As Open as the Outstretched Arms of Christ on the Cross: Moltmann on Open Communion

Last week I posted some thoughts about the practice of open communion. To add to that discussion I'd like to share some of the thoughts of Jurgen Moltmann from his book The Church in the Power of the Spirit (H/T to Tony Jones for making me aware of Moltmann's analysis awhile back).

In the book, after a theological discussion regarding the Lord's Supper, Moltmann discusses how that theology should "unpack" in the concrete practices of the Lord's Supper within the church (pp 258-260).

First, the Lord's Table must be central to the worship experience and the Lord's Supper should be practiced at every gathering: "The fellowship of the table must be central for the assembled congregation, just as much as the proclamation of the gospel...[The congregation] will celebrate this fellowship of the table at all its assemblies."

Second, the practice will be one of open communion:
Because this fellowship comes into being on the basis of Christ's unconditional and prevenient invitation, the fellowship will be an open one. It cannot limit Christ's invitation to its own account. Everyone can participate who wants to participate in the fellowship of Christ. The communion is the answer to Christ's open invitation...

Because of Christ's prevenient and unconditional invitation, the fellowship of the table cannot be restricted to people who are 'faithful to the church', or to the 'inner circle' of the community. For it is not the feast of the particularly righteous, or the people who think that they are particularly devout; it is the feast of the weary and heavy-laden, who have heard the call to refreshment. We must ask ourselves whether baptism and confirmation ought to go on counting as the presuppositions of 'admittance' to the Lord's supper. If we remember that Jesus' meal with tax-collectors and sinners is also present in the Lord's supper, then the open invitation to it should also be carried 'into the highways and byways'. It will then lose its 'mystery' character, but it will not become an ordinary, everyday meal for all that, because the invitation is a call to the fellowship of the crucified one and an invitation in his name to reconciliation with God..."
Earlier, Moltmann sets out the theological rationale for this "open invitation" (pp. 244-246):
...[I]t is the Lord's supper, not something organized by a church or a denomination. The church owes its life to the Lord and its fellowship to his supper, not the other way around. Its invitation goes out to all whom he is sent to invite. If a church were to limit the openness of his invitation of its own accord, it would be turning the Lord's supper into the church's supper and putting its own fellowship at the centre, not fellowship with him. By using the expression 'the Lord's supper' we are therefore stressing the pre-eminence of Christ above his earthly church and are calling in question every denominationally limited 'church supper'...

What is true of theology applies to church discipline as well. The Lord's supper is not the place to practise church discipline; it is first of all the place where the liberating presence of the crucified Lord is celebrated. But in many churches the admission of one person to communion is practically linked with the excommunication of others, so that the Lord's supper is preceded by a 'test' of the individual's worthiness or unworthiness...Christ's original feast of joy is then unfortunately transformed into a meal of repentance where people beat their breasts and gnash their teeth...

Life is more than knowledge about the laws of life; and in the same way the fellowship of Christ and fellowship with one another are more than knowledge about its conditions. The Lord's supper takes place on the basis of an invitation which is as open as the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. Because he died for the reconciliation of 'the world', the world is invited to reconciliation in the supper. It is not the openness of this invitation, it is the restrictive measures of the churches which have to be justified before the face of the crucified Jesus. But which of us can justify them in his sight? The openness of the crucified Lord's invitation to his supper and his fellowship reaches beyond the frontiers of Christianity; for it is addressed to 'all nations' and to 'tax-collectors and sinners' first of all. Consequently we understand Christ's invitation as being open, not merely to the churches but to the whole world.
Let me pause to say, this is the vision that captures me when I think of open communion. Not to say there aren't other issues on the table, but this theological impulse trumps for me.

Third, as the meal is shared each person will "offer another bread and wine with Christ's words of promise." This brings us into the eschatological nature of the experience.

Fourth, the Supper will be shared with the congregation facing each other, seated around a table if at all possible: "The meal's character of fellowship is brought out when the person performing the liturgy stands behind the altar, so making it a table, and celebrates facing the people. It is demonstrated even more clearly when the congregation sits around a table."

Fifth, when possible, and preferably all the time, the Lord's Supper should be a part of an agape meal where everyone eats together: The Lord's Supper should be followed "by a common meal, and the proclamation of the gospel by a common discussion of people's real needs and the specific tasks of the Christian mission."

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34 thoughts on “As Open as the Outstretched Arms of Christ on the Cross: Moltmann on Open Communion”

  1. "Open Communion???"

    "This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.""This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink [it,] in remembrance of Me.""For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes."

    Why would one who doesn't believe they are a sinner, deep in debt to God or who doesn't believe there ever was a God-man, Jesus, let alone that He might ever be coming back to earth or who doesn't believe in a god who uses blood to ratify a covenant have any desire to partake of this communion?  And, I don't use the word 'believe' as in "Yes, I believe it's going to rain" and then leaves home without an umbrella.  To whom exactly is the communion to be open?

  2. Experiencing communion in my (current) UMC church, prior to becoming "official" members was truly a "kairos" moment for me.  I believe that open communion is standard practice in the UMC denomination.  On the other hand, I'm also very aware that a lot depends on the local congregation, as far as the degree of actual hospitality that an outlier will sense/feel.  Words of invitation welcome ALL to the Lord's table.  All four of us (including our two children, one baptized and confirmed, the other not either one) have taken communion from the first time it was offered to us as "visitors."  The experience, for me, in this church, was and has continued to be less about partaking of the bread and grape juice as symbolic of the body and blood of Christ than it is an acknowledgement of being embraced into the community of faith.  I'm a freak when it comes to fitting into any group.  My church accepts all, and hasn't made me feel ashamed of being a weirdo.  The rest of my family has had the same experience.

    Communion is done in our church's tradition at the altar, row by row.  We used to sit behind the pew with the space for wheelchair-bound persons, more toward the back of the sanctuary.  So rather than beating myself up in prayers of contrition until our row was called, I spent the time watching the people go forward, listening to the blessing prayers that the pastor spoke over each group, and then seeing the people come back to their places.  After all the rows had received communion, the pastor comes down the aisle to the wheelchair-bound persons and brings communion to them.  I have a soft spot for the elderly, and this was so touching to witness.  The message I got:  The weak are valued and cared for in this church.

    So I watch all these people, not a-one of them I knew at the start, and felt hopeful that I and my family could belong with them.  As Ann Lamott likes to say/pray, "ThankYouThankYouThankYouThankYou!  Amen."

    We do weekly Wednesday night fellowship-meals as well.  The children's and chancel choirs practice on Wednesday night, then the kids, jr./sr. high youth, and several adult small groups break out into their respective activities.  The kids and I come straight over to the church after our nursing home fellowship on Wednesday afternoon.  It's been great.  My closest friends at this church are ones that I met on Wednesday night.

    This would be my unroast of church.  :-)

    Having said all that (probably too much talking already), I do not believe that the ritual of communion itself has any magical power to imbue peace and "oneness" with Christ or fellow church folk.  I do not believe that those who are not part of a church and do not regularly receive communion cannot experience peace with God and others in various other ways.  I do agree that any church that limits who may participate in and receive communion is probably missing Jesus' whole point.  And that is sad indeed.

    On a related 'Unclean' note, I had been imagining a while back what would happen if churches began to widely practice the foot-washing ritual of Maundy Thursday tradition.  I thought of it, having just celebrated the Lenten/Easter season, and in pondering the front cover of 'Unclean.'  But, you know, the more I thought about it, the more I dismissed the idea as widely workable, because it just struck me as far too intimate and "messy" for your average American Christian.  We fellowship, but often maintain a nice, safe, neat and tidy distance...  And that's a shame, because I think there is something very meaningful in what Jesus was trying to teach the disciples in the foot-washing interaction.  ~Peace~

  3. I write as a practising Catholic, not a very good one, but a still Catholic. And I know I don't speak for my church.

    Surely if the Eucharist is to re-enact our Lord's sacrifice, it should be open to all: just as much to those who scorn or mock it, as those who believe Holy Communion to hold the ultimate sacramental value.

  4. The Eucharist is an invitation to belief and in my tradition a means of grace, somewhat more than a self-affirming reward for those who already believe. Powerful stuff in that bread and wine. Taste and see.

  5. It seems to me that the objections to open communion center on whether *other people* should or should not be partaking in Communion, with a kind of "how dare they offer it to ____ "(fill in the blank with your favorite Other).  Didn't the disciples have somewhat the same reaction when they saw an "other" preaching/healing in Jesus Name, but weren't with the big "Us," and reported to Jesus that they told the guy to stop? And Jesus replied to quit stopping him, because those who weren't against were for Him. (Mark 9:38-40). So if someone wants to partake of Communion, it seems Jesus has already addressed the warrants by which the ingroup would want to stop him.

  6. Wow, I love that.  Traditionally, the denomination to which I belong has not practiced open communion, but I'm noticing a shift and delighted to see that a number of churches within our synod now offer communion to anyone who wants to partake of it.

    1 Cor 11:27 says, "...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."  I'm thinking "unworthy manner" is probably referring to someone who's unrepentant.  But that's not something we can know just by looking at someone, so who are we to judge?

  7. Ah yes, the tradition of men.  But, how is your comment a response to what I quoted or the questions I asked?  By the way, bringing in 'a self-affirming reward' is a red herring here.

  8. David, 

    Though she may not have specifically meant it to be, Patricia's comment below is directed at you, and those like you. You are one who has many "favorite Others" -- which refers to anyone who has not made the same *smart, wise, and righteous choice to believe* that you did.

  9. I love this so much, for a couple of reasons. I'll probably blog about this tomorrow, but I'll test it out here.

    When I was a kid, before I was baptized, we went to a house church started by some friends of my parents. Sweet older couple. They were NT restorationist, though not of the Stone-Campbell variety (yes, non S-C restorationists exist), and believed you had to be baptized not just to have communion (which our church practiced, as well) – but to even sit in worship. Sooo everyone sat in a circle in the living room. I sat in the dining room. Yep, that happened. I can't imagine how that comports to the radical inclusivity expressed not only by Jesus himself, but by Paul, whose words are so often the basis for most restorationist settings.

    At Highland a couple of weeks ago, we did the communion-down-front thing, and I brought my 3-year-old daughter, more because I didn't want her sitting back there by herself getting into who-knows-what trouble. We always passed the communion plate above her head, and she rarely ever asked for it, so we never thought anything of it. But down front, after I had taken communion, the pair of very sweet older ladies serving us leaned down and told my daughter, "Jesus loves you very much and this is the life he gave for you." And she took her first communion. I have no doubt it meant something to her, and it meant a lot to me (I'm tearing up just typing this out).

    So this past Sunday, when we did the usual pass-the-plate thing, our daughter asked if she could have communion. I still wasn't sure, so I asked her why. Her answer: "Because I want to praise Jesus, too!" Needless to say, we probably won't be passing the plates over her head again. And if your God won't let her take communion because she hasn't gone through the needed steps, then my friend, I don't think we worship the same God.

  10. Dear anonymous (why in the world did your parents give you such a name???),
    YOU are guilty of misreading me.  I have given no indication that I wish to "fence off the table" to anybody.  Nor, have I ever said that I had ever made a *smart, wise, and righteous choice to believe.*  Where does all of this angry nonsense come from  (and I assume you also think you are a 'loving' Christian) ????

  11. Thanks for sharing a real life example of non-open communion followed by the story of the sweet ladies who blessed your daughter. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that some churches take it to that extreme!
    The church we attend doesn't have open communion, but generally will not object or intervene if a child partakes without being baptised or confirmed. It's one step closer, perhaps, though the bishop has recently re-emphasized that communion is closed.
    The reasons in favour of open communion that Richard shares via Moltmann resonate well with me....

  12. My mind is tempted to substitute the word "supper" with the word "salvation" while  reading Moltmann's excerpts.
    Gary Y.

  13. Years ago, I attended a quiet retreat at a Catholic monastery. I attended the mass, but, not being a Catholic, I was not allowed to take communion. At the time, I was annoyed. Today, I can respect their tribal boundaries. David and Frank both make good points. Personally? I would not withhold the wine and bread for anyone who wanted to partake, believer, curious non-believer, or any well-meaning variant.

  14. What about the non-baptized Christians, pious church-going ones who know their denominational theologies thoroughly, who know other denominational theologies rather well, and who regularly give to the church AND to the poor, and who by any measure other than baptism are as Christian as you get? They exist. Are they not part of the church? Now I do not see you specifically exclude them, so maybe you wouldn't; I don't know. But part of the issue with the closed/open communion debate is that there are people who by almost any measure should be included but aren't due to a particular logic of baptism-initiation. They meet all of the criteria of your second paragraph, though. (Negatively defined, of course, since you're talking about those you wouldn't include.) In other words, the boundaries are fuzzy, and fuzzy boundaries are hard to police. Are we willing to police them if that means excluding those who absolutely should be on the inside, and would like to be?

  15. As "anonymous" I have no more anonymity than you do as "David" in a nation of millions of Davids, but thanks for questioning my parents' choice. They chose it so that at least someone would get the credit for all the *anonymous* statements that are made daily. 

    Your whole line of thought, and its resulting final question, implies the "indication that I (you) wish to fence off the table." Denying that implication does not change your underlying philosophy and the intent behind your statement. You consider yourself a "believer," and others as not, and by your supposedly "innocent" statement and question you reveal yourself as an exclusivist. It can be a hard pill to swallow, so my recommendation would be a glass of milk and a straight look in a mirror.

    I am not angry (nor nonsensical) in the least. In fact, I feel sorry for you (while always making complete sense to myself). And compassion is very "Christian" and "loving" indeed, is it not?

    I'm just annoying you aren't I? Feel free to ignore me.

  16. Some thoughts: at the church I attend, we take communion standing in a semi-circle in the lower sanctuary, so we are facing one another. (I am not sure about the background to this practice. I'll make sure to ask.)
    When training to be a server and chalice bearing and other things, I read in a one of the guides that you were not supposed to watch someone take communion. I assumed that this was for a number of reasons: people get self-conscious when others watch them eat; people might be sloppy; this is a moment of private communion with God. But that last bothers me. It's a moment of communal communion, actually. So why is it treated as private, as unwatchable? I'm still working through this chain of ideas. Does anyone else have experiences or theology or orthopraxy that bears on this? It is less of an issue when your back is to the congregation during communication, but when standing in a semi-circle, your mouth is always visible.

  17. "I'm just annoying you aren't I?:

    As with most of the inferences you have made here (my underlying philosophy and intent and exclusivism and judgment of others) you are wrong.  In fact, I am enjoying the humorousness of this exchange.  If you would ever wish to actually discuss instead of eisegete let me know.

    By the way, I agree with you that 'David' is just as anonymous as 'anonymous.'  OTOH, if you habitually frequented this blog as 'anonymous,' then you would not be so anonymous.

    Alas, I did smile at the milk and mirror suggestion.  You do have a sense of humor to go along with your compassion.

  18. I can relate to this Christian. At my previous (House) church, the practice was to share the bread and wine with eye contact, smiles, sometimes a pat on the arm, and words such as "thanks Dave" or "bless you Sue". At our present liturgical church people actually seem to avert their gaze, so as to lose themselves in the mystical privacy of the moment, and at most mutter a brief "amen". I suppose what feels right is often that which one is accustomed to, but one thing I do miss is the social intimacy blending with charismatic dynamism in the sharing of the bread and wine.

  19. I'm glad the communion was opened to me one evening on 24 October over twenty years ago, when desirous of Jesus, but pretty lacking in any theology of PSA, I accepted a small piece of bread from a willing celebrant and found myself strangely and powerfully filled with the Spirit. The understanding of stuff around sin and atonement came a few days later, and the full implications of that meal, I'm pleased to say, I still find deepening in both impact and mystery. Perhaps it would have all worked out the same if I "fully admitted, believed, confessed and decided" before eating - but somehow I'm not sure I would have completed that exercise if those were the ideological hurdles...

  20. We humans are funny aren't we, yourself included. I tend to just lurk and listen, anonymously as always. That's just who I am... or am not... for the anonymous aren't usually given much consideration. We're much like the lepers of the Bible days... or homosexuals, the homeless, or atheists today. It's politically incorrect to ignore us, but we are considered useless fodder just the same. Not worth eating with, much less spending eternity alongside. It's easier to write us off as "enemies of God" if we remain anonymous -- unnamed, unknown, and therefore inconsequential. If you don't personally know someone, what could possibly be wrong with not caring about them or their eternal souls?

    Sorry to have bothered you in any way, but glad that I could put a smile on your face. If you see an "anonymous" commenter on other blogs that might just be me... or not. See ya.

  21. In almost every church I ever attended there were basically two kinds of people:  the "Davids" and the "anonymous-es" (anonymii?).  In today's poison victim-identity politics, their ideas are labeled "conservative" and "progressive".  They delight in verbal bullying and one-upsmanship.

    And so someday these same folks are going to be walking together -- blissfully arm-in-arm -- through the Pearly Gates.  Farting rainbows.  And some of you call ME nuts.

  22. I don't think you're nuts at all. But just what does a rainbow fart smell like?

  23.  I don't have any proof, but I imagine some combination of cotton candy and baby powder.  And just so you know, I suspect that I am, indeed, quite mad.  The result of asking too many questions.  ;-)

  24. From Alice in Wonderland:

    Alice: But I don't want to go among mad people.

    The Cat: Oh, you can't help that. We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.

    Alice: How do you know I'm mad?

    The Cat: You must be. Or you wouldn't have come here.

  25. Then if that person doesn't want to partake, what's the problem? Let them go their way. If someone does want to come to the Table, to sit and eat with the Lord's people, who are we to say "Sorry, we don't eat with sinners"? I don't think that's the side of the Jesus story we want to end up on.

  26. Richard, others

    I realize that I'm coming late to this and may be missing something, but it seems to me that God does not deny God's hospitality to anyone--man, woman, child, sinner, saint, stranger, the wealthy, the poor, the doubter, the atheist, the outcast, even the blasphemer.  Why should we?  Otherwise, we might exclude Jesus.

    By the way, in 1st Corinthians 14, it seems to me that Paul was suggesting that the agape meal occurred between the bread and the cup.


  27. I should be clear: when the chalice minister gives the communicant the bread or wine, she makes eye contact and speaks ("This is Christ's body, broken for you," or, "The body of Christ, the bread of heaven" or a variant). The communicant usually returns eye contact and says, "Amen." Afterwards, many communicants nod/bow to the chalice minister, which is liturgy for "Thanks." (Really.) So there is contact, and although formalized it is heart-felt. But that contact usually exists in the tiny world of chalice minister (or priest), presence (host or wine), and communicant, so even though the chalice minister is a lay person, it still seems closed. Though there are exceptions--if a person needs assistance, for example.

  28. David, I don't know. Why did Jesus offer the Supper to Judas?

  29. Oh, this reminded me of a poignant scene in the Alice in Wonderland remake (w/Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter).  M.H. anxiously inquires of Alice whether he is, indeed, "mad."  Alice comes close and tenderly replies, "Yes, but all the best people are."

    My favorite, FAVORITE scene from the movie.  :-)

  30. On reading this, I was curious if you've ever seen the Jansenist crucifix?

    Basically, they (Calvinist-influenced Catholics) depicted Christ with his arms spread only narrowly, to indicate the limited atonement.

  31. Great question; although I can't imagine why you would ask this of me.  Nevertheless, I thank you for what I have just seen in trying to compose an answer.  As with most Biblical questions, scratching the surface opens up deep deep wells of truth and also more questions.

    First, did Jesus. in fact, offer 'the supper' to Judas?

    If by supper you mean communion, 'bread and wine for believers to remember His death' then I guess I would have to say that Jesus did not offer 'supper' to Judas.  Matthew and Mark seem to make it 'clear' that he ate the morsel and left before the 'communion' while Luke seems to say the opposite.  So, it isn't clear to me if Judas was there for the instructions regarding the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine.  As for the twelve, they had no idea that He was about to die.  So, as they listened to Him giving them directions to be followed (communion) AFTER His death, then I guess I would say that none of them 'took communion' the night of His arrest.  Thus, I don't think that what went on in the upper room that night was in fact communion.  Certainly not communion as we know it today, after the cross.

    But as to your specific question I guess the most direct and Scriptural answer is John 13:18       “I do not speak of all of you. I know the ones I have chosen; but it is that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘HE WHO EATS MY BREAD HAS LIFTED UP HIS HEEL AGAINST ME.’

  32. Good responses, David; there may be some ambiguity in the Gospel accounts. Another of Moltmann's points that I find attractive is to link this supper with the broader pattern of Jesus' ministry, in which sinners were always welcome at the table. Furthermore, you have the early church members depicted as "breaking bread from house to house" and I do think in Luke's theology that there is Eucharistic significance to those meals and it seems logical to me that these were meals where anyone present would have been welcomed. Some, like Robert Banks, have suggested that bread and cup may have served a function in Jewish culture not unlike our "grace" before and/or after meals. If so, I can imagine many, many times of "breaking bread" in Christian homes when non-believers would have participated.

    At any rate, I don't think open or closed communion is an open and shut case. Given the option, I would want to err on the side of grace and welcome to all present.

  33. "Given the option, I would want to err on the side of grace and welcome to all present."

    I agree and am surprised that the responses to what I asked was to assume that I would want to limit participation.  By the way, do you have answers for my original questions?

    In any case, it is clear to me that only members of Christ's body are to 'remember' via participation.  That said, it is incumbent on the person 'leading' the sacrament to explain the meaning clearly.  Then it is up to the individual to decide whether this is for them or not.  I do not believe that any person can judge the state of grace of another and thus nobody is in a position to say who can and who can not participate.

    One last thought, as I look at what Luke had to say about the early post Pentecost believers 'breaking bread from house to house' I am quite sure that they were all believing Israelites who would not have sat down with a gentile, believing or otherwise, on any account.  Further, Acts 15 seems to indicate that this was still the case many years latter for these people.  Not until Paul was told directly by Jesus in a revelation, did the universal meaning of the communion for believers get fully explained.

  34.  We're both speculating a bit here, David. I still think it likely that Jewish households in Jerusalem would have likely had members who were not yet convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and yet who would have shared at table gatherings with those who were convinced.

    Be that as it may, there is another factor that makes this discussion tricky with regard to church as a public institution in society. The early believers met "from house to house," and as you say, it may be that they gathered together specifically as believers in Jesus and broke bread privately. But the church has become an institution that is open to the public, holding public services. We intentionally invite our neighbors to join us and to participate. Now we have a choice. Do we offer the Supper in those services in a way that excludes them, attempting as graciously as possible to help them understand why? Or do we invite everyone present to participate, explaining that Jesus welcomed all who came to him and explaining the bread and wine in that context?

    In our church, we offer communion every Sunday at the end of a service in which all who are present confess their sins and receive absolution, all hear the Word of the Gospel, and all sing hymns thanking and praising God for being our Creator and Redeemer. It is in that context that our pastor says, "Everyone in this room is invited to the Lord's Table," after he has given the words of institution.

    I know not everyone agrees with that approach, but it makes sense to me.

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