In defense of the first sacrament


By Derek Olsen

Proponents of Communion without Baptism (CWOB) present a set of propositions from Scripture to demonstrate the truth of their position. These principles, they maintain, should be normative guides for our current Eucharistic practice. The first is that Jesus’ own meal practice was unusually non-exclusive, inviting the socially marginal and the morally suspect to the table as a sign-act pointing to God’s great eschatological banquet at the end of time provided by God’s extravagant bounty. If Jesus invited all without regard for their status, so should we. The second is that meals with Jesus exhibited a surprising liminality, a fluidity, between the roles of stranger, guest, and host that should give us pause lest we act as gate-keepers for in doing so we may be turning away angels unaware or—worse yet—may reject the very host Himself who is found in the person of the least.

I take these arguments seriously, but I don’t find them compelling to the point where CWOB should be permitted. Some contain methodological flaws while others are absolutely correct but are misapplied when directed to our current sacramental practice.

Many of the arguments for the first proposition rest upon a saying found in both Matthew and Luke: “the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34). The arguments I’ve seen suggest that the references to “glutton and drunkard” point to a bounty suggesting the eschatological banquet and that the “tax collector and sinner,” therefore, refer to the marginalized with whom Jesus shared fellowship. The conclusion drawn from this is that if Jesus welcomed the marginalized and outcast to his (holy) table we should as well. While I agree with the identifications of bounty and the marginal, I disagree with the conclusion drawn. In fact—I think this text presents an argument against CWOB…

If we examine the marginal here again, we find people on the outskirts of the children of Israel. The tax collectors of first century Judea were the traitors of the age. They not only didn’t resist Roman rule, they aided and abetted in the oppression of their own people by levying and collecting the taxes, typically through force and extortion. Politically, then, they had placed themselves outside of the people of Israel by means of their treason. “Sinners” is a much more generic term but at the very least identifies those who failed to follow God’s Law to the satisfaction of the community, thus—again—placing them outside of the “true” children of Israel. The evangelists nowhere clarify the purposes of the meals but what they suggest by means of verses like Matt 10:7 is that Jesus was issuing a call to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That is, he defied the authorities and gossipers by welcoming those people who were members of the covenant community—the children of Israel—but whose actions had put them outside of its cultic boundaries. The welcome of Jesus demonstrates the mercy of God to those members of the covenant community who had failed to uphold their part of the covenant. Furthermore, an integral part of many of the meal scenes that the evangelists do portray is repentance on the part of the tax collectors and sinners, a desire to return to their covenant responsibilities, to acknowledge the welcome of God in Christ by returning to walk in God’s paths.

If we would try and make an equation between these meal scenes and our sacramental practice, it would seem that the radical welcome found here is a welcome to rejoin the covenant community. The Christian understanding of covenant community is rooted not in the Abrahamic covenant marked by circumcision nor even in eucharistic fellowship—rather, it is found in Baptism. To issue the invitation Christ issued is to welcome the outcast and marginal into God’s covenant community through Baptism.

The second proposition is, to me, the most intriguing. The idea of fluidity between guest and host, known and unknown, is quite attractive. But when I turn to the texts put forward as evidence I do not find this pattern—the idea seems to be placed upon the texts rather than proceeding from them. The best treatment of this notion that I have seen comes from Dr. John Koenig’s New Testament Hospitality. Here—working exclusively with material from Luke’s pen—he appeals to seven “role-reversal” scenes. But I find it in only one, the Emmaus encounter: the unknown stranger issued an invitation to be a guest reveals himself to be the Host in the breaking of the bread. I don’t find it in the other cited passages. Yes, Jesus is present; yes, he takes a dominant position—but it is a teaching position, not that of host. The teaching role is different from the hosting role. Rabbinic literature indicates that teachers were invited to meals presumably for the purpose of instructing those gathered—there is no sign that through their teaching they somehow became hosts. I will agree that the guest-host fluidity appears in the Emmaus experience but I cannot see it as a characteristic of meals with Jesus through the rest of the Gospel record.

The argument against gate-keepers, tying into Jesus’ constant warnings about and injunctions against religious hypocrisy, proceeds from worthy motives but fails in its limited scope. CWOB proponents tend to argue hospitality from the pages of Luke-Acts. But Acts in particular presents an overly irenic picture of early Christian relationships. All of the inner-church struggles are resolved peaceably. No one leaves the Jerusalem Council mad; those who hold wrong beliefs are instructed and quickly see the errors of their ways. The letters of Paul and the Catholic Epistles—especially the Johannine Letters—tell a very different tale. Warnings against false teachers fill the pages of the New Testament. They do so not because of a desire to restrict or control God’s message of love and life, but because God’s message is not any generic message of love and life but has actual content to it! These authors understand the Church to be a covenant community, bound in Baptism, connected in Christ, and with covenants come responsibilities. These include both holding and enacting the basic beliefs of the Christian faith: Jesus is the Son of God who came in the flesh to announce the Kingdom of God and through whose death, resurrection, and ascension reconciled God and humanity. The insistence on Baptism is not about gate-keeping but rather about who we are as an intentional community—a covenant community.

Proponents of CWOB are correct to lift up practices of hospitality and to remind us of the Gospel’s call to share our possessions and our lives with others. Hospitality and the sharing of possessions with the stranger and the wanderer is a theme that runs throughout Scripture and is especially highlighted in the New Testament. Indeed, we are covenant-bound to offer hospitality and, if we follow the example of our God who showers gifts upon the just and unjust alike, this sharing of possessions should be extended without doctrinal tests or requirements.

However, the message of the Gospel is not simply a message of hospitality alone. Scripture also insists upon the reality and the responsibility of the covenant community. True Christian hospitality is a sharing of not merely of things or of time—as valuable as these are. Through these vehicles it is a sharing of what God has done for us, a sharing through both deeds and words, and an invitation for the stranger to remain a stranger no longer but to enter the covenant community through Baptism.

Derek Olsen is completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He is an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

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19 Responses to "In defense of the first sacrament"
  1. Jesus was about calling people back into community (or into community for the first time for some). But he ate with them while they were still sinners. They didn't have to do anything to get invited to sit at table with Jesus. My take on this is that we invite whoever wants to come. After they have shared the fellowship of the table, they may want to join the community. If we say, "You can't join us at table until you have filled X requirement," we are not following Jesus' example IMHO.

    Doug Spurlin

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  2. Doug, you give the basic strong argument in support of CWOB. But I'm not sure it can stand up in light of both the traditions of the Church from the very earliest, or the fact that Great Commission tells us to baptize, not to commune.

    It's occurred to me over the past few days of thinking about this, that some of the reason that people are coming down on different sides of this issue has to do with what they believe is happening in the reception of the bread and wine.

    I believe very much in the Real Presence. There is something fundamentally and profoundly different and sacred about the hosts at the end of the Eucharistic prayer.

    I see the sacrament of Holy Eucharist as something that Christ gave to his followers on Maundy Thursday. It is not the equivalent of any of the moments when Jesus ate with people prior to that night. In exactly the same way that the meal in the sanctuary is radically different than the meal in the parish hall. If we were refusing entrance to the potluck dinner based on a person's baptismal status, then you would have a point - we would not be following in the practice of our Lord.

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  3. Actually, Doug, my point is that the outcast already were part of the covenant community--they were just on the margins of it.

    If we were to play historical Jesus games--which I personally prefer not to and disagree with on both methodological and theological grounds--then it would seem clear that, according to the conventionally accepted criteria, there is *no* evidence that Jesus ate with Gentiles. Furthermore, it would seem to be in the interest of some of the gospel writers--Luke in particular--to mention it if he had. But there is no mention. The closest that we come is talk about eating with Gentiles (healing of the centurion's servant in Matt 8 and parallels and the Syro-Phoenician/Canaanite woman)--actual eating with them does not happen.

    I also agree with Fr. Knisley. I hold a very high eucharistic theology. That means many things but one of them is that both dominical sacraments (Eucharist and Baptism) are about who we are as a community.

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  4. Derek's point--part of the covenant community, points to Baptism first. Baptism is how we are brought into the covenant of grace in Christ which is at heart relationship with the Trinity (Richard Hooker).

    Just as God-fearers where participated in the synagogues in many ways, they were nonetheless not considered fully . Respected. Treated well. Offered teaching. But joining up and receiving full membership with all that entailed necessitated--at least for the men, the snip that meant in the flesh I chose to respond to this relationship God has offered and seek to fulfill my end of the covenant with God's help and the community's support and accountability.

    Personally, I think part of CWOB is misapplied guilt. Yes, Christians have done terrible things, though Christians have also done wonderful things. Because we've done terrible things we don't have a responsibility to ask anything of those who show up. That God's covenant with us contains no content--and certainly wouldn't in some sense if we move to ignore Baptism, which has so long contained Creed and renunciations. Would we expect Jews or Muslims to throw out circumcision or the recitation of the Shahada?

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  5. I share Mr. Olsen's convictions about the importance of catechism, but am unconvinced that Jesus wants us to set ourselves up as gatekeepers, making decisions on the basis of outward forms about who has or has not made an “adequate” act of commitment before admitting them to the table.

    I understand one might respond that undergoing baptism is simply a part of coming to the table. Actually, I agree. But, when someone who has not undergone outward, ritual baptism comes forward for communion, are we to turn them away? Would Jesus?

    In the pericope of the Syrophoenician woman/ Canaanite woman (Mk 7:24-30 // Mt 15:21-28), there is good reason to argue that the latter–who pointedly did not belong to the “community of Israel” in her contemporaries’ eyes–takes up the role of rabbi in a “rabbinal controversy” with Jesus, and wins. Jesus seems to bow to the force of her argument that she should not be excluded from the meal. Or, as she humbly–and pointedly–puts it, “Even the dogs are allowed to eat the crumbs that fall from the table.”

    Granted, her response may well allude to several scriptural passages, demonstrating her desire to embrace the stories shared by those “at the table.” But, ultimately, Jesus proved unwilling to exclude this woman from being fed on the basis of her not having undergone a specific ritual of induction. She wasn’t baptized–or ritually converted to Judaism–before Jesus conceded her argument, praised her faith, and stopped treating her as an outcast. He pointedly did not tell her (utlimately), “No, first undergo the mikvah, then you can be fed.”

    Are we to take it that, in Jesus’ eyes, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, but … well, of course, there is the outwardly baptized versus the non-baptized”?

    Even the ritual of baptism can become an idol, when we fail to distinguish between its physical, outward form and the underlying spiritual reality. This is not to say that baptism is somehow incidental. I don’t think Anglican proponents of “BWOC” are arguing that.

    There is a tension, though, between the conviction that God’s self-communication embraces the physical, as expressed in a paramount way in the sacraments, and the danger of completely confusing the “outward and visible form” with the “inward and spiritual reality.” If it is error to neglect the physical for a disembodied spirituality (gnosticism), is it it not equally misguided to make the spiritual completely dependent on a particular outward form (idolatry)?

    The Prayer of Humble Access is pertinent. In its Roman Catholic and several Orthodox variants, no distinction is made between “being fed” and “being healed.” Both occur through Communion with Christ. The Syrophoenician woman knows that; it’s why she speaks metaphorically of the healing she petitions Christ for as “being fed from the table.”

    The point of the Syrophoenician woman’s story seems to be that, at its culmination, Jesus is no longer willing to exclude her from that feeding. Derek’s argument seems to be “well, granted that she’s healed through some kind of spiritual communion, and Jesus acknowledges the greatness of her faith, but he certainly wouldn’t actually break bread with her if she hadn’t first gone through the ritual acts of joining the community.” Really? Wasn’t this the whole argument between Paul and the “Hebraicists” in Acts? Paul won that one.

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  6. Derek,

    Like you, I believe our sacramental practice matters a great deal to evangelism, to our theology and to the making of formational communities. So thank you for your persistent attention to scriptural and theological dimensions of practice and conversation about open communion.

    I see why you want to avoid speaking of 'open communion.' Clearly you don't mean to close communion. So 'open' implies a rhetorical judgment you don't want to grant to those of us who practice inviting all to communion.

    I also feel stymied for lack of better language to describe the practice. For the moment, I'm going to speak of 'inviting all to communion.' The phrase is longer than 'open communion' but at least I think it's a neutral description.

    Reading what you've written here, I have a similar problem with your use of 'CWOB' (communion without baptism) and your calling this a 'defense of the first sacrament.'

    Let's work to hold questions as questions.

    How is any communion practice 'open' and why does it matter?

    What is the first sacrament?

    When is an invitation to all to receive communion an attack on baptism?

    Part of my substantial disagreement with what you've written is that I don't think baptism is the first sacrament. John baptizes Jesus and the Gospels mark it as a turning point, but then Jesus shifts ground to find another prophetic sign and explicitly does not practice baptism of or with his disciples. I'd argue that the meal he keeps with unprepared sinners is Jesus' chosen prophetic sign and that he makes it the first sacrament.

    I think the Eucharist is not only the first sacrament but also the only dominical sacrament (unless we want to consider foot washing a sacrament). But saying that does not mean I want to see a church without baptism. I think baptism is the first apostolic sacrament. It comes to stand for Jesus' passion and resurrection and to allow the church to follow Jesus' reading of Isaiah - God's unconditional reconciling welcome - and take down another barrier, circumcision.

    The church, faithfully and doing its best to listen to the Spirit makes and remakes sacraments in every generation. That's what we see happening in the 'Council of Jerusalem' in Acts, the apostolic decision to deny sacramental status to circumcision.

    This contentious apostolic decision in Acts takes the church to new territory. There are hints of it in the Gospels. Is Jesus actually only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel? The bold retort of Syrophoenecian woman in Mark and Matthew points toward the apostolic decision that the Gospel is for all. Matthew and Mark have Jesus acknowledge the truth of her cutting, self-deprecating comeback to him, 'even the little dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table.' Does it matter that it's a meal image? Are the Gospel writers emphasizing something about who gets to share the sacred meal? I think possibly so, but the startling decsion-making is the apostolic community's acknowledgment in Acts that the Spirit was already bringing in the uncircumcised. This is the first instance, I think of them/us remaking sacraments.

    The work of the Spirit (pastoral experience of evangelism) and Jesus practice and teaching and the presence of the Risen Lord are what we, the church, appeal to in Acts and what we have appealed to throughout Christian history.

    It was only after seeing what was happening to unbaptized people receiving communion, (and they were receiving as a consequence of everyone gathering around the table and lay people administering to one another) that we at St. Gregory's put New Testament scholarship and liturgical practice together to make an explicit communion invitation to everyone. We concluded the practice honored the pattern of Jesus' prophetic sign of feasting with the unprepared, the unwashed and unworthy - his enactment of Isaiah's prophecy of the feast on the mountain. His gesture was meant to provoke and scandalize, and it's not just about hospitality (us welcoming them) but also about US as much as it is about the stranger.

    I am as uncomfortable as you are with unexamined liberal 'tolerance' that is unwilling to define a boundary. Inviting all to communion still has many thresholds to cross. Stranger and friend both enter the space and both come stand together at the table. We make an invitation that cuts against people's interpretations of us having a responsibility for ‘getting right with God.' We (stranger and friend) choose to receive. We (stranger and friend) choose to make community in part by returning to renew our taste of Jesus' reconciling presence at the table. Strangers and friends choose to become part of the one community in Christ. The stranger's and the community's choice to manifest God's work of reconciliation in baptism.

    We stumbled into it, bringing liturgical practice and Gospel interpretation together in a way we weren't looking for and didn't expect. But over twenty-five years of inviting all to receive, we have found it to be a powerful evangelical practice. People don't think it means nothing to receive. They ponder the invitation and their choice. They listen to preaching and to the community's telling the stories of God's work among us. They come to faith and Christian commitment from the experience the invitation begins.

    They (and we) speak of their experience of communion BEFORE baptism, because baptism remains an important part of the community's shaping of them and itself.

    Is the practice on attack on baptism and is baptism 'the first sacrament'? Some of what you and others (pro and con, critical and supporting) offer as arguments FOR inviting all to communion do sound like an attack on baptism, or at least a dismissal of it. I think there are a wide variety of arguments pro and con. We certainly believe that we're inviting people into a baptizing community when we offer an invitation to all to receive communion.

    But our best conversation demands acknowledging that there are a variety of arguments pro and con (and significant disagreements within groups advocating both pro and con.

    Twenty-five years experience of making an explicit invitation to all to receive communion is that people got the congregation's acknowledgment that NONE of us are worthy or prepared and that God's grace comes to us wholly without our readiness. In a community practicing invitation to all, we hear people telling conversion stories, experiences of the love of God stories, stories about how that invitation led to their baptism and a remaking of their lives.

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  7. I have listened carefully to both sides of the debate, here and elsewhere. I, too, believe in the Real Presence, which inclines me towards those practices and theological views that support that belief. Yet every time I read about this, I wonder why this has become a burning issue for some. Every time I go to a wedding or a funeral, for example, a great many people, often the majority, seem to go out of their way to avoid taking communion. I suspect that many are baptized. Nor do I see hordes of newcomers or visitors who come to church and would like to take communion but can’t because they haven’t been baptized. While the eucharist may be a great and holy mystery to many of us, for many of those on the “outside” it is off-putting, at best a peculiar practice only for the initiated and the committed.

    Maybe it is better to keep it that way, for all the good reasons Derek and others have mentioned. But despite all the carefully reasoned arguments, the thoughtful appeals to tradition, the light shed by scripture, something hits me as terribly wrong. I think it’s the notion that God only works or can be understood in a linear fashion – A comes before B comes before C, one being a condition precedent for the next. While we desperately want to believe in the efficacy and necessity of the first sacrament, the fact of the matter is that few, if any, have any recollection of our baptisms and that a growing number of us have little or no memory of instruction or help in our faith from parents, godparents, or the faith communities in which we were baptized.

    I don’t know who the proponents of CWOB are or what they hope to accomplish by it. I suspect that in most traditional church settings, good pastoring and lay care of unbaptized newcomers is the best approach, with no need to change the common, traditional understanding of what it means to be baptized and why that ordinarily should precede joining in the eucharist. But I wonder whether in a time when some bishops and priests speak publicly of using the altar rail as a gate against homosexuals and their supporters and against politicians whose positions are contrary to the party line, whether there might be room for at least experimenting with more relaxed, open, welcoming invitations to the Lord’s table. And I can imagine non-traditional places and settings where open communion might be the only practical way to reach people.

    I don’t pretend to have the answers to any of this. But I do offer my own story as a baptized Christian who nevertheless did not partake of the eucharist until I was 37 and already a member of a Lutheran church, where I had been attending for nearly a year. As a recovering secular humanist, I swore to myself up and down that I would never, never, never take communion, for odd and sundry reasons, but mostly because I had this lurking fear that if I did, there would be no going back, that I would someone lose all sense and reason and would become the kind of religious person I had been raised to believe was either dangerous or deluded or both.

    When I finally did go up, it was entirely spontaneous and, even then, with a good deal of fear and trembling. It was a life-altering moment, but one which I do not think I would have ever reached if someone had said I had needed special instructions, study, or had to take a particular vow to get there. I met Christ through the eucharist and He brought me from there to real Christian fellowship, participation and commitment to the community, as well as ongoing study, prayer, and education. Had I to do it the other way around I would have resisted, argued, and stayed mired in my struggles with philosophy and theology and my concern about all the evil that people do in the name of religion.

    I do not offer my experience as a rationale for suspending all the rules, for forsaking tradition or theology. But I do entreat all who are engaged in the discussion, especially those who have the power to uphold or modify the rules, to not forget the real, live human beings who are affected by their thinking and their decisions. When we try to understand and interpret God in complex, logically consistent sorts of ways we put ourselves in danger of seeing little more than our own webs of human reasoning. It may be that putting out the welcome and inviting all to the meal may be the most powerful witness we can make. And maybe God is perfectly ready and willing to let us come to Him in whatever sequence of events will bring us near.

    Kathryn Jensen

    P.S. I have only now read what Donald Schell has written. I find it most interesting that there may be ways to approach this issue without writing off baptism (which I think is the sticking point for many). And I very much appreciate hearing his experience with providing open communion, which happens to resonate with my own personal experience. I leave it to you scholars and theologians to carry on with that part of the conversation.

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  8. Nick,

    My biggest problem with your argument based on the Real Presence is that we are in a church that hasn't defined that for us. It leaves that decision up to each individual person. You see it that way and I don't, and I have no problem with that. I also am not advocating getting rid of baptism. I just don't want to be the one to make a decision that keeps someone from feeling welcome in our community, which might (or, of course, might not) lead to that person finding what they are looking for. I also find the open commensality of Jesus to be sacramental, whether it reaches the level of the institution of Maundy Thursday or not. Especially for those who were admittedly on the outskirts of Jewish society, many of whom could not physically or economically do anything about their exclusion from the center, this must have been a revelation. And, I believe that it was this open commensality above and beyond anything else, that lead to the death of Jesus. I would hate to be the gate keeper, even as I would sincerely hope that each person that comes to the Eucharist also comes to Baptism.

    Doug Sprulin

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  9. Just got back to the computer--I'll try and address some of the thoughts here in order.


    In response to a very similar comment you left over at haligweorc I mentioned that I thought you had some slippage between how you were using "historical Jesus" material and "kerygmatic Jesus" material. I'll unpack here a little of what I mean. Yes, I agree that Jesus shows inclusionary behavior towards the Syro-Phoenican woman (and the centurion who you don't mention but who I'll throw in for kicks...). These traditions were important for Mark and Matthew to use precisely because of the issue you point to in Acts--who constitutes the *new* covenant community? Clearly the Jewish folks do. What about the Gentiles? Do they have to become Jews before they can be allowed to become Christians? That is, do they have to enter the community of the *old covenant* before they can transition to the community of the *new covenant*. The group that won and from whom we recieve our traditions and bibles were the group that said Gentiles could pass directly into the community of the new covenant through baptism. these two pericopes (the S-P woman & the centurion) certain help advance that winning belief. So--clarify for me how this relates to Communion for the unbaptized...

    Fr. Schell,

    I specifically avoid the term "open communion" as I was raised Lutheran; particularly in regards to the table fellowship practices of the Missouri Synod "open" and "closed" mean something entirely different from baptized or not. Hence, I prefer to use the language of "Communion without Baptism".

    As far as the term "first sacrament" goes: I'm as puzzled as you---the editor titled my text... 😀 That having been said, if you asked me, I *would* say that Baptism is the first sacrament in terms of formation and the theological logic of which I spoke here. An invitation to all is an attack on Baptism when it makes the reception of the Eucharist a fundamentally individualistic source of spiritual satisfaction. Neither Baptism nor Eucharist are fundamentally about individuals--they are about communties, about the Community, the Body of Christ, and when we lose sight of that perspective we erode our understandings of both sacraments.

    The question of Jesus and the disciples baptizing is certainly an interesting one. Of the first three gospels, Matthew and Mark have Jesus taking up the very message that John proclaimed (Mt 4:17|Mk 1:14-15). So what are we to make of this--that he just borrowed John's tag line or that he carried on John's ministry--baptisms and all? The texts are, in fact, *not* explicit and don't tell us one way or the other (and as much as we like to push the Baptizer out of the way after the first couple of chapters Jesus doesn't--note especially his key zinger when his authority was questioned in Mt 21:23-27|Mk 11:27-33|Luke 20:1-8...). In John, we have the notice of a baptism controversy in 4:1-2. You're quite right--here John is explict: Jesus is not baptizing--but his disciples are. So, John certainly knew of traditions of the followers of Jesus being baptized even in the early stages of the ministry of Jesus.

    I'll agree with you that the Church engages in a wide variety of sacramental actions in every generation and that these differ from one another. I will disagree that the Church "remakes sacraments in every generation" if remake means to reinvent or to create new ones.

    There is a shift away from the lost sheep of the house of Israel without a doubt. The text states in a number of places and we believe that a new covenant was made (leaving aside entirely the issue of what happened to the old covenant and its community). Thus, Jesus and his followers birthed a new covenant community which was entered neither through birth nor circumcision but by water and the Spirit.

    What is your view of Eucharist, Father? Do you believe that it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ or are these metaphors? Do you hold the divine in your hand when you offer the sacrament? Is there *power* there--and if so, what sort? Is preparation--or at least a warning--in order before receiving?

    As I've said before I have I have a great deal of respect for your parish and its ministry even though I do not agree with your stand on this issue.


    Thank you for your witness. I do believe that God's grace works both in and outside of the sacraments and is not confined in a linear, mechanistic fashion. That having been said, what makes this a burning issue for me is the issue of formation and normative practice. Speaking broadly, our Anglican and pre-Anglican spiritual paths (indeed, our common Lutheran one too...) have insisted on the procession from Baptism to Eucharist. This isn't because the Eucharist won't "work" if not preceded by Bptism but, as I've said above, these sacraments are about hpw individuals grow into the community that is the Body of Christ. Yes, some of our Roman brothers are speaking more loudly about using the altar rail as a public political tool, but I don't think that a knee-jerk reaction in the opposite direction is the answer.

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  10. Fr. Schell,

    One additional clarification that addresses Kathryn's query as to why this is a burning issue: When is an invitation to all to receive communion an attack on baptism? When it encourages cheap grace.

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  11. Derek, I've been mulling over both your post, and the title (and I, too, have had a post where the title given is not exactly what I would have chosen. Perhaps I need to simply suggest one....).

    Specifically, I've been thinking of Baptism and Eucharist in light of the image of the Church, the Body of Christ, as ur sacramentum, the "first sacrament." In that model, arguably it is entirely appropriate that the Body should make some determination of what is normative in the life of the Body. This is not to say, as you note, that exceptions are inefficacious or damnable (metaphorically, much less literally). It is only to establish norms for the community.

    Marshall Scott

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  12. I think my thoughts on the communion issue are well enough known here not to require rehearsal...but this is something I wrote a little bit ago in regard to Bishop Alexander's comments on the purpose of seminary worship on the occasion of his visit to none other than Seabury-Western.

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  13. Oh--as for the celiac disease thing and crumbly gluten-free bread... My brother has celiac and it really is hard to get *anything* that'll stay together and remain in the bread family. IMO the best way to proceed is to note that the church has always taught that the Body and Blood of our Lord are present under *both* forms of the sacrament--so he just takes the wine.

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  14. Derek,

    I agree with you focusing our theology of Eucharist and Baptism on the community as you have here:

    “An invitation to all is an attack on Baptism when it makes the reception of the Eucharist a fundamentally individualistic source of spiritual satisfaction. Neither Baptism nor Eucharist are fundamentally about individuals--they are about communities, about the Community, the Body of Christ, and when we lose sight of that perspective we erode our understandings of both sacraments.”

    So I believe inviting all to communion matters because of how it shapes the Eucharistic community into the Feast of God’s promise and living presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus for our world.

    And on baptism I’d say that since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, one strand of our conversation about baptism has focused us away from the baptizing community and toward an individual’s act of making promises as though that were the substance of baptism.

    I note the difference between Luther’s reminding himself as he faced spiritual trials, ‘I have been baptized,’ and preachers and others today exhorting us to remember ‘our baptismal covenant,’ and I see a shift from what God and the community did to and for me when the church baptized me to what ‘I did’ making a promise. I think that is atomizing, individualistic and so distorting.

    Promises, in fact, have been making their way into the churches sacraments from early, early times, and their continuing and elaborated presence over 1500 years parallels the slow birth of individualism in our culture. We gained and lost something as Western culture discovered the value of the individual. You and I share that concern.

    Wedding vows and ordinations vows are the earliest instances of promises appearing and taking on a defining or essential role when they were not there originally in either the sacrament of marriage or of ordination.

    The marrying community in Judaism and in the early liturgical use at least in the Eastern Church was clearly blessing a relationship. That’s the consistent form of the sacrament and makes sense of why those early marriage liturgies had no vows.

    And as we read stories from the early centuries of churches making priests and bishops against their will, forcibly ‘calling’ and ordaining people who fled and had to be captured and constrained to be ordained, so strongly did they feel themselves called to solitary monastic life rather than ecclesial leadership, it’s clear that the church’s discerning someone was a leader and ordaining them was all that was required for the sacrament. The community praying God’s blessing, not the vows of the ordinand, was the original and entire substance of ordination.

    The medieval breaking off of confirmation from baptism and making it a ‘personal commitment’ and ‘completion of baptism’ is another step in that direction, promises, ‘personal faith,’ and the creation of a individualized, personal sacrament. The logic that began to demand a personal declaration of faith in a separate rite confirmation now focuses on promises made at baptism and the necessity of reaffirming those promises as an adult and regularly thereafter. Is this part of the same baptism Luther clung to? I’d say it’s both yes and no. God continues to do what God will with us. But we’re remaking the sacrament for our own purposes too. Luther takes comfort in the church’s act and an unshakeably faithful God. Personally I trust God’s faithfulness a lot more than my promise.

    I want to describe Eucharist as the first sacrament arguing that it is the one sacrament we can solidly argue was instituted by Jesus (though we have remade its form generation after generation). I also acknowledge, welcome and take seriously the others – however many we count that the church has made and remade over the last two millennia. I think this remaking is legitimate because it is inevitable. Having the mind of Christ, listening to the Spirit, and also listening to our own minds and spirits and the spirit of the age, we do our best to do as God has invited and commanded us. We shape and reshape, and God continues to be present and bless.

    You ask whether I believe Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. Yes, I do. But before that I believe and read ‘the Body’ refers to the Eucharist-making community. And I think it’s solid exegesis to read that St. Paul’s concern for people eating and drinking without discerning the Body refers to eating and drinking but failing to discern the presence of Christ in the community. So I think the ‘who are we?’ question comes before and contains the ‘what are we receiving?’ question.

    The Didache’s Eucharistic prayer, our earliest record of what the church prayed for in Eucharist, prays for the gathering and making one of the church and doesn’t have prayers for the making or revealing of the Body and Blood of Christ in bread and wine. Godfrey Diekmann OSB argued that the earliest use of the words, ‘This is my body,’ and ‘this is my blood’ was as words of administration.

    I draw on Luther and Gregory of Nyssa to fit all this together.

    As I learned it in seminary, Luther taught the Presence of Christ (because of his understanding of the Ascension and ‘The Right Hand of God’) filled all things, so that the Eucharist reveals in Bread and Wine what God has made and is making present everywhere.

    And a millennium and a bit before that, Gregory taught that the Body of Christ was all of humanity. Like Luther’s understanding of Ascension/Presence this ‘all of humanity’ far from evident in day-to-day life. But what I believe happens in Eucharist is the startling revelation of God’s work making us one and revealing us and all as Christ’s body. Of course we’ll want to prepare for that and open ourselves to it if we know it’s coming. But whether we make an effort to prepare or not, this work of God is so much larger than our preparation that it will inevitably surprise us, engulf me, and knock us over in its embrace. And that’s why conversion happens (plenty of stories here) as unbelieving people accept Jesus’ invitation to his table and both receive and become part of his body. God’s grace doesn’t wait for our being prepared and won’t be constrained by it. Again, I offer the father’s welcome to the returning prodigal son. In the end the boy’s efforts to prepare and offer his speech of penitence only look like a feeble and needless manipulation as the father brushes protest aside in an outrageous outpouring of unconditional love.

    Do we receive the Body and Blood of Christ into our own bodies in Eucharist? Yes. And even more disturbingly and wonderfully, we find ourselves to be his body as we receive.



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  15. Derek, I think some of the confusion comes from the fact that I approach the scriptures with as much emphasis on on their nature as canonical literature as on their nature as historical documents. I do not reject their use as historical documents, but am unwilling to limit their meaning to just the conclusions a historian might draw.

    When you refer to "'kerygmatic Jesus' material," I take it you have in mind the methodology and results of form and tradition criticism (correct me if I'm wrong). Like you, I'm perfectly willing to draw on those methods in interpreting the Syrophoenician pericope (Mt 15:21-28 // Mk 7:24-30) in reference to that of the Centurion (Mt 8:5-13), and both in reference to the ecclesiastic controversy narrated in Acts over what is required for Gentiles to participate in the New Covenant (11:1-18).

    But, I'm no more inclined to limit the implications of the text to the historical conclusions drawn by tradition critics than to those of the "historical Jesus" exegetes. In both approaches, there is a tendency among their practioners to want to move "outside the text" to extratextual facts which are then--and here's where I have a problem with the method--taken to be the "real" meaning of the text, in a limiting way.

    Thus, you move from the periocopes in question to the early ecclesiastic controversy which may well have motivated them. (Which is fine.) Then, you imply that, within the social mileu dealing with that controversy and out of which these texts emerged, baptism was a sine qua non of admission to the New Covenant, and you seem to conclude that, therefore, none of these texts could properly be read in defense of admitting a non-baptized person to table fellowship.

    But, at this point, you've moved from reading the text in light of speculations about its social origins, to subordinating the text to those ideas. In fact, these three three texts have little to say about baptism, though in the passage from Acts, at least, there are textual reasons for rejecting the notion that ritual, physical baptism is being assumed to be a sine qua non for participation in the New Covenant (v. 16: "And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, 'John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'")

    You are, of course, right that none of these pericopes argues literally and explicity either for or against excluding from table fellowship those who have not undergone ritual baptism. But, they do argue against one particular set of exclusionary criteria (i.e., only Jews, or those who've undergone ritual conversion to Judaism, need apply).

    It seems to me perfectly valid to generalize on this in favor of an argument against imposing ritual prerequisites to admission to the table. (Indeed, we have to generalize on the Scriptures; if these pericopes are only about a long-resolved ecclesiastic controversy, with no contemporary application to be drawn, then why do we still read them, pray with them, and use them in preaching?)

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  16. Anyone prepared to tolerate a major about-face?

    I really appreciate the opportunity to engage in this conversation, and to have the thinking on both sides challenged. In thinking through my responses, I'm beginning to understand that, while there may be real problems with statements prior to Communion such as "all who are baptized are invited to receive," there may be equally weighty reasons to avoid severing the link between baptism and communion.

    Perhaps the problem lies in the dissociation that has already occurred between baptism and catechism, something Derek has suggested, I believe.

    On Derek's blog, Jon suggested that "it doesn’t hurt anyone to officially restrict communion to the baptized."

    I guess it depends on how it's handled. It could do injury to the propogation of the gospel, if it were expressed in a manner that allowed it to be received as subordinating faith to a legalistic imposition, or as fostering a distinction between those "worthy to receive" versus those "unworthy."

    When I participated in the Orthodox Church, I sensed that that misunderstanding is and has been, at least in some times and places, widely shared.

    On the other hand, I have to concede that, if the invitation to communion were offered in such a way that it downplayed its significance as an act of faith, or misrepresented it as an individualistic decision and act, that might be equally misrepresentative of the gospel.

    But then, a policy of demanding prior, phsycal baptism, divorced from the process of catechesis, is not itself a guarantee against such de-emphasis and misrepresentation.

    Derek has at least hinted (or maybe more than hinted; I haven't read all the prior posts), that the answer to avoiding a legalistic approach to baptism lies in restoring it to the catechetical process.

    My first reaction to that was, What are we then to make of infant baptism? In baptizing infants, do we not implicitly reject the notion that communion of faith can be reduced to having "passed a test" concerning particular propositions, doctrines, convictions, traditions, etc.?

    Perhaps the answer lies in clarifying that catechesis is not the same as learning a set of propositions; that it's more than "book learning." We baptize infants as an act of faith that they, having been recognized as part of, and received into, the community of faith, will continue to grow in it. Of course, there's no guarantee, and we accept that, as an act of faith.

    So, why should our faith prevail then, but balk when someone not ritually baptized comes forward in response to the call to partake in the communion of Christ?

    I think the objection arises from the gut feeling that that call might often be made in such a way that those who respond to it might easily misconstrue what they're doing, or do it out of superficial conformity, and without any structure for fostering their continued involvement with the community as a means of providing them with the opportunity to grow in the faith (as is the case with infant baptism, where the family is at least supposed to agree to raise the child in Christian community).

    Perhaps the answer lies in re-emphasizing the responsibilities undertaking by parents when they seek to have a child baptized.

    Preparation for baptism, it might be argued, is at least supposed to afford time for adequate reflection on what one is undertaking than can be the case in the brief span of a single liturgy.

    Still, I think the church would do well to clarify for others its motives in not encouraging the unbaptized to partake. Perhaps openly inviting all present to receive at a given moment is not the way to go. But, I think the folks advocating it are presenting a useful challenge to the church: We need to find a way to offer communion to all, while emphasizing that the act of self-dedication involved is not trivial, and that the path to communion involves more than just walking down the aisle.

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  17. Donald and Marvin,

    Thank you for the care, attention to detail and deep thought in these comments. As Marvin so rightly points out, it is valuable to get some of these thoughts out in the open to have an honest and engaged discussion on the issue. After all, that's the reason I've been posting these--not to beat anyone over the head or to insist that I'm right and they're wrong but to make an impassioned but sincere presentation of why it matters what we do in regard to the Eucharist and Baptismal ststus.

    Marvin, catechesis before baptism is essential for either those about to be baptized or, in the case of infants, their parents. *Furthermore,* mystagogy after baptism is also equally important to help people draw connections up to the surface, to live into their baptismal covenant, to live into their baptismal community which--ultimately--is the very Body (and Blood) of Christ.

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