Debates about communion usually focus on two important areas: the nature of the event and the question of who can participate.
The nature of the event will involve considerations such as what we believe about the bread and wine.
At one end of the spectrum, the Roman Catholic position is that the elements become the body and blood of Christ, known as “transubstantiation.” At the other end, communion is seen as an act of “mere” remembrance, with many variations between.
Then there is the question of who can receive the bread and wine, often a distinction between those who believe and are baptized and those who believe but have not been baptized.
But here is a new question – well, reasonably new. Why is it assumed that communion is only for believers?
The gospel accounts include the disciples only, but among them was Judas who was about to betray Jesus. Should he have been excluded? Presumably not.
Then there’s 1 Corinthians 11, so often read at the communion table, but starting from verse 23, thereby omitting the all-important context that starts at verse 17.
Nonetheless, “do this in remembrance of me” (verse 24) and “as often as you do this you proclaim the Lord’s death” (verse 26). Surely this can only be for Christians. No, this tells you why communion is celebrated, not who can take and eat.
But it says, “whoever eats or drinks in an unworthy manner” (verse 27). Yes, and in the context of the Corinthian church they were doing so, getting drunk and not sharing the food (verse 21).
The key phrase here is “an unworthy manner.” It should not be translated “unworthily” as the Authorized Version translated it, as if our worthiness is a qualification to partake. The whole point is that we are not worthy. No one is.
As New Testament scholar Gordon Fee says in his 1 Corinthians commentary in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series, “The tragedy of such an interpretation for countless thousands, both in terms of a foreboding of the table and guilt for perhaps having partaken unworthily, is incalculable.”
Look at it like this. How likely is it that Jesus, who so often used meals to include those who were outsiders, envisaged a meal that excluded people? Even today, Gentiles can share in a Passover meal.
Does it seem reasonable that Jesus would eat with Levi and a host of other sinners (Luke 5:29), or the hated Zacchaeus (Luke 19:5), then ask us to keep from the feast those who are not yet members of the family?
Would Jesus say to the host of a meal he was enjoying that next time he should “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind … and you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13), then have it in mind that the church should fence the communion table?
Now, there are serious theological arguments for restricting access to communion. But if we believe new truth can still break through from God’s Word, which we do, dare we allow our prophetic imagination to see something potentially new here?
If this is true, can you imagine how we could wonderfully renew our understanding of communion?
To see it as a feast where we invite our neighbors and friends to share our food and, at the heart of it, break bread and drink wine, explain what it’s about and invite them to take part. Imagine the creative liturgies that could emerge.
What about communion on the streets? Could we find a way of allowing complete strangers to stop, examine themselves, and take bread and wine as symbols of God’s desire to nourish them?
Now that’s a meal Jesus might just come to.
David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission. A version of this article first appeared in Issue 2 2015 edition of Mission Catalyst where other articles on this theme may also be found. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidKerrigan3.