Sunday, February 14, 2010
The Future of Holy Communion
Working across denominational lines allows me to ask questions of both traditions of Church that normally we do not ask. And the question that seems to be being raised for me is “Who is in and who is out?” Issues of membership, who may vote, who may lead are not the issues that I want to address. Those questions may spin off the deeper and underlying question of who is considered a part of the Christian community and more importantly who may receive Communion?
This question has arisen because of a pastoral concern. A young Japanese exchange student has attended with her host family. She is not a baptized Christian but she goes to a Christian school in her home country. She comes to the altar rail with her host family. Her English is not good enough to explain to me her faith or her understanding of it. I have no Japanese to share with her the wonder of the relationship with Jesus. Yet her eagerness to be a part of our Christian community is apparent. She listens intently to the sermons and she observes with wonder the whole of the worship service. Her eyes glisten as she comes to the altar rail. I cannot refuse her the sacrament.
My theology of the sacrament is fairly catholic. I believe there is grace in the act of receiving Christ’ body and blood. God acts in this ritual and radical act of inclusion. I have always communed the young. I like placing a drop of the wine on the infant’s tongue at her baptism. We do not wait until a child understands nutrition before we feed him. But to commune someone whose background is not Christian stretches even my understanding of what reception of the sacrament means. Perhaps it is the singular enthusiasm of the young woman that allows me to have no compunction in communing her, but it does raise real theological questions for me.
What does Holy Communion mean in the scheme of faith? I know that it is in the Body and Blood of Christ where I encounter Christ most fully. Not only is it the place where my God shares with me a taste of divinity, it is also where I meet God in the incarnated love of others of my church family. It is where I know that I am one with all of Creation through the invitation to Christ’s feast. But I also know that in Holy Communion Christ offers the hospitality of what it means to be welcome in the community of fellow Christians.
One of the places where I believe that the Church must improve for the future is in the area of hospitality. Christ welcomed all. He ate with those who were not acceptable among the upper crust of his society. He welcomed the poor, the excluded, the sick and the outcasts to a society that was rigidly stratified. All too often churches use this invitation to be one with Christ as a way of determining who is in and who is out.
Some denominations feel that they must ‘guard’ the sacrament so that only ‘members’ or those who believe in a particular way receive it. Consequently, this ultimate sign of hospitality, of welcome and unity becomes a stumbling block to the meaning of the sign of God’s presence in our lives.
Even more unsettling is the way that Holy Communion is used by those who disagree with each other. In the Anglican Communion and among the various Lutheran synods we use the sacrament to comment on our ideological stances. When I hear Christians say that they are not “in communion” with other Christians I wonder how they can claim their faith. It is Christ who welcomes us to the sacrament. Christ is the host, not a particular juridical body. The deeper I enter into the sacramental relationship to which Christ invites me; I know I cannot exclude anyone whom Christ invites to the table.
If our crossing of denominational lines tells us anything, it is that our unity in Christ is going to depend upon our hospitality. We can no longer stand upon membership, baptism, articles of faith, canon law, or ideology if the sacrament is going to mean anything to successive generations. If our sacraments cannot sign the welcome, hospitality and peace that Christ’s life proclaims, then I question whether the Church is going to be able to be a credible witness to Christ’s life.
So how will judicatories address the theology and the need to control God’s welcome? Hopefully through the sharing of community that is happening as our various denominations share clergy and combine, we are going to be able to trust God to “guard” the sacrament and open our hearts, minds and souls to those who come to Christ in different ways.