Last Supper/Eucharist

Earlier this week (for it is taking me a number of days to get this written!), my Archdeacon sent me a blog post by Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Friar of the Center for Action and Contemplation.  He quotes a section of the Iona Abbey Worship Book [(Wild Goose Publications: 2001), and the Archdeacon asked what I thought about using this as a diaconal introduction to the Eucharist:

The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready. It is the table of company of Jesus, and all who love him. It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world, with whom Jesus identified himself. It is the table of communion with the earth, in which Christ became incarnate. So come to this table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time; you who have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have failed; come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here. —An Invitation, Iona Abbey

One of the really hot topics in the Episcopal Church at the moment is, whether we should have an Open Table, meaning that one does not have to be a baptized Christian to receive Holy Communion.  Interestingly, the Canons (2015) indicate that no un-baptized person will receive the Eucharist (Canon 17, Section 7).  In favor of the canon, one priest said,  “[An open table] is not inclusion; it is exclusion from the riches of the sacrament.”

There is a 21-page report (Link on page) put out by the Diocese of Newark with regard to an Open Table.  The committee that put it together really put a lot of time and effort into it, collecting anecdotal evidence on both sides – both those who felt included at an Open Table and excluded at a restricted Table – and writing three essays addressing Baptism vs. Eucharist Today and in the Past, Sacramental Values and Alternative Journeys to Christ, and Perceptions of the Open Table.  The entirety of the report makes it clear that they are in favor of offering an Open Table.

One portion that struck me was that the laity and clergy were in favor of at least an option of an Open Table, while the House of Bishops have been almost entirely against it.  It is a topic that has arisen at each General Convention since 1982.

Baptism as a prerequisite for Eucharist was first seen in the Didache, late 1st, early 2nd century.  As the first essay explains Paul shared a Eucharist meal with many, not just unbaptized believers, but with non-believers as well (Acts 27).

One of the quotes that got my attention in the second essay:

Episcopalians believe that the Eucharist is a revelation of Jesus’ loving sacrifice for us. It is an experience of the presence of Jesus in the Body and Blood. It is a source of grace made efficacious not by the condition of those who give or receive it, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. (p. 12)

The third essay of what people mean by “Open Table” can be summarized as follows:

  • Christ is host, and those participating in Eucharist participate in his life, death and resurrection.
  • The call to the altar comes from the Holy Spirit and should not be restricted.
  • Each community determines its own comfort level in defining the liturgy and the call to Eucharist – it should not be dictated.
  • The altar is God’s table, not ours.  The Real Presence in the Eucharist confirms our acts of inclusion match our words of inclusion “all are welcome”.
  • Open Table reflects Jesus’ “meal ministry” of eating with any and all called.
  • Open Table admits that baptism is not the sole sacramental entry into the Christian covenant.
  • Opening the altar is an expression of sowing our faith, where the unbaptized can share in the entirety of the worship experience.
  • The Open Table reflects Paul’s meal ministry throughout Acts.
  • Open Table reflects a change in sacramental hierarchy, making both baptism and Eucharist important, but neither is a pre-requisite to the other.
  • God’s grace is not ours to distribute on our terms.
  • Experiential catechesis and knowledge is equally as important as book learning.  Belief often follows experience.
  • Offering the un-baptized a place at the table does not diminish the power of the sacrament for the baptized.
  • “When we allow children, baptized or not, to receive, we affirm that the Eucharist provides an experiential understanding of the faith. It helps them experience God’s grace, learn who Jesus is for them, and learn what it means to be in Christian community.”  This is not different for an un-baptized adult.

The part that is interesting as far as Rohr’s post is the message of inclusivity and expansiveness, making a table bigger to essentially make the Eucharist itself an altar call, not only for those who are part of the “in crowd” within church membership, but for those who are lost, who want more, the ostracized and outcasts of society, in order to be more like Jesus was.  And many Christians want to be like Jesus – open, loving, trusting, wise – as long as it doesn’t interfere with their politics.  So we make the Eucharist table a border – a “Christians only” club and you must be initiated to participate.

My liturgics professor always emphasized that the two big sacraments within Christianity were a bath and a meal.  Basic hospitality provided from the dawn of time, but within our context, among Jews.  You washed the hands, feet and face, and fed people.  Christ did the same thing – was He emphasizing exclusivity – that certain people were served by Him – or was He emphasizing the massive importance of hospitality?

The third essay also gives examples of invitation to the Table.  The one that I particularly like is:  ““The ancient, undivided Church recognized three ways of being baptized into the fellowship of disciples – water, desire of the heart, or the flames of martyrdom. However you have been baptized into Christ, join us in the life-changing feast, that this humble collection of people may become the Resurrected Body of Christ – healing, freeing, inspiring the world to peace, justice and unity.”

At the same time, the invitation that makes it clear that the Eucharist is an altar call is:  “What follows is the Holy Communion, the sacred meal of the Christian faith. While the
Episcopal Church, as with all churches rooted in the historic Christian faith, affirms that
the sacrament of Baptism is the ancient and normative entry point for receiving the
sacrament of Eucharist, we also believe that anyone who desires to receive the body and
blood of our Lord is always welcome at God’s table. Wherever you are in your spiritual
journey, the Episcopal Church is here for you, and we invite you to explore with us what
being baptized could mean for your life. Want to know more? Please see [insert here
either the name of the priest or ‘one of the clergy’] following the service.”

Prior to looking at these resources, I would have said that I was against an Open Table, because we are a liturgical church; we do have particular ways of doing things, and if done in that order, one can experience the rich tapestry in all its greatness.  But the one statement, “God’s grace is not ours to distribute on our terms” (emphasis added) makes me question my own hubris.  Neither Christ (the basis upon which our faith is set) nor Paul (the man who organized the Church into what it became) limited the table to baptized Christians.  They opened their arms to all, living the greatest commandment to love their neighbor as themselves.  Who are we to impose restrictions?

As stated in one of the essays referenced above, Cranmer’s wisdom that “there was never anything by the wit of man so well devised, or so surely established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted” certainly indicates where we are today.


3 thoughts on “Last Supper/Eucharist

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