Inviting and Fencing

Since my first conversation about writing for this blog, I’ve wondered what to write as my first post and how to introduce myself.  Some of you know me, others of you don’t.  Some of you like me (or would if you knew me); others of you don’t (or probably wouldn’t if you got to know me).  Those are pretty basic realities, aren’t they?  They’re pretty much true for anyone.

On a more personal note: my name is Tim – online I often go by “teejtc.”  I’m the father of two daughters, husband of one wife, pastor of an average-sized congregation, knitter, home-coffee-roaster, and bicycle-rider.    I have a deep love of the scriptures and the sacraments and a particular interest in the ways the human animal needs ritual and plays out that need in daily life and communal liturgy.  (For the record, although I have fairly specific personal preferences, I define liturgy very broadly!)

I originally planned on writing something related to Mercersburg (another interest of mine).  Perhaps I’ll save that for another day.  Today, I’d like to invite you to a conversation on the concept of inviting people to the table and “fencing” it.  Many communion liturgies have both an invitation and a “fencing” – some people are specifically welcomed, others are specifically un-welcomed.

In my denomination (the Reformed Church in America), the invitation tends to be broad and the fencing weak (or nonexistent).  Our Book of Church Order (BCO) states that “all baptized Christians present who are admitted to the Lord’s Supper are to be invited to participate” (1.I.2.11.a).  Unusually, for us, there is not an official “invitation” to use as a guide so specific words spoken in worship vary from congregation to congregation.   Some emphasize the “all;” others focus on the word “baptized;” still others place a primary emphasis on the words “who are admitted [by the Board of Elders].”

Why does it matter?  For several reasons.

First, it matters because the sacrament matters.  There are a variety of beliefs as to what “happens” during the table-sacrament (Communion, Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, etc.)  We can discuss that some other time.  For now, let’s just agree that “something” happens.   In the Emmaus story, we read that the risen Jesus “had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  They had walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, had the scriptures explained by Jesus, but he was “made know to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:35) – something happened – something amazing.

Similarly, 1 Corinthians 11:28-30 says “examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.  For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”  Whatever else that suggests, clearly something happens – something not to be trifled with. 

The table sacrament, apparently, has great potential to affect people positively and negatively.  From this perspective – it is important that people be invited to the positive and, perhaps even, protected from the negative.

Secondly, it’s worth noting that there is a difference between policy (doctrine, polity, dogma) and practice.  For example, a congregation may have a policy that doesn’t allow a particular group (i.e. children or “outsiders”) to participate, but if they distribute the elements by passing trays down the aisle, it doesn’t practically matter – anyone can partake if they want to.  Similarly, there is a psycho-social aspect to this – some people will partake even if they’re not officially “allowed” to (especially if “everyone else is doing it”), others will not even if they’ve been “invited.”

Finally, I believe it’s possible for both invitation and fencing to be gracious and life-giving, if done correctly (although I’ll admit that they have not always been used that way!)  When I’m an outsider in a situation, sometimes it’s helpful to be told that “I’m invited” other times it’s equally-as-helpful to know that non-participation is both appropriate and preferred (hopefully in a non-judgmental, but honest, way). Put bluntly, an invitation tells me that it’s appropriate for me to participate, and that even if I don’t fully understand, I will be safe and will not be put in a situation I’ll later regret.   A fencing helps prevent me from doing something that (1) I might not actually want to do, (2) could engage me in something I’ll later wish I hadn’t done (or I’m not currently prepared for), (3) could give the impression that I believe something I don’t (which may challenge my integrity personal – and in the eyes of others).

All of which is a long way of preparing to ask:

  • What do you think?
  • What do you (individual/congregation/denomination/etc.) do?
  • What would you do, if you could do whatever you wanted?
  • Can you see invitation and fencing as potentially positive, or have the salutary aspects of fencing been spoiled in an egalitarian and seeker-sensitive-influenced society?

Thanks for your time and thoughts!

Grace and peace,



30 thoughts on “Inviting and Fencing

  1. Not surprisingly, a fascinating read…thank you. Two things I enjoyed about reading this. First, I got to know you better. I didn’t fully understand your passion as you described with, “I have a deep love of the scriptures and the sacraments and a particular interest in the ways the human animal needs ritual and plays out that need in daily life and communal liturgy.” Clearly, I had inferred your passion, but it was nice to read specifically what you find so appealing.

    Second, having grown up in the Catholic faith, it was clear to those raised in the faith who was invited and who was fenced from the Eucharist, but when celebrating (and I define “celebrating” very broadly) a mass where non-Catholics were present (usually weddings and funerals), the Eucharist was always an uncomfortable part of the mass when handled poorly by the priest. Most recently, at a funeral, the priest handled it in a very clear and matter-of-fact way, and I think everyone (including those fenced out) felt comfortable, knowing what was expected.

  2. Thanks Joe, I always run directly into this when I’m at Catholic churches as well – especially at funerals. It’s tough – some priests are openly welcoming to protestants, others are very strict about the rules. I’ve taken to never going up at Catholic churches (not because I’m so against Catholic theology of the table – I’m probably closer to that than what’s practiced in many protestant churches) but because I don’t want to put the priest in the awkward position and I don’t want to confuse the people I’m with (the Catholic position is pretty well known).

    How it’s done is so important, isn’t it?!

  3. Thank you, Tim, for your thoughts. I always enjoy reading your pieces, and I like the clarity you often bring to a subject.

    It concerns me deeply when those who have no understanding, participate in something that can make such a statement of what they believe and endorse… particularly in light of the 1 Cor. admonition.

    In our Reformed Church on an Indian Reservation, we try to provide instruction with the liturgy that clearly invites those who don’t believe or can’t yet understand (young children) to abstain from participation. Since we normally serve everyone at the front of the sanctuary, it is not difficult to remain in one’s seat, but unfortunately, (in my opinion) there are those who believe they are entitled to partake (along with their small, rowdy children) perhaps because of who they are or because they have been baptized, even if there appears to be no other connection to the church in recent history.

    So, practically, since we don’t wish to fight the battles of embarrassment, misinformation, and alienation, we allow the table to be profaned. I suppose we take a bit of comfort in the idea that, since we clearly stated the options in the instructions, those who appear to be disregarding the “right” choice have made their argument directly with God Himself.

  4. The idea of “profaning the table” is an interesting one to me. I used to “believe in it.” I’m not convinced I do any longer. Perhaps we’ll get more discussion about that here.

    My sense is that Jesus’ “invitational approach” doesn’t necessarily help here. The sacrament is a different thing than the tables and situations Jesus was generally involved with. (The Last Supper is an interesting proof-text – I think not helpful – Emmaus is better, but not particularly applicable.) The Belgic Confession (Art. 35) gets close to that concept, but not as a primary theme – it’s more an introduction to the condemnations at the end of the article. Even the Heidelberg Catechism in one of it’s most difficult Q/As (80) approaches the concept as a type of Idolatry. Having said that, the concept could be argued from Q/A 82.

    My sense of fencing is that it has more to do with the well-being of the individual(s) involved than the table itself.

    Of course, I’m in a church that does practically no fencing (policy-wise… we serve in the pews, so there’s no practical fencing either). That said, we welcome children with the understanding that, in the grand scheme of things, they, too, are part of the church and are welcome at the “family table.” Indeed, most of them probably understand as much about the sacrament as most adults….

    It touches on a concept that maybe should be my next post (which, for the record, I know you weren’t implying): the idea that God needs to be protected. I see the idea “hidden behind” a lot of what I’d call “hyper-evangelical” behavior. In short: I figure that any God who needs my protection isn’t worth my worship…. But again, different topic for a different day!

  5. I grew up attending a variety of different churches. In two of the churches, the Corinthians passage you mentioned above was used in conjunction with the words of institution. I need to do deeper digging into the original wording in order to form a stronger opinion, but the translation I grew up with said “examine yourself first, or eat and drink condemnation on yourself.” Wowza! Really?! What does it mean to discern the body? Is that a corporate act in which the entire congregation refrains from the Lord’s Supper until amends are made? Or is that a personal act?

    I struggle with fencing…a lot. I’m not totally open because I grew up having the fear of condemnation beaten into me, but I have a hard time believing that my role (or the role of the elders) is to discern who in my congregation is ready to receive the sacrament. As I’m typing this now, I’m thinking of the fact that even Judas ate that final meal with Jesus, even as Jesus knew the condition of Judas’ heart. Lots of great thoughts in this post, and now I’ll have to contemplate some more! 🙂

    1. Whoa, totally interesting thought about Judas, April. Never even thought about that point of him being “allowed” (?) to have that final meal with Jesus….

  6. April – I “get” the struggle. It seems to me that part of it comes back to the sense that fencing seems “unfair” (don’t worry, I know that’s not what you said!) 🙂

    To me, the question we need to ask before that, though, is whether or not anything significant happens in the sacrament. (Not so much WHAT, but WHETHER. If not… ie: if it’s a mere memorial, than there’s no good reason to fence!) If something significant DOES happen (and, indeed, it has both positive or negative potential), than it’s not so much a question of whether it’s “fair” but what ensures that the sacrament, when celebrated, is “beneficial” and no one is harmed. (I’m reminded of Uzzah, who touched the ark – IN GOOD FAITH – and still got struck down.)

    Several people have mentioned the Judas thing to me recently. To that, I’d say that the Last Supper was not the sacrament (so, the Emmaus dinner is the first “Sacramental” celebration.)

  7. Tim, I would like you to say more about how the Last Supper was not the Sacrament. I don’t think I agree, but I am very interested to see where you are coming from.

  8. I’m interested in the distinction, too 🙂 I’d love to hear more on that!

    I agree with you that if NOTHING happens and it is a mere memorial, there should be no fencing. And yet, apart from the Catholic Church’s very tight fencing, I think many churches that view the supper as a memorial fence MORE than those who believe some kind of spiritual something happens. I think it is also important to consider not only whether something happens but also *how* it happens. Does it happen through our faith? Does it happen through the words of institution? Does that make the words somehow like hocus pocus? It’s all very mysterious.

  9. James,

    I’ll admit, I’m still working on it (don’t blame anyone else for this one!)

    Here’s where I’m at: The Last Supper may have been a Passover celebration (I’m willing to go there, although my theory doesn’t depend on it) – which would make it an anamnetic re-enactment of the first passover. It didn’t just bring the “memory” of the original passover forward (memoralistically) rather, it included (if, indeed, that’s what it was) a virtual re-enactment of the original. The power of the Passover is in the re-experience of the original reality. (The original Passover, was the event that the later Passover-celebrations brought forward.)

    The passover connection is tangential to this, though…

    Whether or not it was a Passover celebration, it WAS the “last supper,” Jesus was present and engaged in the whole event (footwashing, dinner, etc.) – which we now anamnetically re-enact (at least the dinner part – the footwashing, perhaps a bit less). I’d suggest that our contemporary experience of the sacrament (i.e. Emmaus table) pulls the “last supper” forward into the present in the re-engagement of the original. (Not a “new” event, but one that finds it’s power in the first one.) My sense is that the “what” of the sacrament is the revelation of Christ’s true presence and that the difference between Emmaus and the Last Supper is the difference between the original and the anamnesis of it.

    So, my argument is that the original wasn’t a sacrament because the primary purpose of the sacrament is to bring forward the original and make Christ present in a way that was fundamentally unnecessary in the original (and, perhaps impossible since Jesus true, risen presence wasn’t chronologically possible.). (Also, the revelation of Christ’s true presence didn’t, apparently, happen in the original.)

    Anyhow, I’m still working on it…. Thoughts appreciated! 🙂

    1. I appreciate this distinction, Tim, and thinks that it speaks to certain aspects of the Eucharist. Here is where I get stuck: at the Last Supper, Jesus said “This is my body” and “Do this in re-membrance (anamnesis) of me.” Jesus did not say “When you do this, this will be my body,” or “Imagine this is like my body,” nor did he say “Do something like this to re-member me in the future.”

      Obviously, to some extent, Jesus is speaking metaphorically–or in what we would consider metaphor. Some of it might be explained by a modern, non-linear-time understanding of things. But the story is that he said it, and said it that way. Therefore, those gathered around that table in the upper room were, in some way, partaking in the body and blood of Christ, and that sounds sacramental to me.

      That being said, I can agree that it was not the same type of sacrament in the upper room as it was at Emmaus and that it is for us. I would point to the passover celebrated in Joshua 5, the first in the Promised Land, after which the manna stopped: this passover, and those that came after it, were different from those that came before, but all were passovers. I would argue that the Lord’s Supper did indeed change after the Resurrection (when we find ourselves in the Promised Land of New Creation), and that the feast we will partake in the Kingdom is also different, but they are all the Lord’s Supper in a similar way.

      Just a thought.

      1. James,

        We haven’t talked much about the prolepsis of the heavenly banquet yet. I learned very little about that, when I was in seminary and came to the concept late (the primary sacramental emphasis when I was in Seminary was ascension, we talked about very little else). 🙂

        Is one of the key differences, here, the prolepsis of the RISEN Christ’s presence? (which, for us, is anamnesis) I don’t have a problem with this, of course, since I find Jesus’ words, here, more about instituting the sacrament than about actually describing what he’s actually doing in the last supper. I wonder what you’d say?

  10. April –

    No disagrement. I cringe at the hocus pocus too, however (did I just say “however” to that?!) I say that the “how” is the specific efficacy of an epiklesis – to me, it’s more important than the words of institution (oooo.. did I say that too?!) The epiklesis asks for God to do something(s) very specific (in the case of the RCA’s liturgy “that the bread… and the cup… may be to us the communion of the body and blood of Christ” and that “we may attain to the unity of the faith and grow up in all things into Christ our Lord.” Different traditions have different – and sometimes – multiple epikleses [is that the plural?])

    Following the guidance of Christ’s church, we pray for God to do something specific, and believe (do we?) that God actually does it.

  11. This post, but more so the ensuing comments, bring up many thoughts for me. I’m sure my thoughtful meanderings are not entirely theologically correct, nor are they fully formed, but this is where I’m at:

    We in the Reformed faith believe that Jesus is spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper. The presence of Jesus is very real, but it is spiritual. This is why we say, “Lift up your hearts! We lift them up to the Lord!” It is not so much that Jesus “comes down” to us, as we are “lifted up” to him.

    The question for me then becomes, “Who gets lifted up?” Is it only those who believe, or even further, is it only those who believe and really “get it”, i.e. faith and what’s going on in the sacrament. Because if the latter is the case, then no one should be at the table. I still don’t fully understand this whole “following Jesus” thing! The former also raises an issue for me because I believe that the Lord’s Supper can be a very grace-filled phenomenon. If someone who does not believe but has questions, hears the words, “This is the body of Christ, broken for you” on a regular basis–even if they don’t apply it to themselves yet–the message is still conveyed that grace is for everyone. I know the Holy Spirit used that phrase to work on my heart, so I have to believe that the same happens for others as well. I also have a problem with restricting the lifting up of hearts and the movement of the Spirit to only those who believe in Jesus. If we better conveyed that the Spirit can speak regardless of who one is, wouldn’t that better convey what Christianity is really about? Wouldn’t it also invite more people to share faith, instead of appearing to turn everyone away?

    Additionally (and I’m rambling now), if the Lord’s Supper is restricted only to those who are sanctified or have “examined themselves”, then again, I am no better than the homeless drug addict who processes next to me up to the table. And if I examine myself even just a little, then I would be constantly barred from the Lord’s table. It seems to me that the Lord’s Supper is more a picture of forgiveness, not keeping the “bad guys” out, even if we don’t fully claim or understand that forgiveness yet.

    The sanctity of the Lord’s Supper should not be flaunted–one should examine themselves and keep themselves from the table if they deem that appropriate–but I’m going to go back to something an early church father somewhere at some point said: The presider is not responsible for the efficacy of the Lord’s Supper. The Holy Spirit is. It is not for me to judge whether or not someone can partake because they are “sinless enough”, or because they “believe correctly”. I would only ever bar someone from partaking if I were absolutely sure I knew what I was talking about.

    Again, I’m not firm in my thoughts yet, but this is what I’m feeling out right now.

  12. Jill…

    Thanks for the thoughts. There is such tension, isn’t there, between gospel of grace and the call to faithfulness?

    The discussion seems to keep coming around to a similar question, for me (a question I often find myself asking both, as pastor and individual): Why do we so quickly make expectations the antitheses of grace?

    In non-spiritual matters, we regularly lay out expectations (and have them laid on us by others) without it being called “judgmental.” I want my doctors to be experienced and licensed. That’s a basic expectation for me; it isn’t a judgment on the quality of personhood for someone who is not an experienced and licensed doctor… it simply means that I don’t want her/him performing surgery on me. Why? Because surgery has great potential for positive… and great potential for negative. (Perhaps in another post, I’ll extend those thoughts related to ordination… but not today!) 🙂

    We expect people to prepare themselves for driving a car (practice, education, evaluation) and continue discerning that (i.e. refrain from doing so if drunk or influenced by sleep or medications). We don’t consider that judgmental, it’s simply intelligent (why? because car driving, though potentially good, can also be really, really bad).

    Just to be devil’s advocate: What make it judgmental to apply the same approach to the sacrament?

    (For the record, I’m not asking you directly… it’s more a general question to further the discussion!) I have the sneaky suspicion that we want all the grace of the sacrament and none of the responsibility (i.e. we want Luke 24, but not 1 Corinthians 11).


    Thanks everyone! Keep up the good thoughts!!

    1. Tim, that’s a fantastic analogy! Thank you! I’m definitely going to have to think about how this analogy would be applied to the sacrament–what would that look like? Because I think it has some merit…

  13. Tim, thank you for this excellent thought provoking post. Obviously you know how to invite conversation!

    I hope that my words of invitation will somehow convey to those in the pews that as a Reformed body we believe (at least historically and at our best) that partaking in this meal “means to be united more and more to his blessed body by the Holy Spirit” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 76); and we do not go wrong when we say that what is eaten is Christ’s own natural body and what is drunk is his own blood – but the manner in which we eat it is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith” (Belgic Confession Article 35); and even though all these things have to do with faith, we leave no room for the sophistry that what we mean when we say Christ is received by faith is that he is received only by understanding and imagination (Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.11).

    But unfortunately, “an unchurchly, rationalistic tendency, has been allowed to carry the church gradually more and more off from the ground it occupied in the beginning, till its position is found to be at length, to a large extent, a new one altogether” (John Nevin, The Mystical Presence).

    So I definitely agree with you that something happens! And I suppose I am revealing more than a bit of my belief about what happens. So I also definitely agree with you that “has great potential to affect people positively and negatively.”

    All of that said, it seems to me most of our protecting people from the negative effects usually has more with our concern about “profaning the table” that has been brought up. Perhaps in our fencing (if we are fencing) we should not be so concerned with baptized children who may not be able to fully comprehend or receive by understanding and imagination or even the unbaptized who may be truly hungry for what this table has to offer. My reading of 1 Corinthians 11:17-32 informs me that those who need most to be protected are the baptized who fail at discerning the body. Neither the context of the passage (about some becoming drunk and full while others go hungry) nor my Reformed convictions allow me to think this means having a proper intellectual understanding of how Christ is present in the elements. I think it has more to do with recognizing who Christ just might be present in as the body gathers around the table: the least of these. The screaming child. The homeless man who wanders in and has never been baptized but is hungry for love, grace, community and all this table invites us to. The broken and penitent sinner caught in adultery, or who has gossiped and caused dissension or who is going through a divorce. I can’t help but wonder if our zeal to sometimes fence these people exposes we are the ones who need to be fenced and protected? This is a confession as much as it is a declaration.

  14. Wayne,

    You hint at a real-vrs-metaphor problem: the Body of Christ eating the Body of Christ. The Body of the risen/ascended/etc. Christ in the sacrament (real) is different from the gathering of God’s people (often metaphorically referred to as “the Body of Christ” following Paul’s common usage of that language.) I’m not saying your quite conflating the two, but I do think we need to be careful.

    The “communion of the saints” in the sacrament takes place, as far as I can tell, NOT in that we are united directly with one another (at least not primarily), but that we are connected with one another BECAUSE we are each united with Christ. “The friend of my friend is my friend” (to be a little flip) – Does that make sense?

  15. This is where we get to talk about the Sacrament as a “means of grace” vs. a “response to grace” right? In other words, do we come to the table so that something CAN happen or do we come to the table because something HAS ALREADY happened. In the first case, I would advocate for an open invitation. In the latter case, I might argue for a fence. However, in my case, I’d probably have to concede both/and. In which case, I’d definitely err on the side of an open invitation.

    As far as I’m concerned, the danger in coming to the table is coming in order to appease God rather than to please God. Like those who came to sacrifice on the altar only to turn around and turn their backs on orphans and widows, I think “condemnation” comes on those who come to the table without any genuine sense or desire to have Christ come alive in them. There is no broken or contrite heart. From my view, it’s supposed to be a sanctifying work. So, the danger is not so much on those who come unaware, but on those who come fully aware but don’t care.

    On another note, I do think it is worth noting that the “Last Supper” is establishing a “new covenant” in Jesus’ blood. It is the blood of salvation (as in the original Passover), but different in degree (not just salvation from slavery, but from death itself). What is “new” is that we no longer come to the altar with “broken and contrite” hearts, we come to a table. We no longer come to recommit our lives to the law, but to receive the life of Jesus and see it come alive in us by the Holy Spirit because we trust that his life is a truly eternal life.

    That doesn’t answer the chronological question, but there may not be a logical timeline to the whole thing.

  16. Tim. Timmy. Teetjc. Rev. Right Rev. Friend.

    I don’t think it will surprise you to know that the concept of “fencing” around the table of Christ sets my teeth to grinding. This comes from a couple places: first, the church our family attends fences out children from the Lord’s table. As a mother, I find this terribly discomforting. The basis for keeping children away comes from a belief that children are unable to comprehend the theology of the Lord’s supper, and would mistreat the offering as mere ‘snacks’. To this I say, so what? Christ died for the unGodly. Christ died for the sinner. Christ’s death was an offering to us all. Aren’t children included in those categories? Plus, children come with child-like faith. Therefore, their approach to the Lord’s supper is most likely more pure, more faithful, more available to the work of the Spirit in the receiving. So, in case you are wondering, when it comes to communion at our church THIS mother won’t be told to keep her kids away from the table by ANYBODY.

    Another ‘fence’ that comes to mind is found in the origins of the apartheid in South Africa. If I remember correctly, one initial impetus of the apartheid came from fencing people out from the Lord’s table, specifically white South Africans refusing to partake with Black South Africans. I am sure that, at the time, those who decided to segregate felt they were making a biblically based decision. But, it wasn’t. And the damage this fencing started was exponential. Any time we rise above another in a seat of judgment we risk damaging creation rather than escorting it into wholeness again. Yeah, yeah, yeah – the Bible calls us to correct one other in kindness, to confront one another in love, to call one another to faithful living. But historically we have proven ourselves to be terrible at these things.

    Still, I want you to know. I appreciate what you are saying here. We are called, as the body of Christ, to participate in the work of the Spirit in the church. That means being faithful to scripture that calls us to abstain (such as I Corinthians 11). If only we we could live as a people who are self-aware enough and freely invited to practice discernment before we come to the table; when we find ourselves wanting, to restore our broken relationships and pay back our debts before we partake. If only we could turn to one another and ask for help, ask for correction, ask for guidance so that we are fully ready to receive Christ’s sacrifice. I think the Bible holds out the hope that we would fence ourselves, rather than fencing others. I think the Bible would rather we confess freely to one another, and love each other into right relationships, rather than positioning ourselves as better than another.

    Go ahead. Call me naive.

  17. Dear Marla, I’d never call you naive 🙂

    I tend to agree at the suggestion that we’re called to keep ourselves from the table (when appropriate) rather than, generally, to keep others from it. Although, I suppose it comes as no surprise that I do hold out that there are times when the Elders – as uncomfortable as it would (and should) be – have the responsibility to close the table. Elders’ and their responsibilities would make another interesting post, huh?

    Just to further the conversation… If I’m willing to say that Jesus died for sinners (which, obviously I think is true), if I have a strong doctrine of grace and invitation (again, totally agree), and if I believe in a biblical precedence for radical inclusion in the Church of all kinds of people regardless of religious history, race, culture, etc. (which I’d argue is obvious in the gospels), why does that necessarily require that everyone be welcome at the table? In other words, does invitation to SOMEthing necessarily mean invitation to EVERYthing? Does a theology of grace and inclusion automatically mean the table or are there steps involved? (Can there be? Should there be?)

  18. Again, I think it’s worth pointing out that Jesus’ tendency seemed to be to fence out (of the kingdom) those who were defiantly in opposition to God’s purposes. Those weren’t the “sinners” but the “righteous.” Or should we say the self-righteous hypocrites. Can you imagine a church where all of the guests and visitors and sinners got to come (to the table), but the elders kept away all of the “members”?

    At the same time, I’m always struck by the idea that the church of the early centuries (prior to Constantine?) had a very high and very wide fence in the form of a catechism and it didn’t seem to offend anyone. In fact, I think the church grew quite rapidly.

    1. What if that combination of a broad invitation policy
      and a truly welcomeing community coupled with high expectations and a strong initiation process was one of the keys to the early church’s apparent success? Perhaps the failure(?) of the contemporary church is the result of losing one or both?

      1. Marla,

        What if this is why so many youth get the message that church just isn’t worth it?

      2. Have you ever read the book ‘Almost Christian’ – her basic argument (at least as I understand it) is that the church has actually been effective at teaching and passing on what we hold dear (so, our problem is not that we’re ineffective). Instead, what we hold dear (and effectively pass on) isn’t real Christianity but a watered-down, non-lifegiving, essentially extracurricular ‘almost Christianity.’

        I was simply wondering if part of our ‘almost’ is the complete elimination of potentially important milestones (i.e. the spiritual preparation and ritual initiation – for lack of a better phrase – into full congregational Inclusion and table participation.)

        P.S. Forgive the clunky verbiage, I’m sitting in a waiting room and typing on my phone!

  19. You are sitting in a waiting room? A hospital waiting room? You are waiting for surgery? You’re pregnant? Wha?

    Ok – I hear that. Creasy-Dean is suggesting that the youth / young adults are looking for tougher love, clearer boundaries, solid ‘yes’ or ‘no’, less ambiguity, less touchy feely, more ancient-future deep theology…. in other words, religion that comes at a cost and is deeply meaningful. We’ve made religion too fluffy, thereby watering down it’s potency.

    But, of all the places that the church has lost it’s veracity, I wonder if the table is the best place to set up fences. Christ’s body is a gift to be received. The disciples didn’t even understand what Christ was asking of them before they were offered to take and eat. Still, they were given the chance to participate. Even Judas was offered the body of Christ.

    In my opinion, part of what makes the table so beautiful is that it levels the field for all – the entirety of God’s family. It’s the ultimate family reunion, where the dysfunctional have a seat alongside the seemingly functional and break bread together. It’s where no one has to prove their worthiness to receive – it’s proven by the giver, not the receiver. No matter how we might wish it wasn’t true, we share a bloodline that runs deeper than skin.

    This should be our baseline: all believers in Christ as Lord are invited to the table; that proven theological ‘understanding’ isn’t a ticket to the table – just being in the family get’s you in. But, I must concede to one fence: just as some families need to fence people out because of the physical, emotional, mental danger they may be to the more vulnerable among us, un-repentance for offenders would require a fence from the table of God.

    1. Mechanics’ waiting room… not pregnant or anything else, don’t worry 🙂

      Just to push the conversation a little further (and not just for Marla… this is an open discussion!)…

      My sense is that the Table is EXACTLY the thing (or the primary thing) that the church for 20 centuries (give or take a century on either end) has put on the restricted side. (Perhaps the ONLY truly substantive thing that’s restricted from the generic public!)

      Has something changed or has the general thrust of the Christian church been wrong for 2 thousand years?

      As a side note: What great thought and discussion we’re getting from people on a variety of threads! Keep it going!

  20. Tim, et. al.,
    I’m playing a bit of catch-up here, and appreciate very much your thought-provoking post. I’m thinking of two things in response. First, I was incredibly privileged to have been in a class on liturgy by Nick Wolterstorff (way back in my Calvin days). I so clearly remember his teaching about the Orthodox tradition, and the point of the liturgy where the call is made, “The Doors! The doors!” The point was that the Orthodox practice close communion, and closing the doors was a way to let folks know that the sacrament was being offered only to …the Orthodox folks. This teaching came in VERY handy when I was asked to take part in a service at one of our local orthodox churches.

    Secondly, there was a recent (?) article in The Christian Century about communion as a rite of initiation. I’ve been thinking about that ever since, once I got over my sense of blasphemy (discerning the body and blood! eating and drinking judgment to yourself!)
    I can look it up, if you’d like. I’m still contemplating that, especially in an era of folks having ever so little understanding of sacraments, much less church and decorum and all that. My thought for the week is something along the lines of the realization that most of the people I encounter have the spiritual maturity of a 12-year old. Not that I haven’t met some awesome 12-year olds; it just seems so many people are stuck in their spiritual development and haven’t done much to cultivate it, which can lead to their being far more religious all of a sudden than any of our chaplains ever dreamed of being. So a good dose of communion-initiation-rite might actually help further the conversation!

  21. I have not stopped thinking about this post throughout the last few weeks. First, Tim I have thought a lot about the real vs. metaphor comment and the body eating the body. While I can definitely see where some problems arise if we try to push that language too, I also think there is something good there to think about: in a very real way we are what we eat. Garbage in, garbage out. Eating healthier contributes significantly to a healthier lifestyle, etc. To this end I think it is feasting on the body of Christ that makes the church the body of Christ.

    I don’t know what the correct answer is to “outsiders” at the table. And for the most part I don’t think scripture addresses it. What it does address is “insiders” taking it in an unworthy manor. But I really appreciate Peter’s comments above regarding “Sacrament as a “means of grace” vs. a “response to grace”… “Do we come to the table so that something CAN happen or do we come to the table because something HAS ALREADY happened. In the first case, I would advocate for an open invitation.”

    I think the difference is the difference between mystery and magic. It is a mystery how the mouth of faith via the mouth of the face feasts on these elements and they become for us the body and blood of our Lord. If however it is solely about what God has done in Christ (as important as that is) and a proper response (as important as this too is) is needed in order for this to be applied to us – that is magic. It depends on the recipient(s) reciting the correct words, believing the right things.

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