Thoughts about the Lord’s Table


There is a very strange ad in the current issue of Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine. Billed as “An Appeal from Faithful Catholics to America’s Bishops,” it issues this plea: “Please Protect the Body and Blood of Christ from Pro-Abortion ‘Catholic’ Politicians.” I don’t pretend to be able to give advice to Catholic bishops about their sacramental policies, but I certainly don’t think that in either their theology or mine the Body and Blood of Christ need to be “protected” from Catholic politicians who defend Roe v. Wade.

Actually, I may end up being a part of a group that does give some kind of Eucharistic advice to the Catholic bishops. I am presently co-chairing, along with Bishop Patrick Cooney of the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, the official Reformed-Catholic dialogue. The four Reformed denominations are the United Church of Christ; the Presbyterian Church (USA), which I represent; the Reformed Church in America; and the Christian
Reformed Church.  We are just finishing up a few years of talking about baptism and will soon get started on the Eucharist.

In the Reformed congregations in which I was raised, there was never any suggestion that the Table needed to be protected from threats posed by sinners. Indeed, it was the other way around: we were the ones who needed protecting. We were constantly warned against eating and drinking “unworthily,” lest we do so “to our own damnation.”

I broke with that tradition of “fencing the table” in two stages. The first occurred in a kind of instinctive manner. When Phyllis and I first moved to Pasadena, we worshipped frequently at All Saints Episcopal Church, in good part because they had a active program working against South African apartheid, and having worked hard on that issue in my Grand Rapids days I joined the cause at All Saints. Each Sunday when the time came for the Eucharist, the rector, George Regas, would say in a gentle Southern drawl,
“Wherever you are in your journey of faith, we welcome you now to this Table.” Even though I had questions about the theology at work there, that felt right to me.

One Sunday I noticed Dr. Art Glasser in line to receive communion at All Saints; Art is a conservative Presbyterian (PCA), but his wife Alice was an active member at All Saints. The next day I went to Art (a Fuller colleague) and asked him how he worked all of that out theologically. “Oh, Richard,” he said, “long ago I was convinced by John Wesley that the Eucharist has an important evangelistic function!”

That too seemed right to me, but I still had to get past the I Corinthians 11 passage about eating and drinking unworthily, which had been so prominent in my upbringing. When I actually studied the passage in its context, I made my peace. Paul begins by chiding the members of Corinth for making a gluttonous meal out of it. They were overeating, and even getting drunk on the wine. It is with that in mind that he tells them that they are treating as if it were just another meal, and by not approaching the Lord’s Supper with respect they are risking judgment. There is nothing in what Paul says that would suggest that an honest seeker who is drawn to the Table without yet having a well-formed faith will be damned for partaking.

I hope that my thinking about the Eucharist will get further clarified in my forthcoming discussions in the Reformed-Catholic dialogue. To be sure, I doubt that my Catholic partners will be very interested in any practical advice I might have to offer. But if anyone does ask, I’ll tell them that, on my reading, the Crisis ad is very confused. While, like the persons who published the ad, I don’t agree with the pro-abortion politicians, I do hope they will continue to feel drawn to the Table of the Lord.




  1. I really appreciate this post.

    Studying the Eucharist is something I’ve been passionate about for awhile now. In the context of the 1Co 11 passage, and in line with Paul and Jesus’ main message, the danger in the Lord’s Supper is eating without loving unity among the church. Paul’s not worried about the elements at all…neither is he concerned with straying minds and lack of inward focus. Paul says that the most important thing during the Lord’s Supper is to be mindful of your brother or sister in Christ next to you, to make sure they get well noursished, to put away all gossip and division, and to be in joyful unity by the blood of Jesus who makes the table fellowship of believers possible.

    In agreeing with you, I don’t think Paul was concerned about people bringing their own private sins to the table fellowship, but rather bringing sins that fragmented the church and mocked the One who torn down all dividing walls of hostility.

    Comment by OB — April 9, 2007 @ 8:39 pm

  2. Growing up in the same tradition that you did (and having spent a few years of my life in Grand Rapids as well) I was raised with the same view of the Table as you were. The first time that I participated in the Lord’s Supper, I remember feeling nervous. I wanted to make sure that I was doing it correctly.
    I agree that the “eating and drinking unworthily” language has been over done since Paul was addressing a problem at Corinth that we currently do not have in our churches. However, Paul does imply that there is a proper way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
    I would love to have the “evangelistic aspect” of the Lord’s Supper unpacked more because I am not sure how the Table fits in with evangelism. I have always seen the Table as a place where brothers and sisters in Christ share a mealing commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus that is a reality in their lives. I need to understand more fully the purpose of someone who does not yet believe that Christ died and rose again participating in the Lord’s Supper. As the Catechism says in Q&A 81, the Table was intended for “those who are displeased with themselves because of their sins, but who nevertheless trust that their sins are pardoned and that their continuing weakness is covered by the suffering and death of Christ,and who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to lead a better life. Hypocrites and those who are unrepentant, however, eat and drink judgment on themselves.”
    Needless to say, I look forward with interest to your upcoming clarifications.

    Comment by Mike — April 10, 2007 @ 10:21 am

  3. If full knowledge and correct theology were necessary for the meal to be valid and grace imparted, I think there would me many who would not recieve the benefit of the Eucharist. Thank God that is not the case.

    Comment by Jeremy Serrano — April 10, 2007 @ 11:31 pm

  4. Two comments about the Eucharist. (1) Polkinghorne, the British physicisy and theologian, observed that if he expects to encounter Christ anywhere, it will be in the Eucharist. This observation grounds the Eucharist in revelation and not pious sentiment. (2) R.J. Neuhaus described the Eucharist in such a way as to make the Pope the host at the Lord’s Table. Those not in “full communion with Rome” are, in his view ineligible, and participating unworthily. While I seriously respect Neuhaus, I must regard the Risen Lord as the only host at this feast. It is rightly called the “Lord’s Table” and noit the table of any man or church. Any elaborated theology that displaces Jesus Christ as the only host of this shared meal is suspect.

    Comment by David H. Wallace — April 12, 2007 @ 1:14 pm

  5. Isn’t the theology of the Eucharist and the theology of Life a little different?

    I was preparing classes on the practice of communion in America and was amused to learn of 17th and 18th century congregations providing coins that were to be presented at the time of the Celebration. These coins were tokens given by the church to families who were permitted to participate in the eucharist. Of course, that seems like institutionalized piety to our 21st century minds.

    Still, today many of our churches invite to the table “those who call Jesus their saviour”, the inference being that those who don’t should not partake. Of course, those who don’t call Jesus their saviour don’t catch the inference and partake while we in the church who understand this subtle segregation cluck our tongues.

    The call for the Catholic Bishops to protect the Body and the Blood of Jesus Christ may, perhaps, be strong language if we assume that they really are saying that we protect the sacrifice Christ made on the cross for our sins. However, let us not lose sight of what the Bishops are being called to protect – human life. Knowing that Catholic Church assumes some authority over its parishoners, it is wanting to remind the politicians over whom they shepherd, that seeking ‘worldly gain’ through the ambitions of higher office could forfeit the higher authority to whom they answer. Let us turn to another passage in 1 Corinthians “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your body.” (1 Cor 6:20)
    I believe this link bears some relation to Dr. Mouw’s reference.

    Comment by Diane S — April 14, 2007 @ 11:47 am

  6. To Mike who posted on April 10 and wanted the evangelistic approach to the Eucharist unpacked a little more. I ran across this woman’s story of coming to religion through the Supper helpful. (It’s under “Finding My Relgion” and her name is Sara Miles.

    Comment by Diane S — April 14, 2007 @ 11:47 am

  7. For John Wesley’s views on the Eucharist as a “converting ordinance” see his Journal: 19:158, 20:42, 101, 21:233, 244 (Bicentennial Edition of his Works).

    Comment by Geordan Hammond — April 21, 2007 @ 12:17 pm

  8. When/If I fence the Table I tend to keep the Evangelistic function of the Eucharist alive by telling people, “If the story we’ve been experiencing today isn’t something that resonates with you, I invite you to not take the elements. It’s not ‘where you are’ and that’s OK. If you feel drawn to this Story, and the Savior it proclaims, then I encourage you to take the bread and the cup – and know his presence in our midst.

    I did this at a worship gathering we held in a near-by townhouse community – it worked out well as people didn’t feel obligated to take communion, but nor did they feel like it was a “club thing” that they couldn’t be drawn to until after they signed on the dotted line.

    Comment by wezlo — April 24, 2007 @ 7:15 am

  9. Thanks for sharing your perspective! As a Pastor, I find that during any Communion Service many people experience either alienation, confusion or acceptance. These feelings are irrespective of their theological viewpoints. Communion exposes our humanity and too many religious leaders take that moment to reinforce our shame, our guilt and our unworthiness. Communion is inherently evangelistic because it allows us to quit being the judge and remember that Christ’s life and death, his grace and forgiveness encompass mysteries…Ultimately, he is the host, we are gathered in his honor and but we dishonor him by excluding people he know and loves and cares for much more deeply than we ever will.

    Paul’s admonitions were directed to a collective body whose whole approach to the Table was inappropriate, we have prooftexted them to apply them wrongly to individuals who simply showed up for church on Sunday morning only to find out that the most significant moment of the morning/evening is really not meant for them and we would prefer if they would sit silently by while we celebrate John 3:16 and proclaim God’s love for the whole world.

    Please don’t uninvite me, the next time I come to your church. You don’t even know me:)

    Comment by John Hamilton — April 26, 2007 @ 5:27 am