TABLE TALK: Rethinking Communion and Community. By Mike Graves. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017. Ix + 163 pages.
I am an ordained minister within a denomination that practices weekly communion. I'm not sure everyone is on the same page as to why we do this, but most Disciples of Christ church members, at least long-termers, cannot conceive of a worship service without communion being eaten. So, on any given Sunday those who gather at Disciples churches will share in communion, which will likely consist of a morsel of bread, along with a thimble-sized cup of juice. Most likely, this will be undertaken with a high degree of solemnity, for we gather to remember that Jesus died for our sins. The moment is somber and quiet, perhaps with the organ accompanying our meditation. This might be typical for Christians, but is it true to the earliest Christian practices? Might there be reason to restore a different form of communion, one that includes a full meal, and might even be presided over by lay people (and not just Elders as in the Disciples tradition)?
One who would like the churches to reconsider current practice and explore the possibilities of restoring a more ancient form of breaking bread at Table is Mike Graves, a professor preaching and worship, and a Disciple minister who is on the staff of a large Disciples congregation. When I first met Mike some twenty years ago, he was a Baptist minister and professor at a Baptist seminary. As time passed, Mike came to see the Lord's Supper as a central act of worship, and eventually moved from Baptist to Disciple (and from a Baptist to a United Methodist seminary). While that move allowed Mike to experience weekly communion, his journey toward a fuller experience of the Table has pushed him beyond what is typical Disciples practice, at least conceptually. As he explored the meaning and practice related to this sacrament, he began to discover that that this morsel of bread and thimble sized cup of juice was a far cry from what early Christian practice. He also sensed that the memorialism of Disciples practice (as was also true of the less frequent Baptist observance) might not be the only way of understanding the Table. He began reading about ancient Graeco-Roman dining practices, and wondered if early Christians followed these practices. He looked for connections in the text of the New Testament, and discovered that early Christians did in fact gather for full meals. At the same time, Mike discovered a new movement of churches focused on gathering at Tables for worship, fellowship, and conversation—much like the descriptions he was finding in historical texts. Might this Dinner Church movement offer a new avenue into Christian worship?
Mike has written an intriguing text that invites us to rethink communion and community. He notes the intimacy of Table and ponders whether this is something we might want to explore and even restore. He notes that from his research, it appears that early Christians generally met for meals. While modern "congregations might gather for a social meal in the fellowship hall every once in a while, but this was their normal way of gathering, and the main reason” (p. 3). Mike suggests that when the early Christians gathered, they shared a full meal, which was mostly inclusive (including gender and socio-economic status), it was festive, and it included lively conversation (over wine). In other words, these were an equivalent of a dinner party.
The book has four basic chapters, each of which explores an element of this idea of communion and even church as dinner party. The first chapter focuses on the meal, which as he notes was a full meal. He suggests that it might have followed the pattern of Graeco-Roman meals that included food and then conversation, with guests seated on couches. Moving us forward, Mike introduces us to differing expressions of what is known as the Dinner Church Movement.
The second chapter focuses on the guest list. This chapter is key, because it raises questions about how open-ended these gatherings might be. While by the second century Eucharistic celebrations were limited to the initiated, was this true earlier in the first century? We also know that as the guest list narrowed, the service was also abbreviated. But were these earliest meals so circumscribed, or was the guest list much broader? Since I am an advocate of an open table, following the practice of Jesus, this is an important question. In fact, it's a theological question, because the open table is about more than being nice or even hospitable. It speaks to the ways in which Jesus encounters human beings, whether Christian or not. Of course, an examination of the Gospels demonstrates that Jesus was not too concerned about who broke bread with him, and perhaps we should think more broadly ourselves.
One of the texts that Mike appeals to is Paul's last meal with the soldiers, prisoners, and crew of the ship upon which he was sailing to Rome, a ship soon to experience shipwreck. Mike notes the Eucharistic elements of Paul's prayer as he gathered all together for a last meal. It was inclusive all, without making any religious requirements. I hadn't thought of this passage in this way before, but I find it compelling. Mike then offers some examples of how this works in contemporary situations.
The third chapter is titled ambiance. Here he focuses on the joyous nature of the feast. He introduces to the Greek terms euphrosyne, which is translated as "festive joy." This describes the mood of first century dinner parties, but is a mood that is rarely experienced in typical communion services, which he suggests tends to take on the ambiance of a baby's funeral. In this context he notes the presence of wine at these parities, suggesting that perhaps a bit of gentle intoxication wouldn't be the worst thing for worship. But maybe the place to start would be the music, much of which is rather somber, even dirges. While I might find more than ten joyous communion songs in the Chalice Hymnal (out of the forty or so included), I agree that much of the communion music has memorialistic feel. What Mike wants us to consider is finding ways of introducing joy to our communion celebrations. After all, this is an Easter faith, not just a Maundy Thursday faith.
The fourth chapter focuses on the conversation. In the ancient dinner parties, the meal was followed by either entertainment or structured conversation. As a professor of preaching, who enjoys preaching, he engages in a conversation about how preaching might be experienced in such a setting. He notes that whatever form it takes, somewhere in the course of this experience there will be some place for conversation and participation. He offers some suggestions as to how this might take place, even in the context of current worship patterns. At the same time, he notes that movement toward such an experience will necessitate rethinking the way we worship. I should note that he includes an appendix with alternative words of institution, several of which I find intriguing. It might be difficult for some Disciples to move away from strict adherence to the Last Supper texts, but I see no reason why we can’t embrace a broader eucharistic experience.
I believe that Mike has put his finger on some important questions for the church. Simply increasing the frequency of observance may not be enough to fully bring out the meaning of this meal. While it may not be possible for every church, especially long-standing congregations with formal traditions to completely abandon those traditions, even very formal congregations could create opportunities for sharing in a full meal. It might be at an alternative time, and maybe even in a home. It might not require an ordained minister (less of a problem for Disciples than perhaps some others). Mike is a great story teller, and he puts his experience with narrative preaching to effective use here, so as to share his emerging vision of the Table, of worship, and of the church. Again, it might not be practical for all congregations to fully embrace a dinner church vision, but places could be found within the experience of the congregation to offer such experiences. Mike is on staff of one of the largest Disciples churches, a church that has a fairly formal liturgy, but with Mike's guidance they have provided some alternative experiences. That might be the way forward for many congregations. Nonetheless, even if we don't reintroduce a full meal, we can be more intentional about the guest list and the ambiance. We might think of ways of broadening the participation in the conversation.
The conclusion of the book is titled RSVP. Mike uses the story of Jesus appearance on the way to Emmaus to extend three invitations. One is focused on the past (looking back at ancient practices), the second focused on the present (exploring the example of the dinner church movement), and future—asking how the church in the future might exist, how might we encounter Jesus in the breaking of bread in the years ahead?
Mike offers us an invitation to consider another way of being church. He offers examples of how this might take place. We discover there is not just one way of doing this. The book is not a step-by-step guide. Instead it is an introduction that raises the conversation. As Mike notes at the end of the book, he has lover's quarrel with the church. There is much about the traditional forms that he enjoys, but he's also aware of the need to think more broadly. This is very helpful. As a "high church" Disciple who enjoys liturgy, and would like our liturgy to be a bit more orderly and reflective of tradition, I'm also one who seeks to be inclusive in the guest list. So, Mike has done us a great favor here, even if we don't jump into Dinner Church, we can be more intentional about how we understand and practice Communion/Eucharist/Lord's Supper.