This is part 1 of a sermon I preached at Filer Mennonite Church on Sunday, June 5th, 2005
There’s a wonderful story by Isak Dinesen called Babette’s Feast, about a strict, dour, fundamentalist community in Denmark. Babette works as a cook for two elderly sisters who have no idea that she once was a chef to nobility back in her native France. Babette’s dream is to return to her beloved home city of Paris, so every year she buys a lottery ticket in hopes of winning enough money to return. And every night her austere employers demand that she cook the same dreary meal: boiled fish and potatoes, because, they say, Jesus commanded, “Take no thought of food and drink.”
One day the unbelievable happens: Babette wins the lottery! The prize is 10,000 francs, a small fortune. And because the anniversary of the founding of the community is approaching, Babette asks if she might prepare a French dinner with all the trimmings for the entire village.
At first the townspeople refuse: “No, it would be sin to indulge in such rich food.” But Babette begs them, and finally they relent, “As a favor to you, we will allow you to serve us this French dinner.” But the people secretly vow not to enjoy the feast and instead to occupy their minds with spiritual things, believing God will not blame them for eating this sinful meal as long as they do not enjoy it.
Babette begins her preparations. Caravans of exotic food arrive in the village, along with cages of quail and barrels of fine wine.
Finally the big day comes, and the village gathers.
The first course is an exquisite turtle soup. The diners force it down without enjoyment. But although they usually eat in silence, conversation begins to take off. Then comes the wine: Veuve Cliquot 1860, the finest vintage in France. And the atmosphere changes. Someone smiles. Someone else giggles. An arm comes up and drapes over a shoulder. Someone is heard to say, “After all, did not the Lord Jesus say, love one another?” By the time the main entrée of quail arrives, those austere, pleasure-fearing people are giggling and laughing and slurping and guffawing and praising God for their many years together. This pack of Pharisees is transformed into a loving community through the gift of a meal. One of the two sisters goes into the kitchen to thank Babette, saying, “Oh, how we will miss you when you return to Paris!” And Babette replies, “I will not be returning to Paris, because I have no money. I spent it all on the feast.”
When we come to communion, it is a feast that was prepared with the cost of a life. Jesus gave his life so that we might have an abundant life. Yet like the austere Dutch in this story, we often take it with such seriousness that we lose the joy that it was meant for. Part of that may be because we have divorced it from the love feast that the original church celebrated. As I’ve been reading from the early Mennonites on this subject I also notice that they took communion fairly regularly. I’ve also read The Puritan writer Richard Baxter. He warns us to “Take heed lest your mistakes of the nature of this sacrament should possess you with such fears of unworthy receiving that you unfit your souls for the joyful exercises of faith and love and praise and thanksgiving to which you are invited.” This can be caused by setting this sacrament at a greater distance from other parts of God’s worship than there is cause; so that the excess of reverence overwhelms the minds of some with terrors. By receiving it so seldom as to make it strange to us and increase our fear, whereas if it were administered every Lord’s day as it was in the early churches, it would better acquaint them with it and cure that fear that cometh fron strangeness.
He gives another reason that I found fascinating for an author writing in the 1600’s. He says that some people’s spirits are in such a constant state of distress that it leaves the mind capable of almost nothing but fear and trouble even in the sweetest works. He is talking about depression. Living in a state of untreated depression can cause that which should most comfort them, troubles them the most.
Another reason that we struggle to experience the joy of the Lord’s Supper Baxter says is that by studying more the terrible words of eating and drinking damnation to ourselves, if we do it unworthily, than all the expressions of love and mercy, which that blessed feast is furnished with. So that when the views of infinite love should ravish us we are studying wrath and vengence to terrify us, as if we came to Moses and not to Christ.
Next we will look at how as Christian who still sin we can ever have an examined life worthy to enter communion.