Saturday, July 11, 2015

A sign of hospitality. . .

Whether we Lutherans choose to admit it or not, the vast majority of Protestant and Evangelical Christians consider Holy Communion a mere sign of hospitality.  Without anything of real substance being given or received, it is the symbolic act of hospitality that governs the practice of who is admitted to the Lord's Table.  Close(d) communion has become a pejorative term describing the unwelcome and inhospitable churches who reserve the Sacrament of the Body and Blood for those who are real members or "worthy" (now there is another misunderstood term!).

Perhaps the roots of Lutheranism's track to sideline close(d) communion and open admittance to the Sacrament to any and all people is related in large measure to two things.  The first is the influence and peer pressure of those who view the question of who may commune as a mere hospitality issue.  Here again we Lutherans have borrowed well the language and concepts of Protestant and Evangelical cousins to the point where we find our own historic practice an affront to modern sensibilities and an embarrassment to the perceived welcome we offer to those visitors and guests among the assembled congregation.  We Lutherans have always had an Achilles' heel in our desire to fit in and if fitting into the American landscape of Fundamentalist, mainline Protestant, and Evangelical churches, we seem ready to forgo that which accords with our theology in order to make our practices conform.  We just want to be loved by y'all.

But it is the other element in this that is most troublesome.  If we Lutherans believed that close(d) communion was the salutary practice of our theology but we felt uncomfortable admitting it, that might be one issue.  In reality, it may go much deeper.  In practice we Lutherans have more frequent celebrations of the Lord's Supper in our parishes but have not recovered the sacramental center and shape of our piety.  It is a paradox.  We have people going to communion more than ever before but that communion is less central to or defining of the piety of their faith than ever before.  Strangely, when we typically had the Sacrament quarterly and went to great lengths to prepare for our worthy communion (I recall quarterly corporate confessional services an evening before the Sunday when Holy Communion was offerred), we appeared to honor the Sacrament more highly and see this communion as a mountain top experience of our piety.  Now that we have the Sacrament more frequently, we do less to prepare for a worthy communion, perhaps have abandoned all idea of a worthy communion altogether, and pursue other elements as the base and idenfying character of our faith practice.  In other words, we read the same spiritual drivel that is produced by popular authors but which lacks any real theological substance, doctrinal integrity, or confessional character.

I wonder if the issue of who may commune and the fading nature of close(d) communion as a regular practice is more related to the fact that the presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar is no longer what defines Holy Communion and the forgiveness of sins given to us in this eating and drinking is no longer the primary benefit of our communion reception.   I fear that we have spiritualized Christ's presence to the point where we no longer identify Christ in and with the elements of bread and wine and no longer understand this flesh to be the same crucified and risen flesh of our Savior and this cup to be the same crucified and risen blood of our Savior.  His flesh is no longer to us real food and His blood real drink but mere symbols or spiritual values.  The gifts He gives in the Sacrament have become something less real and substantially different and distinct from the real body of Jesus that walked the earth, suffered on the cross, was laid in the tomb, and rose again.  It is certainly true that much of modern liberal Christianity treats Easter as if Jesus were spiritually raised but his bones remained in the tomb and this has profound impact on the practical way we see the Sacrament of the Altar. 

We are more likely to see hospitality as the driving issue of who communes if we no longer believe that there is anything there that can be taken wrongly or become a danger to our faith and life in Christ.  In other words, we are drawn to the modern generic understanding of communion hospitality because we have already given up much of the vitality and confidence that Christ is in and with the bread and cup in a substantial, even corporeal way, giving us nothing less than what He promises -- His flesh for the life of the world and His blood that cleanses us from all sin.  Once that disappears from our faith and piety, there is nothing to justify or make sense of withholding the Sacrament from anyone at anytime.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think we have made Communion seem less wonderful by the way it is offered. When we don't have time to kneel at the rail together, it loses something. When the pastor places the wafer in your hand instead of in your mouth it loses something. And, when those little "shotglasses" are offered and we accept them from an elder, it really loses a lot. Anybody out there agree?

David Gray said...

Closed communion is an act of love. It is possible to disagree on precisely where the line should be drawn but the idea that no line should be drawn requires you to ignore what scripture teaches on the unworthy reception of the sacrament.

Carl Vehse said...

"When the pastor places the wafer in your hand instead of in your mouth it loses something."

Perhaps in some Romish or schwärmerisch sense, but not in any Lutheran confessional sense.

Janis Williams said...

It is not hospitality when communiion is given to someone not prepared, or not believing; it is harmful. It is dangerous, and damning. Rignt on David Gray.

And anonymus, I agree. I am not Romish, and I was raised Baptist. I reject both ends of the extreme here. If the wafer IS Christ's body (and it is), it doesn't "lose" anything of Christ in your hand. Direct to the mouth, however, means I don't put my sinful hands on His body before I put Him in my sinful mouth. Thanks to God for Christ's forgiveness in the Supper.

Kirk Skeptic said...

Communion IS an hospitality issue, but God is the host and we are the guests - not vise versa.
@Janis: di the postles out their sinful hands on the host prior to putting it into their sinful mouths? Do we really believe that we can improve on his method?