More Communion

When people express concern to me about close(d) Communion, they seem to regularly talk in terms of the perception or feelings of visitors who would be excluded.  The idea being roughly that if Christians are loving and friendly, we aren’t going to exclude someone who visits from participating in our worship fully;  that a visitor would be shocked if they were told that they couldn’t participate in something.

I think there’s some truth to this – sometimes a visitor will be offended or shocked that they aren’t allowed to participate in all aspects of worship.  But I tend to think that those individuals who will be shocked and offended will be other Christians – brothers and sisters in Christ visiting from other denominational traditions for whatever reason.  People who are accustomed to receiving Communion in their own congregation and who desire to partake of it wherever they happen to be worshiping.  
That’s understandable, to a certain degree.  And there’s really no way of making this any better.  Someone who worships repeatedly or is interested in becoming part of a new congregation/denomination should be instructed in what’s going on and why they aren’t initially allowed to participate.  There is time for dialogue and discussion on the issue, so they know why they are asked to wait before partaking.  Asking visitors to not participate in Holy Communion is not saying that they aren’t Christian, but rather acknowledging the fact that there’s a good chance that their understanding of this event (since some other Protestant traditions don’t even acknowledge it as a Sacrament) and what happens in it is different than our own.  A one-time visitor isn’t likely to have this communicated to them, and may go away offended.  But my prayer is that repeat visitors will give me the chance to talk about it with them.  
I don’t think that most non-Christians, or people without a church background or experience are going to be offended.  I assume that if I participate in something new or different with a group of people I don’t know well or normally associate with, that it may not be appropriate for me to do everything that they are doing at the event.  I wouldn’t assume that as a visitor to a lodge meeting of some sort, that I would be able to participate in a ceremony or rite reserved only for members of that lodge, individuals who were known to each other and who understood what was happening and why.  
This highlights a distinction that is often drawn between Christian worship and other activities and meetings of other organizations.  The assumption by many is that Christian worship is an open and fully participative event.  That there are no distinctions between lifelong members and first-time visitors.  That anybody who happens to be around on a Sunday morning for whatever reason is welcome to participate equally and fully with everyone else.  Christianity is not a club, in other words.  And while this is true, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a distinction between someone who is on the same page theologically and someone who may not be.  
Christianity is not exclusive in the sense that there are people who are refused entrance into a particular body of believers/congregation.  Everyone is welcome, and the goal is that more and more and more people will become a part of the congregation.  But there’s also the understanding that people new to the congregation and the faith tradition need to be prepared for entry into it.  That there is a difference between attending and participating.  That everyone is welcome to attend – to hear the Word of God and witness Christian worship in action  – but that not everyone should be participating immediately.
In the ancient Church, those wishing to become part of the faith underwent an extensive training and preparation period of two or three years.  They received instruction in the faith, instruction in the Sacraments and other aspects of worship and life in the congregational body.  They publicly confessed their faith in various ways and at various times.  They were expected to demonstrate their commitment and devotion to the faith through a series of rituals.  And finally,  after a 24-hour vigil, they were baptized on Easter morning.  Such beauty and symbolism and meaning!  But it wasn’t what you’d necessarily call easy.  Or seeker sensitive.  At least not by our current interpretations of these concepts.
Christianity and Christian worship welcomes everyone.  I’m not convinced that worship is the first place to bring someone who has never had any contact with Christianity or church, but if they come, they’re going to see and hear what Christians do and believe.  The Word of God and the Holy Spirit will be there and working in their hearts and minds (whether they realize it or not).  Just because they are expected to observe Holy Communion doesn’t mean they aren’t loved.  In fact, Scripturally, our denomination argues that it is precisely in their initial exclusion from Holy Communion (always with an eye towards their eventual inclusion!), that we demonstrate the seriousness of our love for them.
And that’s a segue to the next entry on this topic.  Stay tuned.

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