Is Holy Communion for everyone?

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06/10/2013

Is Holy Communion for everyone?

In our congregation, "everyone" is invited to participate in Holy Communion during the service, but our bulletin specifically states that "Holy Communion is open to all baptized Christians." By making this stipulation, aren't we limiting God's grace? What is the Lutheran teaching about Holy Communion in this regard? -- Rebecca, Houston

Neddy: Rebecca, your question is fair, and I share some of your concern. It is important to make sure that those who receive communion understand the gift they are receiving. And all who seek Christ should be given the opportunity to enter into the communion of the body of Christ, which is the church. Although Jesus baptized through the Holy Spirit, in our Christian tradition, Holy Baptism is the way we become part of the body of Christ, and Holy Communion the way we remember and renew our membership. In our congregation we share communion with all who come forward to receive it, but we also remind those who have not been baptized that we are happy to baptize them when they are ready. Many people in our congregation believed that if they were divorced or not married but lived in a relationship with someone, they could not take communion. We are happy to remind them that Holy Communion here is also available to each of them as a way to make sure that God's grace reaches every corner of the earth. I agree that anything that hinders God's grace should be avoided. 

David: Rebecca, the official position of the ELCA is that Holy Communion is God's gift for the community of believers -- for those who are baptized.

Baptism is the front door into the Christian community. It is not for a select group or the elite. It is offered to all. I would encourage those who want to identify with the community of faith -- those who want to gather at the family dinner table -- to walk in through the door.

It is less of a proscription ("thou shalt not") and more of a description. The sacrament of Holy Communion is the meal that people of the Christian faith share together -- and people of the Christian faith are baptized. 

Monica: In 1997, "The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament" was adopted for guidance and practice by the Fifth Biennial Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA. In this document Holy Communion is generally reserved for those who are baptized. Thus baptized people from various traditions may commune at ELCA tables, often referred to as "open table." Rebecca, what you express desire in is "radical hospitality" in our communion practice. You ask a good question about the extent and expression of God's grace. The church needs to grapple with this. The church also needs to grapple with the communing of baptized infants. If the church practices infant baptism, why not also infant communion? Luther expressed that the efficacy of the sacrament is contingent on faith not knowledge. Personally, as a pastor I do not turn people away from receiving God's grace in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Jesus invites. We share. 

Anne: The invitation used in your congregation is quite common in Lutheran congregations. As a pastor who has given communion to people who aren't yet baptized (young people who come to our congregation after being part of denominations that baptize adults, for example), I empathize with your concern about limiting God's grace. When a 15-year-old in my confirmation class told me he'd never been baptized because he grew up Baptist and was waiting to be called to baptism, you can understand why my response was not, "Hmmm. I should stop giving you communion."

So, I didn't stop giving him communion, but I did have a series of important conversations with the young man and his family about baptism and how central it is to our faith and our life together as Christians. For him, it made sense to have his baptism and his confirmation (affirmation of baptism) on the same day. On that day, he also served the wine at communion and received communion as he had been doing for years.

Not being baptized in no way invalidated his previous experience of Holy Communion. But being baptized did deepen his participation in both communion and the whole life of the church in profound ways. The "all baptized Christians" stipulation isn't meant as a limitation or a stumbling block to God's grace; it's an invitation into baptism, which is one of the most important, tangible and essential means we have for experiencing that grace. It's an acknowledgment that having access to one sacrament and not to the other means missing out on something really important, something that is a gift from God.

Ideally, that line in the bulletin leads folks to ask questions (like you have!) and, if they're not baptized, starts them on the road to learning about and preparing for baptism. Like you, I worry that those words might just alienate people and stop the conversation before it can even begin. The best answer I can see is to preach and teach and talk about baptism and communion and what these sacraments mean as much as possible, so that the wide, gracious welcome of God is the clear message people receive any time they walk into our congregations. It's not enough to say that "all are welcome;" we need to live that out in everything we say and do together in worship!


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