Eating together is a powerful sign of unity. Jesus regularly caused a stir among the religious authorities whenever he welcomed to his table those whom were seen as unexpected guests. When United Methodists gather for communion today, we often talk about the “open table,” following Jesus’s example.
Let's ask Dr. Edgardo Colón-Emeric about what it means to invite everyone to the Lord's Table.
Guest: Dr. Edgardo Colón-Emeric
- M.Div., Duke Divinity School (1997)
- Ph.D., Duke University (2007)
Colón-Emeric’s work explores the intersection of Methodist and Catholic theologies, and Wesleyan and Latin American experiences. His teaching covers a broad range of theological areas: systematics, Wesleyan theology, ecumenism, and Latin American theology. His research brings theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Hans Urs von Balthasar into conversation with voices from the theological periphery like Bartolomé de las Casas and Saint Óscar Romero, guided by the conviction that Christian theology sounds best when it is symphonic.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Colón-Emeric was the first Latino to be ordained as an elder in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church and was founding pastor of Cristo Vive UMC in Durham, N.C. He became founding director of the Hispanic House of Studies at Duke Divinity School in 2007 and joined the Divinity School faculty in 2008. Since 2010, he has served as the director of Central American Methodist Course of Study, which trains Methodist pastors who have not earned a formal master of divinity degree in such places as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. He is also director of the Duke-Peru Theological Initiative, a partnership between the Methodist Church of Peru and Duke Divinity School.
He became director of the Center for Reconciliation in 2018. Under his leadership, CFR has expanded its capacities and programs, including the launch of The Americas Initiative that brings together scholars and ministry practitioners from across the Americas to support reconciliation work. In 2020, he was appointed associate dean for academic formation.
Colón-Emeric serves on the United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order and on both national and international Methodist-Catholic dialogues. In October 2017, he met with Pope Francis as part of a delegation from the Methodist-Catholic Dialogue and presented the pope with a Spanish translation he created of the dialogue’s bilateral statement.
Colón-Emeric is the author of Wesley, Aquinas, and Christian Perfection: An Ecumenical Dialogue (Baylor University Press, 2009) which received the 2008 “Aquinas Dissertation Prize Winner” from the Aquinas Center for Theological Renewal at Ave Maria University and Óscar Romero’s Theological Vision: Liberation and the Transfiguration of the Poor (Notre Dame University Press, 2018), which received first place in the 2019 Catholic Press Association award for books about newly canonized saints.
Host: Michelle Hettmann
Michelle (she/her) is a certified candidate in the Virginia Conference seeking ordination as an elder in The United Methodist Church. She received her Bachelor's in Human Development at Virginia Tech and Master of Divinity at Emory's Candler School of Theology. She currently works as the Communications Director at Burke United Methodist Church as well as doing freelance communications for several churches and organizations across the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Michelle is passionate about environmental justice, the role of people of faith in the fight for climate justice, and working for a more inclusive church and world.
Michelle Hettmann: Good morning, if you're here on the east coast or good afternoon or good evening, wherever you're tuning in across our connection. Welcome, to Tuesday's at the Table. We are so glad you're joining us today, whether this is your first time or whether you've been with us the whole series. My name is Michelle Hettmann, I use pronouns she and her, and I will be your host. Now, if you haven't been with us before, Tuesdays at the Table is an initiative of the Connectional Table with the help of United Methodist Communications. We could not have done this without their support and are grateful for them.
And it's a time for us to come together and ask questions and be in conversation about our identity as a denomination during this time of great uncertainty and change. So I'd love to dive in and introduce you to our guest for this morning. Reverend Dr. Colón-Emeric is the newly installed Dean of Duke Divinity. Congratulations on your new deanship. I'm sure you are still just riding the wave of energy of having students back on campus and being able to do a lot more in person together. We've certainly been praying for seminary students, faculty, and staff during this time. So thank you so much for being with us.
Reverend Dr. Colón-Emeric was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and was the first Latino to be ordained as an elder in the North Carolina Conference. He has served in many different capacities since being ordained, and we are so grateful to get to glean his wisdom about the sacrament of communion today. So, I think we should dive right in, Reverend Dr. Colón-Emeric I'm going to hand it over to you now, would you start by telling us a little bit more about your background and what has shaped your ministry and your approach to theology?
Dr. Colón-Emeric: Indeed. And first of all, gracia y paz de nuestro padre Jesucristo. Grace and peace be with you, in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. It's wonderful to be with all of you who are viewing this. And we spent a few minutes together in conversation around the table and around the Lord's Table, in particular. In my own formation there are a number of things that have been important in shaping my approach in theology, certainly growing up in Puerto Rico and my experience there, is formative for who I am, but more particularly my study of Theology at Duke Divinity School.
My time in pastoral ministry in Durham, North Carolina, among the Hispanic - Latino community, my work also with Latin America in theological education. Also, my work in ecumenical dialogues, particularly with Roman Catholics in the teaching ministry in all these ways, many currents that have shaped how I approach theology. And so, that I basically approach theology as a Wesleyan theologian, as someone who has ecumenical commitments and convictions and someone who is also seeking to bring the voices and witnesses of Latin American and Hispanic, Latino peoples into the conversations of Christianity. So, all these things together form how I approach theology. So, I say I'm a Latino Wesleyan Theologist it’s like, will be my shorthand for how I identify myself.
Michelle Hettmann: That's great. Thank you so much for sharing that, I think it's always helpful to know kind of who we are and where we're coming from as we're chatting about theology. So thanks for sharing. And today, we're going to focus on communion. And we often say, I'm sure many of us have heard in our church that the communion table is open in The United Methodist Church. So would you mind talking about, well, first of all, what does it mean to have, have an open table? And then secondly, why do United Methodists have an open table? Why is this important to us?
Dr. Colón-Emeric: That's an important question. And there are historical reasons of how it came to be that we use the language of open table. And some of those go back to John Wesley and his language of the communion table and the Lord's Supper being a converting ordinance, as we refer to it. It's also the case that there are different ways of understanding the openness of the communion table at one level, and the most common practice is that the communion table for United Methodists is open to Christians of all denominations. You do not have to be a United Methodist to be invited to the Lord's Table. Another level, is that it is open to Christians of all ages. There are traditions where the, the Lord's Table is for people who have attained a certain age. And that's not the case necessarily for all Methodists, I would say, not necessarily there are Methodists for whom that is still the case, but not United Methodists, commonly it's open to United Methodists of all ages.
Then, then there's an even more particular sense in which common, among many United Methodists though, ecumenically challenging, which is to say that the communion table is open to all people, even if they are not Christian.
And so, the openness of the table is going to be interpreted and practiced in different ways by different Methodists and different United Methodists. But I think at the core of it is the sense that, something very important is at stake and something that I actually find expressed very well by our hymn, “Come Sinners to the Gospel Feast”.
That the invitation is for all. And it's, it's something that I also find expressed very well by Pope Francis, with our ecumenical connections. And I think it's important to not do it's very United Methodist to do theology ecumenically from the get go. And not simply as an add-on. Pope Francis speaks of the Eucharist, I'll say more about those terms in a moment as, “not being a prize for the perfect, but being the bread of sinners, being medicine for the sick.”
So, the invitation to the Lord’s Supper and something we find in the liturgy of word and table, has conditions of saying those who earnest, who repent their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. And so, there's that openness, it's just open invitation without adding preconditions that because this is medicine for sinners. And at the same time, if you will, there's a kind of a prescription for how to take this medicine. That is there also to ensure that the medicine does as well, because in some circumstances, and if we have time, I'm sure other people would share this too. There are questions and language in scripture about leaving our offering at the altar and how to think of the way in which we come together as one, and invite people to the table so that the medicine carries out its effect of healing us from our sins and our brokenness.
Michelle Hettmann: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you. I am learning a lot, even as we're just in the beginning of this. So I'm sure that the people viewing along with us are as well. I love that. And thank you for sharing that quote too. You mentioned the different names for this sacrament. I know we hear it as communion, Eucharist. Do you want to share just a little bit about why there are different names and what they tell us?
Dr. Colón-Emeric: Different names for the sacrament reflect different stages of history, names that were common in different stages of the history of the church and different communities in the church. And so, we will hear sometimes the term, the last supper, and that refers to the institution of the sacrament when Jesus gathered with his disciples in, in the Upper Room. And there is that sense in which our participation in the Lord's Supper is in memorial of the last supper. In fact, there's a collection of hymns by Charles Wesley that has something like 166 hymns on the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. And speaking of different understanding of how it is a memorial of Christ's death, how it is also a means of grace, as a sign of glory and includes a sacrifice of our bodies. And all this will say that there's a richness to the theology, to the significance of the sacrament.
That one name is not exhausted or capture at all. We use different names as different lenses or different facets of this sacrament. So, to speak of it as the Lord's Supper, very much evokes the Last Supper and also evokes the experience of the disciples on the walk to Emmaus, for instance, and their experience that it is the Lord who became the host and who broke bread with them, and opened their eyes to see Jesus in their midst. It's also known as the Eucharist, the word Eucharist means Thanksgiving. And if you look at the liturgy in the Word and Table, it speaks of the great Thanksgiving, our great Eucharist. We give thanks in many ways, to God, but that celebrating this sacrament is our highest act of Thanksgiving to God. And, and the words begin with, we give you thanks. There's a Thanksgiving that occurs as a prayer of giving thanks to God, through different movements, even as we begin with giving thanks to God for creation and for sending Jesus Christ.
And so that, there's a sense in which the Eucharist captures the whole of the story of Christianity. And so, we speak of it as Eucharist, we speak of it as communion and communion or Holy Communion in particular. When we share, we share the elements that our participation are in and sharing in the body of Christ and the blood of Christ. And in that sense of participation of koinonia of communion is again, something that is particularly made manifest when we pass the bread. And so, in a sense, the different names could also be seen as almost different movements in the service and in the prayers and rituals around the Lord's Supper, beginning with Thanksgiving, going to remembrance of the Last Supper, and then our communion and participation in the mystery of the body and blood of Christ.
Michelle Hettmann: Absolutely. I love thinking about that as movements in our celebration of Communion together. Thanks for sharing all of that. I know it can be confusing for folks. So, it's helpful, even for folks who have been to seminary to hear us and to hear it described in a new way. So I love that. And...
Dr. Colón-Emeric: If I may say, the different names, some names are more common in some traditions than others.
Michelle Hettmann: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Colón-Emeric: And it can be helpful to know, so we can also do some translation.
Michelle Hettmann: Absolutely.
Dr. Colón-Emeric: For the Eucharist would be more common in say, perhaps in Episcopalian and Catholic churches. Many of our churches, perhaps the Lord’s Supper would be more common in some cases, Holy Communion is shared more broadly among different traditions. But simply, it's also a way of recognizing that we're using different names to speak of the same reality and that the different names offer us different aspects and dimensions of that reality.
Michelle Hettmann: Definitely. And yeah, I think that knowledge helps us can connect with our siblings in different denominations as well, which is always an important thing and helps us be more connected in the body of Christ. So, absolutely. Well, thanks.
I know we have something we want to touch on, how do our understandings of communion speak to the challenges we face as a global connection or a global United Methodist Church? I know this is on a lot of our minds. I'm wondering if you could speak to this and how communion, may help us.
Dr. Colón-Emeric: Well, it can help us because it connects us...to the mystery of our faith, who is Jesus Christ. And I think something that we can learn from our ecumenical sisters and brothers, in reminding us also that the end is communion.
The end is Holy Communion is Lord's Supper, is the wedding feast of the lamb. And so, that is where we're going. And in participating in the Lord's Supper, we are receiving, we are participating in a preview and rehearsing our end in the way. And so the way is also communion. Now that communion, along the way, isn't perfect. It's imperfect because we are broken.
We are broken because we are divided denominationally. Hence, why not all tables are open to United Methodists. And that is something that can be a very painful realization, when I've been in ecumenical dialogues, that not all tables are open to me.
And that is a reality that needs to be lamented. And it is also the reason why we gather to work on humanism...to bridge the differences that keep some tables closed. So the communities imperfect, and it's imperfect also, even within United Methodists, and we feel the agonies and pains of divisions among us. And so, and even as we feel that pain and that agony, to recall again, that the end is communion. This is promised for us. And so not to despair. And, but rather to anticipate and practice the end along the way, there's a theologian whom I appreciate very much from El Salvador, a martyr called Rutilio Grande who said, “all life is Eucharist.”
Michelle Hettmann: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Colón-Emeric: And I believe by that all life is Thanksgiving. He was martyred. I mean, he was no somebody who was unaware of the difficulties and hardships of life. Yet, he was aware that, even more aware, that God is present in the midst of those hardships.
In communion, when we celebrate the mystery of Christ's betrayal and his suffering for us and his offering for us as the risen savior, gives us the strength for the journey, and also gives us a sign of the end. And in those ways, these, I think are things that we need to embrace as United Methodist and in our global connection, that the future of Methodism is not Methodism. The future of Methodism is the one church gathered around the throne. And, that future is anticipated in the Holy Eucharist.
Michelle Hettmann: Amen, to all that. Yeah, absolutely. Wow. That's beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. And I'm going to hold on to that quote of, “All life is Eucharist.” And in that spirit, I want to close us today, just with one last question. We know that we are continuing to be in the middle of a tough global pandemic. That is also something that's connected us, and it's been hard. And a lot of people have not been able to gather for communion around the table in the same way that we have in the past.
So I'm wondering if you just kind of want to speak towards your thoughts on what does it mean to be the body of Christ when we cannot physically gather. I know that some of us here in the states have been able to start gathering more around the world, but we still haven't been able to be connected to our siblings across the connection in the same way. And we're not sure when that's going to happen. So what does it mean to be the body of Christ when we're still meeting over zoom screens like we are today?
Dr. Colón-Emeric: This is a very important question. I say, first of all, it's not a new experience. There have been historical periods in past centuries during the plagues when Christians couldn't gather either. And, so it's important to know that as a church in our programmers throughout history, we've been through these two periods like this before. And this also happened during periods of persecution, even a more recent history where Christians haven't been able to gather because of oppression and the suffering and the persecution from the state. Gathering is important. We are creatures with bodies and gathered assembly is important. And the visibility of the body is diminished by our inability to gather together. But the body abides. We are still the body of Christ because we are knit together by the Holy Spirit.
And so the whole presence of the Holy Spirit is what keeps us connected, keeps us in communion with God and with one another, even when the gift of the Lord's Supper, it cannot be received in the way that we hope for it to be received at the end again, which has sustained us along the way. And so, what I want to say to people is, to have hope. We will gather again. The Holy Spirit is maintaining us in Holy Communion with each other and with God. And so, be of good cheer. Christ has conquered the world, and the body of Christ, even if his visibility is eclipsed by social distancing, and even more by our brokenness and sin, it's still living and active in the world.
Michelle Hettmann: Absolutely. Thank you for that reminder and affirmation for everyone. I think that will carry many of us through the weeks to come. I know there are many weary souls out there, so yes we are hoping and cheerful in Christ together. That's the end of our time for today. I just want to thank you so much again, Reverend Dr. Colón-Emeric, for being here, for taking time to share with us. I know that I have been blessed by this conversation, and I know that everyone else has been as well. If you're watching this after the live time, please still feel free to share in the comments. We want this to be a time of connection and conversation together. So we would love to hear your reflections, your thoughts, your questions, and we hope you tune in next Tuesday for another Tuesday at the Table. Hope everyone has a great week. Thanks so much.
Dr. Colón-Emeric: Thank you.