When you hunger for more than crackers & juice

A fresh look at Holy Communion for the Evangelical

This post was originally published on Substack in June 2022. To receive this content early and join a community of people discussing issues around faith and community candidly, subscribe to Courage & Candor here.

It was about fifteen years ago when I was attending a typical Sunday morning service when I felt a dread wash over me: Communion was being served this Sunday. As I watched the metal trays with plastic cups pass from row to row, a deep resistance grew within me and I felt like a terrible Christian. Why didn’t I want to take communion? What’s wrong with me? Do I not love God? The guilt began pouring in and I couldn’t stop it. When I took the cup of purple-red grape juice and the small oyster cracker in hand I knew something needed to change.

Growing up in a conservative Baptist church, communion was served once a month. We used the same plastic cups and oyster crackers. I would sit with the high school students in the front pews as the preacher led us through a time of remembering Christ’s blood shed and body broken for us. It felt out of place in the midst of the normal joyous worship we did most Sundays. The somber feeling that accompanied this ritual didn’t seem to fit inside the tiny cup of grape juice I gulped down timidly. It was as if the size and frequency didn’t match the sacrifice, nor have enough room to hold the immensity of guilt I felt. The once-a-month crackers and juice service felt strange then as it did in that moment. And as I held onto the tiny plastic shot glass of Jesus, I knew something was missing.

A few months later I walked into my first Episcopal church just down the road from the crackers and juice church. The small chapel was bright with stained glass windows lining the walls. I felt both intimidated and curious by the icons I knew very little about. Upon sitting down, I noticed the large alter towards the front. It held the elements of communion in what seemed like a perfectly framed picture. I was the youngest there by far, so I was an easy target to spot for greeting. I had zero clue what to do as the service began, I simply followed the program and watched the people. I didn’t know why I had come. I was alone, single, and had just walked away from being a worship leader at a local community. But I didn’t care, I knew I needed something in that space.

When it came time for communion, it was quite the ordeal, much more than a few mental plates. It was a whole, lengthy thing with poetic liturgy:

Holy and gracious father: in your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, and your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, you’re only eternal son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and father of all.

As it continued, I was surprised by the little guilt I felt. Instead, I was thankful and a feeling of deep love washed over me. As I stood in line, waiting to kneel at the altar and receive communion, this had been the first time in over a decade I wanted to participate. I found a spot at the kneeler and watched what the other members did. You can do this. No big deal. Just open your mouth. When it came time, I timidly held out my hands and received the tasteless wafer, it quickly dissolved on my tongue.

The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven

The priest then guided the chalice to my lips. It was rich and sweet.

The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

I gulped down the wine, bowed my head, and then returned to my seat. Any resistance I may have felt before, dissolved like the tasteless wafer I had just consumed. I could still taste the sweet wine and I knew this is what I needed. I still wasn’t sure why but I knew it wasn’t about jumping traditions. Yet, my soul hungered for more than crackers and juice, so I continued to attend. Every Sunday I went, and even on a few Wednesdays, each time receiving communion. I loved that little parish even when knew I wasn’t meant to stay there. I eventually left just under a year after tasting my first communion when my husband and I were hired as youth pastors at a small church in Portland.

Perhaps it was the elaborate ritual my soul needed to snap me out of a slumber. Maybe it was the humility in kneeling my ego needed or the taste of wine that lingered long which elevated the practice. Looking back now, I see it was the togetherness of the act that drew me. Kneeling as a community, waiting upon one another in patience. The quiet slow walking as a group up to the alter. We were held in space, embraced in the body and blood of Christ together. In complete silence, we waited and remembered together. No band started to play once it hit a certain threshold of time nor did a pastor say a “filler prayer to keep the service moving along. We waited in silence until each and every person had a chance to be at the table.

Jesus took the time. He took the time to break bread with people. He allowed the suspension of it while he ate and drank, talked, and taught. He lounged and reclined, not policing anyone’s coming or going. His table was always open, even to the Pharisees with whom he was in constant conflict. The resistance I felt all those years ago may have been from my unrecognition of Jesus’ table. For me, it felt small and closed. It felt as if it was solely about remembering the gruesome sacrifice and not about thanksgiving. The second thing Jesus did after breaking the bread was give thanks (Matthew 26:26). Communion should be a joyful time of remembering what Jesus did around a table of friends, eating, drinking, and giving thanks. It wasn’t an act of sitting quietly by yourself in somber guilt but of consuming and chewing and disgesting the truest nourishment our souls need.

Since the upper room, we have done a pretty bang-up job of losing sight of that table. We have closed it off, diminished its size, and have unwelcomed people we have deemed as unworthy. We’ve attached conditions and precepts to this table. As long as you believe in XYZ or say the special words you can partake. Jesus ate with deniers and betrayers, what makes us think we get to choose who participates? The only passage we see giving rebuke and instruction around the table is when we leave people out because of our own glutenous hunger or our privatized parties (1 Corinthians 11:17-43). Yet this was because, in the early church, communion was a sacred meal, not just crackers, and juice. It had much to do with community as it did proclaiming the death of Christ until his coming again. It was more like: Praise God for the sacrifice of his son! Let’s give thanks and can you please pass the mashed potatoes? Then it was sitting quietly by myself, not speaking to another soul, and trying to open a prepackaged, pandemic-style juice and crackers container (I understand why but I can still hate it).

It has taken me years and the stretching into other traditions to accept I wasn’t a bad Christian in my dread towards communion. I was just hungry. I was hungry for connection and deeper meaning around the elements. I was hungry for more than a 5-minute slot once a month to remember such a sacred meal. The tradition I grew up in where music and teaching were center stage, was causing my own spiritual anorexia. It was my hunger pains that eventually led me to a place of true nourishment. It wasn’t about a different tradition but recognizing communion is about connection and thanksgiving. It’s participating in a sacred meal (an actual meal) together not as disconnected individuals sitting in a dark room. It’s an open table, a waiting table, a messy table for messy people to receive grace.

Since leaving that little parish, I have experienced communion in a variety of ways. From crackers and juice to actual bread and wine. I have sat quietly, and have walked to the altar or a simple table. I have sat alone and have circled up with others to give thanks. The expression of communion will always vary from church to church, I am not here to condemn the way communities choose to participate in this sacred meal. Perhaps the challenge is to simply not make this meal secondary. To move it from the periphery of our services and create space for it. It may take having to cut back the well-prepped sermon to 20 minutes (gasp!) or another song in order to let people stay at the table longer. To wait and not rush. To invite all who are hungry and not expect them to say the right things or be the right kind of person. To make it about connection and thankfulness. To serve one another and look into the face of someone, broken and hungry in order to tell them:

This is the body of Christ broken for you.

The is the blood of Christ shed for you.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Lord Jesus.

Can someone please pass the mashed potatoes?

If you live in the Portland area, I’ve started a new community called Wild Church Portland. Check it out if you’re in town!

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Hey friend! I'm excited to meet you! I live in Portland, OR and completely love city life. My hubby and I have been married for over 10 years and still completely adore each other. I am a Jesus follower who is passionate about building up the local church and developing healthy communities. It's so nice of you to stop by! So grab a coffee or a glass of wine, and hang out a bit.

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