It's been a crazy month or so for me. I apologize that I have taken so long to get to a new "Ask the Pastor" question. This is one that's been sitting in my list for a while now, too. It's been asked in several different forms by congregants, friends, and family recently, so it's definitely a popular question. This just starts to scratch the surface of Communion, and I encourage you to comment with further questions that this might bring up for you and/or with totally unrelated questions you've always wanted to know about God, church, Presbyterians (I have some Missionary Alliance friends who are fascinated by Presbyterians), salvation, heaven, the Bible, whatever. Most of the questions on my list have come from my congregation - which I love, because that means that I get to hang out with an awesome congregation who is really taking this stuff seriously and engaging in life with God - but some come from friends and family as well.
Today's Ask the Pastor question is:
What is communion for and who is allowed to participate in it?
Communion is a sacrament that has many varied definitions and even slightly different logistical forms in many varied traditions. Some churches dip pieces of bread in one big cup (Intinction) and others pass out small cups and little pieces of bread or wafers. It also goes by different names: Communion, Eucharist, and the Lords Supper. Very simply, the word “communion” means fellowship. Eucharist means “giving thanks.” “The Lord’s Supper” is a reminder that this sacrament is modeled after the Last Supper that Jesus ate with his disciples before his death.
When I wrote a bit about baptism, I defined a sacrament as a “sign and seal” of the grace that God gives us. That is true of communion too. In the reformed tradition, these are the only two sacraments. Some traditions have more sacraments and include things like marriage and ordination in the sacraments. The Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments. Some traditions don’t adhere to the doctrine of sacraments at all. For those traditions (Baptists and most non-denominational churches, for example) that don’t consider anything a “sacrament,” communion is simply a time to remember the Last Supper and Jesus’ sacrifice.
Communion is fellowship. In the reformed tradition, we believe that in Communion, we are lifted up to God in a way and that Jesus is truly present in the moment. This is a holy time of fellowship with God and with one another. In all of our worship, but most especially noted during the sacraments, we are joined by the saints of all ages. This means that as we celebrate communion, we celebrate with Christians, not just from around the world, but from across the span of time. There is something about the moment that beings us closer to God and strengthens our ties to one another.
Communion is thanksgiving. While we believe that something more happens in Communion than simple remembrance, it is still a time to give thanks to God for Jesus’ sacrifice. “Do this in remembrance of me.” We are participating in something that Jesus did her on earth and told us to never forget. We thank God for the grace given to us.
There is nothing magical about Communion. We do not believe in our tradition that the bread and wine (or Welch’s) literally transform into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. But we do believe that Jesus Christ is actually there in the moment with us. We believe that there is something holy about that moment that can’t be experienced any other way.
There are many different opinions on how often we should celebrate communion in our churches. I tend to think we should celebrate it as often as possible. At my church, we celebrate on the first Sunday of every month, as well as on holy days such as Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Pentecost. At the time of the Reformation (that’s when the protestant church came to be after Marth Luther started speaking out against certain Catholic Church practices), the Roman Catholic churches were celebrating Communion quite rarely. Sometimes, the only celebrated it once or twice a year. John Calvin – founder of Presbtyerianism - thought the church should be celebrating Communion every single Sunday. It’s ironic that things have no flip flopped to where Catholic churches generally celebrate Communion every week and many Protestants are even hesitant to celebrate as frequently as once a month because they don’t want to risk “being too Catholic.” I believe that we should embrace our Reformation roots and the idea of celebration and fellowship centered on God’s grace and we should celebrate Communion as often as possible.
Just as with the debate about frequency, there is a great deal of variance in regards to who should be allowed to participate in the sacrament of Communion and how necessary it is. First and foremost: Communion is not salvific – you aren’t saved by it. The work of salvation has already been done. There is no amount of “stuff” we can do in this life to save ourselves from the mess we are. That said, there is something holy and fortifying in Communion and in that moment we are truly brought closer to God. This is an important part of the Christian life. We are called to participate in the life of the church – including sacraments – in order to grow closer to God and to one another. We aren’t meant to be Christians from the sideline not bothering to grow. If you happen to miss Communion because you were sick, your salvation isn’t in jeopardy. God’s not keep attendance records. But you do miss something important – something edifying.
Some churches allow anyone to take communion. Some only allow members of their church or denomination take communion. In our tradition, we allow any baptized believer of any tradition to participate in communion with us. As long as a person is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they are welcomed warmly into the fellowship of Communion with us. And there’s no paperwork or proof of baptism required because while we have theological reasons for requiring baptism before Communion, we also remember that nobody’s going to get struck by heavenly lightening if they “do it wrong.”
This does open up the question of children participating in Communion. Again, this depends on the tradition, and even on the individual church a bit. Every church I’ve been to in the Presbyterian tradition has taken the stance that if a child is old enough to articulate at some level what’s going on at Communion, they are old enough to participate. For some kids, this might be as young as 3 or 4. My kids were all in the ballpark of 3 when they were old enough to “get it.” Obviously, they can’t write a theological statement on the meaning of Communion at that age, but they can certainly say something as basic as “We remember Jesus’ Last Supper and spend time with God.” At my church, children are not just welcomed, but are encouraged to participate in Communion.
If you’re not sure where your church falls on some of these issues, I encourage you to talk to your pastor about it. Most pastors love when their congregation members come to them with questions like this. It means that you’re listening and paying attention and that you’re engaged in the life of the church. I personally find answering questions like this to be one of my very favorite parts of being a pastor. I love the conversations that unfold from these questions.
And, as always, if you’re in the area and don’t have a church home, come join us! We meet every Sunday at 11 am at 900 Elizabeth Street, McKeesport, PA 15133. If you’re self-conscious about showing up and feeling like the conspicuous new person, pop in on Easter. I can guarantee there will be lots of people there we don’t generally see at church and you’ll blend right in. And even on a normal Sunday, we don’t ever call out new people or visitors from the pulpit or anything embarrassing like that. You’ll probably get a few friendly people saying hi and introducing themselves, but that’s the worst of it. I promise that EVERYONE is welcome in our church. We won’t turn you away because of what you’re wearing, where you live, how much you can afford to put in the offering place, who you’re with, etc. Come as you are to worship.