Open Table? Hospitality & the Lord’s Supper

CommunionRecently, a member of SLC inquired about our practice of limiting Communion to those who are baptized.  Their child had brought a guest to worship and they were not sure how to handle the situation when it came to Communion. I imagine many questions arise:  Should I ask them if they are baptized?  If they are not baptized, what do I say to them? Do I try to explain what we believe about Communion and if they are not baptized, encourage them to go up for a blessing?  Alternatively, do I have them read the paragraph in the bulletin and just let them decide?  I’m very thankful for the questions and the struggle, as we want people to invite guests to worship and of course we want those guests to feel welcome and have a meaningful experience. I’m also grateful for the inquiry as it gives me opportunity to talk about the Communion 3Biblical theology which drives our practice.  Indeed, it is worth noting that within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other protestant churches today, a spirited debate is going on about removing all stipulations to the Lord’s Supper.  This is a relatively new consideration arising in the last 15 years or so. The ELCA’s most current statement on the Use of the Means of Grace, says clearly that the Lord’s Supper is for the baptized (Principle 37) but many are challenging this position. “Radical Hospitality” or “Open Table” are the often-coined terms for this movement. In fact, I would estimate that 3/4s of the congregations in our Synod have no stipulations as to who is welcome to participate in the meal.  All are welcome to receive the Lord’s Supper, not only people of other Christian denominations, but also people of other religions, no religion, agnostic, atheist, etc.  Thus, underneath this basic and wonderful question about a guest coming to worship and Communion, lies a wealth of theological issues. Nevertheless, I will do what I can to address the subject succinctly.  First, I’ll offer some guidance on how to handle the above situation given our current Communion practice outlined in both SLC’s *Bylaws and the ELCA’s *Statement on the Means of Grace and then I’ll address the Biblical and theological reasoning for our position regarding welcome to the Supper.

PreparationWhen we have a guest coming to worship, some conversation with them before the service is a good thing, especially given most people are not accustomed to our style of worship. Of course, how you talk about worship will depend on your guest’s background, age, and cognitive ability. Nevertheless, I would advise bringing the subject of Communion up in the context of talking about the service in general.  I think doing so, if possible, is good hospitality. When it comes to worship in general, one might say something like, “I’m excited you are going to join us in worship today, I want to share with you a little about the service so you know what to expect.”  You could say that our worship service is very active and has lots of involvement and we print our part in a bulletin/book that you will receive. If our guest is in Jr. High or above, one might even encourage them to check out a “talk” we have online regarding our worship process. I would also encourage them to ask questions during or after the service. Then I would move to Communion and say that we have a meal for those who are brought into faith and the church through Baptism. If your guest is not baptized or is a younger child who hasn’t received some instruction on Communion, please encourage them to come forward for a blessing. Maybe, depending on the age of the guest and their interest, if they have not been baptized, you could invite them to talk to one of your pastors about Baptism.  At this point, I want to emphasize that if someone does receive Communion even though not baptized, there is not a grievous offense or reason to be upset.  We live with our convictions graciously.  Yes, we occasionally end up communing people who are not baptized and the roof does not cave in.  Again, I would encourage the unbaptized to come forward for a blessing but every situation should be handled with care and grace.  For example, if a young person or an adult comes forward who I know to be unbaptized and unfamiliar with what the Lord’s Supper is and holds up their hands to receive Communion, I will give them Communion.  If I know they are not baptized I would then as gracefully as possible talk with them later.  Embarrassing them in that moment would be wrong in my view. Finally, there is no way to address in a blog every situation.  Bottom line, having some prior conversation about worship and Communion is a good thing.

At this point, you might be wondering why we have any expectations at all when it comes to Communion.  Would it not be simpler and more hospitable to remove all stipulations?  Isn’t inviting the unchurched to the Meal a great way to do outreach?  Maybe the Holy Spirit will work through Communion to bring someone to faith, etc. This is where one could write a book.  I certainly encourage you to read more and at the end of this blog are some resources.  In short, the normative expectation that those who receive Communion are baptized has to do with what we believe is happening in both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  In Baptism, one receives the Holy Spirit and with the Spirit, the ability to believe and have faith.  Baptism gives us a new birth and brings us into the church, the community of believers. We even talk about a regeneration when it comes to Baptism.  Belief sign with a beautiful dayIn Holy Communion, Christ comes to us with all the benefits of his person and work.  It is his body and blood.  It is communing with him.  It is the forgiveness of sins. The Meal is the risen Christ “in, with, and under” the bread and wine.  Baptism is how we enter the church and a primary way we receive the Holy Spirit.  Holy Communion then nurtures our faith and life in the church. From the very beginning, the church expected that those who commune are first baptized and have an understanding of what is happening in the Super.  Paul in I Corinthians 11:29 is very explicit that one is to “discern the Lord’s body” in order to rightly receive the Lord’s Supper. In the early church, the unbaptized only participated in the worship service up to the point of Communion.   Luther’s read of the scriptures moved him to say in the Small Catechism, “A person is rightly prepared to receive the Lord’s Supper when they believe and trust in these words: ‘given and shed for you.’”  Faith and trust are proper preparation for Communion and we hold up Baptism because it is foundational to one’s faith. We also make it very clear what is happening in the Supper so all Christians who partake with us in worship can “discern the body.” I want to be very clear here, one is not baptized just to receive Communion.  One is baptized so we can receive the gift of faith and be members of Christ’ body, the church.  The issue is not what hoop do you have to jump through to receive Communion but rather what is needed to receive Communion rightly and to one’s benefit.  Therefore, as graciously as possible, we hold up Baptism and faith for participation in the meal. Whether or not one agrees with the reasoning behind our practice, I hope one can see the wealth of theology and beliefs that support it.  Do we jettison our beliefs about Communion and frankly Baptism as well, under the impulse of inclusivity?  Do we place a higher priority on making people feel comfortable than on our doctrine of the Super?  This is a tension and a struggle for sure and certainly, those who favor a totally open table when it comes to Communion would disagree that such a practice jettisons our beliefs.

I will end my short treatment of this subject with words I came across from a retired Episcopal Bishop, Richard Grein.  His words support SLC’s current practice and the position of our Bylaws:

The Eucharistic practice of our church has been that it is necessary for a person to show that he or she is in communion with the church through a public profession of baptismal faith before receiving Communion. Thus, being and receiving are two inseparable aspects of the same reality.

My objection to open Communion is not so much a concern that an unbaptized person will receive the sacrament, as we have always communicated those who present themselves at the altar, with few exceptions. Rather, my concern is that in practicing open Communion, we are saying publicly that we do not require any commitment from anyone before inviting [him or her] into the most sacred act of intimacy with God.

 This raises the question of our identity as a church. Faith communities that have shown a clear understanding of who they are, become the communities that attract people to membership. A clear self-understanding means that a community has boundaries — defined not as barriers to keep people out, but as markers and thresholds that help people understand who they are in relation to the group and to God.

 A person cannot really join a church that has no boundaries. A person cannot identify with something that has no clear identity. So, in practicing open Communion, we are not being responsible to the very people we seek to attract. In inviting people to receive Holy Communion without any preparation or commitment, we deprive them of the opportunity to understand and experience the holiness and depth of the act and of what it signifies.


The Use of the Means of Grace Adopted by the ELCA 1997:

*SLC Bylaw Pertaining to Communion:

1.01. This congregation invites all of its baptized members, who have been prepared to receive the Sacrament, to participate regularly in Holy Communion.

1.02. Participation in Holy Communion shall be open to members of other congregations who are baptized and accept the Lutheran teaching in regard to this Sacrament.

1.03. It shall be made known to prospective participants that the belief of this congregation

*From Luther’s Small Catechism:

Who, then, receives such Sacrament worthily?

Fasting and bodily preparation is, indeed, a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins.

 But the one that does not believe these words, or doubts, is unworthy and unfit; for the words “For you” require altogether believing hearts.

An ELCA supported invitation to consider “Radical Hospitality” or “Open Table” question (generally supportive of the practice):

Article opposing the “Open Table” practice:

Comments on the above Article from the Episcopal Church-The comments make great points on both sides:

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