From Font to Table

Each week, we publish an invitation to communion in our bulletin:

“Holy Communion is open to all who are baptized and trust that Christ is present in the meal, regardless of your tradition or affiliation. Pastors are available to talk about Holy Baptism if you desire to join in the Lord’s Supper.”

This reflects a long-standing practice in our congregations (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and its predecessors) to make the Sacrament of the Table open to all Christians, not just the ones that belong to our denomination or tradition. Not all Christians practice this “open” table. Perhaps you have been asked, informed or notified that you are not welcome to the table some place where communion is “closed.” Not until the twentieth-century did open table fellowship become a norm for many. Notice that the intention is to welcome the baptized (which is what initiates us into the church) to the table.

With increasing frequency, there are some who suggest that our “open table” is not really so open if it precludes the unbaptized. They argue that the statement is actually exclusionary because it specifies baptism as the entry rite into Christian fellowship. I understand the criticism. Others say that it does not reflect what all Christians believe or teach, especially those who do not baptize children. This means there are those who may feel or believe they are followers of Jesus but are not baptized, and so unwelcome. I understand this sentiment as well.

The first thing to make clear is that baptism, the entry rite into Christian fellowship forbaptism window two thousand years, is open to all who wish to follow Jesus and establish fellowship with his body, the church. We do openly invite all Christians to the table and we do define “Christian” as one who is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 28:19. The statement we offer may imply patience, but it does not exclude.

So, why do we welcome the baptized and not just everybody who might find themselves in worship? Good question. The simplest answer is that it is what our church, and many other expressions of orthodox Christian faith teach. The Use of the Means of Grace, the 1997 statement of the ELCA on worship policies, practices, and principles, states:

THE HOLY COMMUNION IS GIVEN TO THE BAPTIZED

Principle 37 Admission to the Sacrament is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the Church to those who are baptized.

The Episcopal (Anglican) Church states in its 1979 Book of Common Prayer that Baptism is “the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God,” its inward and spiritual grace being “union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, pp. 857-58).  You will find similar (and lengthier) statements for many (though admittedly, not all) Christian churches around the world.

Jesus instituted the Last Supper with the community of disciples. Had they all been baptized? Some certainly, for they had followed John. All of them? Perhaps; even likely. Most important, Jesus own ministry had begun in baptism and then led to table fellowship with his followers. Luther structures his Small and Large Catechisms to teach about the first sacrament (baptism) and the second (Holy Communion). The order is unlikely to be arbitrary.

The first, and very frank response to why I might not support changing this statement is that it is above my pay grade. This is a teaching of the church I serve and to which we belong.

I recognize that we live in what is termed (ad nauseam) a “post-modern” age. That means that trust in the veracity of institutional, historical, or passed down wisdom has all but evaporated. It means that every individual is an island of personal wisdom and is encouraged to make meaning apart from shared wisdom. It means that the reason for every teaching must be primarily about results and outcomes. We are encouraged to dismiss the silliness of prior ages and wisdom so that we can effectively market the church and Jesus to seekers. That means our teaching must avoid any offense – to me or a visitor.

cup patenPerhaps this post-modern view is a bit arrogant. In the Benedictine tradition, humility is a core value of the community. Humility teaches that one should take care to honor the voices of not just those in the room with you, but those from ages past – even if you think them quaint.

Perhaps the second question is, “What do we do when the unbaptized commune?” Nothing really, except invite them into fellowship with the church through baptism. As The Use of the Means of Grace continues:

Application 37G – When an unbaptized person comes to the table seeking Christ’s presence and is inadvertently communed, neither that person nor the ministers of Communion need be ashamed. Rather, Christ’s gift of love and mercy to all is praised. That person is invited to learn the faith of the Church, be baptized, and thereafter faithfully receive Holy Communion.

Baptism and Holy Communion are part and parcel of one another. The are both God’s Word and both constitutive of the Christian life. There is nowhere a notion that there is an either/or. Baptism claims each person as a child of God and Holy Communion proclaims all the baptised part of the body of Christ and all that means. There is a spiritual logic, if you will, to the order of the sacraments.

The Lord’s Supper is a repeatable act that nourishes and sustains the disciples of Jesus as they answer the call to bear the cross and press on toward resurrection. We need it over and over again to assure us of forgiveness; to remind us of our intimate relationship with Christ and his people; to participate in a foretaste of the feast to come – where the promises of resurrection and new life will finally come to pass.

There are, however, circumstances that can sever us from sharing this sustaining meal. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of the grief that came from being separated from community while in prison. The faithful can experience dark nights of the soul where we wander from this lifeline meal willingly or unwillingly. In our age, people rarely come to the table with increasing frequency. When we stop coming to church, receiving the meal, where is the assurance that we have a place at the table? In the most extreme of church discipline, excommunication, the disciple is kept from sharing in the meal until reconciliation takes place.

Through all that, however, the indelible and un-repeatable mark of baptism prevails. Bonhoeffer knew his status as a child of God made in baptism was indelible. When we wander back into church after a long drought, we know we have a place not because of a feeble welcome from the usher, but because Christ has claimed us in baptism. Even excommunication cannot wipe away the mark of the cross on the forehead of God’s children. The indelible, un-repeatable proclamation of baptism lays the foundation for the constant – though interruptible – nourishment of the table.

In the ancient church, baptism took place once a year, at the great Vigil of Easter. Each Sunday, as the church gathered, the catechumens (those preparing for baptism in the weeks or months ahead) were dismissed from the assembly before communion to be taught the faith; to come to understand what they were getting themselves into! Then, after they came up from the water at the Vigil, they received the body and blood of Jesus. They were welcomed into the community of Christ through the water, through dying and rising. The indelible mark paved the way for the abundant table. They became part of the community and then shared in the body and blood of that community’s Lord.

We may not be able to answer which comes first, the chicken or the egg (though a Platonist likely knows), but we do know that the sacraments of font and table are connected, both a means of God’s grace. We practice that the indelible, irrevocable declaration of one’s identity and place in the community precedes the frequent (hopefully) and abundant nourishment of the Lord, crucified and risen. We do so for the spiritual well being of all.

Pax Christi, Pastor Tim Olson

 

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