Thursday, July 15, 2010

Who is Communion For?

The practice that Jesus intended to be a sign of unity has become one of the most divisive aspects of the Christian religion. There is not even any agreement on the name. Some of us prefer to call it the Lord’s Supper. It is more widely known as (Holy) Communion or the Eucharist. 

Invitation to participate in Communion runs the gamut from only the members of the local church (or only to Baptists in the case of those known as Landmarkers) to being open to absolutely everyone. “Open communion” used to refer to being open to all Christians who had been baptized, or even to all Christian believers whether than had been baptized or not. But more and more the Lord’s Supper, by whatever name it is known, has become open to literally everyone who wishes to participate.

Soon after making my blog posting on July 5, I received a fairly lengthy e-mail from Bob Sherer, a Thinking Friend who is a former missionary colleague and a good friend from many years back. Among other things Bob made reference to a controversy that has been swirling around the Christians in Japan, especially around those in the United Church of Christ (Kyōdan, UCC), the largest Protestant denomination in Japan.

A UCC pastor was dismissed because of opening Communion to everyone, whether baptized or a Christian believer or not. That has been an issue for many years among Baptists in Japan also. Years ago I received a telephone call from another Baptist missionary who was rather incensed that his Japanese pastor had started inviting everyone, believer or not, to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
Last week I finished reading a fascinating book, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (2007) by Sara Miles. Her grandparents had been Christian missionaries, but her mother rejected the Christian faith and Sara (b. 1952) grew up as an atheist. More or less on a whim, several years ago she attended a service at an Episcopal Church in San Francisco where she lived and partook of Communion—and her life was drastically changed, as she narrates well in her book.

As a “dyed in the wool” Baptist, I have trouble affirming the sacramental aspect of Communion forwarded by many denominations—and by Sara Miles (whose interview about her book you can find here). But I have nothing but admiration for what she has done, and what she has become, since as an ardent non-believer she first took Communion and experienced a radical conversion. 


  1. Here is the first response (from a local TF) received to this morning's posting:

    "Leroy - Please leave a little more room for the miraculous; its not always about logic and reason and analogy and allegory."

  2. I believe your last comment sums up a good approach to ongoing differences or controversies. Your "admiration for what she has done, and for what she has become" speaks to our constant need of tolerance and understanding.

    You've made me think about the Gospel accounts of the Lord's Supper. He told the disciples to "take, eat," and told them what the two elements represented, but the only instruction I see (and it's in Luke) is to "do this in remembrance of me."

    That's fairly open-ended. Seems the tolerance, understanding and admiration you demonstrate toward Sara's experience is most appropriate.

    And I'm sure it's appropriate in areas beyond communion. I'll be looking forward to celebrating it with you Sunday.

  3. My father was a Southern Baptist pastor. He believed in closed communion -- only for members of a particular church. When I went to college, I moved my church membership. One Sunday I went home and the church was celebrating communion. I knew my dad's stance -- I would have to sit through communion without participating -- the thought was painful and upsetting. Instead of sitting quietly, I got up and walked out.
    Today I believe in open communtion -- to EVERYONE. Jesus did not close it to just the disciples. It was a symbol of what he was about to do for the world...the world... I believe communion is an intricate part of the faith journey, to be experienced by everyone during any part of that journey.
    Growing up, when I told people I was Baptist, they would immediately list all the things I wasn't able to do.... What lives have been dammaged by telling someone they're not allowed to celebrate communion?

  4. Leroy,
    The Baptist approach to the sacraments is minimalist, at best. At times it feels as if Baptists want to see how much meaning can be removed rather than exploring how much meaning resides within these practices. The words help us. Eucharist is "thanksgiving" but literally "from our out of grace". The Lord's Supper lead us to consider it a meal, where people are nourished. Could there be an evangelistic dimension to the Supper if we feed the hungry. Communion includes community. So let's be inclusive with our community. If we say you need to have commitment or understanding to share in the Supper, how much commitment or understand do any of us have? How much is enough? We all need to be nourished by the Supper to grow stronger in commitment and understanding. Opening the Supper would be to acknowledge that we all need spiritual nourishment to join the community of faith and to grow in it. The Supper feeds us all wherever we happen to be in our faith journey.

    Let me pose a question to your blog readers. If we are going to pass the trays through the congregation, let's be mindful of how we do this. The idea is to serve each other. As I observe this, most peole serve themselves. Let's start holding the tray for each other so that we are waiting on each other and serving each other. What is meant to be a community experience is individualized.

  5. The scriptures seem to indicate that communion is for the disciples (devoted followers) who were the community of faith in the only true God and his son Jesus Christ. The orthodoxy within holy catholic Church (Orhtodoxy, Catholicism, and the more orthodox protestants) is more clearly defined and accepting of the ecumenical Church councils views of who is in communion, and who is not. As I have studied and experienced this with them (blessing only in the Catholic church), I have felt much closer to God and the Church than with those who just eat some bread and drink some juice in memory of Jesus.

    When Jesus said, My body is true food and My blood is true drink many of his disciples walked away and left him - he knew this would be hard it seems, and he didn't soften his words to invite them back. At the initiation of the new covenant he said the same, and St. Paul reiterates this to the Church in Corinth (1Cor 10:16). This expectation may self limit those participating if it is verbally communicated.

    The ritual concept seems to have come from the Jewish seder which is open to all wishing to participate in a proper manner and understanding way, including non-Jewish foreigners. This is a wonderful community experience with them. Many churches use this model of openness. But it is the model of the Mosaic covenant.

    I lean toward the established orthodoxy of the new covenant in Christ's blood. The Anglican Communion has this done well in holding open participation in this mystery to all baptized believers who believe in the Trinity.

    The questions comes to: What is unity within the Church? and What is the meaning of the ritual? (sacrament within the communion, or openness to all?)

  6. A few minutes ago I received the following e-mail from Sherry McGlaughlin, who is well-known by local Thinking Friends and by several who live elsewhere, and I post this with her permission.

    "As a parent my first experience of a painful communion was the first time my daughter sat with me in worship and we had communion. I realized that I was expected to let the tray pass her by. I refused to do that so I shared my bread and my juice with her.

    "We teach our children to pray from their earliest years. Why then, do we let the communion tray pass them by? We can't on the one hand teach them to pray which emphasizes their relationship with God, and then, on the other hand, keep them away from sharing in communion which emphasizes their separation from God. No wonder our children grow up confused! I say let the little children (and all who are willing!) come and eat!"

  7. Craig Dempsey asked me to post the following comments from him:

    "Like Sherry, I have had those uncomfortable moments when a wall of exclusion seemed far more potent than the sacrament being celebrated. I believe this leads to a major challenge. There is a powerful argument that communion should be open to anyone present. So, if we are to in some sense close the communion, we should first find a way to close the attendance. I realize this is strange suggestion, yet we have plenty of other experiences in our lives which we keep private. Perhaps the best solution is do this with communion. At the close of quarterly church conference would be one such time that might work.

    "A second possibility, is to re-envision communion on two levels, sort of a high/low communion choice. In this option, communion on Sunday morning would be totally open to all those who wished to participate. A different, more solemn version of communion limited to believers could be held at other times. How to work out the logic and logistics of this is beyond my current thoughts, but this is a starting point.

    "One of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life happened years ago teaching a class of kindergarteners the story of Jesus calling the little children to come unto him. I really do not think that Jesus would want to do anything to exclude or alienate children. What Jesus did do was call the rest of us to a child-like faith. What can a child have to fear from communion? What, indeed, can a non-Christian have to fear? The only people who really need to worry are the very believers who just might be sitting there in bad faith that day, not really ready themselves. Or should we say, ourselves? We have come to accept open worship attendance, open hymnals, and open offering plates. All of those have been closed at times in the past. What would Jesus do?"

  8. Yesterday I received this noteworthy comment from Dr. E. Glenn Hinson:

    "In churches holding a high view of Eucharist it can have a powerful effect on a participant because they anticipate that. In those holding a low view it may do so less often. Sharing Eucharist with Roman Catholics when I taught at Catholic University, I experienced much stronger sense of communion than I do in my own Baptist congregation."

  9. Rev. Rob Carr is the pastor of North Oak Christian Church, and I post the following comments with his permission:

    "When I was a kid, Disciples' Communion was for the Baptized only. We are undergoing a change in this and moving toward a radical hospitality around the table.

    "North Oak Christian welcomes all. One theological point---a non believer might become a believer for having received communion. It may well be that God chooses to use the loaf and the cup to accomplish this. Each Disciple congregation has autonomy to decide these matters so there are others who have different definitions of OPEN.

    "Disciples recently re-framed a denominational mission/identity statement as follows: 'We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.'"

  10. As long as I can remember, I have had an understanding of God and God's love and mercy to be without limits (There is a Wideness in God's Mercy). But until I met Rita Nakashima Brock, and attended her workshops on 'Saving Paradise', and read her book, I really hadn't reached the limits of my understanding of God.

    Indeed, what would/did Jesus do?

    Fling the doors wide open and let God sort it out!