I have been passionate about the Christian celebration of The Lord’s Supper for many years. During our recent trip to England we attended a retreat where a minister from Scotland taught a message about communion before we celebrated the elements together.
His message got me thinking again about how many people wrestle with their hearts during a communion time at church. Originally meant to be a reminder of the Passover, and in Christ, a message of the gospel of freedom, far to many people feel uninvited to partake even though they may “eat” anyway.
A retreat where there were many gay men and women who are Christians were attending, the minister shared his heart and invited them to partake. He passed around a large loaf of bread and encouraged us to take a piece that would compare to our understanding of God’s love for us. He talked about how often people will take a tiny crumb while Jesus promises He will provide enough for all to take.
Tears began to flow from both the wounds of rejection, and the gratitude of inclusion while the elements were taken. My heart was grieved when I pondered how many people are hurting and how much Jesus wants them to be embraced.
Communion is an element that is commonly shared throughout the world as a symbol of our faith. Sadly, it is also something that can keep us separated in disunity as well.
Please read my thoughts on Communion, The Lord’s Supper, and ponder for yourself – who’s invitation is it?
The Bread and The Cup – Fear or Celebration
When I was a young boy I remember sitting on the aisle of the long pew at church while people walked forward for communion. In order to maintain my composure of remaining quiet I watched all of the shoes. High heels of many colors, shapes and sizes mixed in with large black men’s shoes, kept my mind busy while I reverently looked down as though I was praying. Well, that’s what I was told to do.
One of the most central sacraments to our Christian faith is Communion. What is it, where does it fit within our Christian experience, doctrine, and belief? What do we know about it, how have our experiences with this sacrament, shared by those all around the globe, shaped our Christian walk? There are numerous teachings about how to take communion, where to take communion, and who should take communion. What have we learned about ourselves, others, and the church through this symbolic expression?
As I got to the right age as a young Catholic, I was taught about the miraculous transaction of the “host” and the “cup” mysteriously into the body and blood of Christ. It was kind of like other mysteries in life like Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy! I just accepted it as something I would never truly understand but the nuns and priests prepared us for the amazing day where we would walk through a rite of passage to our “First Communion”.
At the right age, as we practiced our walk many times, we were now ready for the real thing. We got all dressed up in our suits and ties, the girls in their frilly lace dresses, white gloves, and shiny paten leather shoes All together in our pews lined up as we had planned, we could now walk up the aisle like all of those ladies and men had done every Sunday as I watched their shoes go by my pew. It was an exciting time, and we all perceived we had accomplished a great new phase in life.
A Wafer Dipped in Wine?
At that very young age communion was not much more than part of the church service but I’ll never forget the taste of the wafer thin “host” as it entered my mouth. It was kind of like the breath fresheners today as they melt in between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. They called it bread but it resembled something quite different than bread to me. It was far too thin to call it bread. I was told that the nuns made it and couldn’t imagine how they could possibly make these little dime sized paper thin wafers by the hundreds in preparation for each Sunday.
I can’t say that taking communion was a spiritual experience for me throughout my childhood, but I faithfully partook each Sunday, since my dad made sure we were there every week. One thing I did think about was that it seemed to be a privilege since it seemed we had to “qualify” in order to take it. There was the initial series of teachings and what seemed to be a graduation for our First Communion.
Then, there were ongoing qualifiers like we had to go to confession to make sure our sins were forgiven. We also couldn’t eat before church because there had to be an hour of fasting before taking communion. It seemed that Jesus needed a clean stomach before his body and blood entered into it. At the time I think I clearly understood Him not wanting to mush around in my breakfast remnants.
For Common Man?
How did this play a role in my foundation of understanding communion? Well, I can say that it led me to believe that communion was not for the common man, but rather only certain people could walk up that aisle. They had to pass a test, be reverent, clear their consciences, and clean their stomachs, and beat their fists against their chests three times when the bells rung before they could follow the plan to “Take, eat, this is My body.” There were so many rituals surrounding this mysterious event during the Sunday Mass.
A Ritual, A Rite?
I grew to think of communion as nothing more than a ritual, a rite and something that seemed to be an integral part of the Christian life. But later on as my church associations changed, my thoughts of communion also changed. When I went to a new “kind” of church it seemed they had different kind of communion. The shape changed! The “cup” changed. Now they had you stay in your pew and the ushers passed the plates around for each person. We now had a little “chiclet” shaped piece of bread and a thimble sized cup. It just wasn’t the same as being personally served and the wafer melting in my mouth that the Catholic experience held for me. The little cup was different too. As a Catholic I never tasted the cup. The Priest dunked the wafer into the wine when I was little.
The Pastor would stand up front before the ushers passed around the plates. He would typically charge us with clearing our consciences. During some church services I had experienced it also seemed that some people who may have been sitting with us were told they might consider not eating with us if they were in trouble with God, or others. There was often beautiful music playing during the passing of the plates and as I looked around it seemed everyone was in deep prayer, or pretending to be, while they waited for the entire congregation to be “served”.
What? He Didn’t Take it Today
There were times when I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t take communion. I mean, there were many times when I didn’t feel as though I was in a great spiritual place, or that something had been going wrong in my life. But, oh, my gosh, what would someone around me think if they noticed I hadn’t taken communion? They would know that I was in a bad space and think awful thoughts about my life. I know because one time I noticed someone next to me didn’t “partake” and I wondered what was wrong with them. What could be so awful that you wouldn’t take communion? Then I had another thought, they must have been “spiritual giants” in order to go against the flow and actually do like the pastor said, and not eat if we had something wrong in our lives. At least they were honest enough to evaluate their lives deeply. So, I tried to stop judging them and think of them in a better light.
So, the ritual of communion continued throughout my many years of Christian experience and my walk of faith. I really never thought of the fear and intimidation that often went alongside the “Communion Table” until I evaluated communion all together. This was until I had my first “Passover Seder” experience.
You might say, what is a “Passover”?
I have found that many Christians don’t know what a Passover Seder is. I didn’t know until I went to my first one. It was at this special event that I learned where communion came from. I learned that when Jesus spoke of eating His body, and drinking His blood, He was speaking at a Passover meal with His disciples. This sheds a whole new light on the bread and the cup! I now saw that it was actually a full meal where He talked about bread and wine.
My Pastor Says!
Later on, I was involved in hosting a Passover Seder. I invited an older woman to the special event. I explained that the Passover Seder had now become one of my favorite holidays each year. She looked at me and said, “What is a Passover Seder?” Much to my surprise since this lady had been a Christian for fifty years. I explained that it was a “glorified” communion service. She thought for a minute and responded to my invitation. “Oh, John, I’ll have to ask my pastor if I can come. He says we aren’t supposed to take communion at any other church than our own.” She then asked if I was ordained as a minister since she was also taught that only ordained men are to serve communion.
I was shocked at what she had said because it sounded so strange to me. She had been taught that there was something so religious about communion that she actually felt fearful about coming to the Seder without her pastor’s permission! Much to her relief, her pastor gave her permission to attend the Seder.
Where Did All of the Rules Come From?
Wow, this led me to do further thinking about this whole communion thing. I realized that for many Christians, fear was tightly woven into the communion experience. The very symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ and the freedom He bought for us had turned into bondage for so many followers of Christ.
Fear of disapproval, fear of failure, fear of breaking a “Christian rule” or just fear of a disapproving God! From my Catholic roots to protestant teaching, it seemed most often Christians were taught that taking communion had all kinds of rules surrounding it. Where did this come from?
In chapter 12 of Exodus, there are many regulations regarding celebrating the Passover during the Old Testament times. Everything from a perfect lamb to expunging the household of leavened bread, Moses and Aaron received their instruction from the Lord about the celebration festivities. I am certain fear of taking communion irreverently is not new to us who live after Christ’s resurrection.
When Jesus was leading the Passover Seder with His disciples the following gives a recounting of the experience.
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body. Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.(Matthew 26: 26)
Certainly many of the historical rules were rooted in the Old Testament experience. The Law has continued to impact many of our lives and our Christian experiences. But when Jesus came, EVERYTHING changed! He brought radical challenges to the Pharisees and the culture of the day in which he lived.
I wonder what it was like for the new disciples of Jesus to take part in the bread and wind this time? At the time I am certain they worked through all of the rituals that were in place for the Jews at the time. But I wonder how the conversation went around the table with Jesus present? Was it stuffy and filled with ritual, or did Jesus bring a flavor of His love and grace even before His New Covenant took place? Oh, yes, He brought forth the reality of the betrayer sitting there which I am sure brought a somber reflection to the table, but certainly the disciples saw something different from the usual Seder.
Now, today, 2000 years later, after instruction is given, we read a selection of passages from First Corinthians chapter 11.
“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me. For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor. 11:24-26)
Often the pastor will lead his congregation to an evaluation that seems to be somewhat ambiguous but none the less, we are to dig into our heart and souls prior to taking the bread. As I read through the chapter where this practice of evaluation comes from I see this preface from Paul:
“In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat?” (1 Cor. 11:17-19)
It seems the major problem Paul is calling us to evaluate is that as a Church, we struggle greatly with division, fighting amongst ourselves. He even points out that many of our times together do more harm than they do good! He says that the divisions are often rooted in pride about who has God’s approval and who doesn’t.
This is VERY important to consider!
What are we called to evaluate before taking communion? It looks like Paul is calling our attention to the arrogance of judging whether or not someone is “good” enough to eat with us. I want to point out right here that it is called “The Lord’s” supper. It is at His invitation that we are partaking. It is His dining table, not ours. Who should be the judge for the invitation? If we think we can be that judge than we ourselves are crossing over the very directive that Paul is laying out for us.
As I look back at many of my experiences with preparation for communion it seems there is a lot inferred about who should, or who should not partake. My older friend experienced an extreme example of her pastor leading her to believe that permission must be granted from him for eating the bread and taking the cup at the Seder celebration. I feel grieved that this godly woman had been so misled so as to believe she had to fear sharing in something like a Seder. The fears that often underlie communion experiences are attached to a man’s approval of God’s invitation. It can seem as though God invites, but man approves.
One time when I was visiting my dad in Las Vegas I decided I wanted to go to church with him to show him how much I respected his commitment to his faith. I had not been to church with him since I last regularly attended a Catholic mass which was when I was a teenager and I was digging deep into my heart to attend with him. As the service proceeded towards communion my dad handed me a folded open booklet turned to the page on communion. It read:
“While we are praying for the unity of the Body of Christ to be revealed, at this time if you are not fulfilling the requirements of a faithful Catholic we respectfully ask yo to abstain from taking communion with us.”
I was very upset by what I read. While I understood the intent due to my experience with Catholicism, I also knew the desire of Christ to see his Body come together and to quit separating on denominational lines. When my dad and I got home and I was standing in the kitchen I opened my my heart to him. “Dad, I am very upset by what I read today. While I deeply respect your commitment to the leadership of your church, I want to say that my attending church today was an answer to the prayers that were mentioned in that booklet. I had put aside my flavor of church to attend with you for your flavor of church. I feel very frustrated by the rejection of my heart based on rules that are not based on the gospel. I am a follower of Christ, and you are a follower of Christ. We should be able to share communion together based on our common faith even though there are differences in the way we practice it.”
My dad responded, “John, I know what you are saying but that is the way my church is and I felt I needed to honor the wishes of our leadership.” I felt comforted that my dad understood what I was saying and yet, I still felt frustrated by the separation of Christians bringing disunity to the heart of Jesus to see his “kids” all together.
Have You Ever Seen Anyone Overeat at Communion?
Several years ago I asked a second question. If the scriptures said “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment”. (1 Cor. 11:33-34)
Than how are we defining communion? If it is possible to over eat at communion then how does a “chiclet and a thimble full of grape juice” relate to communion? There is something here that really needs to be considered.
If a traditional communion is symbolic I understand the small elements. But in its symbolism, what does it stand for? Well, first of all, it certainly is a symbol of that first historic Passover. I get that part. The symbol of the real night of the Passover is significant and God has called us to remember this special event in our history.
But, the elements are also symbolic. They are symbolic of the entire meal of the Passover Seder. The original Seder is a time of sharing history, our faith, and certainly friends and family. It symbolizes the entire picture of God’s heart for relationship.
Certainly we cannot overeat the elements unless we raid the back store of chiclet bread pieces and gallons of grape juice. But if the warning is about not being a pig when we go to a fellow’s home for dinner than we need to take a look at our gluttonous practices as we partake of the symbol of communion.
But, it is also symbolic of sharing meals together with other Christ Followers. As I think of my Christian walk, some of the fondest memories I have is eating, drinking, laughing and learning together over a meal. I also recognize that to eat with other Christians with whom I experience unsettled relationships is certainly making light of the unity called for in the Body of Christ. To sit at the vulnerable place of sharing a meal together and put on a facade of unity is a breach of the kind of relationship that God is calling us to celebrate through communion.
Who’s Invitation Is It?
Is anyone unworthy to be at the table? Are there those we can say, “Go away until you get your act together!” Maybe we are talking to ourselves. Paul seems to warn us of our divisive ways. Can a Pastor or other spiritual leader tell us where, when, and with whom we can celebrate God’s Passover elements?
I was recently with a group of gay men and women who were celebrating God’s presence. We were led to a time of communion where the leader bought to our minds that any are welcome to the table who desire to draw near to Christ to share in His blood sacrifice bringing us hope, renewal, and eternity.
Behind me was a middle aged man who broke out and wept loudly. His heart was filled with a sense of loss, and yet a sense of inclusion. He later described that due to being gay he had always taken communion with a deep sense of guilt and shame and at times even avoiding it. He perceived that he was not welcome to the Table of the Lord due to what he had heard others preach about who was worthy to partake and who wasn’t.
My heart broke for his experience. I looked back over all of the years of my own experience with communion and I can see why this man felt “uninvited” to the Lord’s table. It may have been because he wasn’t reading the invitation correctly. It was sent by Jesus! It didn’t have man’s return address on it.
Jesus invites us to His table, anyone who wants to come, can come. Are we passing on the Lord’s invitation, or are we making it our invitation? The point I am attempting to make here is that there are Christians who think they can edit the guest list for those invited to the Lord’s Supper when it isn’t their guest list!
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
“Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
It is the cup of forgiveness for all mankind. Man, woman; black or white; and yes, lesbian, gay transsexual -or straight.
At the close of the service, the man who led us through communion said something profound:
“When you make homosexuality a “fundamental” of our faith and it divides us into disunity, you are adding to the gospel.”
Much like other social issues, homosexuality has seemed to divide our family into segments. There is certainly different schools of thought, practice, and biblical interpretation within the Body of Christ. Sadly, those that suffer from the disagreement are those whom are cast aside, those who perceive they are second class Christians because they are gay. Does the gospel discriminate based on sexual attractions? I believe Jesus in the Bible says all are welcome.
Might we ponder this question? What other things in our Christian communities and personal walk that we make “fundamental” that keep us or others from The Lord’s Table that He has invited us to?
Might I say… If we cannot RUN to the communion table with no fears, no hesitation, with full confidence – - – - – then where can we run to?