This coming Thursday marks another Maundy Thursday, which is the commemoration of the Last Supper and also the beginning of the sacrament of the Eucharist. It was literally the First Communion. The term Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum meaning mandate. It is, among other passages, part of the text in John 13:31-34 in which Jesus gives us the New Commandment to love one another the way God loves us. Specifically I want to focus on the part of the story in which Jesus inaugurates the sacrament of the Eucharist.
There are several faith traditions that practice “closed communion”. This is the practice of allowing only those within a congregation to take communion or only those in a “state of grace” or some otherwise “elect” group to approach the altar to receive the Eucharist.
This is practiced most notably by the Catholic tradition but also the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods of the Lutheran Church. In fact these Lutheran groups enforce this practice to a far greater extent than the Catholics ever have. If you are visiting one of these churches and get in the communion line you are likely to be asked who you are and whether you are “eligible” to receive the sacrament. Catholics typically do not enforce this rule unless you are a public figure, divorced and remarried or openly pro-choice on the abortion issue, although the official position is to deny anyone falling into these categories as well as other non-Catholics communion. Not to use jargon but the technical theological term for this position is…horseshit.
Let’s simply look at the text and see who Jesus invites to break bread with Him. It is a stunningly graceless group of people who partake in the First Communion. First of all there is Peter, the coward whom Jesus predicts will deny Him three time before the cock crows. Then there is Thomas, whose faith is so weak that he needs to place his hands in the side of the Risen Lord before he will believe. Most stunningly of all there is Judas Iscariot, whom our Lord knew would betray Him. All of these individuals are invited to share with Jesus His grace and mercy via this sacrament.
So to be clear Judas gets to receive communion but if you are a divorced and remarried Catholic or a non-Missouri Synod Lutheran you are denied? Seriously? Run of the mill sinners like you and me are lumped into the same category as Judas? This is nuts!
The thinking behind this stance is totally backward. You do not get into a state of grace to become “eligible” to receive the Eucharist. There is nothing we could possibly do to warrant receiving God’s grace. Any works we perform are to the Lord as a filthy rag. We absolutely can never earn God’s mercy or grace. You receive the Eucharist to receive God’s grace and to be restored and healed because of it. It was because of the weakness of Peter, Thomas and Judas that they were invited to the Last Supper as in fact was the case for all of the Apostles and ultimately all of us.
The practical effects of practicing closed communion are uniformly bad. It creates a great deal of pain for those so disinvited. It can create separation and tension among family members, some of whom are “in” and some of whom are “out”. Most of all it is terrible evangelization. Those so closing this sacrament off are telling the world that Christianity is a closed off clique that is only for those few who are “special” enough. This is not Gospel! The invitation is open to all. Whether or not anyone accepts that invitation is out of our hands. What is in our hands is making sure that all are invited to this feast and all are offered the healing and restorative power of this sacrament. We do not need to understand the deep significance or the theological nuance of it all to recognize that Jesus invited the most damaged of His followers to break bread with Him. Can our standard of behavior be any less?
To truly engage in Kingdom Living is to make sure that people understand that Jesus’ welcome extends as far as do His arms upon the Cross. It is incumbent upon us to then gently remind our brethren who close off communion to a select few that it is not their table that they set; it is the Lord’s table set for us by the blood of the lamb.
Praise Be to God