God warned Israel in various ways to follow him, but not to come too close. For example, Moses demanded a full disclosure of God’s glory, but was allowed only a glimpse from the safe vantage of shielded rock. Israel was to approach God’s holy mountain, but not touch it, which of course led to certain death. Similarly, the ark of the covenant could be seen but never touched. Isaiah’s peek at God’s fantastic holiness left him totally undone, a man of “unclean lips” dwelling among people of similar spiritual darkness. And only the high priest ascended the holy of holies, and then just once a year.
In so many ways ours too is a distant engagement with God. We feel like the 10 lepers who, Luke tells us, could only beg mercy “at a distance,” or the tax collector who also “stood at a distance” begging, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Strangely, there is something about the Lord’s table, this table of Presence that recalls needed distance, holy hesitation, a healthy, growing awareness of the absolute purity and necessary transcendence of creator God. If we race into the Lord’s Supper as one more purely human activity among thousands of others demanding our fleeting attention, may God have mercy on us all. Of all the things we Christians do, this table merits our best, our most attentive, concentration. For it is precisely here that we meet God, meet Christ, in a way unlike any other—prophetic, forgiving, healing, and holy. This table has held the church’s concentration, memory, will, and future as no other activity can, and what’s more, it has continually secured our identity as the people of God, the people of the crucified Christ, throughout the church’s long and sometimes less-than-stellar history.
So while we encounter God “at a distance” even here, nevertheless as one preacher put it, “If God is not here, I don’t know where he is.” You and I have not been graced with the privilege of living in the days of Jesus. Nor have we walked with Peter or Paul. But we have come to this holy table, week after week, reminded of Jesus’ singular gift, his transforming sacrifice. And in this good way we have maintained a healthy, if “distant,” engagement with God—“distant” at least until we drink the cup anew with Jesus in the Father’s kingdom.
Neal Windham is professor of New Testament and Christian spiritual formation at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University. Read a new Communion meditation from him every Friday in October.