Crow in North America we know of no black church that has ever turned away a white person. Newton did eventually become an abolitionist. We can make actual progress.
I want to conclude where I started, with fast food. Some years ago, the Catholic bishops of Italy issued a statement saying that fast food was a Protestant thing and Catholics shouldn’t go. Now this is just ridiculous intramural mudslinging in one way. In another way it’s worth listening to. Have you ever eaten in Italy? It’s the opposite of fast food. You buy the table for the evening. You lose track of the number of courses. If you try and summon a server to pay out early, they’ll ignore you. Sit there, North American. Get off your phone. Gaze into that person’s eyes. And stay a while. If you eat in Italy right by the end, you might have the owner’s number and an invite to his ancestral village for a feast. Friends once joked at such a table that the only thing that could make the night better was cigars. Then they saw their waiter speeding off on a moped. He came back with Cubans. They left him a tip that looked like an all-in bet. Jaylynn and I went back to where we honeymooned in Rome with our kids 20 years later. The man who’d served us in 2001 was now the owner with his own grandchildren. He pretended he remembered us. Left us a limoncello bottle unmonitored. Charged us half what we paid anywhere else in Europe. That’s what food is for. It makes a new family. And not just for those who can afford to travel and eat like that. Fast food, the bishops were saying, is a heresy. It’s a dehumanizing way to eat. There’s something still in Italian souls that is deeply Catholic, even if most don’t go to mass anymore. You are who you eat with. And don’t be surprised if the stranger at the table is actually Jesus. Don’t freak out of he’s in the food. In the enemy. In the mirror. In the whole creation he calls his own. Amen.