Thirty years ago, while attending seminary, my wife Irene and I belonged to a church that celebrated communion every Sunday. It was a church with many young families like ours, and full of gifted musicians. During weekly communion, while Taizé music played we stood in a circle and passed the bread and wine around. We all knew each other. Flutes, guitars, and piano played. It is a good memory.
Communion is harder for me now.
You see, I’m fine motor challenged—which is a fancy way of saying I’m clumsy. Always have been. As a kid, when I kicked the soccer ball, it never went where I aimed. If I swung a bat, I whiffed. I tried hockey, one year, in a city league. I scored one goal. The team’s star shot from the point. The puck hit my ankle and bounced over the goal line. I limped off the ice.
Not much has changed. If you walk through the church I serve and look carefully you will find coffee stains all over the floor and stains in the carpet. You see, I’ve never learned the art of keeping my wrist steady. Whenever I buy new shirts, it’s usually because the old ones are full of wine stains. Ask Irene. I’m fine-motor challenged.
My clumsiness also shows up on communion Sundays. When I pour the wine, I spill it. The lady who sets the table got so tired of sending the white communion tablecloth out for cleaning after communion that she bought a Plexiglas cover to put over the communion table. I am all thumbs. When I read the communion liturgy, I can’t figure out how to hold my papers, break the bread, and pour the wine gracefully. I should probably get an acolyte to help me. But the effort to get it all right also sets me on edge, makes me anxious. So I start mixing up lines, or I mix the gluten-free bread with the regular bread and the wine cup with grape juice cup. One Sunday I crumbled a whole loaf of gluten free bread on the floor as I served it.
But I still look forward to communion Sundays. In spite of my clumsiness and anxiety. Why?
I think the basic reason is that communion is a deep psychic solution for a problem I have. You see, Jesus seems very distant to me. Almost unreal.
I know about Jesus, of course, from the Bible. I’ve studied Jesus carefully, using original Greek manuscripts. In seminary I parsed every word of Jesus’ parables. And I’ve read hundreds of books about Christianity, too: commentaries on the gospels, systematic theologies, and lately, lots of philosophical theology. But Jesus still seems very distant to me. So distant, in fact, that if Jesus had been a student in my grade one class, I probably wouldn’t have given him a Valentine’s card, except that my mother always made sure I never left anyone out.
Part of the problem is that I’ve come to know Jesus mostly through studying him from afar, through books. I’ve never had a phone call from him. I’ve never had a cup of coffee with Jesus. I’ve never heard him speak to me through my heart, like, “take this job,” or “she’s the one.” I’ve never had dreams or visions from Jesus. I don’t have what some Evangelical Christians call a personal relationship with Jesus. How could I? Jesus hasn’t set foot on planet earth for 2000 years! When people say they have a personal relationship with Jesus I think they must be kidding themselves, that they are using the English language in ways that just don’t make everyday plain sense.
And yet, I’ve shaped my whole life around this stranger. My parents read me stories about Jesus since I was a baby. I prayed to Jesus with my first words. I went to Christian grade school, high school, college and seminary. I’ve made a career out of telling people about Jesus, and to be like Jesus.
Do you ever have this problem? This ambivalent relationship to Jesus? Where it seems that as long as Jesus is out of sight, he is hard to keep in mind? My kids live far away from Toronto. Sometimes, when I get busy, I forget to call, or write them an email, or send them a What’s App message. But it's a vicious circle right? Because when I don’t write, or call, or text, then they don’t write, or call, or text back. Pretty soon a couple of weeks have passed, and a day or two goes by when I hardly think of them—even though their ancient artwork is still on my office wall, and even though my grandson’s Lego is all over the house. It’s so easy for the living we love to drift apart.
But if this is true for us and our kids and work colleagues and high school friends, how much more so when it comes to Jesus? I never even knew Jesus in the flesh! He’s like my first cousin, three-generations removed, Pieter Schuil, who died in 1901, but whose diary is on my desk. It’s hard to connect those words to a real person. And its even harder with this more ancient Jesus, to keep him top of mind, to be inspired by him, to really, really want to love like him, more than anything else in the world.
Which gets me back to communion, and why I love it even though I’m clumsy and often make a mess of it. Communion is the one place, you see, where all this Jesus stuff suddenly seems less academic, less preachy, less distant. Communion—even in the wooden, accident-prone, halting way I lead it—communion somehow mysteriously transports me away from the theology and ethics and academics of Christianity into a strange, but also deeper and lovelier appreciation of Jesus.
I think this is why. On communion Sundays I smell the wine. I taste the bread, feel it crumble in my fingers. The tablecloth is starched and clean, but with use gets spilled on, just like at home. People shuffle up here, real people who I can look in the eye, people I care about—love, even. We smile. And suddenly in my heart of hearts I’m at a real table, a real meal, and realize that Jesus is much more than just this ancient preacher man I study. He’s like me. He sits down with friends. He fries fish over a fire. He slices roast lamb. He says, “I shouldn’t,” but has a second and third glass of wine anyway.
And he does all this even on his last day alive. With his best friend, John, laying his head on Jesus’ shoulder. He hosts a meal so that they—his prostitute, tax collector, fishermen and farm-laborer friends—he does this so that we will remember him, and continue to love others as they love themselves, even after Jesus is gone. Because he isn’t just for the books. We also share a messy meal and do it in remembrance of him.
Communion. It’s for people who need more than words preached or written on a page. It’s for people who have a hard time feeling like Jesus is sitting on their shoulder or speaking through their hearts. It is a divine tap on the shoulder for us, a meal from the ancient past, to remember the wonder and reality and inspiration of who Jesus was, for now. Communion comes to us crumbling and tasty, with chairs screeching on the floor and cups dripping red to remind us that all those words about Jesus live, that Jesus’ love isn’t merely an ancient intellectual puzzle, but Jesus’ love is part and parcel of what we strive to do ourselves, everyday.