I remember the first time I took it. I didn’t really drink alcohol before that, so I wondered if it might just be the unfamiliar warmth of wine in my throat that I was feeling. But it’s still the same, week after week, service after service. However inspiring the sermon, however moving the songs – it’s the moment of communion when I receive, taste, chew, swallow, that I know God most intimately.
It’s then that I’m refocused, reminded of what’s important in a noisy, demanding world. It’s then that I’m reassured, knowing whatever I’ve done in the last week, I’m loved, forgiven and redeemed because Jesus died for me. It’s then that I’m re-inspired, overwhelmed by the grace I’m shown by God and determined to take it out to others.
As I eat the bread and drink the wine offered to me in communion, I experience the welcome of God and of the church community. And as I take it, my heart’s response to everything that it symbolises is ‘count me in.’
No wonder we want to keep it special. No wonder we want to protect it from flippancy, from cheapening, from irreverence. Churches of all kinds have their own ways of doing it, their own rituals and special words around communion. We take the time to look back to the night Jesus was betrayed, to dwell on all his death accomplished, to anticipate a feast together when he comes again. It’s right that we keep this act special and important.
But there’s also another set of words most churches use that makes me much more uncomfortable. We also take it on ourselves, as the Church, to say who gets to take part. I did a quick straw poll on social media to see what my friends’ churches say about who is welcome to communion. Answers came flooding in:
“Anyone who loves the Lord…”
“If you normally receive in your own church…”
“Those in right relationship with God…”
“All who accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour…”
It seemed that most try to sound as inclusive as possible. Many welcome children who are old enough to understand. Most don’t want to restrict communion to members of their own church, but to welcome all from the Christian family. Some state that it’s for the baptised, but most leave that to be assumed. A few made it clear that those who don’t consider themselves Christians are politely “invited to abstain”.
But however nicely we dress it up, it’s obvious that this is an event for the insiders; those who know themselves to be part of the club. But why? Why on earth do we think we have this authority to exclude? If, as many churches say, “this is Christ’s table”, then who are we to decide who is invited to eat? Why do we allow arbitrary milestones, experiences, or familiarity with a particular sort of churchy language to act as the judge over the quality of someone’s journey of faith? Who made us gatekeepers to a meal at which we are just guests?
I’m sure some of the motivation is good – recognising this ritual as special and important, protecting it from irreverence and disrespect. But perhaps it also comes from deep fear – fear that God might be meeting with people in ways beyond our officially-sanctioned church pathways. That God might be at work in ways we can’t control. That God might be doing business with the sorts of people we haven’t checked and approved.
If we really do believe that the communion table is set by Jesus and that he turns away no one who truly comes to him, then isn’t it awful that we’d put people off from stepping up and taking part, whatever that means to them? When atheist comedian Sanderson Jones, founder of the Sunday Assembly, went to St Luke’s, Holloway, he found that “anyone is welcome” really meant “anyone”. And he was “genuinely moved” by the experience of communion. What an opportunity we have in this moment to show the limitless of God’s grace. What a way to be able to say to people: “You, yes even you, who thought you were an outsider, are welcomed by God”.
It’s our responsibility to explain the significance of communion properly in our services; to explain what it means to step up and take part. It’s our privilege to invite one another to come and receive from Christ. And if we’ve done that well, then absolutely anybody who comes forward in response is surely taking a step of faith, no matter how small. If we’ve explained that in this act we meet with God, then anyone who steps up is surely seeking God, no matter how cautiously. If we’ve explained that we do this in remembrance of Christ, then anyone who holds out their hands is surely acknowledging his death, even if they can’t explain a full theology of atonement.
And if one slips through the net? Who cares? I’d rather a few people take communion without the proper respect, than have a single person feel that Jesus’ invitation could not be for them.
Christ lays the table. There’s no one who could come that Jesus turns away. So let’s ditch our boxes for people to tick and our hoops for people to jump through; let’s do away with the fear that God might be at work without our consent.
Christ lays the table. We need to step out of the way, and welcome anyone and everyone to come and join him there.