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Eucharistic Vulnerability

Trinity Sunday - June 12, 2022

Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.

St. Columba's Episcopal Church

Gen 11:1-9 + Ps 104:24-34, 35b + Acts 2:1-21 + Jn 14:8-17, (25-27)

The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the Communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. + I speak to you today in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.

Happy Feast of the Holy Trinity!

In years past I have preached on the mystery of the Trinity, and have attempted to provide metaphors for how we might understand this most central doctrine of our faith. A simple search in our sermon podcasts and archives around mid-June every year will yield those results and I would encourage you to go back and listen to them. But in the end, the Trinity cannot be comprehended with the mind, only apprehended with the heart, and to that end, my reflections this year will attempt to approach this mystery from a more pastoral perspective, particularly around a national discussion now underway about the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist.

Because it is in this context – gathered around the Altar to celebrate the Eucharist – that the Church is most herself in the world. It is in the liturgy that, like the triune God in whose image we are made – our unity and diversity come to the fullness of expression in a communion of Love.

So, what I want to talk about this morning is not merely about a legalistic church practice around who can or cannot receive communion, but one that really gets to the essence of who we are as a people in the image of God, and not merely the image of any God, but of a Trinitarian God, indeed the body of Christ in the world.

So, a brief summary of the current discussion. There is a long-standing national canon in the Episcopal Church, Canon I.17.7 (page 88) I.17.7 (p. 88), which states, “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.” That canon has recently be challenged by the Diocese of Northern California in a proposal that will go before general convention this summer. A word about “general convention.” Each year, every diocese in the Episcopal Church holds a convention in which there is both lay and clergy representation from all of its parishes and missions. Resolutions are voted on that are meant to introduce, emend or alter diocesan canons on various issues. Those canons, which can shift from diocese to diocese, must conform to the national canons of the church.

Every three years the Episcopal Church holds a national or “General Convention” – also made up of lay and clerical delegates in a bi-cameral system: The House of Bishops (which as the name suggests is made up exclusively Bishops) and The House of Deputies (made up of diocesan appointed laity and clergy).

Much like the U.S. House and Senate, any resolution posted at General Convention must pass both houses to become official canon. Generally speaking, few, if any resolutions, garner much attention outside of convention, but at times the poignancy of the resolution being voted on can create a lot of discussion well beyond the delegates, as is the case with the current challenge to Canon I.17.7 that would alter our national teaching on who is eligible to receive communion.

In short, if the new resolution passes, Baptism would no longer be “officially” required for eligibility to receive communion in the Episcopal Church. Regardless of how you feel about this issue, I want to help us understand the theological and pastoral implications of this resolution from multiple points of view. One of the subtle ways in which the current teaching of the church plays out in our own service can be found on page 21 of your bulletin where there is a brief rubric on the reception of communion. It reads:

All who are baptized are invited to partake in the Eucharist and no one who comes in good conscience will be turned away. If you prefer to receive a blessing instead of the Eucharist, you are invited to approach the Communion rail with your arms crossed over your chest and the Priest will offer you a blessing. You may also simply remain seated in prayerful communion with the congregation.

Notice the first line of the invitation creates a distinction between the baptized who are “invited” and everyone else who approaching “in good conscience” are assured they will not be turned away. This is invitation is followed by offering alternative options, particularly for those who are unbaptized or who do not feel ready to receive the Eucharist: cross your arms over your chest for a blessing, remain seated in silent communion, and so on.

In the subtlety of this invitation lay the whole debate currently at hand. Fundamentally, there are two primary platforms from which this issue is being approached – and I see them as in dialogue rather than in opposition to one another: Namely, the theological and the pastoral. A bit of history will help to discuss both of these:

Since the earliest Christian communities began to emerge in the years and decades after Christ’s resurrection, the Eucharist was always administered as the culmination of one’s membership in the church. The preparation for this moment often took years of faith formation of a would-be convert, would be preceded by baptism, and in times of persecution the candidate would not even be permitted to know the location of the eucharistic celebration for fear of infiltration by those hostile to the faith.

Another ancient term for Eucharist is “Communion” – which literally means “to be one with.” Thus, communion had a two-fold meaning:

First, by sharing one loaf, one cup, we are made spiritually “one” in Christ. And second, this also meant that the one receiving communion was making a public statement to the larger community: By partaking in this one loaf, one cup, I am embodying a unity of faith, belief and commitment to this community. Thus, the sacrament of Communion not only rendered a profound unity among all members of the eucharistic community but it was also a statement by the individual that they were publicly professing a one-ness with the community in faith, belief and commitment.

So, here we see that the fundamental nature of the Trinity as Three Persons, One God, comes to expression communally and sacramentally in the church comprised of: Many members, yet but One body of Christ.

In the modern church this practice of limiting reception of the eucharist has been hardened along sectarian lines in the Roman catholic and Orthodox churches whereby communion is explicitly restricted to members of those institutions. By comparison the theology of the Episcopal Church has professed a more fundamental unity among all “baptized” Christians, despite denominational divisions, and thus has extended a broader invitation to the communion table. I think we would be gravely mistaken to see the breath of this invitation as merely “loosey-goosey,” “wishy-washy” or stemming from a perceived Episcopal culture of liberalism and that culture’s attending emphasis on being nice, or welcoming, or “inclusive” – However noble those sentiments might be.

There is something much greater at stake here: an ecclesiology that insists our denominational divisions are, in the grand scheme of things, little more than surface wounds on the Mystical Body of Christ, not divisions that have torn the Body of Christ asunder. And that our fundamental unity in baptism is deeper than any of those divisions might otherwise suggest. The Episcopal church thus holds out a fundamental “trust” in God’s grace to hold together the Body of Christ despite our divisions, and to celebrate that unity even in the midst of denominational diversity.

This is why, for example, virtually all Christian denominations accept one another’s baptisms, not requiring converts to be re-baptized. As such there is a greater theological consistency in the Episcopal church’s invitation to the Eucharist than I see in those churches who restrict reception only to their own institutional members. The Episcopal church sees it as the celebration of a sacramental unity in Christ, not in any Church institution.

Although colloquially many people will say things like, “I was baptized Catholic” or “I was baptized Episcopalian,” in fact no one is every baptized anything but Christian. The Episcopal Church recognizing that fact, thus extend the invitation to all the baptized, as for example, Ephesians (4:5) proclaims: “One lord, one faith, one baptism, on God and father of us all.”

And thus, it strikes me that the Episcopal invitation to invite all the baptized to the Eucharist is the most consistent with what the scriptures as well as other Christian denominations themselves teach about the unity rendered by baptism. So, here we provide some broad theological background to our current church teaching – the very teaching that is being challenged by the current resolution I.17.7 which, again, would expand the invitation to the Eucharist to all people regardless of baptismal status.

In order to help frame how we might prayerfully consider this resolution which, let me be clear, I find theologically sound, historically consistent with the ancient church, and sacramentally appropriate. I think we nevertheless need to look at the current challenge to this teaching not merely from a more academic or doctrinal view, but from a pastoral perspective as well. In other words, what does this teaching look like on the ground, in our churches, at our communion rails.

To that end I want to share two brief stories.

Here I tell two stories unscripted. First, of students who witnessed a Native American ritual in which they were invited to observe but not participate. Second, of a local Roman Catholic bishop who about a decade ago administered communion to members of the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” which cause a reactionary uproar, forcing him to apologize.

Imagine someone who is there to mock you, degrade you, disrespect you, crucify you is meat not with judgment, defiance, or defensiveness, but is met with open arms, and all the vulnerability of a crucified messiah, embodied now in his mystical body -- the Church.

Imagine how that might change their perception of the church, of themselves a loved and lovable by God despite bad hair and make-up! The demand for such an apology from Bishop Niederauer, comes from a very different place than the current policy of the Episcopal Church: it comes from a stingy, defensive theology that fails to consider the opportunity for grace missed in the moment any person presented themselves to the church with // hands to receive precisely that which is most precious to us.

And therein lies the key. It is precisely because the eucharist is so precious to us, so central to our identity as trinitarian people, as diverse members of the One body of Christ, that we must, absolutely must, hold Christ out to all the world with the vulnerability of Christ crucified. And if we get crucified in the process through some act of offense, or irreverence or sacrilege, then we are made all the more Christlike in the process.

The church is not a fortress, it is a body, made up of flesh and blood. Thus, the moment we begin to fortress the eucharist, to protect it from would-be “offenders of the faith,” from those we fear would disgrace or dishonor it – the moment we do that, we have failed to be church, the Body of Christ, vulnerable, naked in the world. Protecting, fortressing, and hiding that which is most valuable to us, may well be the way of the world, but it can never be the way of Christ.

I fully appreciate the sacramental taxonomy, if you will, that is to say the theological “sense” that is made of baptism before eucharist, because when a convert moves though such a process of full reception into the church it can be a deeply moving and transformational experience. Simultaneously, and in creative tension with that ideal, the pastoral, indeed spiritual, demand of the church to be the body of Christ in the world cannot be ignored in practice. Let me bullet-point for you some reasons why this is so:

Pragmatically speaking, communion only to the baptized is simply unenforceable. Am I to ask all first attendees to St. Columba’s to present their baptismal certificate at the communion rail?

But more importantly, and I have yet to hear anyone voice this in the now ongoing national debate, but I think it is profoundly relevant here. In Christian tradition we often look to the past as precedent. Paul, for example, in his letter to the Galatians (chapter 3) refutes the then standard Jewish conviction that the Law was necessary to be made righteous. Paul argues instead that it is not the law but faith that makes one righteous. To justify his argument he looks back to the figure of Abraham, the forefather of Israel, and argues basically: “How can you say the law makes us righteous when Abraham existed before the giving of the law and was reckoned as righteous by faith.” It is a clever argument: We all agree that Abraham was righteous, yet he existed before the law. Thus, his righteousness is not owed to the law but to his faith.

I think we must consider a similar line of argument here. While we can certainly see the value, maybe even the ideal, of Christian formation including a number of steps leading to baptism and then ultimately to shared communion, this does not seem to be the way in which the Apostles themselves were led to that first Eucharist in the last supper.

Scripture says nothing about Jesus ever baptizing the apostles, even though he commissions them to go and do so themselves. To suggest they “must have been baptized” is nowhere to be found in scripture and is thus an argument from silence (the weakest of all arguments).

Yet, despite no mention of their own baptism, they all partook of the one loaf and one cup at the Last Supper. In fact, Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles to baptize others flows out of the communion he forged at the last supper. We see nothing of Jesus commissioning them to baptize until the resurrection narratives.

Thus, much the way Paul argues that Abraham was justified by faith without benefit of the law, so too the Apostles would seem to have partaken in the first eucharist without benefit of baptism. In the end, the posture of the church to hold out that which is most sacred to us, precisely to model the cruciform nature of the church as the Body of Christ, that is: a people who are forged in the very trinitarian image of God in both our unity and diversity.

And may that God who is + Three-in-One and One-in-Three bless you now and forever. Amen.


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