Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The politics of communion. . .

You have heard me complain about the pastoral problem of Roman Catholic politicians who hold positions at odds with their own church.  Of course, they are not alone -- only the most visible of those who live in tension with their own church's teaching.  It is often said that refusing communion to those political folks who find themselves between a rock and a hard place (church and state and conscience) is politicizing the Eucharist.  Of course it is -- at least from the point of view of those who believe that the individual conscience is what drives who communes and not some notion of doctrinal unity.  But therein lies the problem.  The whole notion of doctrinal unity is seen as political -- a grand negotiated compromise within the tensions of reason, opinion, and, perhaps, Biblical witness.  Long gone are the days in which it could be assumed that those who knelt to receive the Sacrament might possible believe and live under the same creed and confession.

As much as we would like to make this about Rome, it is the Protestant side that has politicized the Eucharist and it is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that has raised this politicization to a fine art.  So eloquent has the ELCA been in its pursuit of an open table is that it has been more earnest with those who confess no real presence at all than it has been with Lutherans who try to remain true to their confessions.  The Eucharist became first a symbolic act of an assembly in which diversity had long before replaced unanimity.  From the gay lobbies and their use of the Eucharist as a tool to advance their own agenda to the inclusion of all sorts of non-Christian or even anti-Christian rites and adherents, this Eucharist had been politicized at the very cost of its unique identity as a Sacrament of Christ's body and blood.  The ELCA welcomed church bodies to join them at the altar rail and presiding at the Eucharist without even remotely considering that the faith stood for something more than the individual conscience.  It is as if the ELCA learned well to find a large umbrella in which every view is accommodated while rite and ceremony were preserved -- at least in form.  The Episcopal Church with its vague language of presence has always allowed this diversity -- from the Anglo-Catholic to the broadest of broad church folks to the lowest of the low (evangelical wannabes).  The ELCA simply wrote into Lutheran Confessions the imprecision they had learned from the Protestants now become their partners kneeling together at the same rail.

If there is any unity among the diverse, it is to charge those who desire integrity among those who commune with the ultimate politicization of the Eucharist.  From the conservative bishops in Rome to the Missouri Synod and her closed communion, those who have chosen to believe that the Eucharist is anything resent those who believe that the Eucharist is something.  What is even more curious, however, is that closed communion itself has become more matter of who is a card carrying member of the Synod than those who live under the pastoral care of confession and absolution at this altar.  It has become politicized on the other side by those who insist that only Missourians may commune at Missouri's altars but who presume that anyone who ever was baptized, confirmed, or on a membership roll somewhere is a worthy communicant.  The days in which worthy meant those who confessed and were absolved of their sins by the pastor who knew them and took responsibility for their pastoral care with the means of grace are long gone.  Private confession is not even a memory in most places and the general confession with its dependence upon the individual to make the good and sincere confession and to judge themselves absolved by the words of the pastor has become the norm.

The worthy communicant is not he or she who is without sin but those whose sin has been confessed and who have been absolved.  If we banned all adulterers, thieves, fornicators, liars, cheats, and the like from the altar, there would be no communicants at all.  What matters is not the sin of the sinner but their status under grace as the repentant who believe the words and promise of Christ spoken through the pastor.  The other side, of course, has no notion at all of worthy communicants.  Only people who come having declared their conscience guiltless because their is no sin greater than denying your own desires or feelings.  He who is worthy is the one who has faith in these words.  But not faith apart from repentance or faith without absolution but faith in Christ whose once for all atoning work on the cross has paid the price for all sin.  All of this has become a particular problem for Lutherans who insist that Christ instituted the Sacrament so that we might commune often and not simply as something for us to watch as spectators to an event with cosmic significance but no compelling reason to come forward to eat and drink.  Perhaps that is exactly the issue.  It is easier to politicize the Eucharist than to be true to the Sacrament Christ has instituted.  It has always been.  But some refused the easy path that we seem destined to follow now.  If only we could resist that temptation there might be some integrity among our cousins in the ELCA and less of a desire to justify communing among those who think worthiness needs to be proved rather than presumed.  Then, it might be, we will have returned to what Augustana says is the mark of our life together.  Those who commune are examined and absolved. 


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