An inclusive Last SupperBy John A. Esau
A pastoral colleague and friend, Don Steelberg, served two congregations during his ministry: First Mennonite Church of Wadsworth, Ohio, and Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church of Wichita, Kan. He was called upon to oversee holy communion, or the Last Supper, as he prefers to refer to this central symbol of faith.
The meaning of this rite captured his attention throughout his ministry. Now in retirement, Steelberg has put together his theological reflections in a book, The True Meaning of the Last Supper: Welcoming Others. It is subtitled “A Missional Approach to Holy Communion.”
Steelberg observes that over the course of Christian history communion has become linked with sacrifice and atonement, sin and forgiveness, confession and repentance. With that has come a heavy emotional weight and attitudes and actions of exclusion.
Steelberg looks to the Gospels to inform our understanding of the Last Supper. Only Matthew links the Last Supper with the forgiveness of sins, and that is probably a later addition.
He has a particular interest in the Gospel of John, which does not institutionalize the meal as a rite to be observed but presents the symbol of shared food as an act of sharing in the life to which Jesus calls us.
Steelberg believes the Last Supper ought to be linked to all the other occasions when Jesus ate with others. Jesus shared a table with many outsiders to the religious community, people considered sinners. Eating bread and sharing a cup with them were signs of welcoming those otherwise excluded.
Steelberg contends the Last Supper should be for us what a shared meal was for Jesus: an occasion not of exclusion but of welcome. He argues for including children and others not linked to the church fellowship, claiming this fulfills Jesus’ intention.
At the end of every chapter Steelberg adds an “Odyssey” — a brief statement drawn from memories of things related to the Last Supper. Some come from childhood memories and perceptions, others from experiences during ministry.
In his first Odyssey, Steelberg tells of an experience when he was 5. The women who were cleaning up after communion allowed him to drink the remaining grape juice and eat the leftover squares of white bread. This drew a sharp rebuke from Steelberg’s father, the pastor, who said these elements had been consecrated! Steelberg comments: “This was my introduction to transubstantiation!” I suspect he is right to imply that there is a bit of transubstantiation theology in those of us who want to respect the special nature of symbols.
Personally, I have not felt the same weight of communion being tied to theories of atonement or to the forgiveness of sins. I have been gratified to serve in a tradition that did not observe closed communion, instead celebrating the Last Supper as an occasion of welcome and grace.
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