Broken Bread, Broken Body
By Hannah Adair Bonner
When we gather for Maundy Thursday, we celebrate what was Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples and what was our First Communion as a church universal. It was our first meal as a family that transcends beyond generations and locations and languages and borders. However, if Maundy Thursday is anything like a typical Sunday morning in the United States, it will also be one of the most segregated hours in America.
In the United Methodist liturgy, we say, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”
Nothing more concretely reminds us of the joy and responsibility of living out our calling to embody that kind of family than the meal that we share. Nothing more concretely reminds us that our identity as children of God takes prominence over any other identity that we have and, in taking that position, demolishes the walls that divide us, calling us forth to live as if that identity is more important to us than any other.
It is with deep irony, and for many of us with heavy hearts, that we celebrate this Communion meal in a church that has, in these United States, continued to be a place of segregation in practice if not in theory. While many feel helpless and struggle to understand why this continues, many others, having felt the dynamics of privilege, power, and politics, feel they know exactly why it does. The silence of many churches in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the missing 43, and the instatement of “religious freedom” laws has served to merely deepen this divide in many communities.
Yet, we still believe that this meal, this holy mystery, holds power. We remember the story of the men who, while walking away from Jerusalem after Jesus’s death, were joined by a stranger. They spoke openly to the stranger of their disappointment, having hoped that Jesus Christ was going to change things. They had no idea this stranger was Jesus. When they stopped to eat together, however, everything changed. Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke the bread and handed it to them. It was then, in the breaking of the bread, that they recognized Christ.
Something happens when we break bread. We see Christ more clearly. We see ourselves more clearly. We see others more clearly. If we never break bread together, will we ever see clearly?
The Apostle Paul wrote, “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
The Eucharist reveals to us that we are the Body of Christ, that when we eat “Holy Communion” together, it unifies us and makes us into a family. When Christians use the words “brother” and “sister”, we do not use them lightly, or we ought not. Those words mean instead that we have truly become a family, that we have responsibility to one another. When Jesus Christ said from the cross to his disciples, “Man this is your mother,” and “woman this is your son” – he made them recognize that through him they were family and that didn’t just mean that they called one another mother and son, it meant that there was responsibility that came along with that, that they took care of one another.
This is what happens when we celebrate Communion, our nature as family is revealed to us. Not in a sentimental way, but in a real way. When we receive the Body of Christ it is really we that are being received into the Body of Christ. It does not become a part of us, we become a part of it.
This is why we celebrate Communion together, not individually. We celebrate it communally because the whole point of it is communal, that we are being brought together into one body. That through the work that Jesus Christ did, we are able to be freed from our sins of prejudice and separation, and reconciled to God and one another.
In the Eucharist, we are shown who we are: a family, unified though divided, one though many, suffering yet enduring.
Last week we remembered the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was killed by his own government. His crime? Trying to make the Body of Christ visible. He had been working and preaching in defense of the poor and abused of his country. As women were raped and people disappeared in El Salvador, he appealed in his last sermon for the soldiers of the nation to begin to live like they were the Body of Christ. Throughout the history of Christianity, people of all races, countries, and languages have called themselves the Body of Christ, while failing to treat one another that way. We have raped one another, robbed one another, shot one another, bombed one another, we have lived in comfort while other parts of the body starve. Thus, in attempting to slow this tide and cause those who called themselves Christians to reveal Christ, rather than reveal cruelty and division, he said in his last sermon:
I want to make a special appeal to soldiers, national guardsmen and policemen: each of you is one of us. The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear a man telling you to kill, remember God’s words, ‘thou shalt not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey a law contrary to the law of God. In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people, I beseech you, I implore you; in the name of God I command you to stop the repression.”
The next day, during his last celebration of the Eucharist, Romero was shot by an assassin. As he pleaded with the nation to stop breaking the bodies that made up the body of Christ, his own body was broken and he joined the ranks of the martyrs. Yet, that Eucharist service, cut short though it may have been, made visible the body of Christ in a way that many services do not.
Oscar Romero simply demanded that people recognize that we are family; and that we must demand justice for our brothers and our sisters.
Geoffrey Wainwright, the United Methodist theologian, describes it this way:
The eucharist, properly celebrated, is a sign of that generous justice by which God invites the hungry and the thirsty to his table. As the creative prefiguration of the feast which God is preparing for all peoples beyond the conquest of death, the Lord’s meal should prompt Christians, who have themselves been welcomed equally to the sacrament, towards a fair distribution of the divine bounties at present made tangible in the earth’s resources.”
We cannot share Communion with our family without recognizing that we must demand justice for our family. Perhaps it is our failure to do so that keeps us eating at separate tables.
On June 23 1957, Rev. Douglas Moore of Asbury Temple United Methodist Church went into the Royal Ice Cream Parlor in Durham, NC with a few college students and sat in the whites only section until they were arrested. Later one of the young woman stated, “It was exciting, because we went where we dared not to go. I wasn’t frightened or anything of that sort because either way we could have made history. If he had served us ice cream, he would have made history. But, by refusing to, I guess we made history!”
Another way of saying this is that if he had served them, he would have made the body of Christ visible by treating them as if they were family. Instead, when he denied them, they made the body of Christ visible by protesting the separation of the body of Christ that takes place through segregation. After their arrest, before the group went to court to face the charges, they gathered at their United Methodist church and knelt at the chancel railing, just as they had sat at that ice cream parlor counter, once again making their beliefs visible by receiving the body of Christ.
Segregation is an act of separating, dividing.
Communion is an instance of sharing and of intimate fellowship.
Segregation is the forcible act of separating people based on their race or ethnicity.
Communion is the voluntary act of bringing together into one body what has been separated.
I know that the next thought on your mind may be that segregation is over. And in a sense this is true. De jure segregation, the legal division of people based on their race, is over in the United States. However, de facto segregation, the state in which separation is normative, is not over. Nor is the systemic injustice over that the church’s historic practice of segregation helped to build.
In 1949, Howard Thurman wrote in Jesus and the Disinherited, of the need for a common place of fellowship in order for love to grow in this nation. He wrote:
This is one very important reason for the insistence that segregation is a complete ethical and moral evil. Whatever it may do for those who dwell on either side of the wall, one thing is certain: it poisons all normal contacts of those persons involved. The first step toward love is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value. This cannot be discovered in a vacuum or in a series of artificial or hypothetical relationships. It has to be in a real situation, natural, free. The experience of the common worship of God is such a moment. It is in this connection that American Christianity has betrayed the religion of Jesus almost beyond redemption… in the one place in which normal, free contacts might be most naturally established – in which the relations of the individual to [their] God should take priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth, or the like – this place is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers.” (98)
How has this happened to us? Perhaps we have forgotten who the host is. Perhaps we have forgotten that “Christ our Lord invites to his table…”
All of us come to the table of Christ with an equal need. We are not the host, not the one to offer hospitality, Christ is. When we take on ourselves to make the invitations based on who we would like to see at the table, we have made it our own. It is then no longer the Lord’s table, it is our own private party.
Christ our Lord invites to his table people who may make you uncomfortable, people who you may not have chosen to invite yourself. That is the whole point.
The Church must not just make a scene and be seen; the Church must be the body of Christ, the family of God that transcends all barriers and seeks justice for all its members.
We have a responsibility to one another, and we need to talk about it. It would be better to have a small voice that speaks the truth, than a loud voice that hides it.
Image by Flickr user Evan Courtney. Used under Creative Commons License. Cropped from Original.