The church is in a fix. She is divided and rife with dissention, quarrels, factionism and even hate. Jesus prayed “that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” When we observe the church today we see anything but unity. We see division in doctrine, in church government, in regionalism, in culture and in personal conflict. Given this state of affairs one may wonder how we even dare to approach the table of the Lord’s Supper? In some sense it is a wonder that any church body presumes to take Christ’s body, which was given and shed so that the saints might be one, while remaining in open division with the majority of Christendom.
By faith we believe that in the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). But that power is not something conjured by the elites as is the case in some religions; this power belongs to God alone and is wielded by his Spirit through his Word. This applies to a discussion on the Lord’s Supper because this Eucharist is the gospel in bread and wine, flesh and blood. As Jesus says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). This is an earth-shattering, world transforming statement. The prophets had long spoken of the new covenant:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.(Jeremiah 31:31-34)
When Jesus says that this cup is the new covenant in his blood he is in fact saying that he himself is bringing this promise from Jeremiah to fruition and he is doing it by giving us his very self to eat and drink. He is making a true people for himself out of people who were not his people before–and he is doing it by his blood.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke record the Last Supper where Jesus instituted the Eucharist. But the gospel of John does not. Instead, he records the long speeches and prayers that Jesus shared with his disciples in the days before his arrest and crucifixion. These teachings include the washing of the disciples’ feet, teaching that the least will be greatest (13:1-20) . He gives them his “New Commandmant” to “love one another just as I have loved you” (13:31-35). He assures them that he is the Truth (14:1-13) and that he will send his Spirit of truth to teach them all things (14:15-29). Then in Chapters 15 and 16 he tells them about the difference between him and the world, and he encourages them to remain in him, saying “take heart; I have overcome the world” (16:33) He is setting his disciples up to carry on the work which he will begin with his death and resurrection: creating and nurturing the church. He culminates these teaching with his High Priestly Prayer in Chapter 17. Here Jesus asks his Father to cause his people to remain in him even as he remains in the Father; he is asking for God’s power to make us, the church, one people as God has desired before the foundations of the world. And the previous four chapters are teaching us how that looks.
Where the other three gospels gave us the Eucharist as God’s New Covenant in Jesus’ blood which is written on our hearts, the gospel of John tells us what it looks like, from the heart of God, to be and live as one body. There is much at stake in the Lord’s Supper. It is integral to God’s plan for all time; making a people holy and set apart for himself.
The disparity between Jesus’ teachings on the character and nature of his body in the Gospel of John and the divided state of the church today is striking. It begs the question: who is worthy of partaking of the Eucharist? The Apostle Paul indeed warns us against eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood in an unworthy manner, lest we eat and drink judgment on ourselves.
The early church felt strongly that the hearts of those partaking of the Eucharist should be repentant of sin and reconciled with their brothers and sisters in the church. In Norman Nagel’s article on closed communion he describes how the kiss of peace was integral to the Eucharist fellowship, explained in the Didascalia. Members of the church exchanged the peace to ensure that all were reconciled in the body, thus following the Apostle’s instruction to examine oneself to make sure one is “discerning” the body. If there was any division in the body, the kiss of peace was halted until reconciliation was effectuated, at which point the Eucharist was received by all. He also quotes Justin Martyr: “This food we call eucharist, and no one may receive it unless he believes that our teaching is true, and has been washed with the washing for forgiveness of sins unto regeneration, and lives as Christ handed down to us.”
Thus the question is answered; who is the Eucharist for? Those who are one with Christ and are one with his body. This is a three dimensional communion; it includes oneness in salvation by faith in Christ and his baptism, oneness in doctrine and oneness in Christian love and action. This approach to the Lord’s Supper appreciates the concerns of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer that the whole body might remain in him and remain one.
Now we face a problem: the church is divided. In spite of all the teaching on the “invisible church” the concern of Jesus in his prayer and the concern of the Apostle Paul in his exhortation to the Corinthians were very much that of a unity that is shared and experienced in a very visible way. There is no escaping the indictment on a divided church: division is sin insofar as God’s will is the unity of Christ’s body. So we have a sacrament of the New Covenant intended for unity and love–with God’s Word written on his people’s hearts–in a church that is anything but.
The Corinthians learned that when they were not living as Christ’s body, partaking of the Lord’s Supper was an unpleasant thing. They were ill and dying because they were not loving their Christian brothers and sisters in their partaking of the Holy Eucharist. In this case Christ’s body did not cease to be Christ’s body, but the act of taking it did cease to be the “Lord’s Supper”. This is because the Lord’s Supper is an invitation to life in the New Covenant. Still more; it is the life itself delivered to us! But when it is taken in sin it is not the reception of his grace but of his judgment–not the supper of life that Jesus intended.
This contradicts some open communion claims that the Eucharist is “pure gospel.” Indeed, it was intended as such for hearts that receive it in repentant joy, but as is the case with God’s Word, it delivers judgment to the unrepentant. Because it is Christ’s body it is truly Christ himself, judge of sin and deliverer of forgiveness. When a repentant sinner receives the body and blood he does receive pure gospel, but when a Corinthian eats and drinks out of gluttony and disregards his neighbor the judgment he receives is nothing if not law.
This has implications for a church that is existing as a divided body. The church is corporately sinning against Christ’s body. There is no way for any church to escape this. Ephraim Radner, a priest in the Episcopal church explores this understanding of Christ’s Spirit in his book “The End of the Church; a Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West.” He explains that, while this experience of division for all intents and purposes is contrary to the will of God, we may also observe that it has its own figure in Christ’s cross as well. It is a corporate sin which is tragic and is also atoned for on the cross; the experience of Christ’s own suffering and afflicted body, broken and beaten. This suffering of Christ looks back to the exile of Israel for her sins as Christ says to his Father “why have you forsaken me?” And it also looks forward to the age of the church where Christ’s body will continue to be a stiff-necked and divided one, suffering because of her sins. And Christ’s Spirit continues to be the one that is revealed (or hidded) in a form of suffering along with his people.
Much can be learned from this perspective. Primarily it reminds the church that her response to the situation should be the same one that all of the prophets sought from Israel: that of repentance. We must realize that there does not lie within our human resources the solution to this division. Our posture then is one of repentance, waiting on God to act on behalf of his afflicted church. Secondly, it sheds light on what sort of flavor the Eucharist has to our church. Radner intimates the answer to this in the title to his fourth chapter “Vinegar and Gall: Tasting the Eucharist in the Divided Church.” Essentially he extends the logic of I Corinthians 11. The Corinthians were living in sin toward their brothers and so the Eucharist was being taken to their judgment–even while their discernment was impaired and they were oblivious to the judgment that they were experiencing! Such also was the case of Israel up until the Babylonian Captivity; they were hearing but not understanding, seeing but not perceiving, and suffering for it in painful oblivion.
This line of I Corinthians 11 reasoning does not have a place for denying Eucharist to a brother who is not taking it worthily under pretext that it might lead to his judgment. The point is precisely that the church does and should receive Christ’s body and blood and that as she tastes it she receives what Christ is to her at that time: life and peace or judgment.
The instruction of the Apostle Paul is to examine oneself and eat rightly, but not, curiously, to stop partaking until this is effectuated. It is assumed that his instruction will be followed immediately and repentance will ensue. The “what if they don’t” is simply not in the scope of his instruction here. While we often are preoccupied with dealing with those who persist in denying or disagreeing and figuring out the appropriate stick for such persons, the Apostle Paul instructs on how things should be done and leaves the work of the stick to the judgment that God himself is already enacting through the sacrament itself. There was no need to deny anyone access to the table; who would want to keep eating and drinking judgment on themselves?
In any case, damnation is not at issue here; Paul makes it clear that the judgment in view is disciplinary, intended to curb us away from continued sin (verse 32). How strange it would seem that a pastor should prevent one from being disciplined by God! The body and blood are serving as a spiritual catalyst, if you will, of the relationship of those individuals to Christ and his body. To those who are repentant toward God and love his church the sacrament is peace and life; to those who are self-serving and disregard his body the sacrament is judgment and suffering. The sacrament brings to immediacy and makes (painfully) evident the spiritual condition of the body that exists already: it does not create the condition. It puts flesh on the church in a singular way: the manner in which the church engages in the Eucharist reveals the church’s heart toward the body of Christ and defines that church’s relationship to Christ. The Eucharist causes the church to taste, feel, and experience the state of her relationship to Jesus.
The principle is this: the church always receives Christ’s body at the Eucharist, but its import for the body both depends on and affects whether and how the body is living as Christ’s body. The church who shared the kiss of peace as both fruit of and means for reconciliation around the altar received a truly delicious and salutary sacrament. The experience of the church today at the Lord’s table is a dulled one because of her division. This can be observed in the issues which we discuss in relation to the Lord’s Supper and in the manner in which we go about those discussions. The sin of the Corinthians was that they did not recognize the brother sitting next to them even while they were eating the food of divine reconciliation. The sin of conservative Lutheran churches today is that, while they recognize the brother, they exclude the brother from fellowship out of a desire to preserve right doctrine. While the motive is in some sense more godly, is the act any less sinful?
As stated earlier, the church lacks the ability to extricate herself from the conundrum she faces. Her first call is to be a penitent church as she deals with the very serious questions that face her in an era of denominations:
If we restrict access to the Eucharist to only those who agree with us in all areas of doctrine, then we are excluding others who are indeed members of Christ’s body. In this case we are withholding the body and blood from those to whom Christ would extend it. For who is the “for you” of the words of the institution if not those who are united to Christ by faith in baptism? For a repentant Christian to be denied Christ’s body is a tragedy of eternal proportions; it is non-recognition of Christ’s body regardless of what we might acknowledge concerning that person’s faith.
If, on the other hand, the church practices open communion and allows any Christian to share in the altar in order to include all of God’s church, the risk is that the confession will be confused. The church must regard as very serious a denial of Christ’s bodily presence in the Supper; if a failure to recognize the body of Christ gathered around the Lord’s Table was a sin worthy of judgment, how much more a failure to recognize the very body of Christ that created the brotherhood of those gathered around the table? If the church welcomes such people to the table without making a clear testimony to real presence, then truth is confused and the Christian who denies real presence is left in ignorance of a great gift of the gospel because the church, motivated by a desire for unity, failed to deliver the clear truth concerning the sacrament. If a church does not give clear testimony to the real presence of Christ’s body out of fear of excluding some Christians, then she demonstrates a lack of faith in God’s word to work on the hearts of all believers according to is Spirit. If the clear confession of real presence causes some to abstain from the Lord’s Supper, then it is God’s word which has “closed” the communion, and not the judgment of pastor or congregation of an individual. It is God’s word which has created, sustained and defined his body; this is its work.
Open communion and closed communion as they are widely practiced are human solutions aimed at either preserving the true confession or preserving the unity of the church. They are human solutions to a problem as old as wayward Israel: the sin of God’s people in straying from his promises. God’s call to his people is time and again to repent and wait on him to act, to bring them out of Egypt, or Babylon, or Roman rule, or the diaspora of the church.
Meanwhile, the call of the church hasn’t changed. The church is called to proclaim unequivocally the truth of the gospel and to live it. Around the Lord’s Table this means that we are to make clear the truth concerning Christ’s body and blood. As the Apostle Paul did, we make clear the consequences of partaking unworthily and call all to repentance. But the “fencing” of the table goes beyond the scriptural mandate. The pastoral Epistles state nothing about the pastor’s duty even to administer the sacraments (though it may be implied), much less to vet the participants. The call to the individual is to examine oneself; the call to the church is to proclaim the truth. While closed communion seeks to preserve the truth it does so at the expense of what Radner calls “caritative enactment”, that is the concern that the early church for reconciliation or “the peace”. In these rituals the church was seeking to enact in the liturgy the overflow of love that characterizes Christ’s body. A celebration of the sacrament of the New Covenant in Christ’s body must not sacrifice either the truth of the sacrament or the inclusion of all of Christ’s repentant body.
In the footnotes of Norman Nagel’s article on “The True Catholicity of Closed Communion” he writes that “Our neighboring Orthodox priest said that they do not speak of closed communion. They never needed to; everybody always knew. “The doors” in the liturgy is expression enough.” This also is instructive. If the church were to focus her energies on proclaiming clearly the truth concerning the Body and Blood of Christ through word and actions in the liturgy then she would likely not find herself in the divisive position of deciding who can and who can’t participate.
Saint Ignatius in his letter to the Smyrnaeans also writes that “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father of His goodness, raised up again.” Two things should be noted here. First, they abstained of their own will because they recognized that they did not agree with the clear confession of Christ’s body and blood. Secondly, these were not Christians of a different theological persuasion; they did not even pray! They are also described as lacking love, not giving to the poor and not believing in the grace of Christ. Saint Ignatius was not speaking of evangelical Christians; he was speaking of Gnostic pagans.
From these two anecdotes, one contemporary and one ancient, it is demonstrated that if a church feels the necessity of enacting a policy of closed communion then the church should examine the clarity of her confession on Sunday morning in the liturgy. This goes far beyond a statement in the bulletin. A liturgy acts out the message and life of Christ. If a Christian who denies real presence comes into our congregations, the liturgy should be two things at once: overwhelmingly expressive of the love of Christ becoming incarnate in the hearts of those gathered and also crystal clear concerning the truth of Christ’s gifts of life eternal in his body and blood. Instead of being examined concerning his or her belief, the truth should be heard, its reality experienced, and the invitation received to be joined to that reality. If this is done, then any person sharing in the altar is necessarily making a common confession.
If any person comes to the altar hearing and knowing full well that the church teaches real presence but denying it in his or her heart, then the judgment on that person is of God’s will, and no pastor is called to prevent God’s word (in this case his fleshly word) from having its way with a person. The sacrament will bring to bear on that person the poignant reality of that person’s relationship to Christ and his body. A pastor’s call is to proclaim; he is not God’s bouncer.
The nature of the Eucharist is “closed” in and of itself. It is “for you”, that is, Jesus’ disciples. If it is for some then it is not for others. But this closed nature is based on a criteria of Jesus himself; those who are his body get his body to their blessing or to their discipline. The curious situation we have today is that members of his body don’t think they can get his body. Our gospel response should be “well then let’s shout out to them the good news that they can and invite them to have it!” This puts the burden of examining right where it belongs: on “each one”. When we make abundantly and joyfully clear what it is that is given in the sacrament if they should repent, the individual must decide if he or she wants it and needs it. If they decide that they do, then we rejoice and welcome Christ’s body to the table.