Historical Insights on Communion

I credit an overall lack of historical awareness as a key issue for Americans in many facets of thinking through complicated issues.  If all we have to go on is what has happened in our own lifetimes or a few decades prior, we’re shortchanging ourselves considerably at the least, and at worst, we’re chasing down paths that seem new and novel but really aren’t.  

Living as we do in a time of comparative peace, tranquility, and prosperity tends to lend a generous nature to the position that many denominations and individual Christians take regarding Holy Communion.  Why not let others take part in this, even if we aren’t sure what their theological understanding is or even whether or not they consider themselves Christian?  I suspect more and more that this understanding is really only possible when we haven’t had to suffer in any way for our participation in Holy Communion.  
Suffering directly because of your faith used to be more of an issue than it is today.  In the first few centuries after the death & resurrection of Jesus Christ, persecution was common.  First from the Jewish community as it became more and more clear that these early Christians were not going to keep quiet about their unorthodox views and experiences.  Later, this translated into persecution by Roman officials.  Rome was rather systematic in attempting to deal with the many religions of it’s various conquered provinces.  It respected the right of a conquered people to continue to worship their own gods.  But it wanted to keep track of this as well.  Existing religions were fine.  New religions?  Not so much.  So early on Jewish opponents of Christians used this as a means of getting Rome to help them in trying to stamp out Christianity.  Judaism was a legitimate religion under the Romans, but the Jews denied that Christians were a form of Judaism (a branch that believes the Messiah has come), but were actually a new religion.  
Many Christians suffered for their faith.  Various emperors persecuted Christians with lesser or greater vigor.   People were tortured in an effort to get them to offer sacrifices to Roman gods or denounce their savior.  People were executed.  Mothers, fathers, children, friends – killed for trusting that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  
Some – perhaps many – Christians caved in to torture or the threat of torture and execution.  They signed documents stating they had offered the required pagan sacrifices, or bribed officials to fake such documents.  They gave up sacred scriptures to be burned.  They informed on their fellow-believers.  They earned for themselves various monikers depending on how they compromised their faith – apostates who completely renounced the faith and never returned to it; sacrificati who offered sacrifices to pagan gods under threat of punishment; and libellatici, who received writs indicating that they had passed certain tests of faithfulness to pagan gods, but didn’t actually offer sacrifices to them.  
When persecutions faded, many of these Lapsi – lapsed Christians – sought to be re-accepted into Christian communities.  This caused a great deal of controversy.  What was to be made of someone who had, under threat of torture or execution, renounced the One, True God and professed faith in the false gods of Rome?  Could such a person be accepted back into the church?  Could such a person receive forgiveness from God?  
Understandably, those people who had endured torture or financial ruin or the death of a loved one because of the faith were not overly eager to welcome back their brothers and sisters in faith who had escaped such serious repercussions by denying the faith.  Some, like the Novatianists, insisted that this was not possible, and when the church at large ruled that their stance was too extreme, they removed themselves from the church and created their own congregations.  
All of which is a lot of history which explains why for a very, very long time – the vast and overwhelming majority of Christian history – the Sacraments of the faith were treated as the privilege only of those who were known to be of the same faith.  Traditional liturgy (such as you find in Roman Catholic or conservative Lutheran circles) witnesses to this – the Service of the Word comes first, and was open to everyone.  Next came the Service of the Holy Communion.  It was once customary for Catholic churches to ask everyone who was not a Catholic to leave the church.  The Service of Holy Communion was then offered to the faithful who remained.  It’s not that the Catholics didn’t love the non-Catholics – I’m sure they did.  But they understood that something that people had given their lives and their livelihoods to remain faithful to was something appropriate only for those who confessed the same faith.  
I don’t think I ever heard this sort of defense of close(d) communion in seminary.  They focused exclusively on the theological grounds for the practice, and there are definitely theological and Scriptural grounds.  But in terms of just common sense, close(d) communion makes a lot of sense in that people were willing to die rather than to betray it.  People who held it in such high regard that they were willing to have their tongues cut out or their eyes cut out or their property confiscated – the memory of those people (and people today in other parts of the world who suffer similarly for their faith) demands that we not treat it lightly, that we understand the immensity of what is happening through the elements of bread and wine.  
To offer this to someone who isn’t even a Christian, just on the grounds that we don’t wish to hurt their feelings?  Doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Certainly if it was such a small thing, people wouldn’t have needed to die for it.  But it isn’t a small thing.  And people died for it.  It has always stood at the centerpiece of Christian worship and identity (or at least until some of the post-Reformers of the past few hundred years).   That ought to give us pause in how we approach it.  It isn’t an airtight argument – there are lots of things people suffer and die for that aren’t worth it.  But it’s a good reminder of how seriously our predecessors in the faith understood Holy Communion to be.

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