Friday, May 27, 2005

Baptism, Eucharist, and Hospitality

Dwight in a recent comment has raised a good point. Upholding baptism as the entrance rite of the church does not appear, at first glance, to be welcoming. And this because the concept of a welcoming church has changed over the years. I can't say I have loads of anthropological insights to back this up, but it seems the Christian understanding of welcoming included the transition from one community to another. This being the case, the baptismal rite as the entrance rite and transition from one community to another constituted a rather lengthy process of initiation culminating in full entrance into the church, communion, etc.

A crass analogy: When you went into Mr. Roger's house with him on his show, you weren't just there. You first had to take off your shoes, change your sweater, sing a song, and only then were you finally there. What is more, to enter into the little imaginary world where the train went, you had to first do all this and then imagine your way in along with Mr. Rogers.

Today, we track all our dirt on our shoes inside the house, leave our coats on while we're in, never imagine anything of much together, leave without a trace, and fail to offer a glass of water to the visitor while they're there.

So we've got issues of hospitality abounding in this discussion, but like false understandings of hospitality. Not hospitality as peace tolerant co-habitation, but in the view of the church, hospitality as that radical gospel act that changes both the host and the guest.

This is why, among other things, to maintain the unique hospitality practice of the Christian community, the Eucharist cannot be a meal for just anyone. We have plenty of meals that can be like that. Every time I eat at Culver's I have a meal like that, or invite my neighbors over for coffee. The Eucharist is a special meal of mutual recognition where those who are already baptized, who have the shoes and the new sweater and even a new mind, sit down at the meal of their Lord, who says, come, all is ready.


  1. Here's another image that goest to the same point: "naturalization". I sit in my office next door to the Federal courthouse, where naturalization ceremonies are regularly held. And I work with many customers who are not native-born USAmericans. They were at one time "seekers" with respect to the US. We allowed them in (in some cases, the "seekers" sneak it despite our best efforts to keep them out). We allowed many of them to participate in the activities of the country -- viz., working, shopping, worshipping, having children, But there were certain perquisites of being a USAmerican that we denied to them until they were made "citizens": They could not vote or hold elected office; some of the legal protections available to citizens were proscribed to them. That, of course, changed once they completed the initiation process called "naturalization" and changed from "legal or resident aliens" to "citizens."

    Well, the Church is the Kingdom -- meaning, among other things, the community -- of God on earth. None of is "native-born" to that society; we must all be "naturalized." (There is good theology in that word, it just dawned on me!) Until we are naturalized, we are not allowed in some of the functions of the Church -- pre-eminent among them, the Holy Eucharist, which has an importance somwhat akin to that of voting in the civic society.

    A civic society understands that naturalization requires certain basics -- demonstration of loyalty, learning the basic narratives of the society (which the US Government thinks means learning factoids), a statement of commitment/allegiance. Why should the Church be so humble about its naturalization?

    It was the great Constantinian tragedy that too-easy identification of citizen of the empire and Christian made of the latter a subset of the former. And initiation deteriorated from there, eh?

    We are, then, most welcoming (and appropriately so) when we are truest to our identity. Parker Palmer talks about making room for the visitor/seeker, but he stresses that that is making room and not changing one's identity to accommodate the newcomer. (Pat Kieffert completely misreads Palmer -- but what else is new.) And Frank Senn offers the image of allowing space for the visitor to peak around the pillar to observe what's going on. But in none of that, do we pretend that there is no difference between the newcomer/visitor and us. We are welcoming by NOT barring the seeker from checking us out. That's all that is required and all that is allowed.

    Make sense?

  2. Amen, preach it!

    The Meal is not a time for evangelism. The Meal is to strengthen the Christian, so that he may go forth to spread the Good News. We have turned our churches into houses of evangelism, when truly they are for the baptized.

  3. I find it hard to believe that this question is even being debated among Lutherans, who claim (last I checked) to be Catholic Christians.

    The Eucharist is, and always has been, only for those who are in Christ. Not only is it unfitting to offer the Saviour's precious body and blood to the unbaptized, but anciently the unbaptized were not even allowed to be present at the celebration of the Lord's Supper. The Eucharist is a fire that burns the unworthy; and it is only because we are cleansed by the saving waters of baptism that any of us is worthy to receive the Holy Gifts.

    As for being "welcoming", what is it that we are "welcoming" people to? What is the substance of the invitation that we are making? If we are orthodox Christians, then we are inviting people to die, so that they might be reborn; we are inviting them to forsake this world, so that they might be citizens of the Kingdom; we are inviting them to give up their worldly freedom, so that they might become the servants of God. All of this, and more, is what happens in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. To invite people to the Holy Table without baptism is to lie to them about the very nature of the life in Christ. It's not very "welcoming" when you misrepresent that to which people are being invited.

    If a person has not been baptized, he or she has not publicly confessed faith in Jesus Christ - he or she is, by definition, not one of "the faithful". If one may approach the Eucharist without having confessed the faith of Christ crucified, how can we say that we teach "justification by faith alone"?

  4. As a matter of practice, we do not commune the unbaptized in our church -- but I also do not require those who come up for the Lord's Supper to display their baptismal certificates with a picture i.d. We practice open communion, which for us means we welcome all baptized Christians to come to the table. But in the case of our many visitors, we take their word for it that they are, in fact, baptized. A dishonest person could potentially take advantage of the situation and take communion w/o being baptized, but that is not a problem in our congregation, as far as I have seen (wouldn't it be great if more non-Christians were, indeed, trying so hard to enter into fellowship with Christ!). I would rather welcome all the baptized to the table (and risk communing a fraud) than turn a fellow Christian away from the Lord's table. If I know someone who comes for communion is unbaptized, I'll bless them and try to get them bathed in the waters of life.

    Related questions: What is required of our baptismal candidates? What process do baptismal candidates (or their parents, if they are young) go through? God's grace is free, of course, but do we regard it as cheap when we baptize children or adults off the street, with no requirement to be a part of the body of Christ before or after baptism? How do you or your church administer the baptismal process?

  5. Interesting discussion, and quite illuminating. The best I can contribute is an outsider's perspective of what it has been like to be the unbaptized visitor who suddenly finds himself being called up to take communion.

    Back at Luther when I was still involved in choir (or just simply attending a Sunday service) I'd often be present when communion was taken. Not having grown up immersed in the culture and traditions of the Lutheran church, and feeling great amounts of anxiety to both fit in with the crowd and not offend (especially if we were visiting a local congregtion), I at first would simply rise when others rose, file up the front, take communion, and head on back to my designated pew.

    Quickly figuring out that this wasn't the best answer to the question, I next simply filed up, declined communion, and returned to my seat. The look of shock/surprise on the face of the person offering communion was unforgetable, and it only took once to realize that this wasn't the solution, either.

    I finally figured out that the best thing to do was simply remain seated while everyone ele filed up, communed, and returned. Which probably seems obvious to most readers of this blog, but there weren't any clear road signs or directions at the time. And let's not forget the power of peer pressure -- even at the collegiate level.

    I don't think words like "dishonest" and "fraud" properly describe folks in similar situations. Quite frankly I was honestly doing the best I could to navigate a ritual/ceremony that everyone else around me was quite familiar with and was also participating in.

    Would it be out of the question to say something like, "All visitors and unbaptized are invited to come up and receive a blessing." There might be a nicer way of putting that, but without clear instructions that acknowledge the fact that visitors/unbaptized folks might actually be present and generally unclear what to do I suspect there will continue to be "accidental" communion happening across the world.


  6. P.S.

    Please pardon my clumsy use of terminology.

  7. Brian,

    I didn't find your use of terminology clumsy. I found it insightful. I agree, not communicating clearly what we are doing when we commune shows a lack of hospitality on the part of the church. Thanks for teaching and reminding me of that. We should tell people clearly what the proper thing to do is- that's etiquette, pure and simple.

    Also, I don't think you are being in any way fraudulent. My complaint isn't with those who come to church and "accidentally" receive communion. My complaint is with a church that wants to make that the rule, instead of inviting you, and people like you, to consider this point, that if there is enough faith in you to appear in worship and wish for a blessing, what is to keep you from being baptized and in that way participate fully in the life of the church.

    Does that make sense? What would you recommend in addition, or change in what I've said?

  8. I joke with my colleague in ministry that we ought to say a special prayer on Christmas and Easter for those who will be receiving their first Holy Communion on that day. (Note: we don't do first communion on these major festivals, except, of course, at the Vigil).

    It's right there in our bulletin who the communion is for and what people can do who are not baptized. Unfortunately, our visitors don't read the bulletin and the members don't have any idea that what they do at communion is special and reserved for them because of baptism. Of right that ought to be laid at the feet of the pastors, including me. ("Oh, you bishops..." - Luther)

    The early church used to close the door after the sermon to all but those who had been baptized publicly. They invited all, but made sure you knew that you were getting into something when you accepted the invitation.

    I don't have any problem with communing someone "in error." I have no idea who is baptized and who is not, and our church practice for the past thousand and a half years has not been to expel the unbaptized before the Sacrament. Like Clint, however, I am in doubt whether a church that admits people to Eucharist before inviting them into the life of Baptism truly values or understands either Sacrament.

  9. In our parish the pastor prefaces each Eucharist with a short explanation of the Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist, invites all baptized believers who recognize the Real Presence to commune with us, and furthermore invites anyone who for any reason is not on the same page with us to come up for a blessing and greeting: "Palms up -- you wish to commune; palms down -- you want me to shake your hand." This takes all of a minute or two to accomplish, but I think it does the job; I don't know why other clergypeople don't do likewise. (Although in my experience, the problem is less with "unauthorized" communicants and more with visitors who are so bashful that they can't be encouraged to go through the line and receive a blessing.;-))