In 22 years of being a pastor, I get all kinds of questions. What do you think I get asked the most? Most people would guess the question is related to suffering or evil, but actually the question I get asked the most usually comes from someone who just returned from a wedding or a funeral.
“Why wouldn’t they let me take Holy Communion?”
The question doesn’t surprise me any more, but what does surprise me is how many people are still shocked that churches won’t let them share in this intimate sacrament.
In the 18th Century as John Wesley was leading a revival in the Church of England that would become the Methodist Church, Wesley attempted to make the Lord’s Supper more meaningful for the masses of people who found no spiritual meaning in the Church. Wesley would lead his Methodist followers into the local Anglican Church on a Sunday morning and bring them down the aisle to receive the elements. In a few incidences, there were so many that he would lead them down in groups of a hundred. And the people would sing as they came. John Wesley believed everyone could come to the table. After all, it is God’s table…not the Church of England’s table.
We United Methodists believe in what is called ‘open communion’, or the ‘open table’, which means that we do not require someone to be a member of our church, or of any church, or even to be baptized in order to fellowship with us at the table. The only requirement is that you are open to receiving whatever Jesus has to share with you. You don’t have to have it all figured out or recite a creed. It isn’t a matter of intellectual assent. This is why Wesley wanted to open up the sacrament to include the poor and forgotten. In the same way, we welcome all kinds of folk when we serve communion.
The ‘open table’, or ‘open communion’ is not just a ritualistic practice. It is a way of being the Church. Just as Jesus sat at the table and ate with sinners and tax collectors, we invite those who are ignored, misunderstood and rejected by society. In a world that scrutinizes you based on your outward appearance, the message of Holy Communion in our church is one of total acceptance in Christ. If nowhere else, Church is the one place where you can feel the unconditional acceptance of Jesus.
At the opening of Holy Communion, the pastor says,
“Christ our Lord invites to his table, all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another. Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.” If you are open and willing, you are invited.
Let me share three reasons why we practice the “Open Table” unlike many other churches.
- Jesus Modeled The Open Table For Us – If we want to do a study on the entire meal ministry of Jesus, we would find all people invited to feast with him. When Jesus fed the 5,000 or the 4,000, he fed them all. He didn’t ask if they were Methodists or Baptists or Catholics. When he ate at the house of the tax collectors, or when he traveled to Samaria, or when he broke the bread with two strangers on the way to Emmaus, Jesus never asked, “Are you a member?” He also didn’t ask if you believe every part of our creed or dogma.
- We Don’t Control God’s Grace – We cannot reify God’s grace! Reification is when one gives substance to something that has no substance. Reification of grace is when the church, preacher, or anyone says God’s grace is not available to you. I hold the grace, and we will dole it out to those who agree with us. As the Soup Nazi would say on Seinfield if you didn’t order the soup in just the right way, “No Grace For You!”, many churches treat grace in the same way. We see this happen in many churches and denominations – you are divorced? You need to attend another church. You made some bad decisions in life? You might need to go somewhere else. God’s grace cannot be given out by us.
- The Table is Open…But the Grace Is Not Cheap – In our understanding of the Open Table, Methodists may continue to invite all persons to the Lord’s table, as long as they understand that non-baptized seekers should be urged to enter the baptismal covenant and be taught the full truth about its costly dynamics. God’s grace is free and offered to all that is true. But it is not Cheap and Meaningless. If we are going to receive the Grace of God in our lives, we must be willing to be transformed by it. That means we must be willing to abide by the costs of discipleship and submit ourselves to it.
Wesley was convinced that communion was not only a confirming, but also a converting ordinance. It is not only for those who already believe and long to deepen their relationship with the Lord, but for those who truly want to believe, but seem to lack the grace to do so.
The table of Christ is always open, but once we kneel and receive His body and blood, we should never again be the same.