I read something last quarter that in many ways altered my way of thinking about communion as a sacrament of the church, especially in how it is practiced in the Evangelical and Catholic churches today. Scot McKnight, in his book A Community Called Atonement, opened up a gigantic can of proverbial worms (the can is not proverbial, just gigantic) that has had me reeling ever since. He noted that there are three different views in the church on who can participate in the Lord’s Table: members of a specific local body of believers (I would add denomination), all Christians, and anyone who would seek its blessings.
Generally speaking, most churches I have attended restrict participation to members of the local body who are also “right with the Lord”. I attended a church in Dallas, TX last fall and they happened to celebrate communion the Sunday I attended. Two things stood out to me about how participation was expressed from the pulpit. The pastor had two caveats: “If you are not a believer, this is not for you,“ and, “If you are currently struggling with a sin issue, this is not for you.” It is highly likely that he is referring to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul says that we must “examine” ourselves to make sure we aren’t partaking in communion in “an unworthy manner” and hence “drink judgment” on ourselves. I’ll come back to that later.
The second group is exemplified by my church, Imago Dei, where we say that, “Anyone who can recite the Apostle’s Creed is welcome to participate in communion,” followed by reciting the Apostle’s Creed together. Instead of excluding those who are not Catholic, not Baptist, or not “members” of our congregation, we take a more inclusive stance and say, essentially, “If you are a Christian, you are welcome at this table.”
The third group exists somewhere in the realm of fantasy, at least in my experience. I did learn today that Jonathon Edwards’ (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, not the politician, who may or may not be one of the former) grandfather was a minister who believed that all those who were baptized as infants are welcome to participate in communion, regardless of their faith in Christ in adulthood. He thought that it was a good idea to invite people to participate in the grace of Christ through table fellowship. However, he still restricted this fellowship to baptized individuals. That’s the closest that I have heard to this idea of unrestricted access to communion.
Growing up in a Baptist church, I am familiar with the notion of the pastor in Dallas who said, “This is not for you.” However, I think the reasons for excluding non-members and sinners from table fellowship is troublesome on two levels. First, it is based upon a poor reading of Scripture, even in its own immediate context. Paul is talking about the fact that some people are coming to the table starving and in search of a meal, and he warns them that this is an unworthy manner in which to approach the memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is not a meal. We don’t come to Jesus to feast on his body and blood, as those who are appreciating his death because now we have something to eat (which would be weird, especially if taken literally). We come to him out of reverence and respect for what he did for all of us on the cross. All of us.
Which leads me to look earlier at what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 regarding Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. Paul reiterates that Jesus body and his blood were “for you”. Jesus said those words in the presence of his very betrayer, Judas Iscariot. Jesus’ body was broken and his blood was spilled for you. For Judas. For liars, for murderers, for those who obey their parents and those who don’t, for homosexuals, for women who teach in Church and those who remain silent, for adulterers, for alcoholics, for drug addicts and those who have never smoked a cigarette. For all of us.
Which brings me back to the pastor in Dallas. Was Jesus not explicitly broken and crucified for all of us? How is communion not for us, those of us who are sinners (and are honest about it), and those who are not yet following Jesus? Jesus actually died specifically for us. So, in what way is the celebration of communion not for everyone? Do the words of the pastor in Dallas sound funny in this context to you, or is it just me? Scot McKnight said, “My own view, within proper limits, is that this is not a meal so much in need of protection as it is a meal in need of missional extension. Come, we say, and see. Come and taste. Come find grace. If a person seeks for grace, this is where we want them to come.”
In our minds (our being Evangelicals), we somehow have come to believe that a non-believer or sinner is damned forever if they partake in communion, and it is our job to keep them from it because we have been made the protectors of Jesus’ body and blood. This isn’t actually surprising, since we also seem to think that we have cornered the market on Jesus and salvation as well. Unless you believe the way we believe, you aren’t saved, and can’t come and celebrate what Jesus did for you on the cross. A vicious, perpetual, cycle of exclusion.
So, may we think about the ways in which we are protecting sinners and non-believers from Jesus through what we communicate about communion. May we, even for a brief moment, consider that the table of the risen Messiah is the very place we should invite all sinners and saints to re-experience and re-tell the story of the one who bore our sins so that we no longer have to.