Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Open Table

The recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) surfaced all of the rows and sniping and argumentificating that I'd anticipated.

In our ever dwindling fellowship, there was the inevitable kerfuffle about homosexuality, as once again conservatives and progressives had at one another around the issue. There was argument about our approach to the endless fustercluck in Israel/Palestine, as leftists and right wingers did their thing. Not that what we say or do has any meaningful impact on the conflict, but squabbling over stuff keeps us from getting into any real mischief. It was, in terms of the disagreements that manifested themselves, pretty much same old, same old. It was familiar turf, and utterly expected.

With one exception.

One issue that I did not anticipate was a discussion about who can and cannot receive the Lord's Supper. For Presbyterian congregations that circulate the Christ-Crouton and the little plastic shot-glasses of Welches, the question was: who may and may not receive communion. Yeah, it wasn't the big flash point issue. It didn't strut down the middle of the event drawing attention to its fabulous self like some ecclesiastical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. But theologically speaking, it was at least as big a deal as the flash-point [stuff.]

Where the PC(USA) is moving is towards an "Open Table," meaning it doesn't place any boundaries between folks who want communion from getting it. That doesn't just extend to other flavas of Jesus folk. We now won't even forbid an unbaptized person who desires to take communion from doing so.

This is something of an inversion of the traditional process by which individuals enter the Christian faith. Baptism is the moment of entry into the Christian faith, when through water and the Spirit, we are reborn. The Lord's Supper is our affirmation of Christ's willingness to share in the suffering of all being. In order to partake of the Lord's Supper, we need to have been Baptized into the faith. Right? That's what Jesus taught, right?

Problem is, when I look at the core texts that establish the Lord's Supper in the Gospels, I see no evidence in Christ's teachings that give credence to that as a requirement. Matthew 26:26-29? Nope. Mark 14:22-25? Uh uh. Luke 22:15-20. No siree. The synoptics, unsurprisingly, all concur in the absence of any razor wire fence around the table. They make no explicit mention of limitation at all.

John 6:51-58 significantly elevates the practice, making it sufficient for eternal life...yet with no requirement for baptism pre-stated. In fact, where Jesus talks about the communion meal in John, it almost seems...well...sufficient for establishing right relationship with God in and of itself.

Where Paul echoes Luke in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, he lays in to those Corinthians about their abuses of the meal. But those abuses had everything to do with the Corinthians obsessive one-upsmanship, their creating power imbalances at the table. Unlike in the Gospels, there is guidance from Paul that would indicate who should or should not take the eucharist. We find that boundary in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32. There, Paul says nothing of the community excluding or forbidding or fencing or checking baptismal certificates. He says, instead, that those who partake should "examine themselves." For what? For whether or not they perceive and desire the body of Christ in the bread and the cup.

That's it. That's the guide and measure of whether or not to participate. If an individual seeks and hopes and desires participation in the Body, then they are welcome. Otherwise, they should feel free not to partake.

Acts 2 also talks about the Lord's Supper, and it is in two verses there that we take our pattern for the relationship between the two sacraments. It's clear from Acts 2:42-43 (and elsewhere) that we enter full participation in community through baptism. It's also clear that a defining aspect of that ongoing participation is the communion meal.

Yet there appears to be nothing within our defining texts that would prevent a seeking soul from sitting down at that table with us. So long as they want it, feeling moved by what it means and did and is, then the table is open.

The eucharistic meal is something that exists for disciples, true. But as I see it, you begin being a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth when the Holy Spirit begins moving you towards Him.

Since I started in ministry, I've always pitched that out as the requirement. Any table I'm responsible for will be an open table. Yes, baptism is the sacrament that marks full entry into the life of our community. But the Supper stands on its own. If you feel the Spirit move you to partake, if you discern that in this sacred moment, something important and transforming is happening, then I can see no warrant to forbid it.

As far as I'm concerned, the meal we share is not just something that we do after we're "in." It nourishes us and strengthens us for full participation in our fellowship, but I see it...can do the same in preparing us for that participation.


  1. The Lord's supper is one of my fav-o-rite subjects within ecclesiology. I've often found that we are missing out on a great deal with the sort of truncated version of communion we partake in every Sunday. The memorial of bread and wine is put a small part of a fellowship 'banquet' if you will, that we ought to engage in. How close and familial would our various churches be with such a thoroughly biblical practice excercised on a weekly basis?

    Not sure if you've ever heard of them, but the NTRF (New Testament Reformation Foundation)
    has some really thoughtful and thought provoking viewpoints on the communion and how it might look if we practiced it as closer to the model the apostles showed us.


  2. I see part of my comment was excluded. I am awful with the cut and paste. Meh.

    Anyway, the fellowship meal aspect I think would be all inclusive, whilst perhaps the memorial which is part of that bigger celebration would be more important to believers while guests, the curious, etc would be less inclined to participate in that portion of the 'meal'. As far as I know there's no "Union card check" for who can and cannot partake in the overall experience.

  3. @ Jonathan: Once a year, on Maundy Thursday, my little kirk does the full Love Feast meal...which involves teaching about the Eucharist and a simple communal meal, framed by breaking bread and sharing the cup.

    I'd quite happily run it that way all the time...and you're right. It does change the whole character of the event.

  4. or several years, my wife ran the weekly feast for the church. A full meal was fed to the entire congregation. However, monthly, a special ceremony during the service engaged bread and wine and reminded the members of their baptisms, renewed their commitment to be with Him in His death (and the hope of the life to come).
    Believe it or not, when you feed a full couple meals to hundreds of people each week, you do recapitulate some of the problems found with the feedings in the epistles. It's worth it, but there is a need for discipline in the community - and in all comers, who are all welcome. The budget was small (~$1.25/person) but people would still find ways to be hogs sometimes.
    With the communion supper, I can't see how an open table can be respectful to commitment and the blood of the martyrs. In a rush to be friendly, one recapitulates the errors of premature intimacy (physical or emotional) that so many teens and 20s stumble into.

  5. If a congregation serves the bread and juice in the pews who is going to know who took communion and who didn't?

    As to Paul's admonitions in 1 Cor. I've come to the conclusion that perceiving the body refers to how one sees Christ in the Church and therefore how one treats Christ's body. Clearly in Corinth they had failed to see Christ's body in one another.

  6. @ BenK: Aye, true. There is something in that. The love we feel for Christ is as it ever was at the first. When we were young in it. Made new in it. Surely you remember.

    Sometimes, my brother, His love comes in a great mad rush. Comes free. That doesn't mean it isn't real. I hope you haven't forgotten that.

    I haven't, though even my youth is far, far behind me.

  7. @ b-spear

    Yes - and the resonance of the human spirit is noble in its affection and gratitude for God's gift; but the determination required for sacrificial love is not impulsive - see Peter, ever impulsive, and where that landed him by the fireside. Shallow roots bear no fruit.

    The decision to commit is never with the fullest appreciation of the cost; but sharing in the sign of commitment still shouldn't precede the actual deliberate choice.

  8. @ BenK: But then, the choice to come forward and partake can be a deliberate one. And the mightiest oak and the most fruitful vine begins with tiny, delicate roots.

    And I agree. Peter is an excellent example. Yes, he was known to fling himself from boats on occasion. But he also, out of the blue, put down his whole livelihood one day and followed someone he hardly knew. From that impulse came a rock of the church.

    The question is, as I see it, whether or not that impulse is just childish, self-indulgent dalliance, or the first stirrings of the Way. If it's the latter, to fence the table from such a one seems 1) without definitive scriptural warrant and 2) an unnecessary impediment to a little one in the faith. If it's the former, then the judgment against such a one is not mine to make.

  9. Great Post.

    I sometimes have wondered if we haven't put the horse before the cart on the topic of communion. Jesus didn't exactly say "whenever you think of me, drink this cup and eat this bread" but rather "whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, think of me"

    What bread and cup was he talking about? Passover? Marriage? (I think the cup of wine is from a marriage covenant, the unleavened bread from passover. In John, Jesus IS the passover lamb.) A fruit salad of symbols, but in all cases, never something that is fenced off.

    If anything, it is the partaking of the bread and wine that DOES the fencing.

    As we partake in the re-invention and re-visioning of the Christian faith, all these subjects need and will be revisited. These are exciting times to be living in, and future generations will look back on ours and say they wished they had been here to participate.

    The return of Christianity to its pre-empire days. Before there were councils and bishops and priests and temples and creeds. Very cool.

  10. Martin Luther (who is, by the way, my homeboy) said that "that person is rightly prepared and worthy who believes these words: 'given and shed for you.'" That is the criteria I state aloud when asked. I let each person decide what they want to do with it. Though my denomination officially says a person has to be baptized, I'm with you. It's a free gift of grace, and who am I to stand in the way of that. To bring the point home, I switched it up and put the cart way before the horse. All throughout Lent, communion has been the first thing we do when we hit the sanctuary. Greeting - prayer of the day - commune - then we can get to all the rest of that business - Word, offering, prayers, confession, announcements. Only one person objected (aloud). Most people seemed surprised at the reminder that you don't have to give your offering before you receive God's promises. huh. go figure. [I credit my anthropology degree from UVa with giving me the ritual hutzpah to make such a shift.]