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2 Samuel 9: Communion
Good morning, everyone. Please go with me to the book of 2 Samuel, and we’re going to be reading from chapter 9. I’m intending to read the whole chapter this morning so we can understand better a practice, which for all of the history of Christianity, arguably, has stood as the central practice of our faith: I mean, of course, communion. You can’t possibly talk about Christian practice without talking about communion.
As with any practice that is centuries old, there have been several forms of the ritual in different times and places. Here at our church we eat crackers and drink juice because so many of us are alcoholics, shout out to one anonymous congregant celebrating six months this week. And for the theologians out there, if you’re trying to pin me, I’m closer to Luther than Zwingli, but somewhere in between, and honestly my strongest opinion about communion isn’t related to sacramentalism, but rather is simply not to fence the table or excommunicate anyone, meaning I refuse to keep someone out of the ritual who wants, genuinely, to participate and who will respect the sacredness of it.
I see the issue as soteriological, meaning related to salvation from sin. It’s important to me in every way to communicate that if the doors of hell are locked, they’re locked from the inside, with God ever pleading for his children to accept grace. If you want to go deeper theologically on it, I’ll be here for two hours at least after service today. You can come eat a meal with me and we can go as deep as you want.
Volumes have been written on the meaning of communion, both theologically and practically, the effect of it on our lives. Churches have split, wars have been fought. Pretty much everyone at this point has been condemned by one group or another as heretics and not real Christians. But, like Baptism, I don’t know of a single Christian church which has dispensed with the practice of communion altogether. It’s central, and everyone knows it—even if we practice it twice a year with those wafers that taught me at a young age that Jesus tastes like plastic. Even then the practice of communion is central to our faith. So I would argue understanding communion is central to understanding the practice of our faith.
I spent my week studying the central practices of other major religions, which, to be honest, was a fascinating study, and helped me understand Christianity better and love, more, our God who is so distinct from other gods in every way I hope deeply in my soul God would be distinct from the powers I’ve known in the world. But it was helpful to study cultures and religions so obviously distinct from our own, because I think our understanding of communion has degraded in the midst of the influence of Christianity on our own culture. I hope that makes sense. Like taking an international trip, looking in from the outside, you gain perspective, not just on another culture by seeing it up close, but on your own.
Probably the most helpful perspective I gained on Christianity was from paganism, which was the religion of the Roman Empire for several hundred years. Now, note I said it was a helpful perspective, not that it was a positive or flattering perspective in any way. Christians early on—I was looking mainly in the third and second centuries—they didn’t have a great reputation. In the second century, it was widely believed that Christians were incestuous atheistic cannibals. Widely believed. Just like the occult scare in the 1980’s in America, too, Christians were believed to have angered the gods with these terrible practices and were blamed for a wide variety of Rome’s ills. In the 1980’s, when I was growing up, if you were looking for suspects in some heinous crime, you would probably start at the local dungeons and dragons game. In the 180’s, when Christianity was growing up, you would probably start at your local Christian church.
The spread of Christianity was seen as such a serious matter that the emperor Trajan sent a spy, named Pliny, into an early Roman church, and this is what he wrote back about early church practices: “They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath…not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery…When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food.” Worship, seeking righteousness together, and a meal. This is where communion started.
The reason the Romans believed Christians to be atheists, and as atheists, unpatriotic, is because they refused to worship the Roman pantheon, which included the emperor. “Caesar is Lord” was a common greeting, letting people know you were a fellow patriot. Christians changed the greeting to “Jesus is Lord.” On Roman festival days celebrating the emperor, or this or that god—think the fourth of July—the Christians stayed home. And Christians at that time gained the reputation of being incestuous because they were so insistent that all believers were brother and sister, and held everything in common, yet they still performed marriages between these brothers and sisters (Brandon O’Brien, Christianity Today).
And in a sermon on communion, I’m sure you can guess why these early Christians acquired a reputation of cannibalism. It was said they came together to feast each week on the body and blood of the same Jesus they worshipped as a god. I love the last line of the spy’s report—I saw them eating, he says, but he adds was just “ordinary and innocent food.” No cannibalism, nothing sinister, simply the spy failing to understand that the ordinariness of the feast is just what is so mysterious and extraordinary about it.
I found that perspective so helpful—helpful enough to share—because it tells you, looking in from the outside, exactly what the Christians were doing each week as they gathered, and much of what they were teaching. Communion started, and I would argue remains, as a table laid where brothers and sisters from every nation and caste were invited to gather, remember Jesus, commune with each other, mysteriously with God, himself, and each other, and look forward in hope to the promised table laid on Zion.
But enough of history and theology. More importantly, to the Scriptures. Do this, if you will, please stand as we read the scriptures together. 2 Samuel 9.  This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
For those of us who don’t regularly read 2 Samuel—I know Louis does, but for the rest of us—I’ll tell a little of the story here and explain why I chose this passage to introduce communion. What you need to know about what came before this passage is that Saul, Mephibosheth’s grandfather, tried to kill David several times. Saul knew God had chosen David as king over Israel, but Saul sought to murder David and keep his throne, even though David and Saul’s son, Jonathan, were like brothers.
David lived much of his life as a refugee, sleeping in caves, or in foreign kingdoms which often sought to kill him or steal everything he owned. In the ancient world it was common, if someone attempted to take your throne by force, you would seek to kill him and his entire household, lest anyone survive and make a claim to the throne. You can see, in v.6, Mephibosheth is terrified to be brought to the king, and David has to calm him down. He probably thought he was there to be executed.
Then David does something wild, something no one could have reasonably expected, and something which probably has never been done again—and through David, we see the heart and the kingdom of God in this. Instead of executing his enemy, who tried to unthrone him, David restores all of his grandfather’s lands to him, making him one of the wealthiest people in the kingdom, but then he goes further. David invites Mephibosheth to his own table, which was essentially adopting him as a son into his own family. The man is so shocked he asks the same question David would later ask of God in the Psalms, “Who am I that you would mind me?”
The text mentions twice that Mephibosheth is lame in his feet. The reason being, that injury would have made him unclean, ritually, and we don’t have time to flesh all of that out—its not a shame thing—but the point here is that David, in the eyes of some, would be making himself unclean by eating with him.
And I hope you can see where I’m going, why I’m talking about communion in this. This is what God does for each and every person who is willing to come to the table and commune with him. When we sit and eat together as a church, like we’re about to, or when we take communion together, God is in our midst, so the communion table becomes his table. In our sin, we are all enemies of God, and the sons of enemies. In our innermost thoughts we dethrone him and try to rule over our own lives and the little kingdoms we build. And in our sin we are unclean and deathly.
Yet Christ chooses to restore us to his own inheritance, prepares room in his own home, offers us a seat at his own table, and adopts us as sons. The reason we have trouble seeing communion and the gospel this way is because we struggle to see the depth of our own sin. Even as we cause suffering in everyone who touches us, we don’t see it. We make excuses and shift blame. But my friend, don’t run from conviction—conviction is a gift, because if we never see our sin for what it is, we can never see God’s grace for what it is. He’s offering us a seat at his own table, adoption into his own inheritance. Life instead of death.
This is the gospel enacted, and this is communion. In communion we remember the king of the universe who made himself unclean in the eyes of many in order to be with us, to sit with us around the table. We remember his body broken for us and his blood shed for us, but it’s more than just a memory. The invitation to his table is an invitation into his family, to life instead of death. Communion is the hospitality of our God.
Going back to the early church, the next thing Rome learned about Christianity, besides songs and communion, was that Christians were willing to throw their health and lives away to help the helpless. It was a common practice in Rome at the time, if a child was unwanted, they would leave them outside, usually in the woods, to die. Christians began adopting those children and raising them as their own.
And around that same time, there was a devastating plague in the empire. Just like we all experienced, everyone left the cities, and of course by everyone I mean everyone who had the money, the ability to drop work and leave left the city. The Christians organized the first ever ambulance core and began carrying people the the baths to wash them and tend to their basic needs. No one else would go near them, and Christians are nursing the sick, often getting sick themselves, but just that basic care increased survival rates by about 80%.
Out of these ambulance corps sprung one of the most interesting churches I’ve known, a model for our own, one that I hope is a model for our own. Up until this moment, monks, people who were devoting their life and work to Christianity, were living secluded lives, but one monk—his name was Basil—in Caesarea, which was a big Roman city on the coast in Asia, he and his brother founded a new kind of monastery, downtown. And he let it be known that anyone who wanted to come into the monastery was welcome at their table. He assigned several of the members to be what they called hospitalers, and they were responsible for greeting anyone who would come into the monastery, dressing wounds, washing them, finding them a bed, and inviting them to dinner all together. They would sing songs, then they would eat a feast of communion.
Those hospitalers are where we get our word for hospital, and also for hospitality, because both hospitals and hotels started here, healing the sick, welcoming the sojourner. And in these brothers and sisters of the early church, caring for the sick and welcoming anyone who would come, again, I see the gospel enacted and I see communion. They made themselves unclean, they got sick, Basil and his brother gave up their inheritance, to welcome people to the table of God.
Communion and hospitality are wrapped up together. Communion and hospitality are wrapped up together. Food has never been just food. You welcome people to your table to invite them into your life, your culture, your family. In Jesus’ day, you would be considered unclean and unable to enter the temple to worship by sharing your table with anyone who wasn’t Jewish, and out of all the things, all the rituals, in the world Jesus could have placed at the center of his church, he places a meal, together, with the sick and the poor and the people from every nation. Make yourselves unclean, he taught us, in order to welcome your enemies into your family, just like David, just like Jesus.
So communion is a remembrance, it’s a proclamation of the gospel, communion is hospitality—communion is also a mystery. Going back to the spy in the early church, investigating the claims of cannibalism, when Christ instituted communion, he told his disciples, this is my body and blood, and for centuries, that truth was held out as a mystery, unexplained and unexplainable, but all the same true. The feasts of the early church may have been “innocent and ordinary,” but they were also sacred, and so are ours.
I said this, the ordinariness of the meal adds to the extraordinary nature of the ritual. Give us this day our daily, ordinary, cheap bread. And Jesus says, if you want to remember what I’ve done for you, if you want to worship me, remember me at your ordinary, innocent meal. The leftover taco soup. The jambalaya we ordered from the grocery store for this afternoon.
JRR Tolkien understood this well, and illustrates it well in the very last pages of his largest book. After all of the travails of his epic Lord of the Rings series, he ends the books with one of his main characters sitting down to a meal with his family, as if to say, this moment is what all the rest was for. All the epic quest and spiritual battles, the sacrifice of the King into death itself, it was all so that a family no one’s ever heard of in a place of no importance can sit and eat to their fill together.
Jesus doesn’t want to be Lord of Christmas Day, or of Easter in your life. He doesn’t want to sit with you just in the highest points of your life, or the lowest lows. He wants to live all of it with you, no matter who you are. Even if you’re no one important, to him you’re worth more than all the wealth of the nations put together. More than his own throne and life. He wants you to commune with him in the daily bread. Yes he’s a king, yes he’s upholding the universe with the word of his power, but also he wants to come sit and eat a meal with you, spend time. All of the epic quests and sacrificing the king, himself, it was all so that he could enter into the everyday life of his children.
So communion is a remembrance, it’s a proclamation of the gospel, it’s hospitality and a mystery—lastly, communion is a taste of the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. In communion we sit down at the Lord’s table, and the Lord’s table is exactly how Isaiah pictures the kingdom come on earth in the end. He says it’s a table laid in Zion, just like King David’s table in our passage, and his enemies are invited to eat, and restored as family, with meat full of marrow and well-aged wine and some daily bread.
And it’s this image which lets us know, in communion, we are participating in a ritual which will be everlasting, one which has been ever present in the church universal, one which connects all of God’s children across time and space until one day we all sit down together and realize this is what it was all for. The longing that we all feel, our restless hearts, we’re all just longing to be together with people who fully know and love us, and to have time to spend in abundance with them, it’s a longing for eternity, a longing for communion with God and our brothers and sisters.
So whether communion looks like our crackers and juice, a dinner on the grounds, a meal shared with friends, or finally, at the end of the day, sitting down with people who love us, whenever sin and suffering don’t come between us, you have to know that those moments are sacred. Christ makes it so, because he meets us there in our day to day.
My invitation today is into mystery and community here at the tables of our church. Into the “ordinary and innocent” feasts we have together, like this afternoon, these meals and moments we share. They’re sacred, and life is to be found there whenever sin isn’t able to separate us.