The Lord’s Supper is the pivotal feast that celebrates the victory of God, which he shares with each person in his kingdom. Here we gratefully acknowledge our inclusion in the community that God has designed. Here we confess our reluctance to demonstrate the full power of the gospel on our lives together, particularly as it pertains to the lack of hospitality and grace extended to others. Here we all recommit ourselves to following the example of Jesus—the Host at the table—who calls us, in view of his sacrifice, to serve others with humility and love. And here we anticipate the feast that will come at the end of history, when a renewed creation will finally be liberated from the power of sin and its persistent intention to divide what God has put together.
The active participation of children at the Lord’s Supper provides the full body of Christ with an opportunity to catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom—what it looks like and how it is governed.
As the Lord welcomes us, we welcome each other. When a whole congregation participates in the sacrament we see intergenerational worship at work. I happen to believe that the power of the Lord’s Supper to promote and celebrate intergenerational worship in a local church is unmatched.
The reason this is so has to do with a core conviction Christians believe concerning the sacrament. The Lord’s Supper is God’s gift to the church. Whenever it is celebrated, participants acknowledge that God is at work in, through, and during this feast of the kingdom. When the generations gather at the table an act of deep, genuine intergenerational worship unfolds—not by means of a technique designed by people striving for enhanced worship experiences, nor by means of liturgical strategies crafted by those seeking to appeal to individuals who represent a variety of age groups. The Lord’s Supper is the gift of God that celebrates the work of God, which shapes the people of God.
Not long ago I conducted a series of teaching sessions on the Lord’s Supper in the church I serve as pastor. The series was based on the New Testament’s most extended and specific teaching on the Lord’s Supper, namely, Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. This passage has been widely studied by many who seek deeper and more biblically informed sacramental practices in the church, and it has garnered much attention from those who have wondered about the active participation of children at the Lord’s Supper.
My series highlighted five key themes in this passage, each of which highlights one particular aspect of the nature and function of the Lord’s Supper in communal, intergenerational worship. These five themes provide specific underpinnings which I believe support the inclusion of children as active participants at the Lord’s Supper (Scripture references are taken from NRSV):
Proclaiming the Word
Key verse: For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26).
Preparing the Heart
Key verse: Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup (1 Cor. 11:28).
Discerning the Body
Key verse: For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves (1 Cor. 11:29).
Receiving the Gift
Key verse: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25).
Remembering the Lord
Key verse: “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25).
In this article, I would like to explore the first of these five themes further, paying special attention to the important ways the proclamation of the gospel in the Lord’s Supper is enriched by the active, intergenerational participation of each member in the congregation.
The proclamation of the Lord’s death, which he accomplished on our behalf and for our salvation, is the heart of the gospel. This is the one gospel that is equally announced in the Bible and by the sacraments (see sidebar).
This means that the proclamation of the Lord’s death that is announced from pulpits in sermons is equally announced at the Lord’s table in the sacrament of communion. The Lord’s Supper does not provide something “extra” to the verbal proclamation of the gospel in Christian preaching.
The sacraments simply present the same gospel in a more multisensory way. What believers hear in preaching, they taste, smell, see, and touch in the sacraments.
Why is this additional presentation of the gospel necessary? John Calvin is brutally honest when he answers that question. He believed that God gave us sacraments because of our chronic inability to apprehend even a simple presentation of the gospel as it is read in and heard from the Bible. Our capacity for faith, Calvin contended, is so small and so given to instability that we require assistance from God if we are to believe. That spiritual scaffolding which props up our faith is precisely what God provides in the sacraments (see sidebar).
The impact of this teaching on the participation of children at the Lord’s Supper is significant. Those who oppose the participation of children often do so based on what they perceive to be children’s inability to “understand” what the Lord’s Supper is all about. In fact, it is the Word of Scripture that is beyond their (and our!) ability to grasp, and it is the Word of the Lord’s Supper that presents the gospel in a way that is plain and understandable. If a lack of spiritual understanding is ascribed to younger members of the church, deeming them incapable of apprehending spiritual truth, it would make more sense to restrict their listening to sermons than their reception of the sacraments!
What’s more, if there is a difference in the way children and older believers possess ability to appropriate the gospel, it is children who have the advantage over adults. It is precisely their capacity for faith and trust that Jesus highlights as the model for all believers. Could it be that one of the ways adult members of the church demonstrate their lack of childlike faith is by their reluctance to welcome children to the Lord’s Supper?
This is not to suggest that the faith of mature adult Christians is inferior in every way to that of children. Nor is it meant to romanticize the place of children in Christian community. The point is that both young and old alike possess spiritual inabilities. This is why the announcement of the gospel in the Lord’s Supper is such good news for each member in the community of faith.
No matter how old or young we are, spiritual ignorance is not a barrier that prevents our participation in the sacrament. It is the very thing that necessitates it.
When generations gather around the Lord’s table, the full body of Christ is given an opportunity to observe that the ultimate beauty and power of the Lord’s Supper is enhanced not by the level of understanding participants bring to the sacrament, but by the grace of Jesus that is derived from it.
One final point related to the way the Lord’s Supper proclaims the gospel is worth mentioning, and it has to do with the role that profession of faith or confirmation plays in the reception of the sacrament. It is often alleged that a profession of faith must precede an individual’s admission to the Lord’s Supper. Much can be said in support of this, but the fact that participating in the Lord’s Supper is itself a profession of faith is frequently overlooked.
The fact that young children cannot articulate a personal statement of faith should not be seen as an obstacle that prevents them from participating. When generations gather around the Lord’s table, the whole church participates in the kerygmatic proclamation of the Lord’s death. Here young and old alike speak as one. Here a profound profession of faith in the incarnate, crucified, risen, and ascended Lord is announced communally in a way that transcends any one person’s ability to express verbally.
The crucial place that the Lord’s Supper occupies in the pursuit of genuine intergenerational worship should not be underestimated. This feast of faith both establishes and sustains Christian community and kingdom identity. The Lord’s Supper is a precious gift of God to the church, given to convict us of our chronic sluggishness to put God’s kingdom principles of hospitality and humility into practice; to comfort us with the good news that announces the kingdom’s ever-growing presence among us; and to challenge us to pursue more intentionally and celebrate more joyfully the intergenerational community of faith into which God has graciously placed us.
Unity of Word and Sacrament
The classic Reformed understanding of the inseparable unity of the Word of Scripture and the Word of the sacraments is summarized in Q&A 67 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. Are both the word and the sacraments then intended to focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation?
A. Right! In the gospel the Holy Spirit teaches us and through the holy sacraments he assures us that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross.
John Calvin on the Lord’s Supper
For seeing that we are so weak that we cannot receive him with true heartfelt trust, when he is presented to us by simple doctrine and preaching, the Father of mercy, disdaining not to condescend in this matter to our infirmity, has been pleased to add to his Word a visible sign, by which he might represent the substance of his promises, to confirm and fortify us by delivering us from all doubt and uncertainty.
—John Calvin, “Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper,” in Tracts and Treatises on the Doctrine and Worship of the Church, Vol. II, 166.