Holy Communion: From naivety to righteous indignation

Rev. John Zehring

July 28, 2021

In the American Baptist church where I grew up as a child and teen, the once-a-month Communion service was open to all. Everyone was welcome, as our stained-glass picture of Jesus standing with his arms open and palms up beckoned all to come to him. It never occurred to me that there were people who should not participate in a Communion service. Who would dare to be good enough to tell another they could not eat the bread or drink the cup?

On Communion Sunday, there was a Prayer of Confession in lieu of the usual Invocation, conveying the message that it is assumed we have sinned, we need to ask for God’s forgiveness, and that Communion symbolically provided us a clean slate. Following the Prayer of Confession came the Assurance of Pardon, which was often taken from 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Communion was about forgiveness, we were taught. At the Last Supper, when Jesus transformed the celebration of the Passover into something else, Jesus took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them saying “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28). Message: Communion is for people who have sinned. Those who have not sinned need not apply. Every religious tribe has its own adjudicators who define what is sin, but no matter the definition, sins are forgiven and souls are pardoned at Holy Communion. As a child it seemed to me that a person – any person – could ask God for forgiveness and be pardoned anytime or anyplace, but the monthly Communion service stood symbolically as a holy sacrament to cast a wide net to all who sought God’s pardon.

I confess a naivety about different religions and denominations in my early years. I had never attended anything but a Protestant service and even then, had never witnessed a high church service of worship. Since then, I have made many a good friend among Episcopalians, Lutherans, and just about every denomination, and I have come to see some good in every form of church governance. And I have come to see some bad in the form of church governance I favor. Yet it always seemed to me that no matter what the denomination, differences diminished at Communion where God’s extravagant welcome opens arms to all. This we hold in common: as we gather at God’s holy table, I think all would agree, the table is not our table, not the church’s table, not the denomination’s table, but it is God’s table, and God’s inclusive hands extend a welcome to all. 

My naivety was shattered in early adulthood when I first attended a service that was not a Protestant service. I was told by my host that I was not included to go forward for the Sacrament of Holy Communion. I was gobsmacked, as the British say. Utterly astounded. This casual comment from my friend took my breath away and my spiritual life flashed before my eyes. Not welcomed? Not included? Were my sins not worthy to be forgiven? Was I unwelcome at the Lord’s table? What was going on here? Isn’t this a Christian church? Fast forward many years later when one of my parishioners asked me to help officiate in the funeral for his father, at a church which was not a Protestant church. I was pastor to the member, but not his father, who was inactive in his religion. Thankfully, at the behest of my member (and his generous donation), I was given a role to play. I would be allowed to read a scripture, but only from the Apocrypha, not the Old or New Testament. Further, even though I was an ordained member of the clergy, I would not be allowed to participate in Communion. Not only could I not co-officiate, I could not even join the line to come up to get it. It was the first time in my life I heard of the term “closed communion.” Again, my spiritual life flashed before my eyes. Those two words seemed an oxymoron. Closed communion? What could be more open that Jesus’ extravagant welcome to “Come to me, all…” (Matthew 11:28). ALL. My naivety was reaching a boiling point. The very idea seemed so… un-Godlike. Un-Christlike. Naivety grew to righteous indignation. 

“As we gather at God’s holy table, the table is not our table, not the church’s table, not the denomination’s table, but it is God’s table, and God’s inclusive hands extend a welcome to all.”

Now all clubs have a right, don’t they, to pick the requirements for membership in their group.  Except that none are supposed to discriminate on the basis of most human factors (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, ethnic background, etc.). It’s possible there are clubs which would not want me or you as a member. For example, no choral group would want me as a member. Understandable. But the church… the Lord’s Table… Holy Communion… how could there be anyone on the face of the earth worthy to exclude another? Exclusion is not God-like. Inclusion is God-like. “All” is one of God’s favorite words.

So perhaps I am still naive. But I am indignant to read that there are senior religious leaders of the Roman Catholic churchwho would deny anyone—especially the faithful current President of the United States—permission to participate in Holy Communion because they consider one of his policy positions to be defined by their tribe’s adjudicators as sinful. Even if they are right, is their advocacy for Joe Biden’s denial not a contradiction of what Scripture teaches about Communion being for those who have sinned? Who are they to deny God’s assurance of pardon?

It was religious leaders who ran Jesus out of town and sought to toss him off a cliff. After Jesus preached, “They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (Luke 4:29-30). So, what’s new?  

I admire Joe Biden’s faithfulness to his God and his church. I’d love to tell him that there are so many other churches that would welcome him with open arms, should he decide to walk away in disgust from those who would deny him the precious sacrament which he cherishes. But that is not his way. And so, may he and we continue throughout our lives to be ambassadors for God’s extravagant welcome to all… ALL. Indignation does not really get us anywhere. Advocacy for God’s “all” does.

Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations as Senior Pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine.   Prior to parish ministry, he served as a Vice President, Dean, and professor at colleges and a theological seminary.  He is the author of more than sixty books and is author of Judson Press books on stewardship and church growth.  His most recent is Get Your Church Ready to Grow:  A Guide to Building Attendance & Participation

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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