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‘No one comes to this table because they deserve to’

Adoption story illustrates communion table grace at the Festival of Homiletics

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — One night when the Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes was a boy, his father woke him up and introduced him to his new brother, Roger.

Barnes’ father was the pastor of a church in a poor community, and Roger came to services with his mother. The pastor had talked to the family and tried to help the mother and father with their addictions, to no avail. At one point he gave Roger the police emergency phone number and his number and told him if anything happened to his parents, call the police first and then call him.

Sure enough, the call came.

Roger couldn’t wake his parents up, and when the police arrived, they confirmed the mother and father had died of heroin overdoses. Rev. Barnes volunteered to take the boy home for the night, having no other family to go to.

“Somewhere on the drive from the projects, my father decided that he was going to adopt Roger,” Barnes recalled to nearly 1,000 people in the audience for the Festival of Homiletics, being held virtually this year through Friday.

Barnes, President and Professor of Pastoral Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, was lecturing on “Preaching with Bread and Wine” Wednesday, and for him, his father’s willingness to bring Roger into their family was emblematic of the communion table.

“That night, Roger became my father’s heir and my joint heir,” Barnes said. “He didn’t earn that. He didn’t even ask for it. I’m not even sure he wanted it.

“But it was a grace that was given to him.”

It wasn’t quite as easy as it sounds, though, Barnes said. His parents believed in old-school piety and “loved rules,” Barnes said. Meanwhile, raised by heroin addicts, Roger was unaccustomed to rules and came to hear the phrase, “Roger, we don’t do that here,” mainly from his mother, particularly at the dinner table.

Slowly, Barnes said, his brother’s life was transformed, just like our lives are transformed each time we come to the communion table.

Barnes talked about a moment that passes between pastors and members of the congregation as they come forward to receive communion.

“Throughout the week, the pastor is constantly encountering ‘why?’ questions,” Barnes said. “’Why did my child die?’ ‘Why do evil people prosper?’ ‘Why didn’t God help me when I prayed? And I prayed.’ The question has to be asked, even though the pastor knows it’s never going to be satisfactorily answered, not with an answer that can stand up to that question: ‘Why? Why?’”

Then, in worship, the pastor stands at the front of the church.

“People come one after another,” Barnes said. “There is a very tender moment that is known only, really, to clergy. And that’s that moment when the next person comes up and looks at the pastor. And just for a moment, we glimpse into each other’s eyes, and we remember the husband who has cancer, remember the child who’s in jail, remember the other child who’s in Afghanistan, remember the wife that was just buried a couple of months ago, remember the devastating diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. One after another, it just keeps coming. And all I can say is, ‘The body of Christ. The cup of salvation.’ It’s all it needs to be said at that moment, because it’s their moment of communion.”

It is a moment where the truth of their lives and the holy are blended together.

“This table clearly proclaims that grace precedes faith,” Barnes said. “No one comes to this table because they deserve to. We come because we need to. We bring all that stuff I was talking about, because we need to commune with a savior.”

Roger had plenty of ‘why?’ questions. Why was he born to heroin addicts? Why did he struggle in school? Because he struggled, he had no chance of going to college, Barnes said. So, at the height of the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the Army and was quickly sent into combat.

One day, the family received a telegram that Roger had been killed in combat. Later they learned that Roger died in an act of heroism that saved other lives, and his mother asked, how did the frightened, angry boy they brought into their family became a hero?

“Mama, I know the answer to that,” Barnes recalled telling her. “It was all of those table lessons, because he was paying attention to the grace that he had received.’

“If we attend to the grace of this table, to the grace that is always offered when the word is proclaimed, lives are being converted.”


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