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.