Discerning the body
“When you give a banquet,” Jesus said, “invite the poor, the crippled,
the lame, and the blind,” but he didn’t say anything about atheists.
Jesus apparently did not run into many atheists, but we certainly do.
What happens when an atheist is among those who “come from east and
west, from north and south,” to “eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke
Improbable though it may sound, Texas Presbyterians have
been dealing with this very problem. A self-professed atheist joined
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin. Christ and his community
this man found utterly appealing; the logic of theism, less so. The
oddness of this affiliation generated publicity, and other
Presbyterians protested. Evidently enthusiasm for evangelism has its
Christ’s calling disrupts the church’s desire to get
everything in order. According to the Westminster Confession this
calling operates by “God’s free and special grace alone” and “not from
anything at all foreseen” in us. All qualifications are disqualified.
Christ calls, “Friend, come up higher,” and hearing that call is
For some years my own congregation has welcomed
members who are unable to make a profession of faith. Once upon a time
they could, but now they come in the care of their spouses or children.
Alzheimer’s and other damnable dementias do their work of erasing
memory and personality, but the church remembers its calling and tries
to preserve its character as a place of Christ’s hospitality. We break
the bread and share the cup of his feast. What this action may mean in
the clouded consciousness of these women and men we cannot know, but we
can recognize the unmistakable grace of Christ’s invitation.
contours of this banquet welcoming “the poor, the crippled, the lame,
and the blind” are extravagantly described in the July-December 2009
special issue of the Journal of Religion, Disability & Health,
edited by William C. Gaventa. This mixture of thoughtful articles and
occasional anecdotes is a treasure trove for pastors and churches
wishing to explore the extravagance of Christ’s generosity.
one astonishing piece Richard Sparrow remembers a worship service in
which a somber-looking, three-piece-suited deacon serving communion
noticed a woman in her wheelchair with her companion guide dog. Sizing
up the situation theologically, the deacon served the woman and then
bent down to give a piece of bread to the dog.
Many years ago Charles M. Nielsen wrote a parody about serving communion to dogs called “Abendmahl für Hunde.”
But in this case it could be argued that the deacon was going about
“discerning the body” (1 Cor. 11:29) and recognized that this dog was
not merely a pet but an irreplaceable part of the body. The one
presiding in the liturgy is supposed to “bound the table,” but Jesus’
invitation leaps the bounds of our imagination.
Additional lectionary columns by Willson appear in the August
24 issue of the Century—click here to subscribe.