The ELCA is having a conversation about “radical hospitality” in the practice of Holy Communion. This means that the Table is open not only to all baptized Christians, but to all worshipers, even if they are not baptized. I can only assume that we are having this conversation because some pastors and congregations are issuing this kind of invitation to the Table and it is confusing or disturbing other pastors and congregations—or members of radical hospitality congregations. The conversation was mandated by the churchwide assembly in 2013.
We have learned a lot about practicing hospitality in recent years, and it seems inhospitable to have guests present when the meal is served and not to include them. Exclusion of people from some activities for which they are present is contrary to post-modern sensibilities. “Inclusivity” is one of the bywords of our post-modern culture. This sensibility would open communion to any guests who are present, whether they are baptized or not. I have personally heard an invitation for everybody to come to the table to share bread and wine “whether you are baptized or not.” The invitation was not issued in a Lutheran congregation, and one may wonder what the minister believes about the necessity of baptismal regeneration and about the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine.
Never in the history of the Church has the sacrament of the altar been made available to everybody and anybody. I will reflect on the biblical and theological rationale for radical hospitality and give my assessment of the arguments. But first I think it is important to check out the history of fencing the table—of excluding certain people from the Lord’s Supper.
The earliest teachings on the Lord’s Supper are in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and the very first instruction in that letter is about fencing the table. In chapter 5 Paul deals with the case of a member of the congregation who is sleeping with his father’s wife and no discipline has been applied. Since the congregation has not acted Paul pronounces judgment and imposes a ban. In a previous letter Paul had told the congregation not to associate with such an immoral person. Now he adds, “Do not even eat with such a one.” Since the Lord’s Supper is celebrated in the context of an actual community banquet, this is excommunication. This is also the context in which Paul says, “Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (Paul 5:8)
Sharing the bread-body of Christ and the cup-blood of Christ unifies the many members of the one body. There is a connection between the sacramental body and the ecclesial body. We who drink from the same cup and eat of the one loaf are one body in Christ (See 1 Corinthians 10:16-17).The issue in chapter 11 is that worldly social divisions are being maintained at the Lord’s Supper. So what ought to be the sacrament of unity has become the source of disunity. The congregation is not discerning the body. “Body” here clearly refers to the interconnection between the Eucharist and the Church. Failure of discernment brings judgment on the church. “For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (11:30). There is an area of taboo surrounding the Lord’s Supper precisely because of the presence of Christ whose coming in the sacrament as well as on the last day brings judgment. It is not unlike the zone of holiness that surrounded Mt. Sinai when Yahweh was present (Exodus 19). This situation of sacramental malpractice is the context in which Paul recites the institution narrative (11:23-25).
The restriction of Eucharistic fellowship to the baptized is ancient. The oldest Christian catechism at the end of the first century says, “You must not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who are baptized in the Lord’s Name” (Didache 9:5). Justin Martyr reports to the Roman Senate, ca. 150 AD that no one is allowed to partake of “the food we call Eucharist” except one who “believes that the things we teach are true, and has been washed with the washing that is for the forgiveness of sins and rebirth, and is living as Christ enjoined” (First Apology 66). The Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (ca. early third century) not only excludes the unbaptized (catechumens) from the Eucharist; they are also excluded from the offering and the kiss of peace (“their kiss is not yet pure”). In the liturgies that developed after the fourth century the catechumens were dismissed after the liturgy of the Word (which came to be called “the liturgy of the catechumens”). The kiss of peace and offertory marked the transition to “the liturgy of the faithful.” The communion table continued to be fenced off, especially in the Eastern liturgies, with the invitation/admonition “Holy things for the holy people.” One becomes holy—a person is dedicated to God—in Holy Baptism. In the ritual process of Christian initiation, Baptism leads to the Eucharistic Meal. Holy Communion is actually the goal of Christian initiation. One is not fully a member of the church until one receives first communion.
Werner Elert, in Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries (1954; English trans. 1966), shows how the Eucharist came to define church fellowship. Local churches were in fellowship with other local churches if their bishops were in fellowship. If the bishops excommunicated each other (for example, as the bishops of Rome and Asia Minor did during the second century because of disagreement over the dating of Easter—a schism later resolved by Irenaeus of Lyons), their churches were out of fellowship. Individual Christians traveling throughout the Roman world brought letters from their bishop requesting admission to the Eucharist in the churches they visited on the travels. The idea that the unity of the local church is expressed in the bishop’s Eucharist is as old as Ignatius of Antioch (110-115 AD). Receiving Communion in the Catholic Church even today means that the communicant is in communion with the local bishop who is in communion with the bishop of Rome. The same Eucharistic ecclesiology is practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Churches still express fellowship with one another on the basis of whether they can share Holy Communion together. Eucharist and church fellowship is as old as First Corinthians. You cannot receive the sacramental body of Christ without at the same time recognizing the ecclesial body of Christ. This Eucharistic ecclesiology is practiced in Lutheran Churches in terms of altar and pulpit fellowship and full communion. I served on the second round of the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue in the U.S.A. that painstakingly proposed “interim Eucharistic hospitality” on the road to full communion, which we hoped would result from the third round of the dialogue. In our congregations we define active church members as those who receive communion and make a contribution of record (going back to the connection between the Eucharist and the offering) at least once a year.
Now there are pastors who propose to set aside this sacramental economy in the name of practicing the supposed radical inclusiveness of the hospitality of Jesus. They point to the feeding of the five and four thousands (plus women and children) on the hillsides of Galilee. They point to the accusation of the Pharisees that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. But while in the gospel narratives the evangelists evoked Eucharistic imagery in the feeding stories (especially in John 6), Holy Communion is not based on the feeding stories but on the last supper of Jesus with his disciples in the closed quarters of the upper room.
Jesus hosted this Passover Seder, so his hospitality is involved. But hospitality was not the point of that Passover Seder. In fact, hospitality is seldom the goal of any meal. Perhaps it is required in a desert oasis, as when Abraham provided food and drink for the three strangers at the oaks of Mamre. But the point of the feeding of the multitudes was not to provide hospitality; it was to satisfy hunger—and in the process Jesus is portrayed as the messianic shepherd-king who provides for the needs of his people. When our churches provide soup kitchens, our concern is also to feed the hungry. Hospitality is the art of making people feel at home. But the point of making people feel at home is to build a relationship with them. When you invite your future in-laws to a dinner, your hospitality serves to ease them into a family relationship that you hope this intimate meal will initiate. It is a private dinner. Outsiders are not wanted. We have a number of meals in our lives that have this character.
The Lord’s Supper is one of them. It is not a meal that is open to the public. It is for the disciples, the faithful, the baptized. In the Eastern liturgies the deacon still says “Let all catechumens depart.” I saw this happen at Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago when, after receiving a blessing, an adult catechumen was dismissed from the liturgy before the offertory.
The point of excluding the unbaptized is the radical intimacy of Holy Communion. This is seen in the post-resurrection meals of Jesus and his disciples which served as the means by which Jesus forgave them for abandoning him at the cross. He reconciled with his wayward disciples by hosting a breakfast on the lakeshore in John 21, and then told Peter, who had denied him three times, “feed his sheep”—also three times. Celebration of the Eucharist has required the confession of sins since at least as early as the Didache (“First confession your sins that your sacrifice may be pure”, chapter 14). Holy Communion continues to be about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation, not only with one another in the church, but between the church and its Lord. This intimate meal between Christ and his church is eaten by us in repentance and faith (see Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, 7).
But more than that, this sacrament is the means by which the very body and blood of Christ are offered to us, according to Christ’s Word. The body and blood of Christ are consumed by us in our bodies. You can’t get more intimate than that! We become what we eat. “We become Christ,” said St. Augustine. We become “little Christs to our neighbor,” said Luther.
Moreover, the Lutheran understanding of the real presence is not based on receptionism—that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ if we believe that they are. The bread and wine are what the Word of Christ says they are. What everyone receives who eats the bread and drinks from the cup is the body and blood of Christ—even atheists! Not only do the unworthy, which we all are, receive the body and blood of Christ (communicatio indignorum), but so do the ungodly (communicatio impiorum). Offering the unbaptized and the unchurched the sacrament is not just sharing a little fellowship of bread and wine; it is putting them into a zone of spiritual danger. “Whoever…eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). I admit that there has been a lot of unfortunate interpretations of this verse. But it certainly implies having a proper disposition toward the sacrament and the Church.
The ELCA sacramental practices statement, “The Use of the Means of Grace,” is clear: “Admission to the Sacrament is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the Church to those who are baptized” (Principle 37). The accompanying background information and application statements are worth reviewing. Of course, the presenting issue when this statement was adopted was the communion of all the baptized, meaning young baptized children whom the previous Statement on Communion Practices “precluded” from receiving Holy Communion. Most of our congregations in the ELCA still do not commune young children at their baptism. Could those congregations be among the ones who nevertheless are willing to commune unbaptized adults? If so, what a theological anomaly that would be!
What should be the hoped-for outcome of this churchwide conversation? I see no possibility other than to affirm “The Use of the Means of Grace.” But that is not enough. There is a new presenting issue that didn’t exist in any widespread way as recently as 1997. So I think a statement giving the reasons for rejecting “radical hospitality” at the table must also be developed, and I think it should come from the conference of bishops since the synod bishops are given responsibility for the supervision of the ministries and ministers of word and sacrament.
The report to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly should include a resolution to reaffirm the position in “The Use of the Means of Grace.” The value of such a resolution will be to cause pastors and congregations who have knowingly or unknowingly deviated from the ELCA’s sacramental practices statement to reconsider their position. Perhaps it will be a witness also to our full communion partners, whose clergy and congregations are also departing from the sacramental economy and need to reconsider some of their own reasons for doing so.
Should the unthinkable happen, and the practice of radical hospitality is recommended to the churchwide assembly, and should such a practice be adopted by the highest authority in this Church (the churchwide assembly), the ELCA should be prepared for the next wave of exiting pastors and congregations. This issue is not a matter of church policy, like who can be ordained. We’re talking here about a gospel ordinance and our stewardship of it.
So as to not end on a negative note, let me say that when confusions arise in the Church, they can be opportunities for relearning why we believe and do certain things. This issue has not presented itself previously in the history of the Church, at least not in this magnitude. It is a teaching moment for the Church to study the relationship between the sacraments. We have all too often approached them as separate means of grace. But this insight will not come just by sharing experiences and feelings. It comes only by digging into the Scriptures, the Confessions, and the Great Tradition.
And this is an opportunity to reconsider our practices of hospitality. In the Divine Liturgy at Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, after the dismissal of the catechumen the priest welcomed all guests, announced that Holy Communion is only for the Orthodox, and invited all to partake of the blessed bread (the Antedoron—the portions of the bread baked for the Eucharist not used for the sacrament) at the end of the liturgy. It is food for the journey back into the world. This was a splendid example of hospitality. We were given clear instructions on what we could not do, but also what we were invited to do. Something important was shared with everyone.
Finally, one good idea that is already emerging from this conversation concerns Baptism. Instead of inviting seekers to a table that is properly fenced off to them, invite them to the font whose waters make new all peoples of every race and nation and is the gate to the eschatological feast. That would make us truly an evangelizing church.