Today we listen to a small extract from an early book by Will Willimon on the Lord's Supper.
A friend of mine says he's skeptical of my emphasis upon the Lord's Supper as a meal, as a time of fellowship and life, to the exclusion of some of the former stress upon Holy Communion as a time of sacrifice and death. "At Holy Communion, are we coming to the table or to the altar?" he asks.
In recent years, we have rediscovered the ancient emphasis upon the table. The old altars, which were pushed against the back wall of the sanctuary and placed on high steps away from the people in the Middle Ages, have been converted to small tables , brought out into the light, set in the midst of the congregation, as they were in the early church. My friend questions some of this. He does not mind the recovery of the Lord's Supper as a meal, but he wonders if, beneath our current emphasis upon the fellowship and the joy of the sacrament, we may be avoiding some of its more threatening, more challenging implications.
He reminds me that a table is more accessible than an altar. The table is a place of linen napkins and fine silver, of merriment and polite conversation broken only by the tinkling of knives and forks. The table is a place of good manners, warm hospitality, and a receptive and close God. The altar, on the other hand, is a mysterious place of sacrifice, of life-and-death matters. Here stands a priest in the holy of holies, knife in hand, preparing to slit the throat of some cow or goat. The altar is enmeshed in the screams of dying animals, blood trickling down the marble steps. There is talk of sin and death and sacrifice before a distant, demanding God.
As often as we come forward to the Lord's Supper, we come not only to a table but also to an altar. Our sin and death are real. They cannot be explained away or avoided. They must be confront. We are on the way with Jesus to the cross.
William H. Willimon, Sunday Dinner: The Lord's Supper and the Christian Life (The Upper Room, 1981), pp.81, 88.