Communion is About Equality

We did communion a few weeks ago at church. I joined my friends in a slow, quiet shuffle toward my pastors holding out the sacraments at the front of the community center gymnasium where we gather for services. In decades past, I would use this time to hype up reverent thoughts about Jesus’ gruesome death. The torn flesh. The whiplashes. The nails. Mental images to make me feel penitent. “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord,” as my pastor growing up would routinely caution us, “eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Translation: ingest at your own risk. There were many Sundays I chose to mitigate the risk and just stay in my seat.

But not anymore. These days I often stand in line waiting to partake in the Lord’s Supper with the same nonchalance that I stand in front of my microwave, waiting for my burrito to cook.

I’m less concerned about the cleanliness of my conscience than about the cleanliness of my fellow church members' hands. But there’s Purell for that. It sits in a giant dispenser on a stool in the front, like a third element. (“This is 63% ethyl alcohol hand sanitizer, purchased for you. Take this in remembrance of the worshippers in line behind you.”)

Have I regressed in my attitude toward this sacred church ritual? I don’t think so. But I certainly haven’t progressed. Growing up, I thought communion was a private moment between me and Jesus, one in which his act of sacrifice on our behalf, graphically symbolized by the eating of his body and drinking of his blood, lead me to feel totally unworthy to participate. Today, I believe I am worthy, precisely because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. My understanding of the Gospel has changed. But the exercise is still largely a private moment between me and God, in my mind.

A friend of a friend recently reminded me why I’m wrong to think that way. She was at her father’s funeral service and denied communion because she was a lesbian. As if the grief of losing her father wasn’t enough, she suddenly had to face a blatant and ugly act of discrimination because of her sexual orientation. She had just sat back down in the pew, totally stunned, when the man next to her pulled out a piece of cinnamon candy from his coat pocket. “This is the body of Christ,” he said, holding it out to her, “broken for you.”

I haven't been able to shake that story since I first heard it.

Communion is deeply and inextricably communal. It’s about fellowship, participation and equality.

Just look at it's history. The Lord’s Supper used to be an actual supper. Not a baguette and Welch’s. A full blown meal. When the Apostle Paul writes his first letter to the church in Corinth, he reprimands them for how they handle communion:

“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 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. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?” (1 Cor. 11:20-22, NIV).

Some are gorging themselves on the sacraments, while others go hungry. There is a basic inequality here that is totally antithetical to the Gospel. The Good News that Jesus preached is that all are welcome at the table, and that the head of the table is reserved for the least* deserving of the group. The Corinthians had it all wrong.

It is within this context that Paul issues the warning that plagued my Sunday mornings growing up:

“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. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

What’s fascinating to me today is how interchangeable the body of Christ (the one that was whipped, crippled and hung at calvary) is with the Body of Christ (his church, the one where we are his hands and feet, where one member in no important than the other). It seems like a deliberate play on words. The great symbol of communion is not the metaphor in food form. It’s God’s children gathering around the table to share a meal. Christ seems to be most present not in the bread and the wine, but in the coming together hungry and leaving together satisfied.

God has so aligned himself with us that his body becomes our body. The blurring of lines between his physical needs and our own is matched by the blurring of who’s included and who's excluded from fellowship:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me….Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least* of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:35-36,40).

Where there is injustice and inequality, there can be no communion. And there is so much injustice and inequality still in our churches. When the Lord’s Supper remains a private moment for me, I’m not sharing it with God. The danger of individualism is that it cuts me off from the physical and spiritual needs of my community. And that’s exactly where God is found. He’s not up front on the table. He’s in the pews, wrapped in plastic, sitting in all our coat pockets.

 

*”Least” according to the subjective perceptions of some in the church, not “least” by any objective measurement of worth.

Say Hello to the New Design! [And Goodbye to All Your Old Comments]

Transient

Sometimes a blog just needs a fresh coat of paint. And such was the case with mine here. Welcome to the new jasonbilbrey.com.

A few changes: 

  1. We have a new commenting system, Disqus. If you don't already have a Disqus account, you can create one below, and stay signed in. It makes having a dialogue much easier. 
  2. Your old comments, though, are totally lost to the ether. Sorry. All the old blog posts are still here, though, so you are welcome to revisit and re-comment with Disqus if you'd like. 
  3. I'll be posting much more frequently (2-3 times per week), so be sure to check in often.
  4. If you subscribed via email or RSS before, you might need to do so again (over in the right column) to make sure new posts make it to your inbox or reader. 

And thanks for reading, following and engaging! See you in the comments :)

[Updated] Is World Vision's New Stance on Married Gay Christians Neutral?

Transient

UPDATE (3/26/14): World Vision has unfortunately reversed their decision, citing backlash from supporters. 

Somewhere in Federal Way, Washington, there’s a woman who loves God, adores her wife and kicks butt at feeding hungry kids.

She’s either a current or soon-to-be employee of World Vision, the large Christian charity devoted to economic development and disaster relief throughout the world, who just announced on Monday that they will extend the opportunity for employment to gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians in same-sex marriages.

Here’s what Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, had to say in an interview with Christianity Today:

Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues. It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.
It’s easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there. This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.
I think you have to be neutral on hundreds of doctrinal issues that could divide an organization like World Vision. One example: divorce and remarriage. Churches have different opinions on this. We’ve chosen not to make that a condition of employment at World Vision. If we were not deferring to local churches, we would have a long litmus test [for employees]. What do you believe about evolution? Have you been divorced and remarried? What is your opinion on women in leadership? Were you dunked or sprinkled? And at the end of the interview, how many candidates would still be standing? It is not our role to take a position on all these issues and make these issues a condition of employment.

It’s odd when you hear both pro-gay and anti-gay individuals voicing the same criticism of any one institution or event. But such is the case here. While many commentators–both within and outside the Church–applauded the move, among those who didn’t there seemed to be one refrain which rose above the squabble: “Is World Vision’s new position really neutral?”

It’s tempting to interpret Stearns’ comments along the brash duality we in the church often apply toward the issue of same-sex relationships: either they’re sinful, or they’re not. World Vision’s decision to employ married gay believers (to provide them with a salary and benefits and otherwise enable them to succeed) seems to place the organization in this latter camp–not sinful. So how can they claim to take a neutral stance?

This is where the framework of duality can really lead us astray. What Stearns is laying out is a more nuanced shift in approach to same-sex marriage, not from sinful to sanctified, but from primary to secondary. That’s an important difference. It’s not a categorical change but a change of category.

There’s a quote attributed to Saint Augustine so often cited that it is now a total cliche, but one that I’ll unabashedly employ anyway: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” As I understand it, World Vision’s new policy moves the issue of same-sex marriage from the first class to the second. From an essential to a non-essential. From something that requires unity of belief to something that allows for liberty among a host of diverse beliefs.

As if for further clarification, Stearns offers several examples of how these divide across other issues. To be employed at World Vision, you must be able to affirm the Apostle’s Creed and the organization’s Trinitarian statement of faith, as well as a sexual conduct policy that prohibits extra-marital sex. But now for World Vision, same-sex marriage on the whole joins the ranks of other issues that, while remaining theologically contentious, are broadly considered non-essentials: women in ministry, divorce and remarriage, and views on evolution, to name a few. But in it’s boldest iteration, the organization’s new decision implies that same-sex marriage, while still meritorious of theological debate, is not fundamentally antithetical to the Gospel message or the mission of World Vision.

That’s still a bold declaration, even if it isn’t a complete reversal on the question of whether homosexuality is a sin.

But is it a neutral stance? I suppose your answer to that question corresponds to whether or not you believe same-sex marriage may indeed be considered a non-essential issue to the Christian faith, one to which individual liberty and institutional neutrality can and should be afforded.

I do. I applaud the organization for it’s boldness in refusing to be blinded by the debate over same-sex marriage in recognizing the humanity of gay Christians and their obvious capacity for vibrant ministry. And even if, in my opinion, Stearns’ distinction between World Vision as an operational arm of the global church rather than a theological arm seems a little disingenuous, I agree that this new stance can be considered neutral.

I know I’m not alone either.

Somewhere in Bangladesh is a single mother who couldn’t send her three kids to school without World Vision’s help. She doesn’t know that the woman in America who’s in charge of mobilizing support in her area is a married lesbian. But I’ll bet she couldn’t care less.

Donate to World Vision here.