I wonder how many Biblical literalists take John 6:53 literally. In it, Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” Jesus isn’t being “metaphorical” or “mystical.” He clarifies any confusion as to what He means by His flesh and blood in Luke 22:19-20 when He breaks the bread and passes the cup. For the first 1700 years of Christianity, communion was the centerpiece of our weekly worship (even for most of the Protestants who broke off in the 1500’s). The revival movements of the 1700’s and 1800’s effectively replaced the communion table with the altar call as the climax of worship in evangelical Protestantism at least (yes, that is an oversimplification). What I don’t understand is why communion and the altar call can’t be the same thing.
First, I should say that while I may not understand the Catholic/Orthodox view of communion correctly, I do think they have a very legitimate concern with the discipline of sacramental life and the dignity of the body of Christ. When you take the body of Christ seriously as not just a figure of speech but an actual organism, then you view the sin of the body’s parts as a more pernicious kind of threat. This is the basis for the argument Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 6 against sexual immorality. We are raping Jesus’ body when we engage in formication or any other sin that gives Satan a stronghold in our community. Sin is never a private matter between us and God; it destroys the intimacy God longs to have among the community He created to delight in. The crucified and resurrected body of Christ reestablishes a safe space of joyful intimacy between Creator and creature that was lost in humanity’s fall into sin.
I’m not sure a Catholic or Orthodox would endorse this explanation, but the best I can tell, their communion table is closed to people who have not covenanted with their common life of sacramental discipline in order to protect the body of Christ from the rape of our sin. Or to modify the metaphor slightly, it protects us from the organ rejection that will happen to us if we try to stay in Christ’s body while living in open rebellion against His Lordship since His life swallows up mortality and spits out everything that is not life. I’m aware that neither of these metaphors are perfect representations.
All of this is just to say that I don’t wish in any way to disrespect the millennia of Spirit-led meditation that have led many Christians to believe in a closed communion table. The reason why I part ways with them on this issue (aside from being part of a denomination defined by its open table) is because communion is the heart of the gospel to me. God is telling us that He wants us at His party! And He wants to share His feast with us so badly that His Word became flesh and died on the cross so that we wouldn’t have any reason to fear His invitation. Christ’s table is the means God gave us to invite the world to His feast. So it scandalizes me that any altar call would not also be a call to Christ’s table. How can you even call it an altar if there is no sacrifice on the altar? I also believe that the altar call should be the climax of weekly worship (instead of putting the focus on collecting peoples’ money after the sermon to “pay” for an inspiring word). So in other words, I’m a hopelessly Baptist Catholic averaged out into Methodism.
Every Christian worship service should include a direct invitation to the kingdom. If people are invited forward individually without engaging in the sacrament of our incorporation into Christ’s body, then what our altar call says is that salvation is an individual achievement to be applauded rather than the gift of eternal intimacy with God that Christ’s perpetually crucified and resurrected body provides for us. We can try to qualify what our actions proclaim with pious theological statements about God’s sovereignty and so forth, but if everything we do in worship to represent salvation looks like an individual’s “decision,” then it’s a farce for us to call salvation a gift.
The communion table tells us that salvation is a gift that only Jesus can give and that all we can do is receive the bread of heaven with the open hands of humble beggars. We may not know the moment at which we “get saved” if we accept the many altar calls of communion both before and after our hearts are “strangely warmed” by the Holy Spirit, but if we understand salvation as Christ’s ongoing incorporation of us into His body rather than our “decision” to “believe in Him,” it seems much more conducive to really surrendering ourselves to His Lordship and avoiding the life of Pharisaic behavior in which many falsely saved Christians take refuge to conceal their lack of eternal assurance.
I crave the life that I receive in Jesus’ flesh and blood every Monday at the Catholic basilica in DC. The reason I do this while not being in covenant with the bishop of Rome is because I find myself in the strange position of being called both to marriage and ordained ministry and believing that my wife is called to both of the same. I don’t mean any harm, though I’m sure someone will say I’m being selfish and disrespectful. All I can say is that God has evangelized me incredibly through each Monday mass.
John Wesley preached that communion could be a “converting ordinance.” In other words, he saw its potential to bring non-believers to salvation. We talk in Methodism about means of God’s grace. Depending on where you are in your journey into God’s kingdom, the form of grace you need from God is different. The sacrament of communion offers many shades of grace. Seekers might see in communion a strange, beautiful ritual that piques their curiosity about God. Those who have despaired of the loneliness and dishonesty of their worldly self-reliance can be “cut to the heart” and brought to their knees in repentance by the same basic word that Peter proclaimed in Jerusalem in Acts 2: “This Jesus whom we crucify gave His body and blood to make peace with us when we were His enemies.” Then, those who have surrendered themselves to the life that crucifies our sin can receive the “sweet brokenness” that is deeper repentance and fuller incorporation into Christ’s body.
Of course if this is what communion is supposed to accomplish, then we need to ask whether the way Methodists typically do communion is appropriate to its essential purpose. In our contemporary worship service each Saturday night, I let the Holy Spirit give me the words of invitation based on the particular theme of that week’s message. I understand the rationale for using the words that Christians have used for centuries in order to be one body across time, but if they’re just words in a hymnal that serve the purpose of reassuring us that we’re being “proper,” then that’s a pretty abysmal altar call. If what we’re doing sounds like a flight attendant going through a standard checklist, how is that anything that we can call reverent? If saying the exact words from the third century is important, then they shouldn’t be words we read from a hymnal but words we memorize and teach the significance of. If nobody understands their significance, then it’s sacrilegious to make proper and banal what could be eternally lifesaving.
I may get rebuked for saying this, but I really think we should tailor the words we use for our invitation each time according to the message and the particular crowd we see before us, so that it can be a true altar call that reaches curious seekers, people who are ready to be swallowed into Christ’s body, and Christians who want to fall more deeply in love with their savior. We should expect nothing less from the altar to which our eternal high priest invites us.