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Reflections on Communion

I want to begin by stating that this is not a theological treatise on the Lutheran understanding of the sacrament of communion. It is also not a critique or criticism of the variety of ways faith communities have found to celebrate the sacrament even when they have not been able to gather in person for worship. This is a reflection from someone who has been serving this church for over 36 years as an ordained pastor and is now a bishop, who loves having communion and presiding at the table, advocating from the beginning of her ministry the importance of weekly communion, having the communion table open to all, including young children, and authorizing lay people to preside if there was no ordained pastor available, AND who during these weeks of fasting from communion has done a lot of thinking and reflecting about the meaning of communion for me and for our church.

Many years ago in confirmation class, studying Luther’s Small Catechism, I learned that the means of grace are the Word and the sacraments (baptism and communion) and that to be a sacrament, three things are required – a physical element, commanded by Christ in Scripture, and the ability to convey life, forgiveness, and salvation. When I grew up in the church, you had to be confirmed before you could begin receiving communion. But the year I was confirmed was the year the larger church made the decision to lower the age when children could begin receiving communion. What?! I had to wait. I had to memorize the Small Catechism. I had to take sermon notes . . . . Why were these younger children allowed to have communion when they hadn’t done all the work and obviously didn’t understand what it meant?

But if communion is a means of grace (and it is!) then how can any of us earn it, whether by our age, our recitation of correct doctrine, or even our understanding of the sacrament? How is it even possible to really comprehend how Christ is truly present in a little piece of bread which remained bread, in a sip of wine (or grape juice) that remained wine. It always comes as a gift, as an undeserved gift. With this growing appreciation and awakening I started to ask – then why can’t children, even young children partake? Why isn’t everyone welcome at the table? What a joy it was for me as a pastor, when I accepted the call to serve at Our Savior’s in Topeka, KS where children of all ages took communion, to be able to stand at the altar and say, “The table is ready and you are all welcome.” And by all, I meant ALL. Why would we gather for worship and NOT celebrate this gift? Of course, we would celebrate communion every Sunday. To do anything less made no sense to me.

With this understanding, I was surprised by my own decision to fast from communion once we suspended in-person worship services throughout the synod. There are many individual spiritual practices that I have and continue to engage in to experience God’s grace and know that Christ is with me, practices that bring me comfort and peace. I read Scripture and other devotions, write in a journal, pray, walk, listen to music. But for me communion takes place in the gathered community, a communal meal shared with people of God. And the reality is in this pandemic, in these weeks of sheltering at home, that has not been able to happen for me. Fasting from communion is my honest recognition that things are not as they should be, that this is painful and hard, but that God is still present. More than trusting the means of grace, I trust the grace will carry me through.