Communion and Conflict

Last week our presbytery debated and voted on a controversial issue. I thought our conversations were helpful and informative, and we once again demonstrated that Presbyterians can talk about things on which we disagree without dividing.

In the midst of this positive day, however, it came to my attention that there was a minister in our presbytery, along with the elder commissioner from his congregation, who refused to take Communion. According to those who are in the know, he refuses to celebrate the Lord’s Supper at the common Table because he perceives many of us who do not agree with him to be outside the faith. He does not share Communion with us because he believes we are not in Communion with Christ.

I say “us” because I am quite sure I fall in the camp of those with whom he disagrees. In fact, it is possible that if we apply the standards he seems to set across the board, his time of Communion might be lonely indeed. For who among us comes to the Table of the Lord in perfect unity of agreement with the sisters and brothers who approach the Table alongside us? Who among us comes to the Table of the Lord free from sin? It seems to me that this minister has taken the very sign of God’s grace in our midst and put a fence around it, turning it into a test of righteousness.

I will often say these words to invite persons to the Table, taken from the Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church:

“Friends, this is the joyful feast of the people of God!
They will come from east and west,
and from north and south,
to sit at table in the kingdom of God.
According to Luke,
when our risen Lord was at table with his disciples,
he took the bread, and blessed and broke it,
and gave it to them.
Then their eyes were opened
and they recognized him.
This is the Lord’s table.
Our Savior invites those who trust him
to share the feast which he has prepared.”

Notice what this invitation does not say. It does not say, “Our Savior invites those who are righteous,” or “holy” or “theologically correct” or “politically correct” or “liberal” or “conservative” or any of the other ways we divide ourselves both in the culture and in the church. All that is required is that we trust in Christ. I make a point of saying that this is not a Presbyterian table, or this congregation’s table, but it is the Lord’s Table, open to all who trust in Christ, all who are baptized in his name, whether young or old, no matter your denomination.

The Table of the Lord is a place of grace where we are met by the risen Lord, and where, if we see clearly at all, it is only because he, in grace, has opened our eyes. It seems to me that the only prerequisite for coming to the Table is an acknowledgment of our own blindness. Jesus, when the Pharisees said, “Surely we are not blind are we?” responded, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:40-41).

The minister sat on his hands during Communion because he thought he saw so much more clearly than the rest of us, and he led his elder commissioner to do the same. Their sin remains. But the good news for them is that grace abounds, and one of the places it can be found is at the Table of the Lord, where they can be joined by fellow sinners, feeding on mercy broken like bread, drinking from the cup of our common salvation, sharing the peace which only Christ can give. It is an invitation to all sinners, and one I hope they will accept.

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10 thoughts on “Communion and Conflict

  1. How is not taking Communion a sin, Christopher? If he truly feels that the Presbytery is sinful, then you’re asking him to be hypocritical.I once didn’t take Communion at Presbytery because there was no epiklesis. The celebrant didn’t ask for the Holy Spirit to sanctify the bread, the wine, and the people present. No one else noticed, but without that sanctification there was no Communion. Was I guilty of being sinful?There’s always at least two sides to every story. I enjoyed reading your post, even although I may disagree with some of it.

  2. Thanks, Chris, for a reminder that what happens at the Table (as most important things)is not nearly so much about us as it is about what God is saying and doing in our midst. I have received the Sacrament in settings in which I was uncomfortable because I disagreed with the proclamation that preceded it. I have received the Sacrament from people I’m pretty sure didn’t consider me worthy to receive it. And, of course, I have received the Sacrament many more times amid people who acknowledge our common struggle to believe and to receive God’s grace. Can’t imagine a situation in which I would deny myself the privilege or receiving. I’m reminded that the efficacy of that celebration and others is not, thanks be to God, dependent upon the righteousness of those who celebrate it–from either side of the Table.

  3. Stushie,Thanks for taking the time to respond. I agree that there are always two (and usually five or six or more) sides to every story. I hope to speak directly with the minister in question at some point. But it is widely known that he does this and the general reasons why.You and I may disagree about the nature of the invitation to the Sacrament. I believe that the Table is open to all who trust in Christ, all baptized in his name. That is the only requirement. I do not believe the absence of the epiklesis in any way signifies the absence of the presence of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit (I think the Reformers definitively spoke to that question). And I certainly do not believe that eating at Table with those with whom I disagree, who are themselves children of God, diminishes the Sacrament. Perhaps you could say a bit more about how you arrive at your position on this.Bob, thanks for your ongoing witness to the power of the Sacrament to tear down dividing walls.

  4. Chris,This is a post that really got me thinking. Also had me remembering a wedding of a Catholic cousin. All of us Presbyterians and Episcopalians were NOT invited to the Lord’s Table. So my sister passed around some Tic Tacs –our own minty communion, there in the Catholic church.

  5. Chris – thanks for your words. I frequently use the invitation to the table from the Book of Order which says,”The invitation to the Lord’s Supper is extended to all who have been baptized, remembering that access to the Table is not a right conferred upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving who come in faith, repentance, and love. In preparing to receive Christ in this Sacrament, the believer is to confess sin and brokenness, to seek reconciliation with God and neighbor, and to trust in Jesus Christ for cleansing and renewal. Even one who doubts or whose trust is wavering may come to the Table in order to be assured of God’s love and grace in Christ Jesus.” (Book of Order W-2.4011a) I love to be able to encourage people that even if they doubt or don’t feel worthy, the table is a place to receive assurance, to grow in faith, to understand that there is so much more than “us” involved. There are times I have hesitated coming to the table until I asked for forgiveness, but never do I ask others to change to be more like me. As we make our corporate confession, we also realize how far Christ’s love extends, loving us all, even in our differences of opinions.

  6. Well. I would probably ruffle a few feathers with my belief that we should say “the body of Christ” and “the cup of salvation” as we serve communion to one another. We are one body with only Christ as our mediator.Thanks for your words.

  7. Well. I would probably ruffle a few feathers with my belief that we are to say “the body of Christ” and “the cup of salvation” as we serve one another in communion. We are one body with Christ as our only mediater.Thanks for your words.Greg

  8. I'm still thinking about this post. I am so troubled by the unwillingness to receive Christ's gifts because of disharmony. I just returned from Montreat and we talked about how Christ feeds us regardless of our current theological dilemma, regardless of our "label" as liberal or conservative or "other." Christ broke bread with sinners, and on that plane we are all the same. We are the prostitute, the woman with no husbands but many lovers, the tax collector, the Pharisee, the Sadducee, the fisherman too scared to walk on water, the huddled disciples afraid of a storm. THAT is what brings us together at the table — not our righteousness, but our unrighteousness. And in that vein, we are all fed a feast we do not deserve.

  9. I know this is an older post, but I came across it today and had s similar story to relate.When I first moved to Troy in 2003, I visited a few churches in the area, trying to find one that felt like home. I was sorely disappointed by the Presbyterian church there. The day I visited happened to be Communion, but the pastor put such a bad taste in mouth I did not partake for the first time since becoming a Christian. I can't remember the exact words he used in his invitation, but they sounded very judgmental and condescending, implying that some people in the church were not worthy or should not take part in communion. I wasn't sure if I fell in that category or not, but I chose to pass the plate when it came to me because I felt no one should be denied based on worth. We're all unworthy. As Rev. K.T. said in his comment, we are all fed a feast we do not deserve. How could I eat and drink with those who felt they alone were righteous enough to deserve the feast, while others shamefully declined? I'm know that I'm no better than anyone else. No more deserving.Heather

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