“No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.” — Canon I.17.7 of the Constitution & Canons of the Episcopal Church
When we are baptized into Christ, we are made members of his body, the Church. As the body of Christ, the Church is called to witness to and be a sign and foretaste of the kingdom of God. The central sign and practice of this body is the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the Church is nourished by Christ himself. We remember what God has done in Christ and anticipate God’s restoration of all things in him as we participate in Christ, nourished by his body and blood. In this way, the Church is a eucharistic community living in remembrance and anticipation, nourished by her participation in Christ, even as a note of accountability — judgment — enters in, as the community is called to live eucharistically.
It is the ancient understanding of the Church that the Eucharist as remembrance, anticipation, and participation only makes sense for those who have been baptized. And that has been the discipline of the Episcopal Church, as also of most other churches. Increasingly, however, this traditional understanding and discipline is being questioned, and in many places the Eucharist is now “opened” to the unbaptized. While this is well meant, I will suggest that such a practice undermines what the Church and Eucharist are about. Accordingly, what follows is a sketch in several parts of a defense of the logic of the traditional discipline of expecting those who partake of the body of Christ in the Eucharist to be baptized members of the Church, living into its discipline.
Baptism and Jesus’ Disciples at the Last Supper
Sometimes people wonder whether the disciples gathered around Jesus at the Last Supper were themselves baptized. In all likelihood, they were. Andrew was certainly a follower of John the Baptist (John 1:40) and thus presumably baptized. More significantly, Jesus is recorded as baptizing (John 3:26), or at least having his disciples baptize (John 4:1). And, of course, Jesus himself was baptized. John’s baptism is arguably irrelevant to subsequent Christian practice and we see the early Church understanding it as inadequate (Acts 19:1–7). But the evidence that Jesus — or at least his disciples on his behalf — baptized those who wished to respond to his call suggests that Jesus was not bashful about making distinctions between those who responded to his summons and those who did not, and marking that distinction in public ritual.
While the Church’s sacrament of baptism has its roots in John’s and Jesus’ practice, it is somewhat other. Since we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, our baptism is not the same as that of John or even Jesus and his (pre-Easter) disciples. It is an Easter event. And it is the risen Jesus who commands his followers to make disciples and baptize — as the mark of our incorporation into the resurrection; or, at the very least, into the body of witness to the resurrection, which must logically precede the typical meal by which we are nourished in the resurrection life.
Renewal and Incorporation
Jesus famously welcomed sinners and outcasts into his movement. But it is easy for us to ignore the particularity of Jesus and his ministry in ways that are misleading. Simplistic appeals to his inclusiveness miss some of the contours of what Jesus was about. He was not a generic spiritual person teaching universal truths about God to generic people. Nor was his summons simply inclusive without context or expectation.
There is no reason to suppose that Jesus did not accept the particularly Jewish belief that God had chosen and called Israel to bless the nations, even as he recalled Israel to its mission and ultimately fulfilled it himself. Nor was his summons to enter the kingdom a generic welcome of any and all, regardless of repentance and the embrace of particular commitments (see Luke 15:1–10).
Jesus’ movement was a Jewish renewal movement; his mission was to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5–6, 15:24). His words and actions thus need to be understood in that context. Whatever symbolic fellowship meals he shared were limited to those who were already members of the covenant people. They make sense, as several parables indicate, as prophetic enactments of the wedding banquet of Yahweh and Israel, following on their courtship. Jesus therefore welcomed the outcasts of Israel and called all Jews to repent of their neglect of their particular call to be holy and the light of the world. In this context, he gathered around himself a renewed Israel, represented by the call of 12 disciples paralleling the 12 tribes.
Though Jesus showed interest in and compassion toward Gentiles and hinted at their eventual incorporation, he did not gather them into his movement. As one would expect of an observant Jew of his time, there is no indication that he ever ate with Gentiles, outcast or otherwise. There is no reason to suppose that the multitude that was fed miraculously was any- thing other than a Jewish multitude. It was the fragments of Israel that Jesus gathered into the baskets of his movement.
Only after Easter and Pentecost does the Church emerge as a New Israel, in which the old divisions have been overcome by the breaking in of the kingdom of God through Jesus’ resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Now Gentiles, as the “wild olive branches,” are to be grafted onto the “cultivated olive tree” of Israel (Rom. 11:17–24). In this way, the Church is not a generic faith community but an extension of a particular people. Gentiles are welcomed, but only by means of repentance and baptism through which they are identified with Christ and incorporated into his body.
Accordingly, baptism is seen early on as analogous to circumcision, by which new members are incorporated into the covenant community (Col. 2:12–13). And it is the natural expectation for those who wish to come near and keep the feast of the new covenant, the Lord’s Supper (with its own parallels to the Passover meal: see Ex. 12:48). It is about the formation of a people with normal boundaries and normative practices. To miss this is to make Christianity less Jewish than it is.
Community vs. Association
The Eucharist is a communal meal, hence its other name, Holy Communion. That communion is not simply a matter of our communing with God. It is also an expression of and means toward the communion of the gathered body of Christ.
Do we believe that the divine-human drama centers primarily on the individual, or rather on a community? Are we essentially individuals who associate with other individuals, for one reason or another, or are we persons shaped in community, in which case belonging is essential?
Historically, Christianity has emphasized community and belonging. Part of the Church’s rejection of Gnosticism had to do with the latter’s appeal to esoteric knowledge, focused on individual enlightenment apart from communal traditions and disciplines.
In an American, post-Enlightenment context, shaped by the ideology of individualism, the difference between real community and an association of individuals can be hard to appreciate. Inviting someone to the Eucharist irrespective of “where they are on their spiritual journey” puts the emphasis on the individual rather than on our being members of one another with responsibility for, and accountability to, the whole. The Church cannot counter the ideology of individualism by reinforcing that ideology in its central communal practice.
We belong to one another, and to “another country.” We are citizens of heaven and of the kingdom of God (Phil. 3:20, Eph. 2:9). In this perspective, we will do well to look more carefully at what it may mean to live in a post-Christian/post-Christendom context. Under Christendom, the Church acted as the chaplain of a (presumed) Christian society which included every- one. When, out of long habit, the Church continues that role in a post-Christian context, the distinctive practices, disciplines, and beliefs that are the marks of membership become an embarrassment. Thus, we may be tempted to minimize the particulars of Christian discipleship, while emphasizing the generic spiritual journey of all citizens of the society.
Where our true citizenship lies is a question both the religious right and the religious left of the United States tend to get wrong. Baptism is, in fact, our naturalization into a nation other than the one into which we are first born (1 Pet. 2:9). The creed is our pledge of allegiance. And Eucharist is the characteristic privilege and responsibility of citizenship that shapes us as a people and calls us to live as members of the body of Christ with each other in the world. As William Cavanaugh writes:
In the Eucharist one is fellow citizen not of other present “Chileans” [or Americans] but of other members of the body of Christ, past, present and future. The Christian wanders among the earthly nations on the way to her eternal patria, the Kingdom of God. The Eucharist makes clear, however, that this Kingdom does not simply stand out- side of history, nor is heaven simply a goal for the individual to achieve at death. Under the sign of the Eucharist the Kingdom becomes present in history through Christ the heavenly High Priest. In the Eucharist the heavens are opened, and the Church of all times and places is gathered around the altar (Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics,and the Body of Christ, p. 224).
The Church is therefore a body of people who are citizens of another country and the Eucharist is one of our constitutive practices, marking our loyalties as different from, and often at odds with, those of others. That Christians all too often subsume Christianity into local prejudices does not negate our responsibility to get our heads on straight. And part of this should include an honesty with others that participating in the Church’s citizenship carries with it particular responsibilities and accountabilities.
Are we living in communion with one another as the body of Christ such that partaking of his body and blood makes sense? Are we living together into the deep reconciliation God is working in Christ? Are we bearing one another’s burdens? Is our common life reflective of scriptural mandates like those in Matthew 5–7, Luke 6, Romans 12, Philippians 2, and Ephesians 4? Is our life together “a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair”? To participate in the Eucharist is to enter into such expectations. And with such expectation comes judgment.
1 Corinthians 11 emphasizes the serious expectations that come along with partaking of the Lord’s Supper. That text is about how those who take part in the feast of Christ treat each other as members of the body of Christ. That is what discerning the body means. Unless we take seriously our belonging to and caring for one another, we have not discerned the body, and our communion is false — with one another and with Christ. Thus the Eucharist is as much an act of commitment and accountability as is baptism. Again, William Cavanaugh puts his finger on the point:
The parousia is to be a time not only of redemption but of judgment, when the “world” — meaning that part of creation which refuses the sovereignty of Christ — will be overthrown. As the sacrament which anticipates the parousia now, the Eucharist is also placed in the context of judgment. Those who do not “discern the body” and become a member of Christ risk condemnation along with the forces that oppose Christ. The failure to “discern the body” refers not only to the body on the table but the ecclesial body as well (Torture and Eucharist, p. 235).
Beyond the responsibility for, and accountability to, one another as members of the body of Christ into which we are absorbed in the Eucharist, there is a call to mission. To partake in the Eucharist is not a matter of simple passive receiving but of participating in the passion of Christ. Feeding on the body broken for us and drinking from the cup shed for us implicates us in the mission to be ourselves broken and poured out for the sake of a hungry and thirsty world. As our Lord told James and John, baptism and Eucharist go together, in his life and passion (Mark 10:35–45).
The fact that many who are baptized members of the Church do not understand the responsibilities that go with discerning the body is a shortcoming of the Church’s catechesis. That all too often the Church does not face up to those responsibilities is a scandal that places it under judgment. At the same time, inviting people to partake of the Lord’s Supper without being clear about the expectations laid on those who participate places them under a particular judgment unawares, and is neither responsible nor particularly hospitable.