Who is communion for? The debate over the open table
"This is the Lord’s Table. It is not Grace Church’s table. All are welcome to receive communion.”
It is not unusual to hear or read these or similar words—with the local parish or its denomination named—at a service of worship in which the Eucharist will be celebrated. Such an announcement reflects the practice commonly called “open communion.” To say that a church has an open communion policy has generally meant that persons who are not formally members of that church are nevertheless allowed or encouraged to share in the eucharistic meal.
Open communion in that sense is not universal, of course, and never has been. Some denominations as a matter of principle allow only their own members to commune and in practice take pains to ensure that the restriction is observed. But among churches of the Reformation, open communion has long been a custom widely accepted and fairly uncontroversial. Hence the invitation.
Lately, however, what is or might be meant by open communion has shifted. The received understanding has always included a proviso, sometimes explicitly stated but often simply assumed: “All are welcome to receive” has been taken to mean “all Christians,” which in turn has been understood as including all (and only) those who have been baptized with water in the name of the Trinity. In other words, an open eucharistic service has been open irrespective of denominational status but not of baptismal status. That proviso is now under discussion in many quarters, to the point that to ask whether such-and-such a church practices open communion is apt to be ambiguous. The disputed question at present is how open the practice is or ought to be.
The logic of what has been the accepted interpretation, which does in a sense limit the openness of open communion, is not hard to see. It stands to reason that if taking part in the Eucharist is a specifically Christian privilege, and if Christians are defined, minimally if not exhaustively, by their baptism, then those who would avail themselves of the privilege can be expected at least to have met this one objective criterion. Is this expectation indeed valid? That is the question at issue in the current discussion.
Confusingly, the result has been that even when the language of open communion continues to be used, what is often being discussed is somewhat different: the propriety of a practice which those who favor it sometimes prefer to call communion without baptism—CWOB for short, or less blatantly, “open table.” The distinction could be put this way: an open communion policy might, in very rare cases, apply to the unbaptized, though probably it would not, whereas an open table policy most definitely would.
But there is more. Some open table advocates would insist on going further by reversing completely the order that open communion (in the older sense) has taken for granted. There are congregations in which baptism is no longer held to be even the normal, much less the necessary, condition of receiving communion. Things are done the other way around. Communion without baptism is not an exception but a rule, which instead of requiring communicants to be baptized requires candidates for baptism to be communicants.
In short, to use the popular phrase, “it’s complicated.”
So too are the arguments for and against the various positions that can be taken. That is to be expected, since what is at stake is not a theoretical doctrine but a concrete practice that affects particular persons and communities. The greater the concreteness, the greater the complexity.
Here no attempt will be made either to build a decisive case, pro or con or, on the other hand, to hide the judgment that one line of argument for some form of open-table communion seems more compelling than any other. What follows is food for thought, not ammunition for controversy.
In the interest of clarity, let “open table” be defined as a more or less explicit policy of being willing to suspend, occasionally or indefinitely, the traditional rule of “no communion without baptism.” So defined, an open table position is one that stops short of establishing an entirely new rule, “no baptism without communion.” In other words, advocating an open table is here understood to be compatible with maintaining that to extend communion deliberately to the unbaptized is always exceptional, always a departure from the norm. The norm stands; baptism at some point is indispensable, even if it is postponed, so to say, as a matter of pastoral need, in extraordinary circumstances.
No doubt there are many pastors who have implicitly adopted some such view upon occasion by knowingly if quietly stretching the received rule. The disputed question is whether exceptions, which nearly everyone admits are possible, at least to some extent, had better be officially embraced and publicly acknowledged—not only for honesty’s sake but also because extraordinary circumstances are becoming less and less extraordinary. “New occasions teach new duties.”
What exactly is new? For one thing, there is the so-called post-Constantinian or post-Christendom environment in which every church finds itself. Not all that long ago, it could safely be taken for granted that strangers who showed up at a service of Christian worship would at some time, in some church somewhere, have been baptized. At least they could be given the benefit of the doubt. Today, churches have to reckon with the rising percentage of the general populace that is completely unchurched. Then too, whether visitors had been baptized was neither here nor there, as long as the service they were visiting was a preaching service, without communion, which it was quite likely to be. Now that the liturgical movement has become ecumenical, even “nonliturgical” denominations have been putting more and more emphasis on frequent reception of communion and providing more and more opportunities for receiving it. In this they have been following the Reformers, while at the same time making it necessary to ask again what—and whom—the Eucharist is for.
That is the central question, theologically speaking, in the open table debate. The need to ascertain eligibility has never arisen with respect to the synaxis or “liturgy of the word.” Lessons, sermons and prayers have been as open to seekers, guests and drop-ins as they have been to baptized members. Only the individual act of receiving bread and wine—communion in the focal sense from which the whole rite takes one of its names—has been restricted to initiates.
The restriction is ancient. That needs to be said. It goes back as far as the Apostolic Fathers. “You must not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who are baptized in the Lord’s name.” So says the Didachē, the oldest catechism there is. Nobody, says Justin Martyr, is allowed to partake of “the food we call Eucharist” except one who “believes that the things we teach are true, and has been washed with the washing that is for the forgiveness of sins and rebirth, and is living as Christ enjoined” (First Apology 66).
Later there would be wide variations in the practice of baptism itself—at what age it was administered, when and by whom, after how much preparation. Yet even when Christians baptized in infancy were expected to complete their initiation with a further rite, confirmation or its equivalent, there was never any question that baptism came first and Eucharist afterward. If this means the communion table is closed, it has been closed for nearly the whole of Christian history.
The fact that few traditions if any are as solid and consistent as the font-before-table sequence is a strong reason, perhaps the strongest, for preserving it. The burden of proof falls on those who would modify it. While the open table position can be seen as a development rather than a revolution, it does introduce a significant change. Is it a defensible change? Granted, occasions do arise that may call for ad hoc deviation from the usual sequence, and such occasions do appear to be more numerous and frequent than formerly. But occasions are not reasons. What good would it do to make the Lord’s Supper more openly open, or more explicitly open in principle, than it already is in practice?
Three slogans are often used to sum up the value of a candid open table policy: full inclusion, radical hospitality and unconditional welcome. They are dangerous, as slogans often are. Insofar as the emphasis falls on the qualifiers, they imply and foster an either-or, all-or-nothing frame of mind. Anything less than full, radical unconditional acceptance of the other can only be legalistic exclusion, a sub-Christian tithing of mint and dill and cumin. And like many another absolute position, this one easily topples over into its opposite, the hypocrisy of claiming to be holier-than-thou because more-hospitable-than-thou.
Whether the rhetoric of inclusion and welcome can be substantiated with theological reasoning is a different question, though not a question that everyone would agree is worth asking. There are those who hold that why and wherefore are irrelevant, that welcome occurs between persons, that interpersonal relations are motivated not by thought but by feeling, and that Pascal’s reasons of the heart provide sufficient reason for opening the communion table to all. On this view, a policy that speaks to religious sentiment, as do radical hospitality and the like, is by that very fact a godly policy. Conversely, anyone who feels excluded is excluded, in which case the church has failed in its mission of hospitality to all.
Whether the reign of God can be equated with the hospitality of the church is a question that will return later. In any case, it would be a mistake to dismiss personal, affective considerations as though they carried no weight. The heart does have its reasons, and theologians do well to remember it. Still, there are perhaps not many earnest Christians for whom these ought to be the decisive reasons, or who would rest their case for open table communion entirely on an emotionally apprehended dichotomy of exclusion or embrace. The apprehension may be valid, as far as it goes; but if so, it should be capable of enlisting the support of intelligible argument. Presumably, too, it can withstand critique from the side of those who would maintain the traditional practice. A reasonable case still needs to be made for (more thoroughly) open eucharistic worship, intuitively attractive though it may be.
Probably the most obvious argument—certainly the most common, and perhaps the one most likely to be homiletically effective—is a variation on asking “What would Jesus do?” Nobody doubts that the Gospels associate appearances of the risen Jesus with meals of various kinds. Nobody doubts, either, that they portray Jesus at table with disreputable people. His “open commensality,” as Dominic Crossan is pleased to call this scandalous table fellowship, is widely accepted as a central component of Jesus’ praxis.
Accordingly, one might argue that in the same way that Jesus welcomed outsiders to eat with him as a sign of the dawning reign of God, so the church’s extension of his ministry should set no conditions on participation in the communion banquet, which likewise anticipates the eschatological Supper of the Lamb. The invitation should be simply universal, and whether to accept it should be left entirely to the individual discernment of those who are invited. “All are welcome” should mean just that—“all,” not “all who happen to have been baptized,” as it has commonly been assumed to mean. Jesus imposed no such restriction, or for that matter any other restriction. Neither should his followers.
This is a plausible argument, at least at first glance. It is not as sturdy as it seems, however. For one thing, it turns on a single image or idea: sharing food. Jesus ate and drank with sinners—true. Christians gather to eat and drink in their communion liturgy—true again. Therefore—what? In which respects, if any, should the liturgical meal conform to (some of) the meals at which Jesus was present? Without further premises and further argument, no answer presents itself. After all, the Eucharist is a meal only in a very stylized sense, and though it may still be a meal it is not a meal only. As the World Council of Churches’ paper on “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” observes, the Eucharist involves not only ritual feasting, communion in the narrow sense, but also invocation of the Spirit, thanksgiving to the Father and remembrance of the Son.
Moreover, the notion that Jesus invited the outcast and the marginalized to eat at his table is not entirely sound. On a plain reading of the Gospels, he did not invite anybody: he was himself invited, as much by the outsiders he ate with as by the disciples who met him on the Emmaus road. As for the Last Supper, that was scarcely an open, public occasion. As for the episode of the feeding of the four or five thousand, the one that most closely resembles open table, there for once Jesus does take the role of host, in a sense; but he issues no invitation, and his hospitality seems a little reluctant: “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37).
Still, it does not follow that Jesus’ practice is irrelevant. Even if particular bits of narrative cannot be relied on directly to authorize a general policy, one might argue that they do exemplify a pattern which can. On this more theological argument, the way in which Jesus shared meals was—and the way Christians conduct their communion rites should be—an effective expression of divine grace. “Open commensality” in the first century and “open table” today are similar, in the relevant sense, just insofar as they both do what God does in the way that God does it. God gives. In no way does divine giving depend on the recipient, and what is given is neither achievement nor prize. It is precisely gracious, gratuitous gift and only gift.
So too, it can be argued, the church’s gift of inclusion within its own life and labor ought to be offered lavishly and gratuitously. Of that broad imperative the Eucharist is not the only enactment, but it is the one that in some sense defines the church, and as such it should not contradict itself by imposing conditions on who may or may not help to enact it.
This line of reasoning shifts from replicating the historical details of Jesus’ practice—always a dubious move—to drawing implications from the doctrine of God’s prevenience to which that practice, like everything else about Jesus, bears witness. Divine grace is always operating prior to human response. So then, if the Lord’s Supper may be regarded as a “means of grace,” it too should be an incarnate expression, a sacramental sign, of God’s initiative.
The biblical warrant, if one is wanted, will not be the feeding of the multitude or meeting Zacchaeus in his sycamore tree so much as the parable of the prodigal son whose father went out to meet him. It is commonly held that worthy reception of communion is a matter of inward disposition, repentance above all. But while the foolish prodigal did confess his folly before the fatted calf was eaten, his father got there first, “preventing” him in the original sense of the word. So too, arguably, the church as publicist of God’s antecedent willingness to embrace and forgive might at times “prevent” even that decisive act of repentance which is baptism by offering communion to persons who have yet to be baptized.
Those who adopt this train of thought may not use John Wesley’s language, but they mean pretty much what he meant by declaring that communion is a “converting ordinance.” Conversion happens in and as response to being “drawn” by the Father, without which no one comes to the Lord Jesus (John 6:44, 6:65). The drawing may go unregarded, but on the other hand a readiness to receive and follow it may also be nurtured by deliberate practices, among which is participation in the Lord’s own supper.
Accordingly, on the sort of reasoning Wesley followed, the one indispensable prerequisite for receiving communion is a desire to accept whatever blessing God is pleased to give through it. Such a desire may be only the first faint beginning of conversion. Nevertheless, the church has no business withholding an appointed means of forming and focusing it. On the contrary, the communion table ought to be open to all who find themselves drawn to it, including those who may never have been baptized as well as those who, by no decision of their own, were baptized as infants. They may not yet be able to make a profession of faith, and they may have only the vaguest conception of what they yearn for. The point is that they yearn for it.
If framing an argument in terms of converting ordinances seems too old-fashioned, the same point can be made in another way. The Eucharist, it might be said, is food for a journey, nourishment for growing into mature adulthood in Christ. The journey may begin at the baptismal font. It may begin afterward. It may instead lead toward baptism. But except on an extrinsic, magical view of what baptism does, there is no ground for believing that without it human beings are inherently quite incapable of benefiting from the Lord’s Supper, whatever the benefits may be.
To include the unbaptized in the invitation to communion therefore need not be to say there is no journey—which would be offering cheap grace, or to say everyone is really an anonymous Christian already—which would be condescending and amount to the same thing. Rather, an open table invitation could constitute an acknowledgment that those who accept the invitation may well be cooperating with the prevenient operation of grace, in response to a “drawing” on which the church may not presume to set boundaries.
This theological rationale has much to commend it. There are still objections, however, that it would have to address. An invitation to communion is an invitation not simply to eat with friends but to encounter the risen Christ, which is to say, Christ crucified. “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The meaning of the Eucharist, in other words, is not just the love of God but the love of God manifested in the “paschal mystery” of death accepted and transformed into new life. If that mystery is what unchurched seekers are being welcomed into, hospitality seems too bland a word. It would be only fair to inform them—warn them, rather—that the way of life which the church proclaims in its Eucharist comes with demands and costs and responsibilities. Otherwise, extending an unconditional welcome would amount to a kind of bait-and-switch.
For much the same reasons, it would be reckless simply to decide that as of such-and-such a Sunday, the communion table at such-and-such church will be open to all, irrespective of baptism. Communion never is irrespective of baptism, although possibly it may in certain circumstances precede it. That is the truth of which the extreme “no baptism without communion” view can be seen as an exaggeration. As Mark Stamm argues persuasively in Let Every Soul Be Jesus’ Guest (Abingdon, 2006), the idea of communion as a converting ordinance and a means of cooperating with divine grace implies no denigration of baptism; quite the opposite. What it does imply, practically and liturgically, is the integration of communion into an intentional program of formation that involves the whole local community and has in view the duties as well as the blessings that Christian initiation brings. A fully developed catechumenate; renewal of baptismal vows in the setting of eucharistic worship at regular times in the liturgical year; a font brought into architectural prominence; communicating the newly baptized at once, children and adults alike—such are Stamm’s recommendations for (re)establishing the link between the two great paschal celebrations.
The recommendations do not in themselves resolve the question of whether an open table policy is theologically justifiable in general or pastorally appropriate in any particular instance. They are not meant to. They do, or would, give concrete expression to a conviction that if the Eucharist is to be regarded as a means of Christian formation—and that is arguably the surest ground on which to build a case for open table communion—then eucharistic worship needs to belong to a larger pattern and process. A visitor who experiences a communion service as a discrete, one-off event, like a tour of the Grand Canyon, has missed the point, or else the point has not been made clearly enough.
That point, the embeddedness of this liturgical action within an all-inclusive, corporate turning to God, is one which has been made, negatively and somewhat mechanically, by insisting on “no communion without baptism.” There seem to be serious reasons for thinking it would perhaps be better made by saying, in many and various ways, “We are glad to have you join us in our pilgrimage. Please know that you are very welcome. Please know too that to join, you have to be prepared to join, to take the plunge, literally.” In that context, the question is not whether a ritual requirement for receiving communion may at times be waived for individuals who are indeed so prepared. The question is whether opening the communion table to them now is the most appropriate way to prepare them further.
James Kosko replied on Permalink
Who is communion for?
There is, for me, a disturbing premise used to justify anything but an open table: that we are somehow authorized and equipped to judge who should and should not be allowed to celebrate. It is not a challenge for any of us to name unbaptized who are very worthy or some baptized who maybe shouldn't presume to be in the presence of the elements. Another premise is that what happens in the act of communion is of human origin - and, thus, ours to control. It is not. It is a holy sacrament of divine origin; thus anyone might meet Christ at the table - even if this is the first time they have heard Christ's name!
frjohnmorris replied on Permalink
The article completely ignores the history of Christian practice and the role of the Sacraments in our salvation. It also completely ignores the history of the Eucharistic celebration of the Church. In both East and West Communion was the end of the entrance rite into the Church which began with Baptism, followed by Confirmation (Chrismation) and then Communion. In every ancient Liturgy, East and West those who were not Baptized were dismissed that is asked to leave after the Liturgy of the Word and before the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We still preserve the dismissal of the Catechumens (those studying in prepartion for Baptism) in the text of the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy, although we do not always pronounce it. Giving the Eucharist to non-Baptized completely distorts the historic practice of the Christian Church. Thus from an historical point of view giving the Sacrament to non-Baptized persons completely distorts the original practice of the Christian Church.
Sharing food, that is feeding the poor and hungry is something that all Christians must do, but they must not confuse that with the Sacrament of Holy Communion, to which only those who are prepared are admitted.
marhaba replied on Permalink
Who is Communion for?
This whole discussion about who communion is for reminded me off a time many years ago, when I, as a United Church clergy person, was preaching at a Roman Catholic Churdue at an interfaith service to celebrate our unity in Christ at the the of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
When it the time came to.Celebrate the Eucharist the parish priest, after welcoming us all, said, "Wkile it has been an inspiring and, indeed moving experience for us all to learn about our various different faith backgrounds; nevertheless, we are still divided, not one. Therefore, I would ask those of you who are not Catholic to refrain from receiving Holy Communion."
Those of us who were troubled in our clergy attire and standing near the altar were at first shocked to hear those words. But as the Communion Liturgy and prayers were offered in Latin,aswe all stood facing the altar, the Syrian Orthodox priest who was standing in front of me turned to me and whispers, "Don't pay any attention to him. If you don't go, I would not go either." He winked and with a twinkle in his eyes, he faced the altar.
we all proceeded to receive the holy element.
but, in the pews, there were few nonRman Catlics who were bewildered by what the priest said. Intact,my wife was not only confused, and disappointed. From a distance, I saw how tears were flowing from her eyes. And I thought at that instance how perhaps Jesus was crying too at those words of in hospitality.
Élwyn penna replied on Permalink
often the communion is rushed because the preaching has gone on too long! the liturgy becomes abbreviated and the implication that we share the suffering of Christ remains muted. Our society is very mobile and people move in and out of churches without being welcomed and introduced and the status as baptised members acknowledged. if this took place regularly everyone would be reminded of the importance of baptism. to be baptised once meant a break with a previous life and often was a dangerous choice. This is not so for most western countries today.
The Gyrovague replied on Permalink
closed door, closed mind.
The world hates the exclusionary tactics of the church. It is not hard to see. Homosexual, you are out. Not in the church income bracket, your out...This is a chance to change that, just a little. Keeping the door open to all without rites and ritual and without judgement speaks Christ to me. I would have it no other way.
Jim replied on Permalink
Precedent and Experience
If the 6th Chapter of John is an expression of Eucharistic theology, which detractors are hard pressed to logically deny, then is John teaching the Christian Community that salvation begins with communion? After all communion with Christ is more than physical but John reminds us that the physical is also figured into to salvation. Jesus said, "Unless you eat my body and drink my blood . . . ." After saying, "those that come to me will I in no wise cast out," to those who followed after him for the physical bread and not the spiritual.
Also in the above article it states that Jesus didn't do the inviting and then mentions Zacchaeus. Uhh, didn't Jesus say, "Come down, Zacchaeus, for I am going to your house to eat with you."?
Also, as far as Passover practice, biblically and apparently as a matter of practice Jews invite the "stranger" to enjoy the liberating meal--after circumcision. Of course, females weren't required to be circumcised.
In Mark Jesus said his covenant was for the forgiveness of sin for "the many" (literally: hoi polloi) which could be a term for the masses.
For a wonderful experiential/theological reflection on the whole matter one might enjoy reading, "Take This Bread" by Sara Miles, who while she was an athiest received communion first (in an Episcopalian Church) then began to have an ongoing spiritual awakening to Christ. She discusses it in detail with beautiful writing.
JRJohnson replied on Permalink
At the end of the day I would rather be faulted for being too inclusive than for being too exclusive!
castaway5555 replied on Permalink
First off, a good article covering pretty much the whole of the issues.
Second, it pays to remember that the church, after Constantine, became a church of boundaries as a function of power, holding the "keys" to heaven and hell, and we all know where that led.
Third, Wesley's language, along with that of Samuel Stoddard, has been of value to me - the "converting" power of Table Fellowship. And that of Crossan, too - part of me has said for years to the church, "Don't be so fussy. God can manage these things quite well without our busybodiness tending to the where all the doyleys are."
Fourth, the relation of Communion and Baptism is artificial, as is much of our sacramental theology. Their antecedants - circumcision and Passover - were celebrtions of the home rather than temple or synagogue. By pulling baptism and communion into the church and delegating the "magic" hands of the priest to pour the water and break the bread, the church gathered unto itself enormous power (see #2 above).
Fifth, for me, the missional character of the times requires serious attention - in a world where loneliness and frustration are high, I can't find it in myself to say to folks, "In spite of your hunger, you can't eat here. This is a club, and you don't belong to it." Frankly, who cares? If God is at work in all things, calling or not calling at will, let's be easy riders. As my father-in-law said to me for years when we parted, "Tom, preach the gospel!" The simple invitation to eat if you're hungry, drink if you're thirsty, is the gospel. It's not my task to guard the table from the unworthy, it's my job to open the table and loosen the hold of those who would make it their own reward for being "nice" and not "naughty."
Sixth - and so it goes in this world of cabbages and kings.
Seventh - God rested and so can we.
Michael replied on Permalink
Eucharist for everyone?
The cart before the horse has never been a good idea. What is universally offered to everyone is salvation not the sacraments. Would we offer baptism to someone as a means of making them feel included when they lack faith?
An open table for believers is one thing but an open table which includes unbelievers is a misuse of it. The whole approach of inclusiveness without integrity reveals accommodation with the spirit of the age. The eucharist does not create unity it signifies it.
In the Orthodox church the eucharist is for baptised members and for the visitor (and church member) we also offer the antidoron, which means "instead of the gifts." This bread is taken from the same loaf used by the faithful but is not consecrated for communion. It seems to me this is a very healthy sociological and biblical approach. We don't ask anyone to pretend to be what they are not, we respect the guest and share a significant communal meal with them.
Letters to CC replied on Permalink
Letter from Paul Bischoff
Charles Hefling’s compelling article “Who is communion for?” (Nov. 28) successfully dismantles the purity argument surrounding the Lord’s Supper. At the heart of most exclusive modes of closed communion is a notion that God requires our protection to keep him holy. So churches historically have established communion requirements, baptism being the most practiced.
How many of those at the first Lord’s Supper were baptized? We don’t know, and it doesn’t appear to matter. Demythologizing communion is not only theologically appropriate but logistically practical, for any celebration of the Lord’s Supper cannot possibly enforce participation requirements--not even the printed statements in the bulletin in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.
Letters to CC replied on Permalink
Letter from Tracy Keenan
Though I often find myself wondering if the church has become too lenient in its expectations of those who profess the Christian faith, I would shudder to think that access to the Lord’s Table would be shrouded in language of shadowed warning. We tend to expect too little from those who join our churches, but perhaps we miss opportunities to invite them into deeper communion when we render this sacrament too rarified. Considering the Lord’s Supper a moment of recognition for those who can recognize the presence of Christ does not need to hold off those who may recognize that divine presence only after many such shared practices.
The apostle Paul’s scolding of the church in Corinth was about sharing. “If you eat like a greedy pig the meal that is supposed to be all about Jesus, then you are a hypocrite. If you can’t share, you’re not acting much in the Spirit of the Lord, and you would do well to examine your soul”--that’s the way I read 1 Corinthians 11:27–29.
I wonder if the church has squashed what was originally a simple and expansive invitation into a stark, bleached-out ritual involving doll-sized cups and cubes of Wonder Bread? Jesus invited his disciples to remember him and his painful, saving journey every time they broke bread and drank together. Instead of this stingy meal, why don’t we serve huge hunks of bread and enough drink for several gulps? Why aren’t we facing one another instead of sitting in stiff rows looking straight ahead or passing single file to the elements offered by the special ordained folks?
Jesus asked his disciples to consider shared fellowship as the nourishment of the faithful. If only the faithful are included, how will the faltering ever become strong? Who would we bar from this invitation? Who would we warn about the seriousness of it? Who would we hold off, saying, if you eat this, you better be willing to go the whole route? Aren’t all of us walking our own stumbling path, looking to the Holy One and one another for help and seeking some nourishment along the way?
Letters to CC replied on Permalink
Letter from Donald R. Steelberg
Charles Hefling in raising the question, “Who is communion for?” (Nov. 28) would continue the restriction of communion to baptized initiates, dating the restriction to decisions by the Apostolic Fathers. One could actually date it to James, the brother of Jesus, and the Pharisees turning from Jesus’ invitation and desiring not baptism but the Levitical priestly tradition.
As Hefling does argue, the Last Supper is not a one-off event. It is the continual welcome that models, and one may say mysteriously represents, the eternal banquet of Moses and the 24 elders at the giving of the Law (Exod. 24:9–11); the “Ho, everyone who thirsts” of Isaiah 55; the table of Jesus’ kingdom to whom Jesus invites all who have stood with him in his trials (Luke 22:29–30).
That we have lost the sense of mystery in the invitation to a banquet with the eternal is the legacy of the Enlightenment. That we have understood the trials of Jesus as offering salvation from miserable wretchedness, rather than as Jesus confronting and overcoming the powers, is our loss.
Celebrating with bread, we sing the sustenance given in the Creation and in quail and loaves stories; celebrating with wine, we sing of the redemption offered in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It is to this table that Jesus invites us and our neighbors, baptized and unbaptized. No reservation needed.
Donald R. Steelberg
Letters to CC replied on Permalink
Letter from Vernon Bader
Hefling misses the most important fact: Jesus said, “This do in remembrance of me.” It is a command, and anything we do to hinder others from keeping that command is not acceptable. Coming to the table is not an opportunity or privilege, but a requirement. So let’s take the walls down, open the table and feast together.
Letters to CC replied on Permalink
Letter from Donald F. Riechers
I say yes to the open table--meaning open to the baptized (“Who is communion for?” Nov. 28). The wisdom of this tradition of the church emphasizes the importance of both baptism and Holy Communion as means of grace. It is a sacred privilege to participate in the Eucharist, and the invitation to participate should be extended to all of the baptized. This invitation should be given in a positive manner so as to demonstrate that both baptism and Holy Communion are vitally important.
I was able to maintain this policy as a U.S. Air Force chaplain, even at Protestant services. I well remember a family coming to me and asking to be baptized. Until they heard my invitation, they were unaware that baptism was even important.
Donald F. Riechers
Diamond City, Ark.