communionrail

With the Christmas season bearing down upon us, it might be a good time to talk about an issue that touches all of our congregations and is a continual source of frustration: communion practice. Generally speaking, I have found that Ohio District congregations communicate well that we believe in the real presence of Christ in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine.

Most bulletin announcements also have communicated a need for self-examination, a need for repentance, and a desire to amend one's sinful life. They also testify that this meal is for the forgiveness of sins. Many will encourage visitors to speak with the pastor if they are not LCMS members. But in my travels, what I have found lacking is an explanation of the horizontal dimension to the meal. Without that, most Protestants and even many Lutherans will understand the Supper as a "Jesus and me" vertical event. But Scripture and our Confessions also teach the horizontal dimension, that those who come to the meal are stating by their presence that they all believe "the entire doctrine of Christ's redemption," as C.F.W. Walther put it in an essay about communion practice.

To give an illustration of the problem: At Christmas relatives often return home to celebrate with family. Some of those, especially younger ones, have joined non-denominational churches. But now back home again, they wish to participate in the Supper. They believe that the Supper is basically a "Jesus and me" event. "I still believe what I was taught in catechism," they may think to themselves about communion, even though that belief does not square with what their current church teaches. But when one comes to our altars, they are confessing that they believe the entire doctrine of Christ's redemption, and that doctrine also includes baptism. No doubt their present congregation does not teach that baptism is a means by which the Holy Spirit creates faith in the believer's heart. In their view, it is only a rite of initiation. Chances are better than not that they had to be re-baptized to join their current congregation because that church believes that their infant baptism was wrong. Oh, and if the lack of agreement on the doctrine of baptism isn't sufficient to prove that there is a lack of a fellowship base, how about the whole doctrine of sin? A number of non-denominational churches teach that the Christian no longer sins. Confession and absolution, therefore, are out of the question. So one might ask, "Exactly what does our "common union" consist of? The Augsburg Confession states that for the unity of the Church, it is enough to agree on the Gospel and the Sacraments, but there isn't even agreement on those among various church denominations or with non-denominational churches! So how can the Supper be an expression of unity among participants?

Pastors who wish to be faithful stewards have their work cut out for them. The horizontal dimension to communion can't be taught overnight, much less during a few minutes before the service begins. We want to preserve pastoral discretion but not let it devolve into an "everyone is welcome" practice. Neither is it appropriate for the first words from the mouth of greeters to be, "If you aren't an LCMS member you can't commune here." I have heard of pastors whose early Christmas Eve services do not include a celebration of communion, knowing that a large percentage of attendees will be visitors. I've also heard of pastors who spend as much as fifteen minutes of the service explaining the theology and practice of the Sacrament. No doubt there are other good ways of instructing this often neglected aspect of communion. Pastors need to teach evangelically and parishioners need to give their support.