On Communion and Understanding

This last Sunday our church did something different than our usual process for Communion time.  Usually someone goes up front, gives a short Communion thought and then the trays of bread and juice are passed down the rows of people.  Everyone takes the elements are they are handed to them and then Communion time is over.

This Sunday there were three tables set up in different parts of the room.  The elements were arranged on the table, there was a cross at each table and there was a kneeling bench at one of the tables.  At the start of the service the instructions were given to go to a table and partake of Communion whenever you felt ready: during the singing, during the message, at the end of the service; whenever you were ready.  I should mention another small fact, relevant to the rest of this story: in our tradition people usually don’t participate in Communion until after they have been baptized and neither of my children have made that decision yet.

I waited, listening and participating in the service until pretty close to the end and then I asked my kids if they wanted to come take Communion with me.  They have both been talking to me about Communion a lot lately, have both asked to participate in the past and have both demonstrated a desire to know more.  That’s why I asked them. Anyway, my daughter, Helen, who is 7 1/2, said no but my son, Patrick, who is 5, immediately responded with an excited yes.

So we went to one of the tables together.  I gave him the little piece of bread and the cup of juice and told him to hold them.  Then I knelt down and explained things to him.  I told him that the bread was representative of Jesus’ body, which was broken for him.  And we took the bread.  Then I told him that the juice was representative of Jesus’ blood, which was poured out for him.  And we took the juice.  It was simple, it was special and Patrick was following my every word and actively participating in the best way he could.

But, you know, whenever you are around other people, there is always someone watching.

After church I was approached by two different women.  One woman practically had tears in her eyes as she told me that she enjoyed watching Patrick and I at Communion and that she thought we should be including our children and how it was so great.  The other woman was not so complimentary.  She basically reprimanded me, saying that she thinks people shouldn’t participate in Communion until they are “ready” and can “understand.”  That’s why she doesn’t include her children and she just doesn’t understand what I was thinking.  We were actually in Sunday School at the time so it wasn’t really appropriate to give all my thoughts about it.  But I do I have thoughts about it (as I’m sure you assumed).

So, as to the idea of being “ready.”  I’m not exactly sure what it means to be ready for everyone.  But I think part of readiness is wanting to participate.  And Patrick definitely wants to participate, he has for some time.  He talks to me about it quite a bit, and not just during Communion time at church.  And he asks me questions, trying to understand better.  To me, those are all signs of readiness.  There was a period of time when Patrick would ask me if he could take Communion and when I said “no” he would whine and say, “but I’m hungry.”  That did not seem like readiness to me, because Communion isn’t meant to be a snack.  So, that’s my response to the idea of readiness.

As to “understanding”, I guess I’m not sure who sets the threshold for understanding because I don’t think any of us has perfect understanding.  I think the Bible demonstrates a kind of progressive understanding when it comes to Communion.  John 6 has one of the first references to the concept of Communion.  In verse 53 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  In verse 60 it says, “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”  Then, after more teaching from Jesus, verse 66 says, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” but Peter said, in verse 68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Do you see what Peter isn’t saying?  He doesn’t say that those others turned away because they couldn’t understand but that the Twelve stayed because they did understand!  I picture Peter confused and uncertain about this difficult teaching but certain of Jesus and ready to follow Him and learn along the way. 

Then Jesus established Communion at the Last Supper.  And surely they all understood it by then, right?  I don’t think so. Sure, they participated, and they probably had a greater understanding than I do because of the position of the cup during the Seder meal.  But Luke records a dispute immediately after Jesus passes the bread and the cup.  Luke 22:24 says “Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be the greatest.”  Did they understand the significance of the Lord’s Supper?  Were their hearts fully prepared?  

And the instructions about the Lord’s Supper don’t end there.  In 1 Corinthians Paul gives instructions for worship that include a discussion of the Lord’s Supper.  Paul’s instructions imply that some of the actions of the Corinthian church desecrate the Lord’s Supper.  It was their intention to partake but the way they were trying to do it humiliated some people and left them out. (1 Corinthians 11:17-22)  Obviously they didn’t fully understand the Lord’s Supper and so Paul gave them further instruction and promised to continue that instruction in person the next time he saw them.

In some ways, I think this is why we have a thought or meditation before serving Communion each Sunday.  Because we always need further instruction, we always need the reminder of what the Lord’s Supper is about and why we participate.  Because we are all growing in our understanding, none of us has perfect understanding and none of us will until the day Jesus returns.

My friend’s comment about needing “understanding” to participate in Communion gave me pause. What if, God forbid, I someday have a stroke and my capacity for higher thought is damaged?  Will I then be excluded from the Table?  What about my friend’s brother who has Down’s Syndrome.  I know he loves the Lord but I don’t know what he understands about Communion.  Is he excluded from the Table?  What about my friends who subscribe to the doctrine of transubstantiation compared with those who believe in consubstantiation?  Someone’s understanding must be flawed…who, then is welcome at the Table?

For me, the question of understanding is a murky one.  At this point, I understand what I have the ability to understand.  Hopefully my understanding will increase, that’s part of growth.  But I don’t think Communion should be reserved for people with great understanding.  My son Patrick loves Jesus with as much understanding as his 5 year old self can have.  He knows that Jesus died on the cross and knows that we have Communion to remember that.  I think that is enough.  More understanding will come with time.

1 Corinthians 11:26 says, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  I want to proclaim this truth alongside my child and I am thrilled that he wants that too.