Should Seekers Be Invited to the Table? A pastor struggles with hard questions

The puzzled look in her eyes told me I would have to suspend judgment and get back to her after I had studied the matter.

Sandra had been attending our small-town church for about eight months. Baptized as an infant, she had attended other churches in the past and had recently come to experience fellowship in our church family. Last Sunday we served the Lord's Supper, and she came prepared to articipate. However, an elder had intervened, explaining kindly that she was not eligible to partake. Now it was Monday, and she was in my study looking for my explanation. Why had she not been permitted to take part? What could a pastor say? I felt torn between the church's responsibility to maintain the integrity of the supper and the equally relevant responsibility to be a home for those who are searching spiritually. Sandra's query launched me on a search for some biblical insight.

We all want to regard and serve the Lord's Supper in a worthy manner. And we all want our churches to be welcoming places. How do we welcome and include visitors in our worship and fellowship without compromising the sacred nature of the meal? An impossible mission?

Kingdom and Communion

The Lord's Supper has its roots in the Old Testament feast of Passover. The meal, first eaten in haste on the verge of the exodus from Egypt, became an annual celebration. Each year children had the opportunity to learn history, grow in faith, and celebrate life with their saving God around this meal. And God's goodness was not restricted to the Passover feast. A garden with fruit-bearing trees, manna, quail, fresh drinking water, a land flowing with milk and honey, huge bunches of grapes—all these underscored God's presence with his people.

Jesus used the daily need to eat and drink to engage people in fellowship. He fed five thousand people, had dinner at Zacchaeus's home, served breakfast on the beach, and turned water into wine. He talked strangely about eating his flesh and drinking his blood as a way of entering into life with God. Jesus revealed to the disciples and to us that he has fulfilled the Passover meal—he is the actual Passover lamb. As we are invited to feast with him, we are being called to participate in him and the kingdom he came to inaugurate on earth.

Much of the imagery Jesus used to describe the kingdom of God also has a culinary flavor—a king who threw a banquet, a wedding reception, a fatted calf roasted to celebrate the return of a lost son, and seeds sown in soil growing into fruitful plants. People Jesus encountered heard the imperative invitation to feast at the table of God's grace and joy. Might his institution of the supper in the upper room be such a meal? If so, it may serve as a point of entry to the kingdom.

Meal for Misfits

Who did Jesus invite to this meal of kingdom fellowship? Those we would least expect. Questionable characters like Zacchaeus, the covetous, tax-collecting traitor. Jesus offered life-giving water to an immoral woman as she came to get water from a well and defended a woman of disrepute when she interrupted a meal to anoint his feet. He told an astounding parable about a king who adamantly insisted that his servant search the highways and byways to bring the good and the bad, the crippled and blind, the outcast and leper into his banquet hall. Jesus overtly insisted that such people are welcome to come into communion with him, spend time in God's company, and feast on divine goodness. As far as the gospels tell, not one person who came to Jesus seeking God was ever turned away.

Even the characters gathered with him in the upper room in the final week of his earthly life, those whom he called as disciples, were not exactly an exemplary bunch. One would deny knowing Jesus outright (Matt. 26:33-35), others still doubted his identity as the Messiah (Matt. 28:16-17), and most did not understand that following him required ser-vanthood Qohn 13). And of course, there was Judas Iscariot. He foists upon us a most unusual question: "May an unbeliever participate in communion?"

What About Judas?

On the very night Judas was to betray Jesus, the Lord invited him to take the bread and the wine. Judas knew God's plan for Christ; he had been tutored and discipled by his teacher for at least three years, yet he had not signed on. Obviously, he was an unbeliever. In spite of this, Jesus invited him to partake (Matt. 26:7-30).

Leonardo Da Vinci's painting of the last supper portrays something unique about each disciple— something Da Vinci gleaned from the Scriptures. The disciples are seated in groups of three and, although Judas sits with Peter and John immediately to Jesus' right, DaVinci seems to be highlighting the fact that he is excluded from the group. Peter and John's heads are close together, while Judas's head is slightly aside. He is in a shadow, while the other two are well lit.

Because of his unbelief, Judas really is not one of the twelve. Yet Judas is shown receiving the bread extended to him by Christ.

Do we conclude from this episode that the Lord's Supper is to be extended to those who do not believe?

Both the Belgic Confession (Article 35) and the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 81, 82) explain that the meal is solely for believers. Jesus does not seem to be as clear on this matter. Certainly Judas is a special case surrounded by many unanswered questions. However, this incident does serve as food for thought. One matter is clear: Jesus' actions towards Judas illustrate a general spirit of inclusiveness surrounding the meal.

The Corinthian Conundrum

Apparently, the Corinthian church failed to carry out Jesus' intent. In his letter to them, the apostle Paul addresses the problem of a spirit of exclusion. And yet this same letter speaks against participating in the supper in an unworthy manner (see 1 Cor. 11)—the very passage people in the Reformed tradition have used to "screen" some people from the sacrament.

What does it mean to participate in an unworthy manner? Usually, we interpret this text as meaning we need to examine ourselves and be sure to "recognize the body of Christ." If we do not recognize Christ's body (that is, believe that the elements represent Christ's body and blood, and treat the elements with respect), we ought not to participate, lest we eat and drink judgment upon ourselves.

However, the historical problems in Corinth and the terminology Paul uses in this letter could point us to a significantly different interpretation. In this letter the "body of Christ" refers primarily to the community of Christ, the church (cf. 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:12-31). This body should live in harmony, united as one fellowship. Paul challenges them: "Examine yourself! Are you being exclusive?" Some members of the church were excluding those less privileged (slaves and the poor who also attended the church). It was common to celebrate the sacrament along with a potluck type of dinner. Exclusion came in the form of eating all the food before the needy members had arrived. Since the poor were part of the fellowship, disregard for them was a failure to recognize Christ's body. This portion of the letter was addressed to believers who were practicing exclusion. It was not intended to warn people who were spiritually unfamiliar with the meaning of the sacrament to refrain from participation. Ironically, the very text the church often uses to exclude participants was meant to counteract the problem of exclusion in the first place!

It is not unreasonable to assume that the participants in Corinth included those who were new to the faith and had not yet made an official public profession. Today we might call such attenders "seekers." In his letter, Paul sought to reinforce Christ's principle of including all who sought him. He reminds the Corinthians that the celebration of the meal is a proclamation. "As often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). The Lord's Supper is a visual proclaiming of the gospel of a crucified and risen Lord. Just as spiritually searching listeners are called to respond to the written or spoken gospel with a yes or a no, so they are called to respond to the meal. Does an individual need to go through some prescribed steps before qualifying as a participant, or is the mere yet profound desire to respond in repentance to the good news enough? Before the Samaritan woman was ready to respond to Jesus, he was offering her living water.

What's a Church to Do?

The church has been given the honor of overseeing the Lord's Supper. How do we do so without violating the spirit of inclusive invitation entrusted to us by Christ? Jesus stands before the congregation and invites us to partake. He is the Host of the meal. We need not take his role. Our role, as servants, is to oversee and serve the supper. The church and elders, through the officiating pastor, need to communicate clearly and simply the meaning of the meal. Once they have done this, the individual in the pew has to decide before God whether she or he may participate in good conscience. The church has fulfilled its responsibility, having done what is necessary to maintain the integrity of the sacrament. The rest remains between the Host and the participant.

Ultimately Jesus is the judge of who partakes in worthy fashion. Who of us would have guessed that the thief on the cross enters paradise while those who did miracles in Jesus' name are denied access? We leave in the hands of Jesus the assessment of each participant's heart.

On any particular communion Sunday there might be a wide variety of worshipers in your congregation: Carlos and Amanda, professing members who sit in the same pew every Sunday; Josephine, a member of the Pentecostal church, visiting this Sunday to witness a friend's profession of faith; Hilary, visiting from CrossRoads Church; the Redcliffs, who have been attending consistently for two years and testify personally to their Christian faith, but have not professed their faith publicly; Henry, a young man seeking earnestly for God; or Jacques, who is not at all happy with the church, yet is here to please his parents; and of course, Sandra.

Remembering that Jesus is the Host who judges each heart, your elders and worship committee may want to discuss their approach in serving communion. They may formulate words of invitation, which can be printed in the bulletin and shared by the officiating pastor. In this way they will have earnestly considered this matter and come to a consensus they believe is consistent with the biblical meaning and the spirit of Christ in communion.

 

Excerpt

SUGGESTIONS FOR GREATER OPENNESS AT THE TABLE

  1. Communicate a celebrative tone. The supper is an occasion to remember with reverent awe and with serious joy the sacrificial death and resurrection of our Savior. It is a time to celebrate the victory Jesus has won for us. People are attracted to festive occasions in which victory and life are in focus; they are more inclined to be receptive to the gospel being proclaimed visually in the meal.
  2. Use the opportunity to teach. The Passover meal was used to pass on the truths of the Exodus to inquiring children. Likewise, we may use the celebration to instruct those who are unfamiliar with the sacrament. Like Jesus, we should use words that are plain, speaking of spiritual truth in everyday language.
  3. Give a clear invitation. Seek to remove any questions individuals may have about participation. Some in attendance might not be sure whether they may partake or not. If your council has decided to invite seekers to participate, make that clear as you extend the invitation. The officiating pastor may say: "If you are seeking God and desire in your heart to respond to the gospel proclaimed in the meal, we encourage you to follow your conscience." For visitors from other Christian denominations, the officiating pastor might say, "If you are visiting with us today and have publicly testified to your faith, we invite you to respond to the invitation given by our Lord and come to the table."
  4. Acknowledge and accommodate the uncertain seeker. Without singling out any individual, specifically address those in the congregation who are searching but feel they cannot participate. On the preparatory Sunday, a week prior to the communion service, the worship leader may announce opportunity for faith-seeking people to talk with the pastor about the meal in the forthcoming week. On the day the sacrament is celebrated, give opportunity following the worship service for any inquirers to ask questions, learn more, and be prayed for if they so wish. Direct them to a prayer room or other designated area. Have material to share with those who are seeking.
  5. Host a potluck on communion Sunday. This last suggestion comes with delicious irony. The Corinthian church, chastised for being exclusive, had a habit we may adopt to encourage inclusion each time we serve the sacrament. The New Testament church apparently engaged in "love feasts," or what we call potluck dinners. Why not serve a lunch following every service in which communion is celebrated? If any feel they cannot participate in the sacrament due to their spiritual condition, they may be welcomed warmly to join the post-service meal. Come and dig into the potato salad, cheese buns, and soup! Here experience the informal fellowship of Christ's body.

FROM A SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD GIRL WHO MADE PROFESSION OF FAITH LAST YEAR

When I was little, celebrating the Lord's Supper just meant more time added to the sermon—time you filled in with candies.

I remember, though, that once my family visited another church. I was seven years old, and they passed the bread and the juice to me too. I remember thinking, Hey, this is for me too! It was really cool.

When I was about eleven, I asked my parents if I could take communion too. We talked about it together as a family, and my parents made sure I knew what it was all about. The next time we had the Lord's Supper in our church, my dad shared his bread and wine with me. Although I was really happy to participate, I kept looking around to see if the Lord's Supper police were watching, because we really weren't supposed to take the Lord's Supper unless we were professing members. I knew it was alright, but I didn't want to get into trouble.

Last summer, I went with about fifty members of my youth group on a mission trip to Mexico. We joined thousands of other young people at a base camp. We would worship together in the morning, then go out and do service the rest of the day. During that week, eleven kids from our group made a commitment to the Lord for the first time. On the last day of our mission, we celebrated the Lord's Supper together with the rest of our youth group. We stood in a big circle, and our pastor served those eleven kids first. Then they in turn served us. It was a very emotional and wonderful experience.

We used tortillas for the bread and juice for the wine, and I felt that was fitting because we were in Mexico where tortillas are the main bread. I believe there's no one way that's "right" for serving the Lord's Supper. It's a meal for all people in all places who believe in Jesus. It's where your heart is that counts.

Tony Maan serves as pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of St. Albert, Alberta, Canada. He earned an MDiv from Calvin Theological Seminary and a PhD in Christian perspectives on the body in the Dutch Golden Age from the University of Alberta.