An article I wrote some time ago about a boy with disabilities whose communion meal consisted of grilled cheese and apple juice. I am beginning to think about what this means in our bring-your-own or use-what-you-have communion.
“Blessed is the congregation that invites all worshipers—including those which our culture may label in different ways as ‘disabled’—to full, conscious and active participation in corporate worship.”
Word Communion of Reformed Churches, “Worshiping the Triune God” Revised June 2010
How is that all are included in the body of Christ? The above worship proverb of the World Communion of Reformed Churches focuses on the participation of those who may be labeled “disabled” in corporate worship. However, the more basic question may well be the full, conscious and active participation of all persons in the communion of the church–a communion that goes beyond corporate worship to the heart of what it means to belong to Christ Jesus.
The question of being a part of communion and all that it means was a crucial one for the worship class I taught recently. One student in the class raised the question of the role of communion for her autistic son, whom we will call Ethan. Ethan, who was about ten years old, was not a regular attendee at corporate worship. Instead, the church was providing a special Sunday School class for Ethan and a few others during the worship service.
The whole host of questions that arise about the best arrangement in such situations is beyond the scope of our discussion here. In this particular case, the Sunday School class seemed to be a better placement for the students than attending worship. Ethan’s mom was not questioning this arrangement; instead, she was asking about how Ethan is part of communion.
With regard to Ethan’s literal participation in the sacrament itself, one of the barriers is obviously his absence from worship itself. It is not unusual for someone to bring the Lord’s Supper to those who are teaching during worship. This practice could be expanded to include the provision of the sacrament to the students in the special Sunday School. This communion could follow the model used when providing communion to others who are not present at worship, such as those who are homebound. Thus, rather
than simply stopping in the Sunday School room with the elements, during or at the end of the church’s worship service the pastor and/or some congregants could share with the Sunday School class a brief message appropriate to them along with the words of institution, the elements, and a prayer and/or a song.
Suggesting this potential solution, however, revealed additional barriers to communion. Ethan’s mom noted that the list of things that Ethan will eat is rather limited. The closest he will come to eating plain bread and drinking grape juice is grilled cheese and apple juice. Some worship aficionados might compare Ethan’s preferences to the teenage desire to celebrate the sacrament with chips or cookies and soda. In this situation, however, providing elements specific to Ethan’s condition is more akin to providing gluten-free bread for those who are gluten intolerant.
While grilled cheese and apple juice do not, as one participant in the conversation in class noted, represent “the church’s communion,” this response places the emphasis on the wrong syllable. Communion ultimately does not belong to the church, but to Christ Jesus who is the host. The accent note of the question of Ethan’s involvement in communion is not what the elements or the church’s communion should be, but on the availability of Christ Jesus to Ethan. Thus, the communion offered (or not offered) to Ethan goes beyond the bread and the cup–or even grilled cheese and apple juice, to the question of whether Ethan is a part of the body of Christ.
On the level of Christ Jesus’ open invitation to join with him in communion, Ethan is included. Jesus offers himself to and for Ethan and his Sunday School class. Jesus eats with them, as he did with a wide variety of people during his earthly ministry. While the church is more comfortable if those partaking of communion can verbalize what it is they are receiving, the provision and partaking of food can also be seen as providing its own self-evident meaning. Food offered and partaken signals fellowship, communion, and relationship. It represents an action of sharing, of gift and reception. Persons with
disabilities and elderly folks with limited language and/or cognition are able to participate in the meal and hence in its underlying meaning.
On the level of the local church body, Ethan and his Sunday School class are also included. The message that Ethan and his class are part of the communion of God, and are invited to eat with Jesus, should be primary to whatever meal practices used. This ultimate message of being part of the fellowship of God is of greater importance than the elements used to convey that message. Actively sharing communion with this group of youngsters may mean offering Ethan or his whole class a bite of grilled cheese and a sip of apple juice as their communion fare.
Conversation with the Sunday School class during its communion meals, whatever the fare, could focus on communion themes. Such themes include the idea that Jesus eats with all of us, a lesson perhaps aided by having a picture or doll of Jesus present for the conversation and meal. Another lesson could focus on the idea that we all eat together, a concept that could be aided by photos or videos of Christians communing the world over. The lesson that, like Jesus, we help feed people, could be taught by helping with a feeding program. The reality that the Lord’s Supper is a thanksgiving meal, a party meal, and a memorial meal could each be enacted through how the meal is laid and celebrated. The fact that the meal marks us as God’s people could be indicated by sharing other tokens representing the local church’s fellowship.
Since communion is a meal of the church, on occasion the church body should participate in the Sunday School class’s communion and, vice-versa, the class should participate in communion during the community’s worship. Communion of the class and the worshiping body should include the chance for the congregation to receive from and with the Sunday School class a growing awareness of the myriad of meanings and expressions of this embodied experience of Christ Jesus’ living presence. The very
embodied nature of the sacrament makes participation and non-participation loud and poignant bearers of the message of who is a part of this communion and who is not. Let us make sure Ethan and his classmates know that they are a part of this communion, of this fellowship, of this body—the body of Christ Jesus.