Jesus himself might not have the credentials for Communion in every sanctuary built in his honor.
Except for one thing: Communion.
The printed bulletin explained that participation in this ritual (called by some the Eucharist and by others the Lord’s Supper) was limited to those who had been received as members into the worldwide fellowship of this particular denomination.
It was not the first time I had personally encountered this situation. Even my own Baptist heritage includes a tradition called “closed Communion” by which only members of that local congregation are invited to participate in the sacred supper.
In fact, most churches in the world use the Communion service to segregate people.
All sorts of categories are used to distinguish those who can and those who cannot participate: saved and lost, member and guest, orthodox and heretic, saint and sinner, young and old, obedient and disobedient, and wet and dry (the latter referring to baptism, of course).
It is all reminiscent of the clean and unclean distinctions that plagued the Judaism into which Jesus was born.
Both illustrate the tendency of religious traditions to erect barriers between people. Archeologists have actually uncovered the engraved sign that once adorned the waist-high wall separating the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of the Israelites in the ancient temple of Jerusalem: No Gentiles beyond this point.
Religious groups maintain their identity more by exclusion than by inclusion, more by defining who cannot come than who can.
In some sense, it is an essential rule of group cohesion: How can we remain who we are if we welcome just anybody? Isn’t it common sense that an organization must require some signs of conformity: dress like we dress, talk like we talk, think like we think, pray like we pray, go where we go? Or, as it pertains to the supper: drink what we drink, eat what we eat, and believe what we believe while we drink and eat.
These concerns for organizational identity and survival are far removed from the words and deeds of Jesus.
Especially when he sat down to eat.
He ate with everybody and anybody, everywhere and anywhere.
Table-fellowship, the scholars call it: eating with friends and foes, disciples and dissenters, clean and unclean. It is what got Jesus into trouble with the religious authorities.
They called him a drunkard and a glutton.
“The kingdom of God is like a banquet,” he said. “Go out into the cities and streets and invite everyone, especially those who normally do not eat with us, in order that the house of God might be full.”
He didn’t check their hands for some indelible yet invisible mark of membership. He simply looked into their eyes and noted the original and eternal image of God.
“Come,” he said, “all of you come.”
The common meal as the symbol of God’s welcome to all people remains a wonderful way to imitate Jesus and announce his open invitation.
In that sense, then, the church supper where everyone brings a dish of food and shares with one and all may well be more like Jesus than the formal and restrictive ritual known as Communion.
Jesus himself might not have the credentials for Communion in every sanctuary built in his honor. He would, however, be offered a plate of food in the fellowship hall, and that would be just fine with him.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.