It's week number three of the "I am the bread" lines from John's gospel. And I can just hear the priests who are preaching this Sunday secretly wondering, "How long, God? How many more sermons can I write on this topic?"
Better still, this is the portion of the "I am the bread" speech which talks about actually eating Jesus' true flesh and drinking his true blood as the pathway to eternal life. Sounds a bit like the Zombie Apocalypse, doesn't it?
In all seriousness, this may be the perfect opportunity in some quarters to touch on that issue of this past General Convention: open communion. That would be the broad topic. The narrower discussion might be, "Why ARE we so protective of this sacrament? Why DO we value baptism as the prerequisite to receiving this true bread and blood of Christ?"
In the Episcopal Church, or at least in my experience of being an Episcopalian low these 44 years, I find that we don't like to ask these types of questions. For all that we say that we don't check our brains at the door (and that IS true), most of us don't consider why we do the things we do. We do them because "that's the way we've always done it." One must be baptized to receive the Eucharist. This is how we know that someone is a baptized Christian. By receiving the host and the wine, the individual receiving this is bringing Christ into them, and feeding the Christ seed that was planted in them from the beginning of their lives and sealed at their baptism with water and oil.
But for me that raises another question. If baptism is all that is required for someone to receive the Eucharist, then why do so many parents and churches forbid children... yes even babies... from receiving? Could a baby not get the host possibly with an ever-so-slight touch of the wafer into the cup of Salvation? Perhaps that might seem too far-fetched, but I really don't think it is. I don't understand the practice of making baptized children prove themselves worthy of the Eucharist through doing special projects before they can have the taste of the body and blood of Christ. If we value baptism as our adoption by God into the body of Christ, then there is nothing left for a child to prove. They are worthy.
I remember when I had to go through my own routine of proving worthiness to my rector. I was willing to jump through all the hoops in the world, create the poster with pictures representing "community", meet with him to talk about what I thought "communion" meant, and so on and so on. I did this because I was longing to receive Christ in the same way that everybody else was. Did I have a fully-formed theological position as to what happens when I take Christ into my own body? At seven years-old, no, I did not. What I knew was that I wanted it and I didn't understand why I couldn't have it. I sometimes see this same desire in children at the rail. The priest has stopped and offered a blessing on the child's forehead. And then comes me with that bright shiny chalice. I ask quietly of the parents if their child can receive. Almost always the answer is, "No." And so I look and smile at this young one, and can feel their eyes as they carefully observe me administering the cup to mom and dad. Some of the really young ones might reach for the cup. I had one baby do that last week, and I smiled at her and said, "Yes!"
So, if there is a desire of children who are baptized to receive communion before they have done whatever they need to do to satisfy some human-imposed requirement that allows them this very important sacrament, what would it be for the adult person who also wants to receive, but perhaps is not baptized? What might it be that urges them to want to go to the rail?
Perhaps it's the continuous message they hear that to eat and drink these elements is to become one with this amazing presence called Jesus Christ. Perhaps in their own hearts and minds, God is doing work that we can not see. They could be just wanting to receive because of that good ol' fashion peer pressure of "everybody else is doing it." In that case, I suppose, it will go in and out of them without ever taking root. But what if they are someone who is seeking after God in Christ? Do we say, "No!"? Do we really have the right to refuse God to someone who asks for it?
I have heard veterans of war talk about their experience in the midst of battle. When your life is under constant threat from an enemy military, and there is a priest offering communion to the troops, it's amazing how nobody bothers to stop and say, "All baptized Christians are welcome to receive." Such formalities go out the window, and everyone, baptized or not... and some who are non-Christian, take the sacrament. And nobody died of that.
Tradition of the church gives us many examples of baptism as an important first step in the journey toward God. Jesus was baptized before he spent his 40 days in struggle becoming readied for the task before him. Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch in one of those dramatic moments in Acts where an apostle sees that one need not be a Jew or even look like a Jew or be of a particular orientation to be worthy of this entrance right into relationship with God. So I do understand the desire for not watering down, as it were, the importance of baptism. But is the table of God a place to draw a line in the sand? And if it is, when will we really put into practice the idea that all baptized Christians, from babies to their great-grandparents, are eligible to receive?