In the past two weeks, I have had a number of conversations with colleagues and family about the Lord’s Table… not necessarily about who is welcome, but about what MAKES that person welcome.
My friends in the LCMS church have been discussing what kind of understanding of faith is required for a first communion experience. I am not completely versed in their traditions, but from what I was told (and then understood) current practice is for children to have to be old enough to express the faith for themselves before participating in the sacrament. But as the practice of infant baptism and baptism of younger children has increased, they wonder if a) communion should also be extended to young children or b) both sacraments need to remain as practices reserved for those who understand and have claimed their faith personally. I think it is a wonderful conversation for them to be having, as we should always make sure that our theology is consistent with our practices and that those practices are then consistent in and of themselves.
One of the important factors in their conversation is that the sacrament of communion (in particular) is a gift for believers of the faith and that there is some danger in coming to the table unprepared, with wrong intention, or misusing the sacraments. The primary place in scripture they (and other Christians) draw upon regarding this issue is 1 Corinthians 11:26-29:
Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes. This is why those who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord inappropriately will be guilty of the Lord’s body and blood. Each individual should test himself or herself, and eat from the bread and drink from the cup in that way. Those who eat and drink without correctly understanding the body are eating and drinking their own judgment. (CEB)
If we are not old enough or developed enough to test and examine ourselves, to be self-reflective, then there is a danger present there.
In the United Methodist tradition, one of the ways that the Lord’s Table is emphasized is as a means of grace. In fact, communion is not necessarily reserved for only the baptized, as John Wesley believed it could bestow even prevenient grace… grace that goes before us… and that partaking of communion could be a converting act. As the Holy Spirit transforms us through the ritual, we might let go of our old life and finally become ready to accept the faith for ourselves.
George Lyons has modernized John Wesley’s sermon “The Means of Grace” and shares these words on the duty of constant communion:
“all who desire an increase of the grace of God are to wait for it in partaking of the Lord’s supper.” By meditating upon his saving death, by expecting his personal presence, by anticipating his coming again in glory, we prepare ourselves to receive his grace. Those who are already filled with peace and joy in believing, or anyone who longs for the grace of true repentance may, No, must eat and drink to their souls’ content. “Is not the eating of that bread, and the drinking of that cup, the outward, visible means, whereby God conveys into our souls all that spiritual grace, that righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, which were purchased by the body of Christ once broken and the blood of Christ once shed for us Let all, therefore, who truly desire the grace of God, eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.”
Wesley was convinced that communion was not only a confirming, but also a converting ordinance.
In some ways, our tradition in the United Methodist Church has taken 1 Cor 11:26-29 with a grain of salt… Yes, we believe that one needs to be of the right heart and mind before you come… BUT, we see so much grace in the ritual that it not merely confirms the faith we have, but can even overcome our lack of belief and faith and repentance.
This is possibly why my mom recently became a little angry at the dinner table. She had attended worship with my brother and sister-in-law at their non-denominational church. I have never been to their church, so I can only relate her experience as she shared it. In their tradition, communion is open to those who have faith in Jesus Christ, but the pastor made a special plea right before the time of communion that those who were not right with God and their neighbor should not participate.
As my mom exclaimed to us later, “If they mean everyone is welcome, then EVERYONE SHOULD BE WELCOME!”
The conversation continued and as I heard the experience recounted, my sister-in-law talked about how the service was running long and the pastor skipped some of the more “pastoral” instructions that typically go with that plea. To my parents and brother who were guests that day and were unfamiliar with their traditions (and also from the United Methodist tradition), the words sounded cold and off-putting.
And yet, I gently reminded my mom, even in our tradition do we speak similar words. In every service of Word and Table, we have a time of not only confession, but also of reconciliation where we have the opportunity to pass the peace with one another and seek forgiveness with our neighbors. And our invitation clearly states:
Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.
Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.
As I think about it more and more, the United Methodist tradition tries to hold in tension both the particularity of scripture (1 Cor 11) and the depth and breadth of scripture and our theological understanding of God’s grace.
In his article “Admission to the Table and Recent United Methodist Debate” Hoyt Hickman lays out the history of how we came to our current understanding of who is welcome to participate at the table and points to these words (which I can’t remember having ever read before) in our Book of Worship:
All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive… Every effort should be made to make each person, and especially children, welcome at the table. It is particularly effective to look directly at the person being addressed, touch each person’s hand while giving the bread and cup, and if possible call each person by name.
We don’t talk about baptism being a prerequisite. We welcome children, even young children who have no full concept of what this meal means, as a part of the covenant and care that their parents make on their behalf (Acts 2:39 – This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites. – CEB). And while we encourage personal confession, make opportunity for doing so available, and invite people to be earnestly repentant before they come, we will not refuse someone who comes. We believe that God just might act in their lives anyways… in spite of where there heart is at the moment.
Or as George Lyons puts it, ” It is not only for those who already believe and long to deepen their relationship with the Lord, but for those who truly want to believe, but seem to lack the grace to do so.”
I am not sure where my LCMS brothers and sisters will end up in their conversations. And I don’t know fully the practice of my brother’s church. But with all of its nuance and tension, I love where my own United Methodist tradition lands….
So come to the table if you seek to love God. Come to the table confessing the truth of your heart. Come to the table and bring with you your children and grandchildren and your friend who is hurting and the stranger who needs to be loved. Come to the table where God’s grace is ready to meet you and to welcome you home.