Wednesday, May 3, 2017

All Things in Common


As I have written here before, I have never been angrier or more resentful in church than when I am excluded from Holy Communion because I am not a Roman Catholic. For my whole life, I have felt drawn closer to God through the liturgy and, more specifically, through the celebration of Christ's presence among us as he meets us in real, tangible form in the bread-become-body and blood-become-wine. No, I do not recognize the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. No, despite acknowledging the real presence of Christ in the species of the Eucharist, I do not subscribe to the doctrine of transubstantiation. Yes, there are many aspects of the doctrine and discipline of the Roman Church that I cannot accept. But, when it comes to meeting the crucified and resurrected Jesus at the altar in the transformative, memorial encounter presided over by a priest ordained at the hands of a bishop in the apostolic succession, I am all in.

And yet...

This Sunday we will read a lesson from the Acts of the Apostles (2:42-47) that reminds me why I cannot come to that table and why, although I do not subscribe to this approach to restricting admission to the Lord's Table, I respect it.

During Easter, we make our way through Acts and read about how the Holy Spirit led Jesus' followers to share the gospel with more and more of the world, adding larger and larger crowds to the community of the baptized. This week, we read about that community and how clearly and powerfully God's work was being manifest in it: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." So united was the Christian community that the principle of personal material possession disappeared. It's one thing to agree with one another, but it's quite another to give up any claim to "mine" for the sake of the group. This is God's vision for the church. This is God's vision for the world. If we are not "all in," if we are not completely committed to that which binds us together, we are not imaging the body of Christ as it was given to us.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the image of that unity is expressed and enforced at the table. Those who partake of the body of Christ must be the body of Christ. The same is true for the Orthodox churches, too. If an individual is not committed to that unity, that individual may not receive the sacrament. In the Roman tradition, that unity is not only a unity of spirit but of doctrine and discipline. If one does not accept the dogma of the Church, one may not receive. It is presumed, therefore, that those who approach the altar and hold out hands (or tongue) to receive the bread, accept all the teaching that comes from the other side of that altar. Sadly, I cannot say that, so I am not on excluded by the rules but also by the principles behind them.

Our approach is different, of course. We do not require unanimity of doctrine from those who receive Communion. We allow transubstantiationists and consubstantiationists and anyone who professes to recognize Jesus in the bread and wine to come. I would never advocate the reversal of that policy to a more closed table, but are we missing something by not stressing enough the importance of unity?

It has become popular for Episcopal churches and bishops to allow unbaptized seekers to receive Communion. Not only is this a clear violation of the discipline of our Church, it is also a clear violation of the doctrine that we profess and that we share with the universal, catholic church. While I have mixed feelings about hospitality, my feelings toward unity are, appropriately, unequivocal. While we cannot ever be the perfect, unified body of Christ without Christ himself to unify us, we abdicate the opportunity and responsibility for seeking that unity by destroying the distinction between those who follow Jesus and proclaim him as Lord and those who simply want a mid-service snack. More to the point, we fail Christ's command to be one whenever we pretend that unity isn't important--whenever we forget that we come to the table as one. Perhaps we will not agree about everything, but we must be of one mind and one heart, "devoted to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers."

This Sunday, it's hard not to preach about Jesus the sheep gate. The imagery of the gospel lesson and the psalm are too rich to pass up. And it's awfully tempting to preach on Acts 2 as a message of economic unity--a stewardship sermon right in the midst of the Easter season. I don't think my sermon this week will focus on the unity of the faithful, but, as I approach the Lord's Table, I will feel a renewed call to pray for and seek the unity of the church--the healing of the brokenness of the body of Christ. As I receive the body and blood of Jesus, I will remember that we are not all one. I will repent of my contribution to that which separates us, and I will rededicate myself to the efforts to reunite the universal church. What about you?

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