Listen To Article
Not that long ago,* I called on an elderly man of my congregation who was hospitalized. On my previous visit he had requested that I bring him Communion. So this time an Elder and I came prepared, planning to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with him. When I arrived, however, I could see that he was not feeling well. When I reminded him of the reason for our visit, he responded, “Could we put it off until next time? I’m just not feeling up to it.” We agreed, of course, to his wishes and were soon on our way, leaving him to his rest.
As I left, however, something was troubling me. I like to think it was more than just the usual concern that seems to run a pastor’s life — of now having to schedule another time to return to this gentleman to celebrate the Sacrament with him. I walked down the corridors of the hospital mulling it over. I didn’t want to be unsympathetic to the plight of my parishioner. His request was neither unusual nor unreasonable.
But as I thought about this request to come back another time, I couldn’t help but hear echoes of that old sexual cliche, “Not tonight, dear. I have a headache.” This experience in the hospital together with a variety of other personal observations, has caused me to conclude that for many Christians, Communion has become something like sex.
I believe that there is more to this comparison than simple shock value. In both cases we seem to believe that it has to be a special, mysterious moment. The setting must be just right. We must be in the proper mood. Generally, it isn’t a physical problem, such as the elderly man’s fatigue, that interferes with the mood or mystery of the Lord’s Supper. Instead we say that our mind was preoccupied. We complain that the fidgety child behind us was distracting or that we didn’t care for the organist’s choice of music. Somehow, we “just couldn’t get into it.” More than once after a Communion service I have heard people comparing their impressions in a tone not unlike, “How was it for you?”
The Sacrament has become like sex because we think its efficacy rests with us and the feelings we are able to generate. When this happens, Communion becomes totally subjective, limited to whatever emotions we are able to dredge out of ourselves.
In our modern understanding of both sex and the Sacrament, we place so much emphasis on having an “experience.” Achieving this experience seems to depend on our knowledge of the right techniques, our expertise, and our performance. With such demanding expectations, it is not surprising that these experiences often prove disappointing.
Being in the right mood or having an experience may seem like decidedly un-Reformed concerns. We generally seem content to use the Lord’s Supper as an opportunity for a theology lecture. But it is my hunch that these lofty, almost sexual expectations, are at least in part created by our Reformed tendency to celebrate the Sacrament so infrequently.
We have Communion so rarely in order to keep it “special,” or so we claim. Yet by trying to keep it special, we only fuel our understanding that we must be in the right mood for Communion. These high expectations, that the Sacrament should always be a special experience, may, in fact, only set us up for a rather anticlimactic event — no pun intended — an event we are in no hurry to repeat.
We have forgotten the very point of the Sacrament. What makes it special is seeing and believing that God works through the ordinary, everyday things of life, like bread and wine. We need to know that it is okay if the Lord’s Supper itself is at times ordinary and everyday. The mystery of Communion is that we can be nourished at times when we “don’t feel in the mood” or “can’t get into it.”
Our understanding of Communion seems to have little room for pure grace. We mistakenly believe that we can only get out of it what we put into it. But grace is at work even when we don’t feel anything. Irresistible grace cuts right through our mood, our expectations, and our performance. Ignatius of Antioch called the Sacrament “the medicine of immortality.” If he is correct then perhaps he very best time for this medicine is when we aren’t feeling up to it.
* Does 31 years ago count as “not long ago”?
This was the first thing I ever had published in Perspectives — incorporating the Reformed Journal (our predecessor) in the October 1991 issue. At the time, I was overjoyed, so grateful and pleased.
“Recently,” just a month or so ago, a colleague was sorting through old papers, found this, and sent it to me. I share it here — somewhat as an exercise in nostalgia. This brief piece was part of a section known as “As We See It.” You could call them op/ed pieces, or maybe early ancestors of today’s blogs. There, this piece was entitled “Communion is Like Sex,” a title chosen by the editors. Names of the masthead in 1991 included Jon Pott, Thomas Boogaart, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. The primary essays in that issue were by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. and Edward Ericson, Jr.
I trust we’ve all changed over the last 31 years, at least somewhat — myself included. Would I say things exactly as they are above? Probably not. There are parts I’d like to edit. If anything, over the years, as I’ve presided at the Lord’s Table, as we have celebrated more frequently, I’ve become more reliant on the objectivity of the Supper rather than my subjective experience of it. The Spirit works within us without us. Thanks be!
And thanks for indulging me.
Congratulations: you win the Most Unexpected Metaphor of the Week prize. And a contender for Most Unsettling.
In the Most Unsettling Metaphor category, surely “fencing the table” would have to be in the running – despite its continued use in some Reformed circles. Although it does get us out of the bedroom, it also suggests a rather strangely laid-out dining room.
Re Most Unsettling/Unexpected Metaphor: in the words of my lapsed-Catholic work associate hailing from Kansas, “I’ll have to go butcher me a hog to get that image out of my mind!”
What I learned through a transformational process our congregation engaged in patnership with The Center for Parish Development in the late 90’s was that mistakenly we often put ourselves at the center of our faith journey/universe. We discovered that the subject of the Biblical narrative is not us, it is God. It is not our churc, it is God’s church. The sacraments are a sign and a seal of what God has already done, not about what we do or feel about the physical reminder of that grace bestowed.
When I remember this I am as astonished as when humanity realized that we were not the center of the universe, it is indeed the sun around which we turn.
Thanks for the reminder, Steve.
When I grew up in the RCA, we only had Communion four times a year, and it was always preceded by “Preparation Sunday”. So yes, we were taught that you had to be right with God to partake, and you had to be a communicant member. Is that still the RCA’s practice? Now, as a Presbyterian, we partake once a month. No membership requirements.
Kathy, same with me growing up in the CRC. There was a quite lengthy form read the week before and we were given the list of things that would keep us from taking communion the following week. You had that one week to straighten up and fly right. On the morning of communion (always the morning), two elders sat in the back at a card table. If you were not a member at that congregation, you had to fill out a card attesting to your church membership elsewhere–and a copy was mailed to that church. to ensure that your home pastor knew you were partaking elsewhere. Even after all of this ritualistic palaver, I remember seeing many people pass the elements on by and wondering, as a child, what sin “hindered” them from partaking.
I don’t know if having communion more frequently would add to or take away from the mystery and conversely, the everydayness, of the sacrament. I know churches that offer it after the service as everyone is departing–sort of a “Hey, folks, if you want communion, it’s up here.” That seems a bit solitary and cavalier.
I think I can say, from our experience at Old First Brooklyn, that the practice of weekly Communion actually increases the desire for it and by no means reduced the mystery, and this is especially true for children.
Great thoughts, Steve. Thank you for these thoughts as well as all your thoughts over the years.