As we gather today to remember Jesus’ final meal with his disciples, the meal which is the origin of our central Christian practice of Communion (or the Lord’s Supper), I need to make a confession. Years ago I took some liberties with the standard language most Presbyterian pastors use when inviting people to the table.
At some point in the Communion liturgy, it’s common for Presbyterians to note that we practice an open Communion. This means that all Christians, regardless of one’s particular tradition or church membership, are welcome to join us in celebrating the Lord’s Supper. By contrast, churches that practice a closed Communion—like the Roman Catholic Church—require that you be a member of that denomination in order to share in Communion.
In my experience, when Presbyterians issue this invitation to our open Communion, they say something like this: “All who have faith in Jesus Christ are welcome at this table.” The emphasis is on all. It is meant to be expansive and inclusive.
But I don’t think it’s expansive and inclusive enough. To my ears, this still limits who is welcome to come to the table because it establishes faith in Christ as the criterion for joining in the Lord’s Supper. Whether it’s the intention or not, this language implies that you need to have your faith figured out before you can partake of this sacred meal.
Yet what about people who are struggling with their faith? What about people overcome with doubt or fear or anger at God? What about people who have lost their faith? What about people who have not yet come to faith? Is there no place for them at the table of the Lord?
So years ago I made a subtle shift in language and started to say say this: “All who have or who seek faith in God in the way of Christ are welcome to this table.” It acknowledges that some people who feel drawn to the table may not have it all figured out yet. They may be wavering in faith. They may be wracked with guilt. But they are seeking an encounter with Christ nonetheless. They want to experience God’s presence. If we are going to call what we do an open Communion, I believe the table should truly be open for all of God’s children.
You may know that there was a time when Presbyterians did in fact practice a closed Communion. In fact, it was John Calvin’s idea. In his mind, the sanctity of Communion needed to be protected. So only those who were instructed in the Reformed faith could participate in the Lord’s Supper. He suggested that tokens be used as proof of this instruction. Only someone with a Communion token was welcomed at the table.
By 1560, Huguenots in France and Presbyterians in Scotland were putting this into practice and it was an established part of Presbyterianism when it came to colonial America. In fact, in those colonial congregations Communion was only celebrated once or twice a year. Before these services, which resembled camp meetings or revivals, pastors and ruling elders would examine members to test their understanding of theology, personal piety, and moral behavior. Only those who passed this examination were given tokens and allowed to take Communion. (Read more here.)
In some respects this was similar to the practices of the church in the first centuries of Christianity. They believed Communion was a mystery that required preparation and initiation. Our practice of Lent originated in the practice of training new members in faith, culminating in baptism at the Easter Vigil. Only after these rites of initiation were members allowed to share in the Lord’s Supper.
Even in recent memory it was the case that some Presbyterians did not allow children to take Communion until they were of a certain age or had been confirmed. Again, the idea is that coming to the table requires faith and understanding.
But by these standards, not a single one of Jesus’ disciples would have been welcomed to the table for his final meal. It is clear that none of them really understood what he meant by servant leadership or his radical vision of God’s kingdom. One of them would betray him. The rest would deny him and flee in fear when things came crashing down. Not a single one of them would pass the test of faith and trust.
Yet Jesus welcomed them with open arms. He set a place for them at his table. He accepted them as they were and challenged them to be better. He even called the one who would betray him his friend. Even though each of them would utterly fail him, he washed their feet. There were no conditions for their participation in this meal other than his deep and profound love for them. Without condition. Without qualification. Without examination. Without a token. Without any limitation.
A few years ago there was a fascinating debate about Communion among the leadership of this church. It was prompted when Hardy Kim and I requested the session’s approval to do a Communion service while tailgating before a Bears game. The idea came to me during the previous football season when I met a group of pastors at Soldier Field for a mid-afternoon football game one cold November Sunday. As we stood around a table in the parking lot eating and drinking before entering a temple with its own particular rituals and chants, it struck me that there are a lot of similarities between what we do there and what we do here, where on a regular basis we stand around a table to eat and drink. And because I believe that God is present everywhere, not just in church building, it seemed like staging a tailgate Communion service could be very meaningful.
Not everyone around here agreed. There were thoughtful and faithful arguments made that bringing the Lord’s Supper into a place of gluttony, drunkenness, and violence would profane the sanctity of Communion. There were legitimate concerns that it wouldn’t be decent and in order. After all, most of our Communion services here are quite proper and reverent. In fact, our poor ushers and Communion servers experience an immense amount of anxiety every time we serve Communion on Sunday morning because they want everything to be perfect.
I think Jesus has a word for us: “Chill out!” This is, after all, the joyful feast of the people of God. And, thanks be to God, the way we celebrate Communion has only a superficial impact on its holiness. What makes Communion sacred is not us but the presence of God.
Yet loosening up our attitudes toward the Lord’s Supper was not my primary motivation for tailgate Communion. It had much more to do with an evangelistic impulse to let the thousands of people who worship in that temple on Sunday know that God is there, too, even in the midst of the gluttony, drunkenness, and violence of that place. It was a way to proclaim, along with the Psalmist, that there is nowhere we can go that is beyond the presence of God. We didn’t wash any feet, but we bore witness to the love of Christ that knows no bounds.
Among the many ways the church communicates the love of God in Christ to the world, few if any are more profound than the Lord’s Supper. It is in this meal that we reenact the selfless love of Christ in bread that is broken and a cup that is poured out. It is in this meal that we can touch and smell and taste and see that God is good. It is in this meal that we are fed with God’s very presence and we ourselves become the body of Christ in the world. And in the Presbyterian tradition, every time we share this meal we tell our story.
In the last decade, one of the most important books on faith has been Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian. It is based on the most comprehensive study of youth and religion that has ever been done. But it’s not just a book about youth ministry, because Dean rightly points out that we see—or don’t see—in the faith of our youth is a direct reflection of the church as a whole. And as her title suggests, what we see is not always very hopeful.
She suggests that an essential element of faith formation for youth—and adults—is the ability to know, understand, and articulate the creed of one’s faith community. But more than a statement of faith to be memorized and recited by rote, what Dean really means is that we need to be able to tell the God-story of our faith.
Perhaps you haven’t thought of it this way, but this is exactly what we do every time we follow the traditional pattern of the Great Thanksgiving in our Communion liturgies. This ancient pattern of prayer recounts the biblical story from creation through Christ and then brings that story into the present lives of those sharing this sacred meal. The Word becomes flesh, flesh becomes bread, bread that is broken and given for us.
In a world overloaded with information and a church far too concerned with words, the Lord’s Supper is the proclamation of the gospel in its most elemental form. Why would we ever keep someone away from the table? Why would we ever discourage someone from tasting the goodness of God? Why would we ever make someone feel that they have to have it all figured out before seeking God in this bread and this cup? Why aren’t we sharing this meal more often, and why aren’t we bringing it out into a world starving for love, meaning, and hope?
Friends, we aren’t perfect. We don’t have it all figured out. We’re failures and doubters and sinners. But so were the twelve who long ago sat at the table from which boundless love flowed. There they were shown the wondrous love of God and the power of selfless service. There they were invited, against all odds, to go and do likewise. And so are we.
All who have or who seek faith in God in the way of Christ are welcome to this table.