Last Sunday while preaching on Luke 20:27-38, in which some Sadducees try to trap Jesus with a question about resurrection, marriage, and Levirate law, I ended with the story of the way my own mind has changed regarding Holy Communion:
Each week we return to the table, the meal, the Lord’s Supper and remember that we are all, from the oldest to youngest, children of God. For me this Holy Communion has its own story of breaking the status quo. In the few 100 years before the Lutheran Reformation in the 16th Century, not everyone could eat the bread and drink the wine. Only the priests could. Eventually the people in the assembly could eat the bread but it took even more re-formation before the laity could also drink the wine.
Many of you have heard my story of transformation regarding the sacrament of Holy Communion. During my years as a pastor in rural Iowa, whenever I saw guests I would be sure to include the invitation, “All who believe and are baptized are welcome at God’s table” after the words of institution. Like all ELCA congregations, we practiced Open Communion. Roman Catholics, Methodists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ were all welcome to receive the bread and wine.
However, our congregation had a tradition of allowing children to commune beginning in the fifth grade. If little children who were visiting family came forward with opened hands I of course served them Communion.
When I came to interview here I was so excited to see that we commune people of all ages. We do something more—you can receive the bread and wine if you are not baptized. If this is your first time ever being in a church, come on up and share the feast with us. I had to change my invitation from “All who believe and are baptized are welcome at God’s table” to “All are welcome, for Jesus invites us.”
I grew up, like some of you, understanding that Baptism came first, followed by Communion. But serving this congregation has changed my mind. Why, after all, can’t this meal lead someone to Baptism?
In her book Take This Bread, author Sara Miles describes the architecture at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco.The font is a huge boulder set beyond the Table, out the far door of the church, literally outside the church walls. “For many of us, from our first welcome to Jesus’ Table, we find ourselves drawn to follow him in his baptism, going beyond the church walls to wash away, as he did in his death, everything that separated him from any person, even the worst or most desolate.”
When people go to St. Gregory’s, the physical space states clearly that sharing the Lord’s Supper can and does lead people to the waters of baptism. If you receive the gifts of life and forgiveness week in and week out in the Lord’s Supper, why would you not want to venture into the waters of baptism and be adopted as a Child of God? So my thinking has changed. This ordering, or non-ordering, makes sense. It is life-giving. Miles and others have helped me get out of the soft but still present Holy Communion legalism running through my head.
Where are we stuck in the muck? Where are we caught up in the way it has always been, even if that way is sucking the life out of us and this world? What is Jesus calling us into right now? Today we trust in Jesus’ promise of the resurrection—the dead will be raised and someday we will all share, our liturgy says, in the heavenly banquet—whatever that’s going to be.
It’s okay if we can’t grasp this and there is no need for us to understand resurrection. Meanwhile we get to share in the earthly banquet—the bread and wine, new life and forgiveness, a place where absolutely everyone is welcome (and we’re not just saying that, we mean everyone), and an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work in ways we cannot imagine.
A final note, at our Assembly in Pittsburgh this summer, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) decided to formally take up this issue. Here is part of a news release from August, 2013:
The 952 voting members of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly approved a proposal designed to invite the 4-million-member church, its nearly 10,000 congregations, 65 synods and churchwide organization into conversation and study regarding the Use of the Means of Grace – a statement on the practice of Word and Sacrament. The assembly called on the Congregational and Synodical Mission Unit of ELCA churchwide ministries, in consultation with the ELCA Office of the Presiding Bishop and the Conference of Bishops, to establish a process to review current documents concerning administration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The assembly also requested that the unit provide a report and possible recommendations to the ELCA Church Council in April 2014.