As a family, we knelt at the altar, waiting for the minister to bring around the tiny wafer and miniature cup, brimming with red liquid. The minister served me, looked at my ten year old son, looked back at me, looked at my son, and raised her eyebrows. The thought passed through my mind, “Is she refusing to serve my child? He is a follower of Jesus. Baptizing him was one of the great honors of my life. He took communion every month at our previous church.”
I nodded, indicating that he should receive the Lord’s Supper just like everyone else. We ate, drank, and headed back to our seat. Then, in a very loud whisper that only a ten year old in the middle of church could muster, my son spoke up, “Dad! That juice was spicy!” It was at that moment I realized what the kind minister was asking with her raised eyebrow: “Do you want me to serve your son alcohol or grape juice – both of which were available?”
It is striking just how many things we find to argue about when it comes to faith and worship. What is the most worshipful style of music? What instruments should be used? When we take the Lord’s Supper, is it literally Jesus’ body and blood or merely a symbol? Should we baptize by sprinkling, pouring, or dunking? Should we dress up in our formal best for worship or come in a more relaxed fashion? Should the congregation sit quietly and passively or be loud and responsive? For the importance we place on worship, it is striking just how few practical instructions Jesus gives us as to how it should be done.
One of the few things that we can surely agree on, though, is the importance of gathering around the table together, breaking bread, drinking from the cup, and remembering the sacrifice of Jesus. We may have different words for this: communion, the Lord’s Supper, or the eucharist, but this is one of the primary ways that we honor God – recognizing the blessings that we have received and the grace that we experience day in and day out.
It’s the term “eucharist,” however, that is so interesting. It comes from the Greek root eucharisteo, and can be translated as “to give thanks.” Not only is this used in the gospel descriptions of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, but the liturgy of the church includes a prayer right before the breaking of bread known as “The Great Thanksgiving.” To come to the table of the eucharist is to come to the table of thanksgiving.
Not only that, but I am firmly convinced that God calls us all to a eucharistic way of living in this world. A eucharistic life is one that recognizes that life is a gift – all of life. My life. Your life. The life of the guy begging on the corner. The life of the single mother, whose child is having a complete melt-down in the middle of Walmart. The life of the police officer who pulled you over while rushing home last week. The life of the inmate, sitting in solitary confinement. The life of the undocumented immigrant, struggling to support his starving family back home. The life of the unhinged uncle who will inevitably drink too much next Thursday and make a fool of himself. To live a truly thankful life is to recognize that every human life was created in the image of God and therefore posses inherent worth.
A eucharistic life is one that is oriented towards service. As we follow in the footsteps of Christ, we remember that he said, “I came, not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). To live with thanksgiving is to live to serve others, not to be served. It is to give up the seat of honor, exchanging it for the dishtowel, the broom, or the mop.
A eucharistic life is one that is focused on the giver rather than the gift. Rather than basking in the glow of God’s blessing and favor, it is focusing our undivided attention on the one who knows us by name. However, if God never gave us another gift – if the storehouse of heaven closed its doors – God would be no less worthy of praise and worship than right now. We give thanks and bow down, not merely because of what God has given, but because of who God is.
Let’s be honest, though, thanksgiving can be a mixed bag. Sometimes, the thanksgiving goes down smooth, like Mamaw’s sweet potato casserole, and we can’t wait for another bite. There are times when we look around at the blessings in our life and spontaneously break out in eucharistic prayer.
Sometimes, thanksgivings are as sweet as fresh pecan pie. I’m talking about that yearly reunion with your favorite cousin who lives miles away or the intimate snuggle you share with a child as the after-dinner nap beckons.
Then, there are times that the thanksgiving is a bit more spicy. It’s the thanks that mingles with questions and emptiness and the seeming absence of God in the face of terminal illness. It’s the pain of an empty seat at the table following the loss of someone dear. It’s the awkward silences that result from years of strained family relations. Thanksgiving is a patchwork of joy and grief, but it is the life we are called to embody.
At the end of the day, eucharistic living isn’t always the easiest kind of living in our world, but it’s the only one available to those of us who accept a seat at God’s rich banquet table – a table that has room enough for all and plenty enough food to go around.
Rev. Steven Norris