Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Communion for Whom?

Who should communion be open to?

Should communion be restricted to:
1) Baptized and Confirmed Christians
2) Baptized Christians who have taken a first communion class
3) Baptized Christians
4) Anyone who believes the words "Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins."

In Living Tradition class led by Dr. Michael Aune on October 9, 2007, the issue of communion came up as it was briefly discussed on the last page of a reading written by Dr. Jane Strohl. This past Sunday, many members of this class had visited St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco where communion is open to everyone, baptized or unbaptized.

There appears to be some variation in communion practices throughout the ELCA. In some congregations, I have heard that crackers are mixed with grape juice and given to babies. Their point of view seems to be that communion is like baptism in that it is given to us by the grace of God, not out of any virtue or attribute of our own such as having attained a certain age. I would venture to say that in most, if not all Lutheran churches, a minimum of baptism is required for communion. Most seem to have a class beforehand, and some require members to be confirmed before celebrating communion.

As presented in class, some of these traditions go back to early Christian history where baptism and communion served as rites of passage for a group undergoing enormous persecutions.
They also likely go back to the heritage Lutherans share with the Roman Catholic Church.

When I first encountered the idea of babies receiving communion several years ago, I was shocked, but upon more thought have decided it is not so strange, though Luther might have objected in his day.

Luther writes on this sacrament in The Small Catechism that, "It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, given unto us Christians to eat and to drink, as it was instituted by Christ himself." The Last Supper is described by Luther:

"Our Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread: and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you: this do, in the remembrance of me.

"After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of you: this cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you, for the remission of sins: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me."
Responding to the question about what makes us worthy to receive it, Luther responds:
Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a good external discipline; but he is truly worthy and well prepared, who believes these words: "Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins." But he who does not believe these words, or who doubts, is unworthy and unfit; for the words: "FOR YOU," require truly believing hearts.
Do babies believe that the body and blood are given for them? I tend to think that babies believe that almost anything is given for them.

A traditional reason given for priests not being allowed to marry is that in the early orthodox traditions, the original disciples were all male. The disciples were all likely baptized, but it's unclear whether any females were at the last supper. Splitting with this tradition of male-only disciples, communion has been opened up to both males and females. We now believe in a priesthood of all believers.

What belief is required for this communion and how do we know that we truly believe? In Luke 18:15-17, Jesus says that our belief is to be like a child's. I think there's no more trusting belief in the goodness of Christ's gift of communion than that of a child's. Furthermore, perhaps baptism is not required either. Christ said to a confessing criminal hanging with him on the cross, "I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me." (Luke 23:40-43)

From my point of view, we do better to err on the side of generosity with Christ's love than to be stingy with Christ's love and forgiveness. I am reminded of the Parable of the Gold Coins in Luke 19:11-27, particularly verses 20-22. When asked what had been done with the coin given to him, the last servant says, "Sir, here is your gold coin; I kept it hidden in a handkerchief. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take what is not yours and reap what you did not plant." In the parable, the master replies, "You bad servant! I will use your own words to condemn you! You know that I am a hard man, taking what is not mine and reaping what I have not planted."

Is it better for us to protect Jesus so that he is not profaned, or is it better for us to be overly generous with the love he has given us to share? Who should we open our communion to?


Jeremiah said...

I'm also in favor of an open communion. It would seem to be in line with Luther's ideas on infant baptism; The power of the sacrament does not come from us, it is entirely of God. If we say that infant baptism is acceptable and good, but that to accept the sacred meal, one must be able to understand and accept the gift, are we not holding the sacraments to different standards?

I certainly don't pretend to understand the mystery of what communion truly is, nor do I claim to know God's intentions of who is to receive it. I have faith that God is able to work beyond my lack of understanding, in baptism, communion, and any number of other things.

However, this issue, along with many others, is made simpler for me in the words my mother often spoke while I was growing up: "When I finally meet Jesus face to face, I'd much rather he told me that I was too welcoming and loving than not welcoming and loving enough."

We as Christians are not able to fully know God's will for this world, we often simply need to do the best we can with what we've been given. As for me, I choose to err on the side of grace.

Ben Colahan said...

While I very much agree that it is better to error on the side of generosity of grace, I do feel that there is still a place for baptism prior to receiving communion. If someone is desiring to receive Christ revealed in the Eucharist, why would that person not want to be baptized? My concern is that non-Christians who visit a church and partake of the bread and wine do so not because they value the sacraments, but simply because they feel awkward not going up to take communion (an awkwardness that the Church should alleviate).

While I do not feel that the taking of the bread and wine by a non-baptized individual in any way profanes the Eucharist or that it would be impossible for God to be revealed in the sacraments to a non-baptized individual, I feel that receiving communion is an act of becoming part of the body of Christ (the Church), and that for people who do not wish to be part of the Church it should not make sense to receive communion. For those who do wish to become part of the Church, have them declare it openly, have the Church receive them openly, and have that union occur through the death and re-birth that is baptism. Communion will then be that much more meaningful.

This is a lot of babbling, and in the end I agree with Jeremiah that I cannot presume to understand the mystery of the sacraments. In practical terms, what I would suggest is that all people be welcomed to the table. Those who do not wish to receive Christ's body and in turn become part of it, should receive a blessing. Those who do wish to become part of Christ's body should seek baptism; if, however, the spirit so moves them that they cannot wait to join with Christ and the Church, then by all means, let them take the bread and wine with great thanksgiving.

Ben Colahan said...

After discussing this topic in person with some more insightful people, I have changed my mind. All people should be encouraged to receive the good news of the Eucharist.