First communion

In preparation for communion, a group of about ten men makes its way to the front of the gym; the pastor introduces the men as church elders. They wear suits and stand shoulder-to-shoulder like a band of benevolent gangsters. In a well-choreographed routine, each takes a basket of bread and a section of audience and oversees the distribution. The mounds shrink as baskets glide down each row, handed quickly from one person to the next. Soon, everyone has a hunk. I hold mine, thinking we might eat in unison, but I realize the little boy next to me has already eaten his. I pop mine into my mouth.

I’m watching the kid for clues on how to do things. The tray of wine passes, and I follow his lead as he quickly drinks his. Surely it was grape juice, though I didn’t hear mention of nonalcoholic options or gluten-free alternatives like at the Lutheran services. Perhaps these folks have stronger digestive tracts and less checkered pasts. I can feel that tiny sip like a measure of warmth traveling down the center of my body.

The kid has noticed me checking him out. His actions have become more pronounced followed by a pause and a glance to see that I’ve mimicked him; he is the scientist and I’m Koko the Gorilla. A few moments after communion, he sends his arms into the air and turns to face me. I consult my program. We’re at something called “Commissioning” where “God blesses and sends his people.” It says, “The congregation may raise hands.” I put my arms up and the kid looks pleased. For the length of a hymn, everyone holds the classic pose of surrender, but somehow I feel like the criminal.

At the end of the service, the golden-ringleted mother of my aisle-mate family tries to engage me in a bit of polite conversation. I can sense her struggling between a duty to be welcoming and an apprehension of newcomers. She says she moved here from California and I tell her that’s one of the states I call home, too. This does not seem to reassure her. I can’t help but think that if it weren’t for this religious elephant between us, she and I might be friends.

She and I say an awkward goodbye and I wander slowly toward the exit. I see no open invitation for fellowship, no table with cookies and coffee. Now that they aren’t here, I sorely miss those treats. I have a feeling that members of this congregation will break off and gather in private living rooms, creating “invisible churches” of their homes.

Calvin liked to point out that not everything is as it appears: there is the church you see and the church you don’t see. I think he meant to highlight an ambiguity—a person associated with a religious institution is not necessarily more indicative of God than an “unchurched” person. It depends on the person. Just as we can never know for sure who is saved and who is not, the walls themselves assure us of nothing. But among members of this congregation, Calvin’s concept of the “invisible church” seems to take on added meaning: so much of what they do operates on a parallel track to the larger community, happening in isolation, out of sight.

Driving home, my mind wanders back to communion. How did it make me feel? It happened so quickly. Was I empowered by it?

Actually, what I felt was the opposite of what I’d normally consider empowerment—it was vulnerability. For a moment, the barriers that keep me standing alone dissolved. Briefly, I let myself be one of many. It made me hopeful because even if I am a None, and even if they aren’t sure whether I’m in the saved pile and I’m not sure whether they think slavery is okay, we can look past our differences and honor the basic humanity in one another. It’s such a loving gesture, a gesture worthy of Jesus. I feel lightheaded from the sheer wonder of it. It’s not until I get home and look again at my program that I see in fine print: all communion-takers are to be baptized and current on church membership.

It’s their rules I violated, but I’m the one who feels like crying.

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21 thoughts on “First communion

  1. Was the little boy you sat next to baptized? Was he even old enough to be baptized or is there an age required to be baptized. What about the survivor on a desert island…can he be baptized or even attend church. Are you automatically receiving the Holy Spirit by the act of baptism? Does the dip into water qualify you for the Holy Spirit. What about those people in countries like Iran where they may not have access to a church….can they receive God’s Holy Spirit? Is it the intent in your heart and mind that counts or is it really the ritual that counts?

    • James, If I had to guess, I’d say the little boy was baptized in that particular church–though I know in many Protestant denominations baptism doesn’t take place until later in a person’s life and the issue of whether or not children take communion is generally solved when they go off to Sunday school mid-way through the service. That wasn’t the case at this church. As to the rest of your comment, those are excellent questions.

  2. Going far back in the history of the church (first few centuries), you will find the concept of ‘closed communion’, meaning the Eucharist was for the baptized believer. My understanding of this practice is that the taking of Eucharist, body and blood of Jesus, was so holy that only the spiritually prepared were safely able to take it. Those who came to ‘hear’, or those who were catechists, learning of Christianity but not yet baptized members, were dismissed before Communion was served.

    You will find this still in some churches. My Lutheran church, which was Missouri Synod, was closed communion. So is the Anglican church I attend now. I have also been to Lutheran churches of the ECLA which practice paedocommunion (children and infants given communion) and all who wish may come to the table.

    Arguing one way or the other can devolve into counting how many angels dance on the head of a pin, and that is not productive. I lean toward the closed communion based on my own personal feelings that it is a holy mystery for which one should prepare ones’ heart and soul beforehand. There are many who will disagree and call it only a memorial, not a sacrament. What I will say is that remembering back on the words spoken by Jesus, called the institution “this is my body and my blood’..and ‘do this in remembrance of me’….it makes sense to me that it is preferable to know what you are doing when you do it.

    There are many, many views on this, and many may disagree with me. But I would say “Don’t cry, and don’t worry about ‘violating’ rules.” If Jesus would not turn away a child, why would he turn away a seeker? I DO suggest that you do some research into what the early church thought of communion.

    God bless you on your journey.

    • Thanks, Patti. I believe there was some sort of serious argument at some point (probably medieval times) about how many angels could dance on the head of a pen….hence the reference. The church has not always been exactly relevant to people’s needs. I hesitate to call communion a “sacrament,” (which, according to some, imparts some sort of grace to the taker; I generally explain it as a remembrance), but when I take it, I sense the grace of communing with Jesus and him giving himself for me so I stand forgiven before God, so there’s probably not much genuine difference….I grew up in a Presbyterian church, and always took communion, even as a young boy. I didn’t really understand much of what it was about, but it was always special to me, and was part of what God used in my life to keep drawing me to himself (years later)…btw, how many angels CAN dance on the head of a pen?

  3. Hi Corinna: I’m glad you took communion. You might find that surprising since I’m a Christian and your experience, so far, seems to be that it’s a “them” against “you” proposition….so I want to cry–not for you–but for them and their rules. I don’t know how much you remember from your reading of the Gospels, but one of the main things that Jesus decried, got angry about and at was the traditions (rules) of the religious leaders, who were really haughty and disdainful of those they thought unworthy–the ones they considered “sinners.” They, in fact, were leading people away from God and piling all kinds of requirements onto them besides. Don’t cry, my friend (if I may call you that…you’re opening a lot of yourself to the public)….Cry for them….And why would you feel like “the criminal”? I am guessing that much of what you saw did not attract you to Jesus? (I hope there were exceptions and that you’ll tell us about some). In some comment I mentioned John 13:35, where Jesus spoke of people knowing we are his disciples (followers, apprentices) if we love one another. His love is unconditional. Did you see any such thing in this church? I pray you did, but I’m not holding my breath…..

  4. I’m glad that you didn’t see the fine print until after the service. God sent Jesus for all who would come to Him. It’s hard enough for us to get in the right spiritual frame of mind in this busy world without others deciding that we’re not ready yet. May God bless you on your journey of faith. I prayer that you will encounter many who are friendly and loving in you quest.

  5. Reading your communion episode found me laughing and crying. I think your best experience came at the end in your feeling of vulnerability and transcendence. I think that’s what Jesus was about.

  6. “…whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
    1 Corinthians 11:26

      • Then What? “…Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect Him.” Matthew 24:42-44

        • To Brother Bill… I would not be at all surprised if that was a political statement to the first century Christians by someone who believed that a scare tactic was in order to keep people interested in Christianity. Considering that this was written about 70 years after the death of Christ and most likely not by Matthew but by someone else who used Matthew’s name because he was well known and people were more apt to read it if it looked like he wrote it. There was a lot of political activity going on at the time with the Romans.

  7. Something always grinds inside me when I hear stories of churches who claim Jesus, doing excluding things. It’s so not Jesus. There’s this part on the last page of the Bible that says, “And the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.” The Jesus I know always says “Come closer, come in, come further up and further in, come to me!” Always loving and inviting. I’ve been in so many churches like the one Corinna describes here, and have tasted, rather than a “Whoever, come!” flavor, a Secret Club flavor. Probably the main reason that I am a None, who used to be in the Box but am not anymore, is because the Secret Club stuff, the In Crowd/Out Crowd, Us/Them stuff, rings so falsely when you really look at who Jesus is.

    • Amen and Amen. But if they didn’t have the “secret hand shake” they wouldn’t have anything to draw the people in who would consider themselves “special”. There need be nothing special about Jesus except the value we give him through interpretation. Perhaps the knocking on the door is not so much to let him in as it is to let him out so that each is free to share the gifts already given but which the culture has created fear to do so. We each have a unique God given gift to give. The God within gives it. It is waiting to be expressed without fear or reprisal. Maybe it’s not that Jesus is knocking to get in as much as to be let out in voice, in song, in art, in the activity you were born to give. And what a grand communion that would be.

    • Homewithin, I share much of your frustration about all the “Rules” and the Secret Club Stuff. For example, I was baptized in the Methodist Church when I was a baby…without my content, of course. And then when I was 12 or 13 I went to a revival meeting at the Church of God with my friend, and with my consent, but little true understanding, I was “Saved.” By all accounts, this would make me qualified to take communion in the church where Corinna attended. Well, that is if my baptism follows the rules of this particular church. I wasn’t fully immersed, of course. The Methodists don’t do that. But just how this baptism counts for anything is puzzling to me. It was certainly not of my free will……..

      And the Saving…well, that is a story in itself. My friend who invited me to go was horrified when I actually went up to be saved. Apparently, I didn’t understand those rules either….although they were social rules rather than the rules of the Church of God. She veritably hissed at me when I finally came back to my seat! Although my friend believed/understood that the revival meeting was apparently supposed to be a spectator sport, she had failed to tell ME that rule. I am sure that the Church of God was glad that they were able to save my soul, but this situation turned out to be somewhat of a turning point in my journey away from the Christian faith/churches. I was never again able to trust the established churches……especially those who would take advantage of the young and vulnerable who were just seeking the Right Way….whatever that was.

      I am now a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Church where there are really no rules which one has to follow to be “in the club,” so to speak……actually I would say we have NO club, as every one is finding their own way…that is part of our belief system. And it suits me. And by the way, my soul is just fine nowadays. Baptized? Saved? And finished with all the rules that human beings put into place in our churches. I am happy to have found a spiritual home which respects my individual journey.

      • I particularly like your final sentence, “I am happy to have found a spiritual home which respects my individual journey.” I attended UU San Diego several times in my journey. The husband and wife ministerial team was great and the many activities that people created for themselves were also wonderful. Although no one said I had to join in I found myself a little too uncomfortable with the deep involvement in social issues. It just didn’t satisfy what I wanted of a more spiritual nature but I continue to appreciate churches like it that have few or no rules or special interpretations of things and instead assist individuals to find a better life through love and self-knowing. There is nothing to be saved. The revelation to be learned is the revelation that we are always standing in the Oneness of Spirit and our goal in life is to find its presence within ourselves when we’re ready.

        • Frank, your experience with the UU Church is not an isolated one. My own Church is very active in social justice issues, but it is a small enough group, that I can be there to remind the minister and others that some of us need sermons/activities of a more spiritual nature. Those people who are deep into social justice assure me that this is spiritually satisfying for them, but, I am like you in that I need a more straight-forward approach. So far this is working for me. We have also started an adult religious education group which really functions in the spiritual realm on an on-going basis, so I am getting what I need in a nurturing environment. I really liked your last sentence, Frank, for we are standing in the Oneness of Spirit….and that we each have our own journey to find our place within that Oneness. Here I am almost 68 years old and still finding new understandings. That’s a good thing! Thanks for your feedback. MET

  8. Pew communion pretty much throws all restrictions out of the window. Normally, the minister distributes the bread because s/he generally knows who are communicants and who are not. You did nothing wrong so I would use the opportunity to ponder what took place rather than chastise yourself for breaking one of their rules.

  9. In the New Testament there are letters to churches from Paul, a Jewish man who became a believer. So he went around Roman territory from town to town sharing the good news and many people with absolutely no religious background became believers. Then churches were established. One of those churches was at Corinth. They did all kinds of things wrong, and Paul worked with them. Regarding communion, in one of his letters he gets on them because they were divided; they were getting drunk; the ones who had plenty were not sharing, thus excluding some people. Can you imagine going to communion and they refuse to give you a piece of bread? Paul was appalled. So when you think of church members, they are all at various levels of maturity and they, too, have checkered pasts. We all do in God’s eyes. The Bible says “Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners” (Romans 3:9). This is all over the Bible, from beginning to end.

    Communion goes back to Passover (ask your husband). Jesus was celebrating Passover on the night He was betrayed. Passover celebrated God’s saving the Jews and all those whose doorposts were marked by the blood of the Lamb. It is a very vulnerable position of need. You got it! You understood and experienced exactly the emotion which results from being saved from death. We cannot save ourselves, we cannot define God as we would like God to be, we are not in control. Jesus told His disciples that His body and blood was the lamb.

    Jesus talks about a door that you enter through. It’s called sometimes “the narrow way.” When He first began His ministry He went from town to town saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come.” That sounds exclusive. Hmm. But what it means is very simply just “turn around” from your own self-directed life and see/follow God right in your very midst. Yes, that’s vulnerable. It’s also being honest: I was going that way; now I am going to go this way.

    I remember when someone shared the message with me and I felt my own checkered past. It made me cry, but as I thought of Jesus stepping in, the mercy and love just helped me walk into that way.

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