Concerning Communion

For those who blinked or got caught up in the celebrations around the election of the ELCA's first female presiding bishop, we also decided to start a conversation about communion. It should be obvious that this conversation interests me. Given my lowly status, I expect to be overlooked in this conversation by those in positions of ecclesiastical authority. This conversation is important enough to me, however, that I have to have these thoughts somewhere.

Oh, and fair warning: this is a long post. Well, longer than usual for me, at least.

The Setup

I wish I had a fast link to send you to the memorial, but I can't find one. The memorial sent to the Churchwide Assembly is part of the "Report of the Memorials Committee," in the Pre-Assembly Report, which is a seventy-three page PDF within a larger thirteen part document that I don't expect anyone else to download and read. If you're willing to put yourself though that however, you probably already know where to go and find the Report, so I'll just tell you to turn to p. 68, Section D (page 69 of the PDF).

For those who don't have or have access to the above document, here's a brief summary:

  • The Northern Illinois Synod memorialized the Churchwide Assembly concerned that the document that sets forth guidelines for the ELCA in its sacramental policies, The Use of the Means of Grace, predates some of our full communion agreements with denominations that have different understandings of baptism and communion, and concerned that congregations have different policy statements regarding whether or not the unbaptized can commune with both directions arguably going against The Use of the Means of Grace, and asked that Churchwide to officially look our documents.
  • In the background submitted, the presence of unbaptized people in worship where Communion is celebrated was recognized, naming directly, though not citing the heart of the issue. To cite it, Luther's Small Catechism tells us that Communion was "instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and drink" (BC, SC "The Sacrament of the Altar," 362.2).  At the heart of this discussion is the question of how we determine who's Christian. And good luck with that...
  • The background also tells us that this memorial came--in some way--through the Churchwide offices who have had to deal with people asking this question of who can commune.
  • The conclusion of the background is worth quoting. "Ultimately, decisions about communion practices are local decisions, and there is a need for a resource or resources to help congregations faithfully discern their communion practices" (2013 Pre-Assembly Report: Report of the Memorials Committee, Section VII, p. 69).
  • The action of the Churchwide Assembly in the resolution can be boiled down to a request "to establish a process to review current documents concerning administration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion" (ibid, p. 70).

Concerning the Witnesses

I figure it makes sense to start with the Bible, one of our current documents that might have something to say about the administration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. 

All of the Gospels have this in common before the resurrection of Jesus: the disciples aren't baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but this ends up happening later (see below). The synoptic gospels--Matthew, Mark, and Luke--have this additional point in common: communion was a select group, but how that group was selected can become challenging (see below). The Gospel of John, of course, has no account of the institution of the Lord's Supper, but does contain lots of post-reurrection meals.

Each of the gospels also has something different to say about baptism. Matthew has Jesus commanding the disciples to baptize as they are going and making disciples (chapter 28). Mark has Jesus laying out some gospel, in the full sense, promising that baptism matters, but noting the doom of unbelief (chapter 16). Luke has Jesus educating the disciples by reinterpreting their experience and education, thus making them witnesses to the Paschal Event (chapter 24). John actually has a post-resurrection baptism of the disciples (chapter 20), in that the baptism of the Spirit occurs when the ruach adonai, the pneuma Chritou, the breath/wind/Spirit of the Lord/Christ is given to them by Jesus. The same salvific baptism occurs in a more dramatic way on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

It is worth nothing here that the baptism with the Spirit of Jesus, which gives us the faith of Jesus, the faith that justifies, would not have been possible for the disciples gathered for the institution of the Lord's Supper, as Jesus was still with them. As Jesus explains in John 14, the Spirit comes after the paschal events because up until that point, he's still with them. The Spirit, who gives justifying faith and leads us to baptism, would not come while Jesus was still with them. We don't live in such a time, so the argument that the disciples weren't baptized when the Lord's Supper was instituted ignores a substantial difference in how the Trinity relates to humanity.

The eating side of things for this argument is less frequent in the Bible. Luke has Jesus being recognized in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24, again), but this is not clearly Communion, although we have adopted the phrase and story such. Paul tackles issues around the community meal in 1 Corinthians, but what he's worried about is idolatrous licentiousness (chapter 10) and classism (chapter 11), but again this isn't clearly Communion, although we use his arguments such.

These passages raise up some good questions to keep in mind: How are we going out and making disciples? How are we helping people to reinterpret their experience and education in light of Christ? How do our baptismal practices reflect the importance of the baptism of the Spirit that makes baptism true baptism and not a mere washing with water? How are we helping people recognize Jesus in our communion practices? What do our worship practices say about who we are worshipping? Why are we making this choice to exclude these people, or using Paul's language, what do our communion practices reveal about how we discern the body of Christ?

Concerning Relationships

It seems to me that we have unintentionally moved ourselves into a place of bound consciouses by our own rules and regulations. Said differently, the Christian Church in the West is too legalistic--and I don't care whether you choose a conservative angle on this or a liberal angle, both of them establish a new law that gets placed above the gospel and is used to tell those who do things differently that they're wrong. Thus my concern is over relationships.

There are too many relationships at stake here: between God and the Church, between different expressions of the Church, between different congregations in the same denomination, between denominations and their theology, between denominations and their traditions, between congregations and visitors, between congregations and their clergy, between clergy. Oh, and the relationship between baptism and communion. (And Pat Keifert's Welcoming the Stranger is a good resource for coming to grips with the relationships at stake here. And a possible way through.)

There are so many relationships at stake here, that they often get overlooked or used to misrepresent the other side (like there's only two). For those arguing that not even baptism should be a requirement for communion, the constant caricature of the other side runs something like, "What should we do? Put up a baptism detector before the communion rail or ask people to present their baptismal certificates?" For those arguing that baptism is the requirement for communion, a consistent caricature of the other side runs something like, "Look at me! I'm a bad steward of the mysteries of God. I'll give communion to satanists!" Such comments kill the conversation because they break relationship. The issues at stake on this topic are relational challenges--hospitality, ecumenism, evangelism--and reduction to caricature reveals fear of encountering others in faith around these challenging topics that do effect our practices.

Our ecumenical relationships are also at stake here, but these relationships are not supposed to lead to morphological uniformity. If the documents need revision to address unanticipated concerns, I get that, but moving to uniformity denies the goodness of plurality and otherness. The challenge is how to live together with differences in a way that still proclaims the Gospel.


My concern for this conversation within the ELCA is that we will choose "not relationship" under the guise of "relationship."

 As I've been doing my congregational research, I've visited two congregations, both of which have no bar do communion. They were very different experiences. In one, it would take an act of God to get out of the building without talking to a member who is versed and practiced on talking to visitors, moving them into the membership conversation, and talking about baptism. Get this: there were actually members in the narthex during the service to intercept people trying to leave early and for the point of having these conversations.

In the other congregation, it would take an act of God to get out of the building with someone having talked to you. Seriously. Other than the professional church types, who knew me already from having spent several days there, when I walked out of the nave into the narthex, no one talked to me. During the coffee time, no one talked to me. Had I been someone inquiring or wondering about the faith or of another tradition, no one would have ever known.

Two different tales of "hospitality" where the question of eucharistic hospitality reveals one lively awareness of the connection between baptism and communion, and the other shows a desire to appear hospitable but without any awareness of how this connects with either baptism or communion, or actually being hospitable. My concern is that the ELCA will officially choose this second approach.


Moltmann makes much of the idea of perichoresis when describing the life of the Trinity--that there's a going about the boundaries of things, or a dance, or some kind of active movement within the life of the Trinity that includes us in that dance. The hymn Come, Join the Dance of Trinity (ELW 412, words by Richard Leach, copyright 2001 by Selah Publishing Co., Inc.) plays within this idea if you want a poetic attempt at describing the undescribable.

I raise this up because the relationship between baptism and communion is also perichoretic.  There's a dance involved, but it's not a hard-ruled dance so much as a dance where the partners are responding to each other and the music. It's responsive, generative, innovative, as much spontaneity as learned and practiced.

So why have a "bar" of baptism for communion? Because they need each other and we need them both. They lead into each other, they compliment each other. The bar isn't a bar, but a connecting link. 

What does baptism give? Forgiveness of sins, redemption, and salvation. What does communion give? Forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Is redemption from the power of death and the devil meaningful without life? Is life worth living while still bound under the power of death and devil?

Do you believe the promises of communion? Then hear how they lead to the baptismal waters. Do you believe the promises of baptism? Then hear how they lead to the bread and the wine, the body and the blood.

Yes, every congregation will decide local practice. Although not ultimately, because that's Jesus. But if we officially sever the relationship between baptism and communion under the guise of relationship, by hospitality, ecumenism, or evangelism, we will be denying the practices God has given us as gifts and signs of God's love for us for awakening and strengthening faith.

Do we fear God more than we fear looking inhospitable? Do we fear God more than we fear looking non-ecumenical?