This post is one in a series of posts about what I have learned from the different denominations and religions that have come into my life. There may be more than one post per denomination.
The first post was "I'm a Christian Mutt".
The second post was "What I Learned from the Wesleyans/Methodists"
Communion has come to the forefront of my mind because I've had communion in two churches lately, and I also had communion at my church shortly before I moved in February. It has made me think about the different rules that different churches have regarding who is eligible to receive communion.
First, where does communion come from?
In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus and his disciples eat a Passover meal together; this meal has become known as "The Last Supper". Here are the three references:
Matthew 26:26-28 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Mark 14:22-24 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
Luke 22:19-20 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
I included all three of them because they differ slightly and it's always fun to compare the accounts and wonder why each author chose to include or not include certain points.
It is a simple meal filled with new symbolism and promise and creation of a new covenant. (The blood covenant to which this is looking back on is likely Exodus 24:3-8). There are only a few people present during this meal, yet it is a tradition that has been passed on since that time. I do not have a memory of the first time I ever took communion, but I have a memory of my first communion. Confused? Remember, I am a Christian mutt and I grew up going to two different denominations. In one, the UCC, I was able to take communion without any ceremony or special permission. In the Catholic church, I had to wait until I had my "first communion", which was in the spring of second grade. Before that, my sister and I would pretend to take communion by giving each other mints while we sat in the pew and waited for all those eligible to finish.
I never really thought much of it at the time. To me, it was just that different churches had different rules and I learned to follow them as needed.
I now wonder, though, why do we have to have these rules about communion? Why does this ancient rite instituted by Jesus as something to remember him by have to be so complicated? Why are certain people eligible to serve communion to others and other people are not? Why are children so often excluded? I have let my 4 1/2 year old take communion even though he technically is apparently not supposed to, depending on the church we are in. I have almost wished that someone would try and stop me, because I have my defense ready:
But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. (Mark 10:14)I remember a conversation I had once when I went to a United Methodist Church when I lived in Indiana. My pastor said that communion was open to everyone, regardless of where they believed they stood with God, because he said that a transformational experience could happen right there during the taking of communion (Maybe based on this? "When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight." --Luke 24:30-31). There, it truly was an open invitation for all to come to the table. There was no requirement of having had to "ask Jesus into one's heart" or first "be born again" or be a "believer" based on whatever that church's definition of a believer is, or be a "professing member in good standing of a Bible-believing church" (however that gets to be decided).
I have come to see how exclusive we can make that one simple meal, and I don't like it. It is one more example of the "I'm in; you're out" feeling that, unfortunately, can be prevalent in Christianity today.
The UMC says the following about children and communion:
But do young children know what they are doing when they receive Communion?Do they understand the full meaning of this holy sacrament? No, and neither do any of us. It is a wonderful mystery, and children can sense wonder and mystery. Children cannot understand the full significance of family meals, but we feed them at our family tables and at Christ’s family table. Young children experience being loved by being fed. They sense the difference between being included and excluded at a family meal. They have the faith of a child, appropriate to their stage of development, which Jesus recognized and honored. Indeed, he said to adults: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15 NRSV).
I love that. None of us have all of the answers, and we should stop pretending as if we have it all figured out. If we think we have all the answers, it doesn't leave much room for that mystery and wonder, and it doesn't leave much room for us to grow.
This meal should be unifying, not divisive.
At the end of The Meal Jesus Gave Us by N.T. Wright:
From the first generation of the Church, eating together was a sign of the breaking down of boundaries between Christians of different groups: Jew and Greek (Galatians 2), rich and poor (1 Corinthians 11), and so on. This was a sign of God's saving justice going out into all the world. When this caused difficulties, Paul was adamant, in the name of the Jesus who had included everyone at his table, that unity there was not negotiable. 'We who are many, are one bread, one body--for we all partake of the one bread' (1 Corinthians 10:17). Sharing Communion together between Christians of different denominations ought not to be the goal at the end of a long process of unity negotiations. it ought to be the means, the thing we already do, that will create a context in which we will be able to understand and respect one another, and grow towards a richer unity. I know not everybody will agree with this. But I'm pretty sure St. Paul would have done." (pages 81-82)The next time you take communion, when you hear the words "do this in remembrance of me", ask yourself, is it in remembrance of Jesus if it is exclusive?