Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Banned from Communion

Last month I was not able to take communion during the Sunday worship service. It was not the church or pastor’s fault. In fact they could not have been more inclusive. They intentionally serve only gluten free vegan bread and non-alcoholic grape juice so that everyone can partake of the same elements. It is also “open communion.” Everyone is welcome at the Lord’s Table, no questions asked. The problem was me.

The following morning I was scheduled for a colonoscopy. We all know how pleasant the prep for that is! The instructions made it clear that I was to eat no food and drink nothing red or purple on the day before the medical procedure. Strangely enough I did not consider how that was going to affect my participation in the Lord’s Supper until I was in the worship service. I had to bypass the elements on that particular Sunday.

Even though no one was excluding me, I felt alone as I sat empty-handed while everyone else was partaking of the communal meal. It caused me to remember our stay in the Holy Land decades ago. I was taking a semester sabbatical at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the autumn of 1991. My wife and three children went with me.

Even though the institute is called ecumenical, it is owned and run by the Roman Catholic Church. The rector was then – and is now - a Jesuit. My family was told that we could not partake of the daily Eucharist with the other families because we were Baptists. Other Protestants – Anglicans, Lutherans and Presbyterians were invited to the table – but my family, another Baptist family from Japan, and a Mennonite family from Canada were not welcome.

I know they had their centuries-old, ecclesial and theological reasons for excluding fellow Christians from the Eucharist. Furthermore it would have been personally costly for these leaders to disobey church tradition and authority. I get that. As Free Church Protestants we had no right to insist that another tradition change their practice of the Eucharist for us. Therefore we “never said a mumblin word,” to quote the African American spiritual. Yet that did not diminish my feeling of being excluded because of my faith.

Ever since that time, I have been sensitive to Christians excluding people. In the last thirty years there has been a lot of exclusion going on. More and more people have been identified for exclusion. I am thinking primarily about my own Baptist tradition and similar evangelical denominations. Many Christians are becoming more exclusivistic in their thinking.

My experience of exclusion was minimal compared to the discrimination and persecution suffered by others, but my minor experience expanded my empathy for outsiders and my vision of the need for a spirituality that excludes no one. It seems to me that if a church and theology justifies the systematic exclusion of certain categories of people - from communion, membership, heaven or anything else - it is time to get a new church and a new theology.

These thoughts came to mind last Sunday while I was sitting in the same outdoor worship service at the same church and offered the same Lord’s Supper. This time I had no medical procedure scheduled, and so I joyfully partook of the bread and the cup. I felt communion. During the ritual I thought about those who have been barred from communion in some churches because of their sincerely held beliefs, including the President of the United States and the former Speaker of the House of Representatives. God bless them for not being bitter. Their attitude is a testimony to their faith.

As I ate the sacred elements last Sunday, I prayed for all those who are excluded from fellowship and society for a host of reasons: religious beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, immigration status, political views, moral standards, and many other reasons. I prayed for insight to see how I exclude people without even noticing. I meditated on Jesus, who fellowshipped with outsiders and sinners. Jesus taught and modeled God’s intentional unconditional love. Even Judas Iscariot was welcome at the Last Supper. He is welcome today. After all, it the Lord’s Supper, not ours. And it is the Lord’s Church – the Body of Christ – not ours. 

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