Discerning the body

August 23, 2010

“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 13:29)?

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 limits.

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 sufficient.

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.

The 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.

In 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.


Rev. Luther C. Pierce

Rev. Luther C. Pierce said...

Was that Presbyterian atheist Robert Jensen? I found his book ALL MY BONES SHAKE insightful, objective, inspiring and disturbing. May the Lord give us more atheists like him!

Rein Zeilstra said... I

Rein Zeilstra said...

I am amazed that this is an issue for the modern church, do we read our bibles at all? The Good Samaritan, the various parables would suggest that God finally decrees what is acceptable and what is not. The Church in any form or shape should not presume to intrude in that arena. In the meantime the only obligation is to love and if that is too difficult let us pray for grace so we can absorb the incongruities we erect in our altogether all too pharisaic minds.

Jay Angerer said... Thank

Jay Angerer said...

Thank you for this reflection on the lectionary. I had read the story about communion to a dog and was trying to figure out a way to enter that into a sermon. I had not thought about Jesus calling many on the margin but there are certain groups that may fit outside the scope of his time and place. you call that out very clearly.

Very thought provoking. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Interesting theological tour or detour! “We run into many atheists” - where? I haven’t met an athiest as yet!. On the other hand, with the gravity of this faith tradition moving back to where it began in the east and south, I rejoice seeing the mainline denominations relegated to the margins where I was doomed to survive for too long. The church is at its best when it is a minority!

s. johann said... The

s. johann said...

The story of the deacon serving communion bread to the guide dog is both inspiring and telling. We would like to see that the dog belongs with its' master (yes, that is indeed the relationship), and so is part of the community just as the woman is part of the community. However, we need to remember that dog is working. It is inappropriate to engage that dog with affection, or attention while it is working. That can cause confusion on the part of the dog, and can be dangerous to the person whom it serves.
I don't know where that leaves us in talking about being part of the community, but it does add another dimension to the discussion.

working dogs

Working dogs .... are we not as humans working at beng followers of Jesus Christ? Does this seperate out and deny rather than become a blessing to the dogs around us? If we deny working dogs, then the church must also deny Christ's table to the working humans too?

Grace comes to all working and resting and worshiping.