The (Upper) Room Itself: Thanksgiving and Communion

This article is the fifth in a series we're calling "A Good and Joyful Thing: A series on liturgical spirituality." We hope this series takes you on an imaginative “travelogue” at various worship services in a local United Methodist church where the liturgy is treasured. We hope that these resources will accentuate how the Wesleyan “religion of the heart” can be fostered by liturgical experience in the richness of our liturgy, both for United Methodists and others who follow the deep flow of the church's worship history.

The congregation’s pastors, altar guild, and worship committee decided years ago to forego the familiar white “tent” covering stacks of communion cup trays on the altar. Instead, folks from the congregation bring them up during the offertory, along with a loaf of bread, a chalice, and a cruet of Welch’s grape juice. The table is set. A pastor pours the juice into the chalice set in the midst of the regiment of pre-filled thimbles ready to be served to the Lord’s army that awaits their refreshment.   And then,

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.  
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

The greeting always reminds you of the Star Wars jokes: “May the Force be with you.” You’re always sure to use the pun on an unsuspecting someone on May-the-Fourth. On second thought, this little exchange at the top of the Great Thanksgiving has an entirely different theology than the movie reference. For ages Christians have said “The Lord be with you” as a blessing to one another. Paul’s letters end with some variation on it. It’s tempting to imagine a “force” with you, a cloud of sanctity, some otherworldly feeling. Those imaginings of God fit a modernity that has a hard time otherwise thinking about God. It was the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) who tried to build a bridge to Christianity’s “cultured despisers” who thought themselves fleeing medieval darkness at last under the bright sun of rational Enlightenment. The august professor spoke of a feeling of absolute dependence that pervaded the human experience, just past what could be rationally accounted for, but no less real. His efforts notwithstanding, the congregation is being commended not to a feeling, but a Lord. 

To lift up our hearts to the Lord is another way of saying “be joyous,” a running theme in the liturgy. Let your spirit be high, full of joy, for this is the feast of victory for our God! Supper is about to be served. Don’t let the words pass to quickly, as though they were mere garnish on the eucharistic feast. There is a theological controversy lurking underneath them. 

Wesley generously said he differed “but a hair’s breadth” from Calvin and made no point of eucharistic theology as a bone of contention. Theologian Lorna Khoo, however, puts her finger on a different emphasis here. Whereas Calvin would have us raise our hearts to heaven to meet Christ there, Wesley thought more in terms of Christ coming down, sitting beside us at the table.[1] Maybe instead of “Lift up your hearts,” we should say, “Look next to you” as if to see Jesus sitting among us at this meal. Look, dear Emmaus Road travelers, and see who it is walking beside you. This meal is an intimate encounter of a Lord who stops at nothing to be with us. We can’t help but give our thanks and praise. 

It is right, and a good and joyful thing,
always and everywhere to give thanks to you,
Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
You formed us in your image
and breathed into us the breath of life.
When we turned away, and our love failed,
your love remained steadfast.
You delivered us from captivity,
made covenant to be our sovereign God,
and spoke to us through the prophets.
And so,
with your people on earth
and all the company of heaven
we praise your name and join their unending hymn:

This paragraph is called the “Preface.” Historically, there was a special one for each season of the church year. The United Methodist services offer whole Great Thanksgivings appropriate to days and seasons. This is a good one for an ordinary Sunday such as this. 

A preface to what? The long prayer ensuing is the grandchild of the Jewish Berakah, a prayer thanking and blessing God by recalling God’s mighty acts. God is as God does, and what God has done for Israel and the church is what is recalled. You heard words of forgiveness earlier quoting Romans 5:8. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. That death and its benefits are a present reality, not merely a past event. It is you, here, now, who is addressed. Language here has more power than mere remembrance. Memory doesn’t so much take us back as it moves forward to the present. William Faulkner put it best: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”[2] Communion as a holy memory lane is far too thin a theology for what’s going on here. More on that later, though. 

Joy, again. This worship is not only joyful, it is right and good, too. Older versions (Word and Table IV) use words like “meet” “our bounden duty.” “Meet” meant proper. What makes it proper to praise God always and everywhere? The driver in the lane next to you at the stoplight seems to be singing along to the radio. Maybe they’re doing it. Not one to wear your faith on your sleeve that way, maybe you take Lawrence Welk’s advice to “keep a song in your heart.”

The attention shifts, doesn’t it? Enough of whether or not you praise the Lord at random times next week. Pay attention to what it is that draws praise from you in the first place. This paragraph is a summary of the work of salvation, the holy history of redemption. Notice the couplets: We were formed in God’s image and in-breathed with life. To Wesley, it was our capacity for relationship with God that most reflected this “breath of life.” For all its wonder, a human body is not enough. “The glory of God is humanity alive” said the second century bishop Irenaeus. This gloriously alive humanity that we are nonetheless turned away, deformed, the breath of life exhaled from our souls. It’s another nadir point in the middle of a prayer, like the confession a few moments ago. But the ensuring words lift us from the valley of our own making. Words like steadfast, delivered, made covenant, spoke to us, are like mighty rocks of promise on which we may climb out of the pit of our failed love. The crescendo rises. Heaven and earth join in song. A joyful thing, indeed.

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

The Sanctus. Congregants and pastors hunched over their hymnals, mumbling the heavenly hymn, is enough to seem a symptom of that turning away just mentioned. Is nothing more evoked from us? How can we keep from singing? The liturgy teaches us to tune our voices to those of the angels. Sing out! Sing lustily and with good courage! Here of all places, beware of singing as if you were half dead or half asleep. Your redemption has just been announced. You’re grateful your congregation has taken the time to learn one rousing setting of the service music. In fact, the organ is joined by piano and flute all at once. 

Holy are you, and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ.
Your Spirit anointed him
to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
and to announce that the time had come
when you would save your people.
He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.
By the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection
you gave birth to your Church,
delivered us from slavery to sin and death,
and made with us a new covenant
by water and the Spirit.
When the Lord Jesus ascended,
he promised to be with us always,
in the power of your Word and Holy Spirit.

On the night in which he gave himself up for us,
he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread,
gave it to his disciples, and said:
“Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”

When the supper was over, he took the cup,
gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said:
“Drink from this, all of you;
this is my blood of the new covenant,
poured out for you and for many
for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this, as often as you drink it,
in remembrance of me.”

You hear now that you’re in the middle of a Trinitarian prayer. The Father was addressed in the preface and Sanctus, and now, still addressed, the focus shifts to the Son and a resume of his ministry drawing on Jesus’ own description of it, quoting Isaiah (Luke 4:18-19). The Father’s work of deliverance in the preface is paralleled here by Jesus’ public ministry. This is the “flesh” of his ministry to flesh and blood—healing, eating and drinking with, being with. Humanity with divinity. Recalling to the present his suffering, death, and resurrection, the passion, speaks to our alienated, turned-away, loved-failing selves. These hollowed-out selves, you hear, are redeemed by the birth of a new community, the church, the very same church that confessed its disobedience moments earlier in the service. 

The Words of Institution follow. The presider lifts the loaf of bread, and then the cup, before the congregation. The “elevation” identifies food with words, underscores the meal’s for-you-ness, for the forgiveness of sins. Don’t miss the is-ness of these words, too. We aren’t here for a re-enactment of the Upper Room, as though our faith might benefit from a whiff of the aroma of an empty chalice from a night long ago. Reenactment, or a eucharistic theology fixed on memory alone makes the promise the meal brings something the disciples around the table were closer to than we could ever be. We can only participate vicariously in a eucharist of that sort, at a remove of two thousand years. But does your soul long for the courts of the Lord (Psalm 84:2)? Memory depends on absence and leaves us longing for its resolution in presence. Is not this a real presence, here and now? 

And so,
in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving
as a holy and living sacrifice,
in union with Christ's offering for us,
as we proclaim the mystery of faith.

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ… Christ has died… What about the emphasis on memory? It sure sounds like that’s where our minds should be at the moment. You think of the familiar communion tables with “Do This in Memory of Me” carved across the front. How does is-ness live with absence? Faulkner may be the unlikely eucharistic theologian here. The past is a reality. Yes, we are being asked to remember. But, what is it to remember, anyway? Re-member is literally to re-connect, re-join, so that the past tense becomes the unlikely means for the present tense, here-and-now experience of grace.  That way, the past isn’t even past. Absence, crucified wounds, give way to resurrected presence. The wounds of absence and not-here-ness still feel present enough to touch them. You think how much you still miss a beloved one, long deceased, strongly enough that the loss is still palpable to you. This eucharistic moment could be another moment of such loss, if not for the invitation to take, chew and gulp. What seemed like the unforgiving law of death and absence becomes precisely the vehicle for the gospel of presence. Here is Wesley’s theology of the meal and its Host coming to sit beside you, rather than you being transported back in time to the original meal. What is more, if this table is “the room itself” of holiness, it must be constituted by the Host’s presence, thereby making the holiness integral, something we experience at table with Jesus and others. Past, present, and future meet at the table. In other words, welcome to The Eternal Now.[3]

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood.

By your Spirit make us one with Christ,
one with each other,
and one in ministry to all the world,
until Christ comes in final victory
and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

Through your Son Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit in your holy Church,
all honor and glory is yours, almighty Father,
now and forever. Amen.

In his description of Wesley’s theology of grace, Kenneth Collins notes a pattern in the way Wesley narrates how grace in Christ reaches us and what it does once it’s there. God acts, we respond. Grace calls forth that holy and living sacrifice in us. The Reformers shunned eucharistic sacrifice, thinking it blunted Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice for us. Their concerns were not without merit. Almost two centuries had passed since Luther and Calvin when Wesley, steeped in the piety of the Anglican prayerbook, knew well its very Protestant admonition about the sacrifice being one of praise and thanksgiving. But we aren’t just offering adoration here. The prayer calls for a “holy and living sacrifice” of ourselves. Is this another call to give, and give, and give again? A veiled reference to what you put in the offering plate just now, or those membership vows about loyalty to the church with your prayers, presence, gifts, and service? You’re not sure your sacrifice is too holy, surely not “living.” 

More than that, this sacrifice is to be “in union with Christ’s offering for us.” Isn’t that a bit much for you this morning? Are you to nail yourself to the cross, too?  Before you can digest what’s being prayed, the congregation sings the mystery of faith, pulling you back, point-counterpoint, to God’s gracious action on our behalf in Christ. It’s his death, resurrection, and promise to come again, that make all this sacrificing possible. You are reminded this prayer is about God’s—not your—mighty deeds. If God’s mighty deeds are somehow present, here, now, in our recital of them, are you not present, too, as the subject, the recipient of the grace of which it speaks? “Mixed with the sacred smoke we rise” Charles Wesley put it in a hymn. Is not God in the business of enlisting us, not letting us stand around when God does something? Moses on the mountaintop got sent down with “I Am” on his lips. Isaiah heard a heavenly Sanctus, and ended up deployed back to the mission field, seared tongue and all. That God of mighty deeds is surely intent on working such right and good and joyful things in your life, too.  Shouldn’t you expect it? 

The pastor lifts her hands high, as though to call down the Holy Spirit on gifts and people. This is the Epiclesis, Greek for calling down. She traces a sign of the cross over the elements, identifying them again with Christ’s sacrifice for us. Make them be for us… she prays. It’s not the power of your memory that makes this meal. It’s God’s action here, now, bringing it to pass. Charles Wesley put it:

Eternal Spirit gone up on high
Blessings for mortals to receive,
Send down those blessings from the sky,
To us thy gifts and graces give;
With holy things our mouths are filled,
O let our hearts with joy o’erflow;
Descend in pard’ning love revealed,
And meet us in thy courts below.[4] 

Those lines asking the Spirit to make us one: with Christ, each other, and in ministry to all the world, seem a tall order for scattered, contentious sheep. And yet, the formula is a marvelous and memorable affirmation of Perfection. If Perfection is the love of God flooding not just me, but the church and beyond, then maybe Perfection is about the Spirit’s one-making. You feel a bit disconnected this morning, sitting near the back, alone. Surely not “one with each other,” though you’ll join others for Sunday School in a while. Was helping chaperone the youth retreat last month, writing a letter to your congressperson, advocating to keep your hospital from closing in your small town, not your voice in the chorus of being “one in ministry to all the world”? Going on to Perfection seems to be about the Spirit forming just these kinds of oneness where there was the brokenness of fellowship and the brokenness of self.  

This prayer’s strange mix of memory and presence closes with a doxology. The pastor’s voice is a bit louder, rising as the elements are raised again before the gathering. The congregation correspondingly lets out a loud Amen, and the Lord’s Prayer ensues. Give us today our daily bread. You recognize that it, too, is a table prayer. Its themes of reconciliation echo back to the confession of sin as you and the rest of the gathered prepare to move forward to receive. 

Words, words, and more words have been said. The liturgy always runs the risk of being too didactic and over spiced with narration. Now let us move into a time of communion…. Shall we pray? At this point in our service this morning we will shift gears and…. Our lives are filled with directives. Add two teaspoons to the rice, then simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.... Batteries on your home fire alarm should be tested once a month....If you need to write a word, code, and/or dollar amount on Form 1040 or 1040-SR to explain an item of income or deduction, but don't have enough space to enter the word, code, and/or dollar amount, you can put an asterisk next to the applicable line number and put a footnote at the bottom of page 2 of your tax return indicating the line number and the word, code, and/or dollar amount you need to enter.

Here the pastor simply lifts the elements silently before you. The bread is broken. No words are spoken. No directions are given. It is enough. 

[1] Lorna Khoo, Wesleyan Eucharistic Spirituality (Adelaide: ATF Press, 2005): 69-70.

[2] William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (New York: Vintage, 2011): 73.

[3] Khoo, 70. 

[4] Hymns on the Lord’s Supper 112/1. See also 150.

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