The table of grace

by Mark Safstrom

October 31, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, counting from the day in 1517 that Martin Luther “posted” (that is, mailed) his 95 Theses to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz (whether they were actually “nailed” on the door of the Castle Church is debatable, as it turns out). Luther’s critique of indulgences and the preaching and theology surrounding penance was the focus of these early complaints, and most of us probably think of these concepts first when we think of Luther. Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone,” would emerge as the motto for Protestants wishing to return to the primacy of scripture in determining right belief and practice.

What we may remember less frequently is the central role that Holy Communion played in the debates among Protestants themselves. One of the main hurdles for Protestants, which would come to divide Christians for centuries, was how to understand what Communion was, how it worked, and what it was for. The unsuccessful meeting in Marburg in 1529 between Luther, Zwingli, and others marked the turning point, as no common Protestant understanding emerged that could provide the basis for sharing the table. In 1551, during the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church reaffirmed its views on Communion, underscoring once again that their table was closed to Protestants. For all sides, correct belief about doctrine became a precondition for participation and belonging, rather than a shared trust in Jesus.

What if – and this is an impossible one, I know – what if instead of arguing about the words to use, and how to rightly understand the sacrament, those Catholics and proto-Protestants would have simply sat down and actually celebrated communion together in silence? Maybe even with some awkward handholding? Sure, they might have still argued about how it was done. But maybe, just for a moment…

Yet, speculation about history like this does not often make for productive historiography, unless the real focus of the “what if” makes a relevant connection to the present. The purpose of the sacrament of Communion is to unify the participant with Christ, and the congregants with one another. So it is indeed a great irony that this became a chief point of division during the Reformation, a legacy that remains with us today to some degree.

I would suggest that today’s “what if” is about Christian hospitality. What if, instead of remaining entrenched in our views about who we would like to have in our congregations, and insisting on knowing where other people stand (politically, theologically, ethically) before we associate with them – what if we started with sharing the table? Various ecumenical movements have done so in the past. Tom Tredway’s recent biography on the Augustana Lutheran and ecumenist Conrad Bergendoff made precisely this kind of point (Conrad Bergendoff’s Faith and Work, 2014). Lutheran history in the United States, from the colonial era to the mid-twentieth century, was a kaleidoscope of dozens of small, ethnic, and ideologically diverse Lutheran synods. While some visionaries hoped that all Lutherans might be united, actually overcoming these differences seemed hopeless. Some refused to entertain the idea of sharing Communion across denominational lines before ideological agreements had been reached. By contrast, Bergendoff insisted that ecumenical talks could start by sharing Communion and worship together, and Tredway makes the case (convincingly) that this was the wiser strategy and led to the major Lutheran mergers of the late 20th century.

We can also find this aspiration in the images that have found their way into our hymns. In the 19th century, Communion became the centerpoint for fellowship among sacramentally-minded Swedish Pietists, for instance. One of the best revival hymns that demonstrates this is Rosenius’s “With God as Our Friend,” which romanticized the idea of gathering “the fellowship of brethren around the table of grace” (med bröders gemenskap kring nådenes bord). In English this became the approximate translation “all sharing together the feast of the Lord.” Communion was often the heart of those worship services, rather than the sermon or anything else.

I have often heard friends who are pastors speak of “table fellowship” as an intentional strategy for building community. This is first and foremost relational (rather than ideological), reflecting Christ’s own table-based ministry. The table in this sense is not limited to Communion, but can also be the kitchen table or coffee table, around which common food and everyday conversation is shared. The idea is that if we break bread on a regular basis with both friends and strangers alike, we will be able to build deep and authentic communities. Constructed in this way, table-based congregations can hopefully be more resilient to stresses and conflicts than might be the case if our community were merely based on ideological agreement. We might imagine that our fellow congregants are our “friends,” but how often have we actually had them over to our homes for dinner? Could we count on them to come to our rescue when we break down on the highway? Or to help us move? Or post bail for us?

This view of Communion as a basis for building unity has been expressed in the order of worship for Covenant churches, in the well-crafted language that I remember hearing ever since childhood:

Come to this sacred table,
not because you must, but because you may;
come to testify not that you are righteous,
but that you sincerely love our Lord Jesus Christ,
and desire to be his true disciples;
come, not because you are strong, but because you are weak;
not because you have any claim on heaven’s rewards,
but because in your frailty and sin
you stand in constant need of heaven’s mercy and help;
come, not to express an opinion,
but to seek his Presence and pray for his Spirit.

(A Book of Worship for Covenant Churches, 1960)

We can receive Communion first, and talk about our differences later, in the respectful context of a sacramentally-reinforced community of followers of Jesus. Surely Christ knew what he was doing in making this meal a focal point of his community, rather than a litmus test for righteousness.

On the other hand, some people may wish to excuse themselves from the table, or congregation in general. They have had enough, and intend to vote with their feet. In many cases they have been hurt or lost faith. While it is sometimes necessary, healthy, and even biblical to part company when we reach continued impasses with fellow Christians, this should only be a last resort, and hopefully only for a season.

Staying at the table is hard. I recall that one of my former college professors, as an African-American, once shared that it was often difficult for her to repeatedly experience setbacks in the effort to improve race relations and opportunities at the college. She noted that she needed to remind herself to “stay at the table” if she ever hoped to see these concerns addressed. Thus, even when it hurts, remaining within the community is an active choice for those who, for various reasons, repeatedly find themselves in the minority.

In this issue, we remember Pastor Glen Wiberg, columnist in Pietisten for many years, who passed away earlier this year. Glen enriched our common life and has been a friend to many, and this issue includes tributes from Phil Johnson and Dave Bjorlin. As North Park University prepares for an upcoming presidential search and casts a vision for the future, we’ve invited Kurt Peterson to evaluate some the opportunities and challenges that the school faces in a changing society and economy. Craig Anderson shares how poetry can speak religious comfort and truth on occasions when prose falls short of the mark. And – speaking of table fellowship – if you were looking for the perfect meal to share with your neighbors, Bonnie Sparrman has a solution: Herb Roasted Salmon!

Despite its mixed record, the shared table has remained for two millennia as a viable option for creating and renewing community. Will we make use of it or not?

Guds frid – God’s peace.

Mark Safstrom is Chief Editor of Pietisten, and an assistant professor of Scandinavian Studies at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

See all articles by Mark Safstrom