Communion and Discipleship

We saw last time how the Bible expects children to be included in the covenant meal.  But what does it mean for anyone to take part in a sacrament?  The discussion surrounding the conditions under which a sacrament accomplishes all that it represents spans both centuries and denominations.  The Church of England has historically taught that ‘…in such only as worthily receive [the sacraments] they have a wholesome effect or operations’ (Article 25).[1]  This has a number of significant consequences.  The once Bishop of Woolwich, Colin Buchanan, points out that we are, for example, wrong to assume that every baptism (and by extension, every act of Holy Communion) celebrated in an Anglican Church is either authentic or effective – even though the liturgy we use assumes it is.  This might seem an obvious point to make.  But it might just be worth making explicit that this is the Church’s teaching... 


OK – so not every baptised person (whether adult or child) turns out to be a Christian.  That’s a tragic observation, but hardly an earth shattering one.   But we’re focussing on those baptisms that are authentic, that are ‘worthily received’ (and we’ve previously spent a number of articles exploring what that might mean).  In those baptisms, a number of things are represented.  The candidate is claimed for Christ’s possession (‘Christ claims you for His own…); it is the candidate is who is charged to ‘fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil’, and to ‘remain faithful to Christ till the end of your life’; and it is the candidate for whom we pray: ‘May Almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness, restore in you the image of His glory and lead you in the light and obedience of Christ’.  This is all powerful stuff, and only the most reductionist of sacramental theology would claim that these realities have no connection with the waters of baptism ‘worthily received’.[2]  My point is this: if we baptise children, and then withhold communion from them, we exhort the one being baptised to walk a path of profound and costly discipleship as they grow up in Christ – and then we deny them one of the critical God-given means by which that calling is fulfilled.


It is through Communion that we sacramentally receive the Spiritual resources (see footnote 2) necessary to live the life of Christian discipleship upon which we embark in baptism.  Just think of what is declared and prayed as we celebrate communion.  It is, for example, in the context of this meal that we feed on Christ (We thank you for feeding us with the body and blood of your Son, Jesus Christ…), and seek the ministry of the Holy Spirit as we offer ourselves in sacrificial service (send us out in the power of your Holy Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory).  It is here that we look for our growth in holiness, deepening intimacy with Christ, and draw on our future, New Creation hope, finding motivation to live here and now as we look forward to being welcomed at the feast in heaven.  It is here that we celebrate and keep our unity in and with the body of Christ.


Communion isn’t exclusively the means of securing these blessings.  There is at least one significant Christian denomination that doesn’t celebrate the sacraments at all.  Nevertheless, it is clearly a significant place where this empowerment for daily Christian discipleship can occur within the worshipping life of the Church.  To involve any person in the battle of the Christian life through baptism, and to then deny them the strengthening of communion is … well, inconsistent at best, and spiritually dangerous at worst.  Children face all the same battles and issues in learning to be faithful to Christ that adults do.  They know the same failures and confusion, the same insecurity and uncertainty.  And they need the same grace, and experience of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Their ability to articulate or perceive it might be more limited, but it is real nonetheless.


It seems to me that one of the most damaging mistakes that Churches (and Christians) can make is to think of Communion as something you need to qualify for.  As a pastor I find it tragic when Christians don’t feel they can take communion – usually because they are particularly aware of sin in their life and character.  To deny ourselves Communion at precisely the point where we so desperately need it is to cut ourselves off from a God-ordained means of experiencing precisely the grace we crave.  To deny others because we don’t think they qualify in some way, might be equally devastating.[3]


[1] It is not often recognised today that the Church of England drew heavily on John Calvin in drawing up its Articles of faith and doctrine.  In fact Archbishop Cranmer and Calvin wrote to each other discussing issues such as sacraments throughout 1540’s and early 50’s. see below.

[2] Similarly, only the most reductionist of sacramental theology finds no reality of experience reflected in the words of Communion.  There have been those who have held such a view.  Notably in the days of the Reformation, a guy called Zwingli held that all we do when we celebrate communion is remember Christ’s death.  For Zwingli it’s a bit like a looking at a photo – it might evoke powerful memories and perhaps even feelings, but having a photo does nothing to bring you closer to the person or scene it captures.  The Church of England (as in so much of her theology) followed a more classically Reformed and Calvinistic line, teaching that God confirms and seals the promise He makes in the sacrament (Inst.4:14.3).  They are a means through which the Holy Spirit works to achieve what they represent.  ‘If the Spirit is lacking, the sacraments can achieve nothing more in our minds than the splendour of the sun on blind eyes, or a voice sounding in deaf ears’.  If the Spirit is present however, they become charged with His power as He uses them ‘to set forth Christ to us, and in Him the treasures of heavenly grace’.  For Calvin (and Anglicanism after him) ‘worthily received’ demands both the presence of the Holy Spirit and faith in Christ – though not in a purely individualistic sense.  For the Reformers, faith (when thinking about the sacraments) was thought of as much more of a community event than we might tend to today. 

[3] Usually we don’t think children qualify because – as it is often put - they don’t understand what it is about.  I’ve already touched on this briefly, but will come back to it in a later article…

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