This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 1, 2014. The point of the sermon was to address an issue in the way we were observing communion. Our children were downstairs in Children’s Church, and when communion was served, they all wanted to participate. I thought that parents should be involved in deciding whether or not their children took communion. So, in this sermon I address the history of communion from the early church in 1 Corinthians 11 through the Reformation and the formation of Baptist congregations. While I believe that you can make a case from Scripture for including children at the Lord’s Table, my point is that this decision ultimately is up to parents. If you prefer to listen to the sermon, the podcast is here.
A Problem With Our Practice
This morning, if you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. This is not the lectionary reading for today. But, I want to address a concern that I have because an issue has come up in our observance of the Lord’s Supper here. It particularly has to do with our children. I’ll explain more about that momentarily. But, let me tell you what has prompted this message, and why we’re having the children join us for the communion portion of the service today.
As you know, our practice has been that we do not have a children’s time on communion Sunday because Communion takes an extra amount of time in the service. In the past, our children have stayed downstairs during the entire service, where they have their own Bible study, activities, and snack. [However, the result was that both children and workers missed communion.]
A couple of years ago, our deacons started taking Communion to the nursery and to the adult workers there — which I thought was a very good idea. And, because we had older children in children’s church at that time, the deacons would also serve communion to those children who had been baptized, per our Baptist tradition. And that seemed to work for awhile.
However, Erica came to me several weeks ago with a concern. She said the problem they were having was that all the children wanted to take the bread and the juice, too, along with the adult workers.
I remember when our granddaughters were younger than they are now. Maggie and Vivian were in the service sitting with Debbie one communion Sunday. Maggie was about three years old at the time, and as the bread passed her by she wasn’t very happy. Then, as the juice passed her by, she looked at Debbie and said, “Little children like juice, too!”
So, the issue of whom to serve communion to in the nursery became a very difficult issue for our deacons. And they did what I would have done — they did not refuse anyone who wanted to partake of the bread and the juice when they served communion downstairs.
But it concerns me that our children are not involved in the worship context of communion. It is one thing to have a quick, standup distribution of the bread and the cup, as a deacon reads from First Corinthians. But, it is another thing altogether, I think, to be here with the full community of faith as we go through the ritual — and I use ritual here in a very positive sense — as we go through the ritual that we observe, very carefully handling the elements and distributing those; and, singing; and, reading the words of Scripture; and, then reading responsively the litany during our observance of communion.
That’s the issue that has brought this to our attention in the service today.
After this message about communion and after the choir sings, all the children will join their families here in the sanctuary. And, together families will decide what is appropriate for their children as we take communion together. That is the bottom line that I’m coming to this morning.
Celebrating Communion The Wrong Way
Let’s read what Paul says about communion in his letter to the church in Corinth:
17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.
33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together.34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
And when I come I will give further directions. — I Corinthians 11:17-34 NIV
We have these words of the apostle Paul, giving instruction about how the Lord’s Supper is to be conducted. This is, for all practical purposes, the only glimpse we have into the New Testament church about the manner in which they conducted and received communion.
Paul is making two points, I think. The first point is that the Lord’s Supper is a communal experience. The second point is that they aren’t observing it in a worthy manner.
Apparently, in the first century Corinthian church, they bought more than just bread and wine to communion. Paul said they brought the equivalent of a covered-dish lunch. Because the Corinthians were primarily pagans before they became Christians, they had not come out of Judaism. They had no shared history of the Passover meal. They did not understand the symbolic nature of that meal, and consequently when they came together for communion, they brought a lot of food.
Obviously, Paul says rich members were bringing more food than those who were not wealthy. Some of the Corinthians apparently brought nothing because they were poor. Then, rather than sharing, every family had their own little picnic lunch. One group had a lot to eat, while other groups had nothing, as they are celebrated together the Lord’s Supper.
Paul said, “That’s not right.” And he says, if you do that, you are eating and drinking the Supper in an “unworthy manner.” When we take the Lord’s Supper, we think of examining ourselves, and we often think that means examining our own life and understanding our shortcomings.
But, primarily what Paul is talking about here is their relationship to each other. He is concerned that they were not aware of each other. When Paul writes about not recognizing the body of Christ what I think he means is not recognizing each other in the communal context with which they were taking the Lord’s Supper.
This whole passage in 1 Corinthians 11 is about taking the Lord’s supper by recognizing that the individuals gathered are the body of Christ. To take the Supper in a worthy manner is being aware of others, so that everyone has equal access to the table of the Lord.
Communion Foreshadowed In the Gospel of John
With that backdrop, I want to talk a little bit about communion. You know from reading Matthew, Mark, and Luke — the synoptic Gospels — we have pretty much the same picture. The Last Supper that Jesus shares with his disciples is the Passover meal. It reflects the Old Testament record of God’s deliverance of Israel. When Jesus celebrates the Passover, he does so as a Jew, as a participant in the Jewish heritage he shares with the disciples.
But then, during that Passover meal he does something different, very much like he did when he talked about the law. Jesus would say, “You have heard that it has been said…” and he would talk about whatever commandment that was. Then he would add, “…but I say to you…” and he would have them look at it in a new way.
Jesus is doing the very same thing with the physical elements of Passover. He reinterprets them so that the bread becomes his body, and the wine becomes his blood. It is a symbolic re-imagining of what this Passover meal will mean for those who are his followers.
The Gospel of John has a very different take on the Last Supper than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John does not record any of the “Eucharistic words” that the other Gospels have. He doesn’t have Jesus breaking the bread and saying, “This is my body, take and eat.” Nor does he have Jesus say about the cup, “This is the new testament in my blood. As often as you drink this, you show forth my death until I come, again.”
John doesn’t record any of those details. What John does is very interesting, however. John’s Gospel was written after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is the latest gospel written, just as the Book of Revelation, also written by John, is the last book written in the New Testament.
What John does is present Jesus and the Supper in a different way. That last encounter with Jesus and the disciples goes on for several chapters. Their last time together included the Passover meal. What Jesus does there, though, is talk about the place he is going to prepare for them in John 14. Then, he talks about the coming of the Spirit in John 15. Then, he prays for their unity in John 17. And in the midst of all that, he washes their feet and talks about servanthood. So John gives us a very different picture of what happens in that Passover meal.
But look back at John 6, where John does several things that are interesting. The sixth chapter begins with the feeding of the 5,000. John 6:4 says, “the Jewish Passover feast was near.” I’m convinced that the Gospel writers say things intentionally. I don’t think John just was telling us what day it was on the calendar. I think John connected the feeding of the 5,000 to the Passover meal.
In effect, what Jesus does when he feeds the 5,000 is a Passover meal for common people. He takes the elements that God has provided of the five loaves and the two fish in the little boy’s lunch. Despite the lack of faith of the disciples, and the puzzlement of the 5,000-plus who were gathered there, he breaks the bread and blesses it.
Then, the disciples distributed the bread and fish to the congregation gathered on the hillside. And you know the story: everybody had plenty to eat. Afterward, they gathered up 12 full baskets of leftovers – one basket for every disciple who said he had no idea how to feed that many people.
That is a picture the abundance of the kingdom of God, the provision of God, and the feeding of God’s people by God. It is not explicitly communion, but many biblical scholars believe it prefigures the experience of communion.
The Christian church would understand this idea contained in the feeding of the 5,000 because John was writing later in the first century after the Church was established. They would understand that it was about Jesus being the bread of life, and they would remember that at their own observances of the Lord’s Supper.
Later, in John 6:26, Jesus and the disciples went to the other side of the lake, and the crowd followed him. Jesus answered them in verse 26: “I tell you the truth, you’re looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for that which spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life which the Son of Man will give you, on whom God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
In John 6:32, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who was giving you the bread from heaven which was manna, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. So they said, ‘From now on give us this bread.’ Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life…” You can read the rest of that passage where Jesus said those who eat this bread have eternal life. John takes us to communion by way of the feeding of the 5,000, which in addition to men, included also women and children.
Then, Jesus says in John 6, “Unless you eat this bread and drink this cup you have no life in you.” That is a very important symbolic act.
Communion Changes Over the Centuries
By the second century in the New Testament church, however, communion has become something very different. It has become what one of the theologians will call “the medicine of immortality.” The elements are transformed from being symbolic to being supernatural. They are believed to really become the body of Christ and the blood of Christ. Roman Catholic theologians call this transformation of the bread and wine, transubstantiation — a kind of a mystical alchemy. They believed that even though the elements still appeared to be bread and wine, but they were supernaturally transformed into the real body and blood of Christ.
From that change the church decides that it must limit those who can take the body and blood of Christ. Church services where communion is offered become exclusive. The priests eliminate those who are not fit to receive communion, whether they are Christians or not. Those who have violated church law in the judgment of the priest, are banned from the communion rail.
Eventually communion is restricted even further to the point where the priest alone takes the wine and distributes to the worshippers only the bread. That is done to avoid accidentally spilling the blood of Christ.
Now back to us Baptists. Baptists, after the Reformation, took a different tack. Baptists decided that in addition to the reforms the reformers brought, that only believers could be members of a church. Baptist further believed that each church was separate and independent. So Baptists believed that once a person was baptized, then that person could take communion. But every Baptist church was an entity unto itself and was not answerable to any other church. That’s where the idea of closed communion came from. Communion was closed because each Baptist church believed that you should only take communion with your own congregation. They literally would close the doors of the church to keep out anyone, including other Christians, who were not members of that particular congregation.
In the 20th century, some Southern Baptist churches continued to practice closed communion, but most moved toward open communion. In open communion, anyone who was a baptized believer, whether from that church or not, could receive communion. Ultimately, many churches like ours, invited all to the Lord’s Table. That’s a very brief history of communion.
Children and Communion
So then, what should be said about children and communion? There is ample evidence in the history of the ancient Church that children participated in communion. Saint Augustine said of babies, “They are infants, but they are His members. They are infants, but they receive the sacraments. They are infants, but they can become participants at His table so they may have life in themselves.”
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, infants have long received communion. And Pope Innocent I said that little children should be given the Lord’s Supper. He even tells them how to do it: “in a liquid form of the Lord’s blood or in the form of bread crumbled and mixed with water.” (These historic examples are from the book, Take Eat, Take Drink: The Lord’s Supper Through the Centuries by Ernest Bartels.)
That sounds very different to us because Baptists have said historically that only those who have been baptized should receive Communion. That, of course, usually excluded our youngest children.
However, I think there are a couple of things we need to remember about communion. First of all, it is meant for community. We talked about the manna that Jesus referred to from the Old Testament. That was God’s gift to the whole community of Israel. Secondly, the feeding of the 5,000 included men, women, and children. I’m sure they fed the boys and girls because the lunch came from a little boy.
After Pentecost, when the early church met together there were no nurseries or preschool departments. I’m sure their children were with them when they “broke bread.” Many scholars believe that “breaking bread” meant sharing communion. I believe, although I can’t prove it, that because children were considered part of the family of faith they shared in communion. If households converted together, like the Philippian jailer’s household, I believe they took communion together.
In closing, there are three things I want you to remember about communion. First, it is a community experience. While it has meaning if taken individually, it is primarily an experience for the church gathered together.
Secondly, communion is supposed to focus on Jesus, not only whether the elements become something or not. The focus is on the elements as representative of the life and death of Jesus Christ.
Third, I think the intention is to include rather than exclude people. Two things lead me to that conclusion. First, Jesus’ practice of table fellowship when he ministered was inclusive.
Communion originates directly from table fellowship at the Passover. But in Jesus’s earthly ministry, he was accused by the religious leaders of his day of having table fellowship with those who were unrighteous and unclean. Jesus ate with the sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and the outcasts of society. His table was open to everyone.
The second reason is Jesus’ instruction to the disciples about children. At one point, parents brought their little children to Jesus to have him bless them. The disciples were trying to keep them away because they thought Jesus was too busy for children. But Jesus set the disciples straight, and I think there is no getting around Jesus’ attitude toward children. He said, “Allow the little children to come to me, and do not stop them, because of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)
So, where does that leave us? I think that leaves us right back where we started earlier. I think we ought to celebrate communion as an entire church. So the boys and girls are going to join us after the choir sings in just a moment. I believe it is up to your family, not to a tradition, which may or may not — depending on how you read Scripture — have a biblical basis.
I see the table of Christ as inclusive, not as exclusive. Boys and girls may not understand everything we are doing. But, by inviting them to that celebration, they feel included. And, they grow up knowing that they are a part of God’s family, the community of faith.
If that is not what you believe, that’s fine. That’s why I want to leave it to the families of our children to decide whether or not they want their children to participate. I am not going to keep a child from taking the bread or the cup. But, you as parents may have very good reasons for wanting your children to wait. That is a question that I think we must experiment with and try out together.
So, today this is an experiment. If you have strong feelings about this, please talk to me later. But we’re inviting our children to join us today. And during this service, parents, that will be your decision as a family as to how your children participate. They will be in here participating with us, but it will be your decision as to how they will participate.
Let’s pray together.