Monday, February 25, 2013
Cars need gas. . .
So it is that many people and a very good number of Lutherans (Missourians included) view the Lord's Supper. The Supper is the Supper wherever you get it. The various brands (confessions or denominations) may try to tell you that the Supper is different from one brand to another but many, if not most, are not so sure they believe it. The churches are merely distribution points. The transaction is rather personal and private and the role of the church is merely to distribute and to leave the opinions up to the consumer. But for most, there is not much invested in brand loyalty (except for the worship style which is akin to the amenities available not at the pump but in the convenience store -- you know the taste of the coffee, the donuts available, the restrooms, etc.).
Gas is gas the the Lord's Supper is the Lord's Supper. Most folks do not want people to come out to the pump and try and tell them another gas is better or their car requires a different gas. Neither do they appreciate those churches who try to tell them that gas is not gas (that is, the Lord's Supper is not the same food wherever you go). This is considered rude and arrogant. So when you feel the need for a fill up, you pull in where the church is convenient, the amenities up to your liking, and the cost to your time/schedule/desires fair enough. And you take what is there. After all the church is just a distribution point, right? And if the next time you need to fill, you visit a different brand, well, what difference does it make, really?
Even under better circumstances it is hard not to see this picture at work in our congregations. Some Pastors even like the idea. The Sacrament of the Altar is available to all comers -- everyone eats his or her own version and everyone gets what he or she thinks is present there, anyway. At least that is how it has become.
Close(d) communion, whichever version you prefer, stands in stark contrast to this gas station analogy. We believe, confess, and teach that not all gas is the same. This is not our own opinion, it is the teaching of God's Word. We are not alone. Roman Catholics and the Orthodox believe this as well. But our Lutheran identity leans Protestant and so we find it hard to say of our neighbors that they do not have the Sacrament (our issue for not communing at a Roman or Orthodox altar is VERY different). But the funny thing is that our distant Protestant cousins don't believe as we believe or as the Scriptures confess. They never intend to. They believe it is a symbolic meal in which you receive a sign that may have some spiritual content and power but it does not reside in the bread or the cup. It lies within the communicant, in their remembrance of Jesus and appreciation of what Jesus has done for them. Jesus is not real food or real drink (John 6) but symbolic food and drink that signs what is most definitely NOT present -- body (flesh) and blood.
Furthermore, communion is not some private time with Jesus that is unaffected by where you receive it. We do not make Jesus present -- His Word does and His Word acts where His people expect it to deliver what it promises. The Word attached to the element is not some magical incantation that spoken (poof) suddenly summons Jesus from heaven to a prison in bread and wine against His will. Certainly not. The Word is not magic. The Word is efficacious. It is Christ doing what He has promised. The two or three gathered in His name is not some minimal quorum requirement but the expectation that those gathered believe His Word and expect to receive what it promises: His flesh and blood for the life of the world.
It is always agonizing when I speak to new folks who desire to commune but who are not from Lutheran origins. I know that this is hard to understand given the muddy waters of Protestantism on the presence of Christ in the Sacrament. I know that it seems inhospitable to say "no." I try to get them to see why they should not present themselves for the Sacrament. Most often they realize that this gas is different gas but sometimes not. More than this, I try to get across the idea that the Church is not a gas station dispensing equal grace in different ways where all Christians can come and receive the same thing. Sometimes they get that there is an inconsistency that scandalizes greater than division when we go about from altar to altar as if the Church were merely a distribution point for gas which is gas no matter the brand. But it is not an easy part of pastoral care.
What makes it most difficult is the idea that communion does not imply but downright expects unanimity of faith, captive to the Word and confessed before the world. I have had people who said of course they believe that Christ is present AND bodily in the bread. But they do not believe it about baptism and they do not believe infants can be baptized or immersion is merely one of the methods of applying water. I have had people who confess the creed with us but who stop short of saying that I carry Christ in my hand from the altar and put Him into their hand or mouth. I have had people with whom I am confident of a closeness that is not always felt with members of my own denomination but yet the barriers of communion remain.
Honestly, I often feel like wimping out. In those moments, I simply hide behind the cover of Rome and say that we, like Rome, believe that oneness at the altar is a reflection of complete oneness in faith and confession. In the South they know what that means. They may think gas is gas but they are not ready to commit to this gas station. So they sit and watch and head out expecting to find other brands which do not have such a heightened sense of the whole transaction. I mean really, it is just gas, right? And that is the point. It is not.
I knew of a person who mistakenly put gas in his new turbo diesel. An expensive trip to the dealer made it clear to him that not everything from the pump is equal. Some works and some does not. And that is what we try to say to those visitors who come wondering if the station is open and the pump primed on Sunday morning... It is spoken in love even if it is not received that way.