The Lord’s (Subversive) Supper

This post was written by Chad Bird. I learned the basics of table fellowship where […]

Mockingbird / 5.11.17

This post was written by Chad Bird.

I learned the basics of table fellowship where many others did: in the elementary school cafeteria. Gripping my cadaver-colored tray swimming in gravy, meatloaf, and green beans, I’d scan the tables. Where to sit?

I dropped more footballs than I caught, so I couldn’t jazz with the fourth-grade jocks. No boy in his right mind ate with the girls, so that was out of the question. No to the nerds, no to the really poor kids, and a big-fat-no to anyone who didn’t share my skin color (this was the 1970s).

So I set my food down on the table between Blake and Trey—two middle-class, not so athletic, but not terribly geeky, boys with skin the color of my own. My mirror images. My people. My clan.

Rule #1 of table fellowship: only eat with people as much like you as possible. Here’s a rule we actually like—and we’re darn good at keeping.

Too good, it seems.

Psychologists who study disgust (yes, they do exist) tell us there’s a deep connection between what we accept into our bodies and who we accept into our lives. A so-called “boundary psychology.” I put cheeseburgers and beer into my mouth, for instance, but I spit out a hair or a fly—or poison. Some things belong inside me, some things don’t. I accept or reject, include or exclude, based upon what disgusts me.

It’s similar with our social consumption. I accept some people into my life, and I exclude others. I have a circle—a social body, if you will—that I put some people inside. Some, like my wife, are intimately inside this circle. I share my food and bed with her. Others are inside my circle, too, like other family members or those with whom I socialize. But most people are outside my circle. They aren’t like me. Not my people, not in my clan.

If my wife kisses my mouth, I don’t think anything about it. I welcome it.
If a homeless person tries to put her lips on me, I shove her away. I am disgusted.

Some things, some people, some relationships are welcome into my circle. Others, I treat like something that doesn’t belong in my mouth: I expel it, keep it out, move it beyond my boundary. This is basic human behavior. Psychology and Sociology 101.

And all of this is why the Lord’s Supper is such a disgusting, subversive meal—in all the right ways.

On any given Sunday, in churches around the world, people eat and drink with others they ordinarily wouldn’t eat or drink with in any other situation. A CEO who wears Armani eats the Lord’s body beside a convenience store clerk wearing a Wal-Mart-bought t-shirt. An elderly white woman who remembers when whites and blacks had respective water fountains, drinks from the same Eucharistic chalice as the young black soldier next to her. All of this is psychologically disconcerting, boundary-transgressing, and sociologically just plain wrong.

In other words, it’s the perfect place for the King who became a peasant to work his subversive wonders.

The Lord’s Supper takes a sledgehammer to our fortified psychology of disgust. It razes walls, expands boundaries, and forces us to see “the other” as a brother or sister in Christ. We don’t get to choose between the body of a white or black Jesus, Asian or American Jesus. We all get the same body of the same Lord who has united us into his one body in the unifying stream of baptism. We eat what he has made his church to be.

By accepting him into our bodies alongside others who accept him into their bodies, we are forced to rethink our prejudices about the bodies of those around us. Table fellowship with Jesus means being uncomfortable, squeezed between those unlike us in so many ways, but intimately bound to us as fellow recipients of the same meal of divine love.

When the Lord has his way, the fruits of this table impact our other tables in life. As Samuel Wells writes in Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, “By sharing bread with one another around the Lord’s Table, Christians learn to live in peace with those with whom they share other tables—breakfast, shop-floor, office, checkout,” (83). Or, as Richard Beck puts it in his insightful book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, “The Lord’s Supper reconfigures the way we experience otherness…[It] is a profoundly deep and powerful psychological intervention,” (113-114).

This meal levels hierarchies, demolishes boundaries, and proves that the person we once deemed outside our circle is the very person for whom Christ died.