The Rev. Matthew Gunter (intotheexpectation.blogspot.com), rector of St. Barnabas’ Church, Glen Ellyn, Ill, recently wrote this article for The Living Church. It addresses the issues surrounding the practice of reserving Eucharist for only baptized Christians.
Elizabeth Newman identifies “a pervasive feature of late modernity: a gnawing homelessness, a lack of a sense of place. If we are truly to envision and embody a faithful hospitality, we must see how deeply our current understanding and experience of ‘home’ and ‘place’ have up to now prevented us from living a profound hospitality” (Untamed Hospitality, p. 34).
This is particularly true in contemporary America where our hyper mobility means few of us live in the communities in which we were raised, surrounded by and connected to family and neighbors with whom we have long history and a sense of place characterized by particular customs and traditions. Absent that sense of place, we are reduced to detached individuals roaming context-less space as tourists and consumers. The public space of the shopping mall is the clearest manifestation of this condition, but it is pervasive.
If we are not careful, our worship will reflect and reinforce that formation and that training. And then we
will be unable to offer Christian hospitality, a practice that relies on a sense of place, a shared tradition, one in which we are not strangers in the universe (or to each other) but part of God’s good creation, created so that God might love us and so that we might in return love God, each other, the stranger, and even the enemy (Newman, p. 44).
In such an environment, what does our practice of Eucharist signify? Inviting anyone to participate wherever they are on their spiritual journey reinforces the ideology of the individual as consumer. It signifies that a church is like other public spaces where individual consumers go to satisfy a felt need. The church is then like a sort of religious restaurant with spiritual food on the menu catering to individual customers who come and go through its public space. Is this costly, or “radical”?
Far better to communicate to newcomers that here is a place where people belong to one another and to God, who gives them an identity as members of a diverse body with many members, “made” in baptism and Eucharist. Accordingly, the Church promises, after Jesus’ own pledge, that he will be present as Redeemer and Judge in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
To reserve the Eucharist for those who are baptized does not limit God. As Luther insisted, Jesus — risen and ascended — is present everywhere and can surprise us in our cabbage soup, if he so desires. Indeed, I agree with Sara Miles, in her book Take This Bread, that God has so surprised even the occasional unbaptized eucharistic communicant. We need not try to protect the purity of the Eucharist.
The discipline of reserving the Eucharist for those already baptized is, however, about maintaining the very boundaries of identity that make a place in which to be formed as a community that can properly practice hospitality. And it is about being honest about who we are called to be as members of Christ’s body, and respectful of the real otherness of those who are not yet committed to the loyalties of such a communion.
The body of Christ is a eucharistic community with all that that entails; and we are baptized into Eucharist.