The Lord’s Supper as Welcoming Sacrament? Reversing the Sequence of the Sacraments

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Editors’ note: In recent years, there has been increasing talk about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a feast of welcome and hospitality. Perhaps originally associated with St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, this understanding has gained supporters around the North American church. It is said that in a post-Christian culture, the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament to draw people to faith. Baptized or unbaptized, believer, seeker or skeptic, all who are drawn to the Table are welcome. Then, nourished and eventually coming to faith in Jesus, such people may seek baptism to make public their faith in Christ and to join Christ’s church. Perspectives asked four Reformed thinkers to evaluate and engage with these claims.

Going Public

By Renee House

It is a blue-sky summer Sunday morning, and the congregation of the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, New York, is celebrating the Lord’s Supper outside. Gathered around the Lord’s Table on the wide sidewalk that leads to the front doors of the church, we have turned our worship service “inside out.”

The idea of celebrating the Supper out of doors came alive in me 30 years ago when I first read “Our Song of Hope,” a contemporary statement of faith for the Reformed Church in America. It says, “Christ places the Lord’s table in this world. … Here Christ is present in his world proclaiming salvation until he comes, a symbol of hope for a troubled age.” As more and more people choose not to walk through the doors of any church, we have chosen to literally place Christ’s Supper Table in the world outside so that God’s love and promises can be more openly seen and heard.

We are not concerned to protect Jesus from the world any more than he was concerned to protect himself. And we are not concerned to protect our neighbors from Jesus.

Old Dutch Church is situated at a bustling intersection in our small city – a place ripe with opportunity for daily engagement with our neighbors. The benches for the city bus sit on our bluestone walks. Throughout the week, hundreds of people in our parish – rich and poor, gay and straight, able-bodied and limping along, mentally strong and emotionally tattered – pass by the church, hang out on the benches, walk their dogs in the cemetery, come inside for any number of community events and meetings or enter in search of a pastor. Daily we are face-to-face, in communion with our neighbors. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper outside, passersby are curious. Some stop and hear God’s Word of promise and invitation spoken in the liturgy for the Lord’s Supper. They listen to our singing and our prayers. And it sometimes happens that passersby accept God’s invitation and take their places in the communion circle to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation. Such people are drawn to taste and see that the Lord is good, and we do not stop them to inquire whether they are baptized or have faith in God.

HOLY SPIRIT OUTDOORS

Our outdoor celebrations of the Lord’s Supper explicitly express our Reformed understanding of the church. The church is a public institution in which and through which the Holy Spirit “goes public” with the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We are not a private, voluntary association of like-minded people but a messy communion miracle created by the Spirit who in freedom gathers God’s people through the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. Through these means of grace, the Spirit tells God’s story using human words and material signs, and the Spirit gives and grows the faith needed to believe and receive the forgiveness, reconciliation, communion and new life offered in Jesus Christ.

I was raised in a Reformed Church congregation that practiced “closed” communion. On communion Sundays, in order to share in the Supper, visitors filled out cards indicating that they were members in good standing of church congregations. Children and young people were welcome to the table only if they had made a public profession of faith and been received into full membership. On the Sundays before our quarterly sharing of the Supper, the congregation prepared itself using the service of Exhortation to Self-Examination. Through this service, members were called to repent of sin and be mindful of the meaning of the Supper as a physical re-presentation of Jesus’ sacrifice of on the cross. This practice of closed communion reflects the belief that only those who take the Supper in repentance, true faith and gratitude will receive what God offers with the signs of bread and wine – mystical communion with the body and blood of Jesus Christ, a true sharing in the whole Christ and all his benefits. Conversely, those who partake without faith not only do not receive Christ but also risk increasing God’s judgment against them. For these reasons, the church of my childhood practiced closed communion – to protect Jesus’ costly sacrifice from being profaned and to protect us from divine judgment.

Over many years I have grown in my sense of God’s amazing grace and in the Reformed conviction that it is God who elects and calls and the Spirit who gives and strengthens faith through the Word spoken and made visible in the sacraments. The Spirit of God acts in, with, and through all these means. As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper at Old Dutch Church using the RCA liturgy, the Word is both heard and seen. In our Great Thanksgiving, we pray for God to send the Spirit upon all gathered so that they might enjoy true communion with Christ. We believe that the Spirit can cause faith in those who come to the table without baptism and without conscious understanding of what it all means. We believe that through the signs of bread and wine the Spirit can grant the faith needed to truly receive Christ in the Supper.

We know that this is not the traditional order of things. But as we have grown in offering God’s profligate love and welcome to all our neighbors in many, many ways; as we have turned our life and worship inside-out, we literally and figuratively set Christ’s table in the world for which he died and rose. We are not concerned to protect Jesus from the world any more than he was concerned to protect himself. And we are not concerned to protect our neighbors from Jesus. We are eager for them to meet Jesus Christ, who is both the self-sacrificing lamb and the good shepherd who seeks and finds the lost and brings them home rejoicing. We are eager to offer Christ’s invitation to come to his table, where he serves as gracious host and through the Spirit gives his own self to be consumed for the salvation and life of the world.

Renee House is pastor of Old Dutch Church, Kingston, New York.

The Gifts of God for the People of God!

By Jack Van Marion

The Eucharistic acclamation in my title captures my conviction that the Lord’s Supper was given to the church and for the church. I am writing in response to an emerging contemporary view that the Lord’s Supper should be viewed as a “feast of welcome and hospitality.” To be sure, I do believe that the Lord’s invitation to partake of the bread and the cup has a rich measure of gracious welcome and hospitality. The question, however, is to whom does the Lord issue his invitation and welcome?

The emerging view of the Lord’s Supper as a feast of welcome and hospitality appeals to an attractive evangelistic impulse: to draw people to faith. The underlying argument is that anyone present in a worshiping assembly should be encouraged and invited to participate in the Supper. That is, the baptized as well as the unbaptized – believers, seekers, skeptics and even unbelievers – all are welcome to the table of the Lord. This invitation is to be extended with the hope and prayer that such people might come to faith in Christ, seek baptism, profess faith in Christ and thus join the body of Christ, the church.

FOR THE SAINTS

I am reluctant to embrace such a view. My understanding of the Bible’s teaching on the church is at the heart of my reservation (about what one of my students refers to as “universal communion”). My concern centers on Scripture’s teaching, the apostolic tradition and my ecclesiology. I submit the following theses:

  1. The Scriptures make a clear distinction between the world and the church. For example, there are those “dead in sins and trespasses,” contrasted with those “saved by grace through faith in Christ”; those who are part of the church – “the saints, the elect; the people of God, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” – contrasted with those who are “lost and perishing” and those who are still in “darkness.” To advocate communion for anyone present at the worship assembly is to ignore this distinction.
  2. The Word of God extends God’s gracious invitation to be joined to Christ through faith. God’s Word, written, taught and proclaimed, extends that invitation to all human beings. The mission of the church is to preach and teach the good news, modeling an authentic life of love, service and obedience. The Word of God is to be received with a believing heart and confirmed in baptism, whereupon the table of the Lord confirms and celebrates the gospel and nurtures the faith of the believers.
  3. Christ instituted the sacrament of baptism to sign and seal his covenant love and join to himself those who confess their faith and enter the body of Christ, the church. Baptism opens the door to the community of faith. The baptized make up the church. It’s by grace through faith in Christ that one joins the body of Christ and assumes the privileges and responsibilities that our baptism calls for.
  4. Christ gave the Eucharist to his followers not only to remember and celebrate Christ’s atoning sacrifice but also to nurture, sustain and encourage his people – the baptized community – in their journey of faith. Communion for everyone present at the gathering of the baptized community blurs or removes the distinction between God’s people and those who are not (yet) part of that community.
  5. The apostolic Christian church has always maintained a distinction between the church and the world. Maintaining this distinction sets the church apart from the world. Rather than blurring the distinction between the church and the world, one could argue that by maintaining the biblical and apostolic distinction the Eucharist might stir the hearts of unbelievers and increase the desire of seekers, doubters and skeptics to become part of the community of faith through baptism and subsequently continue to grow in the Christian faith.

For these reasons, shaped by my understanding of the Scriptures’ teaching, ecclesiology, and the apostolic tradition, I remain convicted that the Eucharistic gifts of God are indeed for the people of God.

Jack Van Marion pastors Calvary Christian Reformed Church, Edina, Minnesota, and teaches at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, Orange Park, Florida.

Surprised

By Gregg Mast

I think it is time for us to talk about the historic relationship between baptism and the supper.

I am surprised that I have just written this sentence. For, you see, on May 1, 1966, I stood as a 14-year-old in the front of Fair Haven Reformed Church and, after making my confession of faith, was admitted to the Lord’s table. If you had asked me that morning if there was any relationship between my baptism and my confession of faith and the supper, I would have scratched my head.

Long after I was baptized at Hope Christian Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan, on a snowy February Sunday in 1952 (according to my mother), the Mast family joined a new Reformed Church in America congregation just down the block from our home as charter members in 1962. Having attended Sunday school, catechism (taught first by a few public school teachers after classes in the 1950s!) and youth group, I was prepared to recite one and all of the 129 questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism. My confession of faith looked forward to the table, not back to the font.

In May of 1988, I arrived as the new senior minister of First Church in Albany, New York, and immediately was plunged into the debate about admitting children to the Lord’s table. First Church took its time with this conversation. Only after a year did we embrace a policy that allowed our Board of Elders to accept children to the table after they expressed a faith “appropriate to their age.” As you can sense, First Church was not ready to admit children by virtue that they were baptized members of the covenantal community; the church wanted some instruction in belief and behavior. Interestingly, it was the issue of potential inappropriate behavior that scared folks the most. Would the sacrament be profaned by unruly children or by children who could not or would not recognize the mystery of the sacred moment?

A GRADUAL TRANSITION

Well, 1988 informed 1966 for me, and the question of how the sacraments related to each other and to the community of faith would not go away. It was some time in my 14-year stay at First Church that I quietly moved away from the invitation to the table (“All who are baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and who have expressed their love for Jesus within the fellowship of the church are welcome at the Lord’s Table”) to an invitation that was more open and hospitable, inviting all who hungered for God’s presence and peace to come. At the time it felt like a small thing. In retrospect, though, I saw it represented the moment when I could imagine an increasing number of seekers and searchers who were not baptized recognizing Jesus at the table and exclaiming with the Ethiopian eunuch, “Why can’t I now be baptized?”

This transition in practice did not involve any actions by the Board of Elders: It simply meant that one rubric, the invitation, had been altered, and not without some angst on my part. I knew the process of formation in the early church as new converts were moved first to baptismal pool and then to Eucharistic table. Indeed, there was something strangely appealing about the resurrection of the catechumenate, first in the Roman church and then ecumenically. The argument was made that as the early church gathered in a pre-Christendom era, we gather in an increasingly post-Christendom era, so we can learn from ancient rites for our time.

Given my covenantal and catechetical roots, I am certainly not oblivious to the need to discern the body of Christ. Are we inviting seekers and strangers to a table without any instruction in the meaning of the sacrament and some instruction in table manners? I think not. Given the extraordinary commitment to teaching through our sacramental liturgy, there is little doubt that the mysteries of the table are shared openly with all who will listen. Indeed, I have been in congregations that will read the Meaning of the Sacrament (“We come in remembrance, communion and hope”) and then move directly to the Words of Institution! We know that the Eucharistic prayer is the recounting of the God’s faithfulness and grace and that it leads one by the hand and the heart to sit at table with the faithful community gathered.

In a time and culture where our children and grandchildren have often become part of the missing generation, the issue of belonging is at the heart of the matter. There appears to be an allergic reaction to joining associations, bowling leagues and, yes, churches, while at the same time there remains a deep human need to belong. How does one belong without joining? One way is for us to consider making our invitation to the table radically hospitable and our time at the table an expression of our most gracious witness and our inspiration from the table to be deeply committed to the needs of the world.

Is it possible for those who have not yet been baptized to meet Jesus at the table and in the breaking of bread be drawn into the steps of the Ethiopian eunuch? I suppose one could rightfully wonder whether if one is already accepted to the table, why one would seek water to be baptized. I also wonder if the path from the table to the font is one way for us to imagine the future of the faithful.

It is time for us to think about the historic relationship between the sacraments. Such a conversation would be made even more creative and insightful if we invited neighbors who are not yet baptized but who might already sit in our pews!

Gregg Mast is president of New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Remembering the Future

By Sue A. Rozeboom

When questions arise about the celebration of the sacraments in today’s church, given the post-Christian culture that is the context of the church’s ministry, I find myself not inclined to fear the irregular-ish possibility of a neophyte in faith participating at the Lord’s table before his or her cleansing in the font, provided that – again, provided that – this transpires in the context of regularly theologically mindful, intentional, earnest, robust, faithful, pastoral discipleship and care of such a person on the part of a healthy worshiping community.

Granted, there are a number of qualifiers in and between the lines of that long sentence. So to be brief,  I am open-minded on this matter but not so open-minded as to let my Reformed liturgical-theological brains fall out. I have no desire to spurn our sacramental tradition, our ecclesial inheritance.

In an article previously published in Perspectives (“Evangelism and Sacraments: Telling Well the Story,” December 2014), I described a thought experiment that I’m still working through. This was my question: “In celebrating the sacraments evangelistically hospitably, might we embrace the ambiguity of anamnesis?”

Here is a thought experiment, working with liturgical-theological ways of expressing God’s mysterious work in the world. Here is an idea about the invitation to the table for the discussion about open-table communion practice.

EXPERIENTIAL REMEMBERING

The Lord’s table is set as a feast of remembrance, communion and hope. Remembrance: anamnesis. In our Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, God’s people remember the redeeming work of Christ. Such remembering is not a matter of recalling historical detail, as a student might for a test. It is remembering an event knowing, even experiencing, that our being and destiny, as James B. Torrance puts it, are caught up in that event.

Jews celebrate Passover as a remembering of Moses and deliverance from Egypt. Though not alive at the time of the exodus, they tell its story as their story, in the first person plural.

The Lord’s Supper is our Passover meal. In this feast, we remember the redeeming work Jesus accomplished in his person as if we were present, because by the bond of the Spirit, we were – in his very person. In this feast, we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection, recognizing, as the Apostle Paul makes clear, that his death to sin is our death to sin and his rising to new life is our rising to new life.

Anamnesis is an eschatological collapse of time. The past rushes in on the present, the present on the past, and the future cyclones in on both. In one ancient Eucharistic prayer, Christians voice remembrance of Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, ascension “and his glorious and awesome second coming.” How can we remember something that has not yet happened? Anamnesis.

In worship, in “Word-n-sacrament,” we inhabit this collapse of time. So in celebrating the Lord’s Supper evangelistically, might we embrace the temporal ambiguity of anamnesis? Consider this invitation to the table:

“Friends, Christ is host at this table. All who are baptized into Christ, who love and trust Christ as the one through whom God is making all things new and who come hungering and thirsting for the good gifts that Christ himself offers here, are welcome to partake of this feast.

“If you are baptized but your trust is wavering or you’re unaware of your hunger and thirst, don’t withhold on that account. Come, trusting that Christ longs to nourish your soul, no matter how faithless it may seem to you.

“If you are not baptized, know that there is great rejoicing in your presence here this morning: We give thanks to God for the trust and faith you’ve shown just in showing up here. If the Spirit is compelling you to encounter the living Christ at this table through the gifts of bread and cup, then the Spirit is just as surely compelling you to encounter the living Christ in the waters of baptism.

“All are welcome to come forward. Even if you are not inclined to partake of bread and cup for whatever reason, still, you are welcome to come. When you reach the servers, simply place a hand to your heart. No one will think it strange. No one looks for your gesture except the servers, who will extend to you the peace of Christ, rejoicing to God for your presence here.

“Friends in Christ, come! Come, for all is ready!”

Glad hospitality holds the sacramental meal and bath together, still giving bath priority.

We press the experiment further, into the ambiguity of anamnesis: Surely there will be those who are not baptized who will feel compelled to partake of the feast. Could it be, that in our churches’ pastoral care, we come alongside such folks not to reprimand but to encourage, not to shame them into giving up their practice or to take away the bread and cup but instead to say, “Thanks be to God for the work of the Spirit in your life. Tell us your story. And have you heard what has been said, that if the Spirit is compelling you to partake of the feast, then surely the Spirit is also compelling to be reborn in the bath? What do you think of this?”

Could we understand that as unbaptized people come to the feast, we remember their baptisms even though they have not yet happened? Future and past rushing in to the present? Could we walk together to the living water?

In worship, we inhabit eschatological time. Could we embrace its ambiguity? Could we open our minds to this but not so widely that our confessional brains fall out? The idea requires further theological consideration, and the practice would require great pastoral chutzpah. Could we move into the post-Christendom present and future with renewed sacramental awareness?

Sue A. Rozeboom teaches liturgical theology at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.

Photo:David Wright/Flickr, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.