Who should go forward for Communion?
Question: My sister-in-law grew up Bapist (she’s from GA). She didn’t receive communion with us during a visit to MN-she explained due to her thoughts, words, deeds. I told her that’s the best time to go and mentioned Eph 2:8-10. She came back to me with James 2:14-19. So what do I say to a Baptist PK that responds as such with my Lutheran background?
Thank you for the question!
It’s tempting to start the mulling at the ways Baptists and Lutherans differ.
But in this case, one could argue that it isn’t a Baptist/Lutheran thing.
Instead I think it’s a Holy Communion thing, namely, how should a person receive bread and wine, body and blood, from Jesus after all? That’s fairly audacious, it seems to me. No wonder that there’s wondering about it.
I think that even within traditions there isn’t a clear consensus. For example, the debate about whether children ought to receive communion or not is active, to say the least, within the ELCA, although it is a long standing practice in Orthodox communities.
So a brief and incomplete survey:
Holy Communion is seen by some as a privilege of repentant Christians. That is, one must be cleansed through confession and forgiveness before one is pure enough to receive it.
Others have seen Holy Communion as a sign of hospitality and welcome. If you are a sinner, this meal’s for you. The pre-requisite is precisely that you are a sinner, and who knows all of the sins one commits anyway?
Others see Holy Communion as a sign of the eschaton, namely a sign of God’s reign in its fullness. There is abundance and tangible grace, and we go to it justified and sent out from it to do justice.
Some approach the table solemnly, feeling sincerely unworthy and as if their guilt is and should be front and center.
Others approach the table singing with joy, feeling as if this is the sign that no matter what, they are loved and they want to share the love.
It’s a really interesting question, actually.
I’m haunted by the story of my mentor Walt Bouman who once refused Communion to a man who was active in his congregation…and active in the Ku Klux Klan. Walt maintained that you cannot be part of the body of Christ and engage in such racism.
I absolutely see his point, respect it greatly…and yet how many of us who sincerely profess to be Christians give to the poor, actively engage in doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God, forgiveness, and so on.
That is, at what point are we aware enough of our sins, or repentant enough, or pure enough to receive pure grace, to partake in Holy Communion?
So it is in part an issue of whether we think there should be standards before you get the bread and the wine. While our reflexive answer might be, ‘yes,’ answering what those standards are gets way trickier.
It could be an opportunity for you to reflect on what you believe about Holy Communion. Why do you receive it, and would there ever be a point when you wouldn’t approach the table?
I have been pondering on how to write this response, and I am still struggling with the “right words.” As many others in the Lutheran Tradition have opinions, I know the difficulties of communion first hand. I grew up in a church that only did communion once a month. It was “reserved” for those that have had training, etc, which did and didn’t make sense to me. After going to college, and being involved in a LCM program that did communion every week, I went home and found that I missed the joy and grace of communion. When I brought that up to my parents, they said, having communion every week, waters down the meaning of communion.
Knowing now that the reason many churches only celebrated communion once a month, was because that is when a church had their traveling minister in town. As churches started getting their own dedicated pastors, but stuck with the traditions.
From my perspective, I agree wholeheartedly with the stance that my current church has, which is all are welcome. It doesn’t matter what religion, church, thought, whether your a member or not, because the gifts of God are FREE!!!
One of our pastors told the story about his daughter, who at the time 5 years old. She asked him one day, why Jesus didn’t share his meal with everyone, if he loved everyone. The Pastor went to the council the next night and said, unless you give me an answer that my 5 year old will accept, I am opening it up to all people. And he has been that way ever since.
The reality of things is none of us are truly worthy of the gifts that God has given us. We all are sinners, we all fall short, but God still has given us his all!!
Anyways, just my $0.02 worth. Thanks for the awesome blog!!
Wonderful stuff! Thank you, Eric, for your comment, and for your compliments!
I am fully aware of the deep piety of those who prefer communion only once a month, or only on high feast days. And I respect that piety profoundly.
Your observation about the historical reasons for infrequent communion are also right on target. Sometimes historical circumstance rolls itself into theological necessity. The Communion Rail may be another instance of that. There is a strong theory that it was initially…a fence. Yep, that’s right, a fence for keeping stray animals away from the bread, stored in box by the altar.
I confess that I am of a similar mind. Both of our children received communion as very small children; Karl at his second Easter, and Else at the memorial service for her late father. He and I never could quite wrap our minds around why we in the the Lutheran tradition baptized infants as a sign of grace, and immediately excommunicated them! Sounds like that was the case that your pastoral colleague was making!
Too, while I understand and appreciate the idea of respecting the sanctity of Communion by sharing it only infrequently, an argument can also be made that it is precisely because it is so holy that we should have it as frequently as possible! Imagine not telling our spouses that we love them every day because we don’t want the sentiment to lose importance!
Robert Farrar Capon makes the case that no one is not a sinner. We are all in our own ways sinners, and we are all in our own ways dead. Jesus came to save us from sin and to raise the dead. Can it be that we could see Holy Communion as a feast which brings together those who are hungering for hope, those who are convinced of that they are not worthy to be fed, that this is precisely the place where one can be fed in order to feed others on a word of welcome?
I wonder if a way to think through this in yet another way is to work toward ensuring that we regularize faith language in our churches and in our families. What is this Holy Communion gig all about? What makes a sin a sin? Why is the ritual about food? How does this ritual connect us to our Jewish sisters and brothers? From what are we in bondage, or are others? I think that the more often we make manifest the relevance of what we are doing, its possible the more meaningful our most ordinary fundamental practices will become.