This past Sunday we took Communion at Houghton Wesleyan Church. While we celebrate the Lord’s Supper nearly every month, I never cease to be deeply moved by this occasion. First of all, it really is a joyful celebration—not the more sober and formal affair I remember as a child when we passed the silver trays through the aisles, always worrying that we might spill the entire set of small cups on the floor. Now everyone joins the grand processional to the front of the church, to break off the bread and dip it in the cup that is held out by fellow congregants. Young and old. Families and single people. College faculty, staff, and students and members of the surrounding community. Everyone comes.
Because Paul and I sit near the front, we have the privilege of watching the drama. And while my thoughts are not always exactly the same, they move along the following lines, which seemed especially relevant to the opening of the new academic year.
The Practice of Coming to Partake
I like the fact that we have to come forward to receive the elements. Like the disciples on that fateful evening of our Lord’s betrayal, we are responding to His invitation to “eat this bread” and “drink this cup.” We have to choose to come. While Houghton’s particular approach to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper takes place within the larger context of “evangelical” or “low church” understanding of this important moment in the Gospels, this act of “coming” is shared with most of the larger church’s efforts to honor the Lord’s words to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19b). This coming evokes immediately the Lord’s other invitation to “come” in Matthew 11:28. Daily, we have the privilege of choosing to bear the weight of our labors in the presence of our Lord’s generous hospitality.
The Communion processional calls attention to the diversity of gifts and personalities, but draws us all forward to the table of the Lord, where we share equally in the provisions of God’s Grace. College communities (and perhaps all societies) are full of hierarchies—or at least the perception of hierarchies. Some people have more education. Some have more decision-making authority. Some have more resources. We struggle as fallen human beings to think of difference without smuggling in the notions of comparison and relative value. We cannot rest with the fact that it takes the full range of gifts and personalities to carry out the mission of a college, or a church, or any other organization. We have to go a step further to see how our situation compares with someone else’s. We would do well to be reminded of Jesus’s conversation with Peter in John 21. Peter, don’t worry about John. It is enough that you know your own story.
Communion Through Differences and Disagreements
In a small community like ours, the processional also calls attention to the diversity of opinions that exist among us in the church community on whatever the issues at hand. In this context, this would certainly include how to run a college, how to navigate the turbulent waters of the higher education marketplace, and how to appropriately position ourselves on the political and theological continuum of our increasingly polarized Christian community and larger society. I know at least some of the range of opinions within our community. I also know people who disagree with me radically on various issues. At the Communion celebration, I don’t have to be the president, or explain myself or defend myself. Like everyone else, I come to be reminded of and to be grateful for God’s sufficient and sacrificial Grace.
Today I look forward to welcoming our new and returning students for the 2019-20 academic year. As a community of Christian liberal arts learners, we will seek to extend to each other—and especially to our students—the gifts of Grace, Forgiveness, and Invitation, which God has so generously extended to us at the Communion table. We will do this as a community, enriched by the diversity of gifts, personalities, and opinions among us. We will do this in a spirit of humility and hopefulness, shaped by the power of the Gospel that reminds us that Love ultimately overcomes and outlasts Fear. We will do this, mindful always of our Host, who presides not only at the table of Communion, but wherever believers are seeking to be the salt, light and leaven of God’s Kingdom.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976