Earlier, I spoke with a student who is taking my online Christian Worship class through Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Our conversation centered around James K. A. Smith’s (2009) “Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.” I was encouraged to hear my student think critically about how the worship practices in his church could be forming the congregation.
He brought up a time when one member of the congregation challenged him on their use of tiny communion wafers versus an actual loaf of bread. So my student and I talked about how our practices around the Lord’s table—down to the choices we make about how we administer the elements—can both express and shape our theology.
Smith reflects on this practiced theology when he writes, “The Supper is a gracious communion with a forgiving God; but it is also a supper we eat with one another, and that too will require forgiveness. God’s design for human flourishing cannot be satisfied in isolation” (p. 201). Later he describes the communion table as the place where we learn to live out the reconciliation that Christ wrought on the cross: “In a broken, fragmented world, the church is called to be the firstfruits of a new creation by embodying a reconciled community; and the way we begin to learn that is at the communion table” (p. 202).
Unfortunately, history has proven that practicing our reconciliation with one another at the table—the very place that symbolizes our oneness—can be a struggle. In his 1841 speech to the Plymouth County Anti-Slavery Society, Frederick Douglass recounted his experience visiting a Methodist church in the North. He had wanted to attend communion but observed the white brothers and sisters gathering together and partaking of the bread and cup while “the blacks clustered by the door” awaiting their turn to be served. In the same speech, he shared a second story of two girls—one black and one white—who shared “one faith, one Lord, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). When they came to the table, the white girl refused to take the “cup containing the precious blood which had been shed for all” after the black girl had partaken.
Douglass observed prejudice geographically and liturgically where he least expected it—in the North and around the communion table. But, to Douglass, this prejudice could not compare “with the enormous iniquity of the system which is its cause–the system that sold my four sisters and my brothers into bondage–and which calls in its priests to defend it even from the Bible!”
Douglass could not abide Christian preachers who used their theology to promote slavery. He could not abide a theology thanked God for dividing people into two classes. He could not abide by his masters quoting Scripture one moment and then beating enslaved men and women the next. For Douglass, his master’s piety was a sham.
Two centuries later, we Christians in the United States still struggle to live into our oneness in Christ. We struggle to live into the reality that all of us who were once far off from God have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ (Eph 3:13); that we all have access to God by the same Spirit (Eph 3:18); and that we are all members of God’s household (Eph 3:19). Could returning to the communion table help? Dr. Danjuma Gibson believes so.
Gibson is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and one of this year’s Talking Points speakers. For his dissertation research, Gibson studied Frederick Douglass’s four autobiographies. I recently heard Gibson speak on and then interviewed him about his work, and both times he talked about the Eucharist as a model for reconciliation in our divided times.
Here is an excerpt from my interview with him:
Herr: In what ways is Douglass’s story relevant to our contemporary moment?
Gibson: In many ways, Frederick Douglass embodies what it means to be an American. For him, freedom was a necessity; it was not an option. Liberty was not an option; it was a necessity. And more than that, for my purposes as a pastoral theologian, he refused to allow anyone to separate his freedom from what it meant to be a child of God.
Herr: Say more about that.
Gibson: We have so many arguments today about what is appropriate for the church to address and it leads to this thing of, “Oh, that’s a social issue but that’s really not a gospel issue or a Christian issue.”
In a very masterful way, Frederick Douglass challenged the doctors of ministries of his own day. (Many of them we’ve heard of in our own theological education.) He challenged how they could promote a gospel, how they could worship and, at the same time, be plantation owners along with all of the atrocities that occurred, that are painful for us to hear. We don’t want to talk about it. He challenged them.
Basically, Douglass is saying, “If you want to understand the American slavocracy, you have to talk about Western Christianity. If you’re not ready to talk about the Western Church and Christianity, you’re not ready to really understand the American slavocracy.” And I think that still holds true today. If we look at our history of whether that’s Jim Crow, Segregation, the Klu Klux Klan–that’s a Protestant Christian manifestation.
And for those in the body of Christ who tend to be more on the conservative side or the evangelical side, I think the theology there is suited to deconstruct this because we constantly ask the question, “What must we do to be saved.” We’re constantly asking the question, “What happens when you examine yourself?” So we have to find the courage to do what our theologies are requiring us to do.
Herr: So what would that look like, making it really practical, to take our theology which primes us to have these conversations? What is the next step? What does that look like at a church level, an individual level?
Gibson: What does this look like from a praxis perspective? That is an excellent question; it is a difficult question. So I don’t represent that I can just give one solution here because I think we need multiple disciplines.
As a pastoral theologian, I think my scholarship and one of my main functions is to help communities grieve, as a coach, to help them confront what it is that they do not want to confront, to have those hard conversations. Because when we do not have those hard conversations, we just pass this along to the next generation.
I’m still working on this, but I believe a Eucharist model, what we see in the Eucharist, is an incredible model because Jesus makes it clear: if you are a follower Christ, if you are a lover of Jesus, he says, “Do this, this Eucharist, as often as you remember.” Basically, he is saying, “You will not forget how I was murdered as an example to you and on your behalf.”
We tend to think that forgiveness and reconciliation means, “Let’s forget about it, and let’s gravitate towards being happy and being comfortable.” I call it a hermeneutic of Rockport—Rockport shoes, where we want to be comfortable. And if we’re comfortable, we like it.
So, what does it look like? I think it looks like spaces where we can have hard conversations. Spaces where, when we fall short of representing who God is…you know, if we believe in the imago Dei, that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, we also have to believe or accept that we can be image-distorters of God. And when we are image-distorters of God, that means we fall short of what it means to be a human as well. That doesn’t just have to include race. That can include how we treat each other. That can include how we treat [others] from a gender perspective. That can include this whole conversation around immigration. Christ was not an American; he was a refugee, in case we forget.
How does it look practically? I think one way is compelling us to mourn and grieve that which we would rather forget about. And the Eucharist calls us to do that, compels us to do that. Remembering doesn’t mean that we haven’t forgiven. Remembering, as the Eucharist calls us, means we’re moving toward healing, moving towards being more like Christ.
Gibson directs our attention to another important aspect of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. To be sure, it is an act of practicing our reconciliation, our oneness in Christ. But it is also a place where we remember well.