Serving the Lord’s Supper always seems always to result in a mess. And given the nature of our work as leaders, maybe that’s as it should be.
During our recent celebration of World Communion Sunday I was plagued by an all too common worry as the service was ending. What a mess we had made! In fact, it was so messy that it caused me to tally how many Holy Communion services I had presided over and wonder how many had not ended with that very same adjective.
At the beginning of each month I find myself preparing anew for the logistics of adding the sacrament of Communion to our weekly worship service. Who will assist? How will we celebrate? Intinction with a full loaf of bread? Little cups and wafers? We are all too aware of the pros and cons of each. The altar is adorned with the elements and the order of worship becomes more elastic to accommodate this important guest.
Invariably, however, by the time the last piece of bread is shared, the whole thing seems to have gone terribly awry.
This most recent time it was World Communion Sunday. I attempted a dress rehearsal of sorts with our lay leader the day before. He was anxious to help me understand how this congregation most appreciates receiving the sacrament. We did, as he said, want to “make it perfect” as we celebrated with Christians around the globe. As he and I walked through a service that would include both traditional and new elements, everything seemed to be in place and ready for the day.
Although our rehearsal seemed so precise the day before, the congregants coming forward on Sunday didn’t seem to be following our instructions. As they kneeled, some opened their palms to receive the bread, others grabbed for it and another did the unthinkable (in United Methodist churches) ate the bread before dipping it. Once the culprit realized her error, she then attempted to take the bread out of her mouth only to find me wildly assuring her that there was no need to do that. “Here’s another piece, there’s plenty!”
A gentleman who recently told me he suffers from OCD chose not to dip his bread into the cup while another dipped way too much and caused a prolonged drip of juice across the altar rail. What on earth would our methodical John Wesley say about this? (I am confident in his prolific writing that he said something about a messy Lord’s Supper).
What are the faithful to do? Did Jesus have such trouble as he gathered with his disciples on the night before he died? He likely did not sanitize his hands as we would wish. He surely did not offend a disciple because of the way he chose to offer the bread and cup. Did he have to clean the sticky wine off the table when they were finished?
I am becoming more and more convinced that a faithful Lord’s Supper is a messy one. As methodical as I try to be in order to give the sacrament the honor it deserves, it continues to present the true messiness of life. People sharing food in community will not be tidy. Nor should it. Surely Christians all over the globe on World Communion Sunday experienced the same kind of messy, yet meaningful, meal. At least I hope so! The table of Christ brings us together and it is around that table that true fellowship, trust, love and grace are abundant. A Communion Sunday without mess would probably disappoint.
Don’t you think?
Cynthia Weems is senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Miami, Florida.