“So, come to this table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time; you who have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have failed. Come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.” -Iona Worship Book
My first week of life in Afghanistan passed me by as if it were a whirlwind. Besides the hours I spent in the bunker after our first rocket attack, the only moment which remains clear was when I was not able to take communion at the Protestant church service that first Sunday morning. Perhaps it was my dismay over being forced to stay in my seat rather than participate in the holy meal which prompted me to preside weekly over a service of communion open to everyone. Growing up in the Episcopal church meant that I took communion every Sunday. The bread and wine were a regular part of worship. Admittedly, there were times when I wished that we could speed through the liturgy and prayers of the people and just get to the eating and the drinking, but I never thought twice about whether or not I was welcome at God’s table.
Churches and denominations have different ways of inviting God’s people to the holy table. Many open to the table to those who have been baptized, some narrow the invitation so far to require membership in one sect of the denomination or even one particular church, but I wonder how it is that any of us can figure who exactly it is that God invites to the table. If Jesus gives us any inkling through his actions and acquaintances, it would seem that no one should be left behind. It is, after all, God’s table and not any of ours.
Having been given the 8:30 AM service slot, I never expect a large attendance. Instead, I have come to feel that our service of holy communion is a lot like sharing a meal with a group of friends. We can all fit around one table, and there is always room for one or two more. We notice when people are missing, but we trust that they will return when they are hungry. For quite a few of our regular attendees, Sunday morning is the only opportunity to sleep in all week. Sometimes sleep is what they need most, and I reiterate that when I see them later at lunch or in their office when I come by to visit. Sometimes, though, hunger for the bread of life wakes us up, even when we would rather be sleeping. Sometimes, we have no choice but to find our way back to that table, even if it has been a very long time.
As well as I know soldiers and their families in some cases, I often don’t know a lot about their faith backgrounds. This may seem odd, since my whole job revolves around faith. But in an environment where work and stress seem to reign, there are many other things which clutter our conversations. In some ways, these are easier topics to broach. Our faith, or lack thereof, even more than family woes or frustration over a work relationship, reveals some of our inmost hidden thoughts. Often times, these are easier left buried than unearthed for public scrutiny.
A few Sunday’s ago, one of my soldiers joined our service for the first time. I made assumptions about him, as I do about most, based on knowledge of his family, his reputation within our unit and our relationship over the course of these last ten months. After the service, I watched as he lingered, helping to put away Bibles and straighten out chairs. When he finally had a moment to pull me aside, he let me know that this was the first time in years that he had taken communion. Though he regularly attended church with his wife, because she was Catholic, he was not permitted to partake in the meal. Over his years of remaining in the pews, he had gotten used to it. He had even accepted that he was not worthy of communion. He had not followed Jesus well enough. He had made many mistakes. As far as he was concerned, he belonged in his seat in the pews and not in a seat at God’s banquet.
But, the strangest thing had happened in the middle of our service. As much as he was determined not to take part in communion, his heart was moved differently. When he heard the words of invitation to the table-- for those who had much faith and those who wanted to have more; for those who had been to the table often, and those who had not been for a long time; for those who had tried to follow Jesus, and for those who had failed-- he realized that he was welcome, too. For the first time in a long, long while, he stood up and walked forward to taste and know God’s gifts of bread and wine.
I started using this invitation, found in the Iona Worship Book, one Sunday morning because I knew that one of the people coming to service that day had grown up in the church but, as an adult, had drifted away, not from God, but from the institution. I wanted her to know that even though it had been a while, she was still welcome at God’s table. She was always welcome. Since that Sunday, now months ago, I have continued to speak these words as we prepare for communion; they articulate God’s beckoning to us better than any others I have heard uttered. Because I never know just who will join us each Sunday for our family meal, who may need to be reminded that God’s welcome is broader than we often imagine, these words have become the centerpiece for our worship. We all need to hear them, to remember the grace God extends to us, whoever we are, wherever we have been.
Thanks be to God.