2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: John 2:1-11;
Isa 62:1-5; 1 Cor 12:1-11
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/_iD9iHYHamg?t=890
REVITALIZING OUR THEOLOGY AND PRACTICE OF HOLY COMMUNION:
STORIES OF GREATER INCLUSIVITY
Last week I went back about forty years to my ordination exam for a question about baptism. This week we’re going to talk about the other sacrament, Holy Communion, and I’m going back about sixty years to when I was a child. Basically, I’d like to begin by cataloguing all the changes in Communion practice that we’ve experienced in our lifetimes by telling you a series of stories. As I tell my story of going through these changes, perhaps you can remember similar changes you’ve experienced.
Beginning in the late 1930’s, my grandfather was the organist and choir director of the largest Missouri Synod Lutheran church in downtown Detroit, Trinity Lutheran Church — now called Historic Trinity Lutheran.1 My mother and father both grew up at that church; it’s where they met. They weren’t high school sweethearts; they were church sweethearts, “Luther League” sweethearts. When I was born, we were going to a different church on the Westside of Detroit, closer to our home, but we would visit Trinity several times a year. I can still remember my grandpa playing the huge pipe organ there, and then after worship running around exploring in the cavernous old church. I can also remember something about Communion practice, probably because it seemed a bit strange to me. I think they had Communion about once a month, and at the end of the service the week before they would announce that if you planned on taking Communion the following week, you needed to come to the front after worship to register with the pastor. Obviously, these were the days when who could take Communion at your church was tightly controlled.
But it seemed strange to me, because things had already begun to change at our church on the Westside of Detroit. Our pastors had been trained by the seminary professors who later were forced to leave (in 1974 — see below).2 Not only had my home church begun to open Communion to all Christians, but it was one of the first Lutheran churches that began to celebrate Communion every Sunday. So in the year I graduated from high school, 1974, when a conservative faction took power within the Missouri Synod, one of the first things they did was try to reverse the policy in any churches that practiced Communion open to all Christians. That’s when my home church left the Missouri Synod and set itself on a path to eventually join the ELCA. Why? I believe the main reason was that communion issue of being open or closed, welcoming or restrictive. Like the wine in today’s Gospel Reading, it felt like the old way of doing closed Communion had run out, run its course. No more awkward moments of having visitors in your church on Sunday and leaving them out of the family dinner, so to speak. There was a new, wonderful wine of celebrating God’s grace with all our friends and neighbors. For my home church, there was no going back.
But that’s only the beginning of the story of opening Communion in our lifetimes. Even at my more progressive Lutheran church, I didn’t take my first Communion until Confirmation Day at the end of eighth grade when I was fourteen. It was a few years after that that most Lutheran churches changed to offering First Communion in fifth grade about ten years-old. Again, this seemed rather strange to me. We baptize infants, emphasizing God’s grace. Why does someone have to wait until age ten to participate in the grace of God’s family meal? The thinking given at the time is that people have to more fully understand to fully participate in Communion. But do any of us completely understand the mystery of God’s grace in the meal? Do you understand, for example, how Christ is truly present with us in the bread and the wine? And would requiring a certain level of understanding exclude someone with Down Syndrome? Or an elderly person suffering from dementia?
There is, after all, something very important about Holy Communion that a person can begin to understand at a very early age, generally less than a year-old. As a pastor I see this all the time. I typically am the one who first offers the bread every Sunday as we partake of the meal. And very early in my career I began to notice something: namely, that there’s almost always a first time for every child when they register that they are being left out. Maybe you’ve seen it, in helping to give Communion, or bringing your young child to the altar for a blessing. A young child would come up to Communion held in one of their parent’s arms, watch them receive the bread, and reach to do the same, only to have me place hands on their head instead for a blessing. There’s almost always a time for every child when I can see the look of disappointment on their face. They understand that they are being left out. Eventually, of course, they get used to it, expecting to be left out.
Except for D.J. — and a small percentage of children that never get used to it. D.J. was a young boy at my parish in Racine, back in the 90’s. He hated being left out, and almost always registered his disappointment. One Sunday we were offering kneeling Communion at the altar. I gave a wafer to his mother, and reached out to give D.J. a blessing but missed his head . . . because D.J. had flopped over backwards, letting out a loud sigh of frustration. Quiet chuckles ran through the congregation. D.J.’s mother was mortified. When she came up to me after the service to apologize, I raised my hand to say, ‘No, it’s alright. I think we should talk about preparing D.J. for his First Communion.’ Because our parish had recently changed it Communion policy to welcome all ages, as soon as the ELCA had officially changed its policy in 1997.3 We didn’t require any certain age. Many parents still chose to wait until age ten. But we no longer restricted any age. So several months after D.J. did his flop at the altar, he took his First Communion, and I will always treasure the look of wondrous delight on his face, as he respectfully held out his hands to receive the bread for the first time. D.J. understood that he was now being fully included in the meal, and that was truly a precious thing to him.
In our lifetimes, our practice of Holy Communion has been becoming more inclusive. We opened the table first to all Christians and then to all ages. In the process, Communion has become a more joyful thing for us, so we also began to celebrate it more often, sharing the family meal each Sunday.
There is still one more potential barrier, however. In my last parish before retiring (in Kalamazoo, MI), the two colleges in town brought a more diverse community than the average town. So when our Sunday Adult Forum (during the Sunday School hour) wanted to study the prospect of peace in the Middle East, the Forum leader invited a Muslim professor he knew to come help our adults learn more about Islam. He also graciously invited the professor to come to our worship. In those days, not too many years ago, I had dropped any reference to being baptized in making a general invitation to all those present to join us at the Lord’s Supper — like I did this morning during the welcome: “all brothers and sisters in Christ are welcome to join us in the Lord’s Supper.” The official ELCA policy is that only baptized Christians should take Communion, though it’s a policy that’s begun to be debated across the church over the last ten years — the final frontier of being completely inclusive. That day, I had to make a hasty decision, because I could see this man who I knew to be Muslim in line to take Communion. I didn’t hesitate to place the piece of bread in his hands. After the service, he sought me out to thank me for the graciousness of our welcome to him that day, and he singled out his experience of Communion. In the pew, he told me, he had wrestled with the decision himself, both because he is not Christian and because Muslims don’t drink alcohol. (He did take the bread only that day and skipped the wine.) But he felt that the Spirit of this meal was to participate in God’s welcome for all the whole human family to be one. His whole visit had been in that Spirit of seeking to come together as God’s children, so his coming up to take the bread seemed a fitting climax to the morning.
I’ve never again doubted that this meal we share each Sunday is meant for all God’s children, baptized or not. In fact, what our Muslim friend expressed is exactly what we’ve been talking about in recent weeks as the new center of Christian messaging. Instead of “justification by grace through faith,” I’ve suggested something less ambiguous from St. Paul, such as, “Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall . . . , that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two” (Eph 2:14-15).
Once again, consider where our children and grandchildren are at with these matters. They live in a badly divided and broken world. How do they see religion? Don’t they see it as another one of those things that adds to the problem rather than the solution? Don’t they see religion near the center of what divides us? So what would it mean to them if we clarified and revitalized our Gospel message that even religion is one of those things Jesus came to save us from? When we lead with something like Eph 2, that Christ came to create in himself one new humanity, then it becomes more clear that Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion. He came to give us a new way to be human that redeems all our divisive ways, including our religions — even Christianity to the extent that it has lapsed into being a divisive religion. As we’ve seen the past two weeks, at the heart of that change in messaging is our practice of the sacraments, from more divisive ways to more inclusive ways.
So let me close with a brief story that combines our practice of baptism and Communion. A couple years after that visit of the Muslim professor. Two Muslim sisters began coming to our worship. One of them began coming to Communion right away, the other was more shy and held back. But within a couple months, they came to me after worship on Pentecost Sunday and asked to be baptized. In our times of preparation for baptism, they shared how the open welcome to Communion had helped bring them to desiring baptism. They wanted to be part of a movement that helped heal the divisions. Their own Muslim faith had remained mired in patriarchy; they felt second class in their culture as women. They relished a new human identity in baptism where, as St. Paul puts it, there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female — and we might add, Christian or Muslim. At the church in Kalamazoo our baptismal fountain had a raised font for infants set within a larger pool for older baptizees. So on that day of their baptism they wore white gowns over their clothes, and we splashed around in the pool for the actual baptism. We used lots of water poured over their heads. I baptized them, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” I looked into their faces, and I’ve never seen such tears of joy streaming down faces at a baptism. They knew they were part of God’s family in a new way. They knew they were part of the one new humanity which God is creating in Jesus Christ. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, January 16, 2022
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/_iD9iHYHamg?t=890
1. Learn more about Historic Trinity at their website: https://www.historictrinity.org/ For more on the organ my grandfather played for many years: https://www.historictrinity.org/our-history/architecture/the-skinner-opus-808-organ/
2. For more on the Missouri Synod schism in 1974, see the Wikipedia article on “Seminex.”
3. See The Use of the Means of Grace; this statement was adopted for guidance and practice of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at the 1997 Churchwide Assembly. See Principles 37-38 on pages 41-43, where it says, for example, “Baptized children begin to commune on a regular basis at a time determined through mutual conversation that includes the pastor, the child, and the parents or sponsors involved, within the accepted practices of the congregation. Ordinarily this beginning will occur only when children can eat and drink, and can start to respond to the gift of Christ in the Supper.”