Sunday, March 27, 2011

Open Table

A response by Abbot Richard to my post about “One Table” (February 17, 2011) raises an important issue. He advocates opening the Table to all baptized people, but draws the line there, saying: “However, in the present day many have gone over the edge in the opposite direction to have an invitation of 'ya'll come,' and baptism is not a consideration. I have been told that this is a form of hospitality that makes sure that everyone is included so that they feel good about themselves.”

The idea of a really open Table, welcoming anyone and everyone, comes from several directions.

For one thing, it is based on the understanding of the Eucharist as the Lord’s Supper, which is to say, it is not the Church’s Supper. For the church to set any condition on who is eligible to receive Communion is to step in front of the Risen Lord and usurp his place as Host. It is a control issue.

When the sacrament is treated as though it belongs to the church, it becomes more of an administrative process than an act of worship of Almighty God. In the Reformed Tradition, we might characterize that stance as a “discipline” of the church, educational but also controlling.

A second source of desire to have an Open Table is the understanding of the parity of Baptism and Eucharist. To make Baptism the requirement for admission to the Lord’s Table is to place the two sacraments in sequence, and give Baptism priority over the Lord’s Supper. They must always be in tandem, one following the other. One must be baptized in order to take Communion, but cannot take Communion without first being baptized. Hence the two sacraments are of unequal weight. Baptism is the controlling sacrament.

If indeed the two sacraments enact the same Gospel, one should not be restricting participation in the other. For example, children being nurtured toward baptism on their own confession of faith should not be turned away from the Table of the Lord.—what a vivid contrast to the behavior of Jesus himself! Others who hunger and thirst for what Jesus has to offer, baptized or not, should be welcome. This is not just feel-good hospitality, but extending the “gifts of God for the people of God” to all the people of God.

A third viewpoint challenges our traditional views of the roles of the two sacraments. Baptism has usually been considered as the “entrance” sacrament, the rite by which a person enters the ranks of God’s people in the church. The Eucharist, on the other hand, has been thought of as the “sending” sacrament, the Meal by which we are nourished as the Body of Christ to go into the world as His disciples.

If the sacraments are considered as balanced in meaning, then there is reason to consider the Lord’s Supper as an “entrance” sacrament as well, and Baptism also as a “sending” sacrament.

It’s easy, of course, to see Baptism as a sending sacrament. Roman Catholics have known this by their remembrance of the baptisms by the act of dipping the hand in water and making the sign of the cross as they enter a church building, and doing the same as they leave. That dual ritual serves as a reminder that the person came into the church by Baptism, and goes in to the world to live out that Baptism. It is a strong symbolic gesture.

It’s not so easy to see the Lord’s Supper as an “entrance” sacrament because we haven’t allowed that to happen. Mustering some objectivity and imagination, we can see possibilities of an un-baptized, even un-churched person coming into a church, hearing the Word proclaimed and Gospel announced, being stirred in the soul to respond, and then listening to the words of Jesus offering food and drink for the soul. Why not? What a wonderfully rich opportunity to show Christ’s hospitality.

All three of these perspectives point to the necessity of an Open Table.

But there is more to Abbot Richard’s critique. Is this, as he said, “over the edge in the opposite direction to have an invitation of ‘ya'll come’ and baptism is not a consideration”?

The answer is that after partaking of the Eucharist, within a reasonable time, the person would present him/herself to receive Baptism. Since the two sacraments are a matched set, both are involved in the making and nurture of a Christian.

But there is more required than a mere compliance with ritual actions. Coming to the Lord’s Table without having been baptized (or even having been baptized, for that matter) requires some soul-searching, à la I Corinthians 11:27ff.

First of all the stranger at the table needs to indulge in some self-examination. Why do I want to come to the table? What are my motives? Am I serious about this? Or am I being frivolous about it? Proclamation of the Gospel calls for such self-examination anyway, and all people in the pews need to do that kind of preparation.

Furthermore, the person needs to recognize Christ present in the Sacrament and understand that the nourishment comes from the “body of Christ.” I don’t suggest that there should be some sort of theological examination of newcomers to the Lord’s Supper. But surely the liturgy we use makes it clear that this is communing with the Risen Christ. If the person does not accept that in some regard, why would he or she even want to come to the table? This also is preparatory thought for anyone.

Then there is “discerning the body of Christ,” the recognition by all who share in the Holy Meal that they themselves are the “body of Christ” now, and it is through their physical actions that he continues his ministry to the world. By participating, the person would now be self-identified as belonging to Christ, a Christian, and would join in the on-going learning process of becoming a disciple (= learner).

Given these “prerequisites,” and perhaps others as well, and assuming they are emphasized sufficiently in preaching and proclamation of the Gospel in the liturgy, then welcoming a new person to the Lord’s Table is far from a casual “ya’ll come”. There is intent, commitment, and at least the desire to learn and grow in faith.

What is made explicit about self-examination in your worship service as the people prepare to approach the Table? Does your church have any restrictions about who may partake? How are people informed about them?

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