by Andee Zetterbaum
Just in time for Pentecost, the new banner went up. Made by an extraordinarily talented fabric artist, it showed a streak of light swooping down to Earth: the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Or so we all thought.
It took a 10-year-old boy to correct us. “Isn’t it great,” he said, “that our God is powerful enough to swat away that comet that’s about to destroy the Earth?”
It’s been nearly 20 years since this incident, but I’ve been thinking about it – a lot – as I read the various postings about the pros and cons of welcoming the baptized and unbaptized alike to the communion table.
You see, I think we’re discussing this with the wrong people.
In the times and places (even now) where Christian worship had to be held secretly, for safety … in the times when newcomers weren’t even allowed to witness the sacred mystery until they were baptized … in the thousands and thousands of villages over the ages where the population was so homogeneous that non-Christians in church were almost as unlikely as unicorns … in all those times and places, the Church had the luxury of being able to define the theology of baptism and communion. The Church – those inside the faith – could decide what baptism and communion are supposed to mean, confident that they would have the opportunity to instruct all into these meanings – before they ever witnessed the sacraments.
We no longer have that luxury.
We lost the ability to define the theology of communion the moment churches started publicly inviting people to come in. The Church didn’t plan to lose the right to be the one to define this, but we did – by the very presence of our public buildings, our signs, ads, blogs, and campaigns urging members to bring a friend.
The overwhelming majority of our unbaptized church visitors will never cross the threshhold of this particular church ever again. They are the relatives and friends of the bride and groom, the mourners at a funeral, occasionally the friends and relatives of one who is about to be baptized. A few are the unchurched or anti-church or other-faithed relatives of our members, who may come a couple of times a year, at best.
You won’t find most of them joining your next inquirers’ class, or spending weeks learning about the Scripture, tradition and reason that led us to require (or not require) baptism as a prerequisite to communion. They won’t care what General Convention decides the canons should be. They won’t tell you how glad they were that they waited to receive communion until after baptism and how deeply meaningful that was to them; nor will they relate the story about how taking communion, even though unbaptized, gave them the joy and strength to embark on the voyage that led to their eventual baptism.
Instead, for them, the theology of communion will be decided, on the spot, by the gut-level reaction of each visitor who witnesses it. Their desire to know God-in-Christ in community may be stirred up – or utterly destroyed – by that moment.
And that takes this discussion to a whole different level. The question we need to be asking isn’t what SHOULD the theology of baptism and communion be, it’s what is the PERCEIVED theology by the outsider who is present at our worship. And the people who need to be involved in that discussion are:
The 8-year-old who comes to church with her best friend after a sleepover
The grandchildren who are only here twice a year when they are visiting their grandparents
The 11-year-old who often comes with his grandmother and has been leaving love notes to Jesus on the altar since he was first old enough to write, but whose parents won’t allow him to be baptized until he turns 18
The teen who is clearly uncomfortable being here, but wants to be with her boyfriend
The anti-church spouse
The Muslim grandmother from another country who is here for her grandson’s baptism
The Jewish son-in-law who comes with the family on Christmas
The ‘spiritual but not religious’ 20-something who has moved back in with his parents after college, and only comes to church on Easter to keep the family peace
The homeless person who wanders in off the street
Those who come to share with and honor their loved ones at weddings and funerals
What do our communion practices say to them about the nature of the God we worship? What does God say to them, through the way we share communion?
Does God say the same thing through the way we celebrate communion to the unbaptized who are present at a Eucharist in memory of those who died of AIDS, or violence, or the latest war or natural disaster? If the Eucharist is held in a federal prison, or nursing home, under the bridge at the homeless encampment, or among the migrant workers during the annual blessing of the fields and forthcoming harvest?
Because, you see, I think God has cherished and adored all these persons since before they were born. Has been in relationship with them, all along. And is longing to be closer to them, speaking to them through our worship, even if they only once step through our doors.
And before we make a decision about whether God wants us to change the relationship between baptism and communion, I think it’s time for us to listen in – and honor – and then with deep awe, join in that conversation.
Andee Zetterbaum is a member of St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Lodi, CA, Diocese of San Joaquin, Founder of World In Prayer, a few years ago she taught an online course through CALL on “Meeting the God We Worship”– how exploring perceived theology among members and visitors can help ease worship wars.