In the student chaplaincy at Dartmouth College where I work, we say "All are welcome--no exceptions," and we do our very best to live that out. In my 3.5 years involved with the Episcopal Campus Ministry, 2.5 of which have been as the coordinator, I have seen this lived out. As a group, we do our utmost to live out this motto, and to extend hospitality to everyone who joins us at any of our events. Whether by luck or by design, though, we have it pretty easy, in that we don't really have people come to us who are hard to love. The students we draw, whether they're interested in our programming and seeking out spiritual sustenance, or they just want the free dinner we provide on Wednesday nights, come to us because they want to. Sure, we have agnostics, and atheists, and other people for whom religion and spirituality aren't their primary interest, and we welcome and enjoy their perspective. As yet, however, I have not experienced anyone who is openly hostile walking in the door.
To my knowledge, we've never had someone come in declaring their sinfulness and saying that they're utterly depraved and totally unlovable. The students we draw, however, show brokenness in different, subtler ways. I've had plenty of people come to me for advice, convinced that they don't belong in the Christian community. I'm too sinful, they might say. I've slept with too many people. I struggle with addiction. I'm too angry. I'm too sad. I drink too much. I'm too unlovable. God doesn't want me.
God doesn't want me. Now, I ask you, what could make someone believe that God doesn't want them? It's not anything that God has said or done. The Almighty, so far as I know, isn't in the business of sending breakup texts or handing out pink slips. The God "in whom we live and move and have our being" is not one who throws away the work of God's own hands. No, my peers, when they come to me saying "God doesn't want me," are not saying that because they've heard it from God. They feel unlovable or say that God doesn't want them because other people have told them that, not because God has.
The God I worship is the very Source of Love, and "unlovable" is not something that ever comes about. The God I worship doesn't cast people aside because they are "too" anything. Mary Magdalene wasn't too sinful or too adulterous. The Gerasene demoniac didn't have too many demons. Zacchaeus wasn't too short. Petulant Peter, God love him, wasn't too stupid or stubborn. Even Lazarus wasn't too dead.
When someone comes to me feeling unlovable and excluded once I get them to this point, the question inevitably comes up, "What can I do to feel like a part of the Kingdom?" or "How can I feel more included?"
At that point, I remind them that, despite those tangled parables, at least some of Jesus' commandments were actually pretty straightforward. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it well when she says, "With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, Jesus did not give [his disciples] something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do--specific ways of being together in their bodies--that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself... 'Do this,' he said-- not believe this but do this--'in remembrance of me.'"
And that's all. To be united to God's love, for me, Eucharist, the sacrament of Communion, is as close as I can get to that on earth. Whenever someone starts to talk about mind-body dualism, or how this sinful flesh suit wrapped around our soul does nothing be lead us into temptation, I remind them that our Christian life is centered on two very important physical things.
First, the incarnation: we believe that somehow, God took on flesh and came to dwell among us. If physicality were so evil, God would not have become man. Much ink was spilled in the first few centuries of Christianity, trying to refute the "Arian heresy," which said that Jesus just looked human, or had the illusion of being human. Our Christianity calls us to embrace the mystery that Jesus was fully human AND fully divine.
The second touchstone of our Christian life, after the incarnation, is that we are centered around something very physical: the reception of actual bread and wine, food and drink, in the Eucharist.
When we come forward for Communion, whether we receive standing or kneeling, we are making an open and public declaration of our own need. We reach out our hands, cupped and expectant, waiting to receive. We come forward to receive from the Church that which we cannot procure for ourselves. It is our right as children of God and adopted coheirs with Christ, and yet we are all unworthy of such an outward and visible sign of an inward spiritual grace that we are constantly striving toward but can never fully achieve. In coming forward, we surrender. We release something of our pride and admit that we do not have all the answers or all the power. We receive that which we cannot earn and which we certainly do not deserve. And yet, Christ always meets us where we are. Aleksandr Shmemann, and Orthodox priest, said:
No one has been 'worthy' to receive communion, no one has been prepared for it. At this point, all merits, all righteousness, all devotions disappear and dissolve. Life comes again to us as a Gift, a free and divine gift... Everything is free, nothing is due, and yet all is given. And, therefore, the greatest humility and obedience is to accept the gift, to say yes--in joy and gratitude.
This is why we respond, "Amen." We come forward and are told that this bread is Christ's body, the bread of heaven. This chalice, the cup of salvation, contains Christ's blood. Even if we do not believe in the Aristotelian notion of transubstantiation, and that the substance of bread and wine become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, we still affirm, "Amen. I believe." We are not asked to prove our belief or to take an exam in order to receive at Christ's table. We are invited, and the invitation is ours to accept or reject. Even when we have accepted it, it is ours to decide what we do with the experience. I fully believe that we can be transformed by Eucharist regardless of our own personal beliefs about the nature of the Sacrament. As one who believes in the Real Presence, I will take something different than someone who believes that Eucharist is simply a memorial meal. Someone who firmly believes in transubstantiation will take something different still. The beauty of the Sacrament, however, is that, even though we all take different things from it, we all take exactly what we need.
Anyone in any group of people can share food and drink, care for one another, and be to some degree transformed, whether inside or outside Christianity, believing or not. Christians, however, recognize this particular sharing of bread and wine as sacrament, as holy. We come to the altar for nourishment of both the physical and the spiritual variety. To quote Rachel Held Evans, we engage in the "collective memory [which brings] Jesus back to life in every breaking of the bread and pouring of the wine, in all the tastes, smells, and sounds God himself loves."
In a document promulgated by the Episcopal Church on the theology of the Eucharist, Reginald Fuller is quoted as saying, "Anglicans have always understood their liturgy to be more than just human activity initiated here on earth: it is a participation in the worship of heaven. The ultimate destiny of humanity is seen in participation in that worship."
In participating in this sacred meal, we are participating in the worship of heaven. We are connected to every Christian who has received Eucharist, every priest and bishop who has consecrated it, and to the sacrifice of Christ who once and for all died for the remission of sins.
I don't know how Christ is present in bread and wine, but I believe that somehow, he is. It seems counterproductive, then, for me to tell someone they must wait and encounter him somewhere else, as if we are all to walk the path to Emmaus and happen across him (where, even then, his disciples didn't recognize him until they broke bread together). People are hungry. Let them come eat. People are thirsty. Let them drink. The table is not mine. It does not belong to my denomination, to my church, or to anyone but Christ himself. It is not my place (or anyone's) to be a bouncer at the door of the church and make everyone show their passport to heaven and their baptismal certificate.
It is not necessarily an easy thing to do. As someone training to be a priest, and with the rubric in the Book of Common Prayer allowing the priest the option of denying Eucharist to someone living a "notoriously evil life," this adds another level of difficulty. In the abstract it is fine, but what if Donald Trump were to come through my communion line? The world is lousy with people who seem not to deserve to come to Christ's table. Including me. At the end of the day, however, it is Christ's table, not mine. The faithful gathered around the altar, of whatever stripe, reminds us that we are all invited to God's banquet, and that we're stuck with one another. The beauty of the Church is that it is not about being correct or orthodox or in total agreement: Church is about feeding, and, in turn, being fed.
It seems easiest, sometimes, to simply keep searching until we find the denomination, or the pastor, or the congregation who does everything exactly to one's own tastes and sensibilities. To find the Goldilocks solution where everything is "just right." This, however, is impossible and irrelevant. "Right" has nothing to do with it. To quote Rachel Held Evans again, "The Church is God saying: 'I'm throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine.'"