In defense of the first sacrament

By Derek Olsen

Proponents of Communion without Baptism (CWOB) present a set of propositions from Scripture to demonstrate the truth of their position. These principles, they maintain, should be normative guides for our current Eucharistic practice. The first is that Jesus’ own meal practice was unusually non-exclusive, inviting the socially marginal and the morally suspect to the table as a sign-act pointing to God’s great eschatological banquet at the end of time provided by God’s extravagant bounty. If Jesus invited all without regard for their status, so should we. The second is that meals with Jesus exhibited a surprising liminality, a fluidity, between the roles of stranger, guest, and host that should give us pause lest we act as gate-keepers for in doing so we may be turning away angels unaware or—worse yet—may reject the very host Himself who is found in the person of the least.

I take these arguments seriously, but I don’t find them compelling to the point where CWOB should be permitted. Some contain methodological flaws while others are absolutely correct but are misapplied when directed to our current sacramental practice.

Many of the arguments for the first proposition rest upon a saying found in both Matthew and Luke: “the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34). The arguments I’ve seen suggest that the references to “glutton and drunkard” point to a bounty suggesting the eschatological banquet and that the “tax collector and sinner,” therefore, refer to the marginalized with whom Jesus shared fellowship. The conclusion drawn from this is that if Jesus welcomed the marginalized and outcast to his (holy) table we should as well. While I agree with the identifications of bounty and the marginal, I disagree with the conclusion drawn. In fact—I think this text presents an argument against CWOB…

If we examine the marginal here again, we find people on the outskirts of the children of Israel. The tax collectors of first century Judea were the traitors of the age. They not only didn’t resist Roman rule, they aided and abetted in the oppression of their own people by levying and collecting the taxes, typically through force and extortion. Politically, then, they had placed themselves outside of the people of Israel by means of their treason. “Sinners” is a much more generic term but at the very least identifies those who failed to follow God’s Law to the satisfaction of the community, thus—again—placing them outside of the “true” children of Israel. The evangelists nowhere clarify the purposes of the meals but what they suggest by means of verses like Matt 10:7 is that Jesus was issuing a call to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That is, he defied the authorities and gossipers by welcoming those people who were members of the covenant community—the children of Israel—but whose actions had put them outside of its cultic boundaries. The welcome of Jesus demonstrates the mercy of God to those members of the covenant community who had failed to uphold their part of the covenant. Furthermore, an integral part of many of the meal scenes that the evangelists do portray is repentance on the part of the tax collectors and sinners, a desire to return to their covenant responsibilities, to acknowledge the welcome of God in Christ by returning to walk in God’s paths.

If we would try and make an equation between these meal scenes and our sacramental practice, it would seem that the radical welcome found here is a welcome to rejoin the covenant community. The Christian understanding of covenant community is rooted not in the Abrahamic covenant marked by circumcision nor even in eucharistic fellowship—rather, it is found in Baptism. To issue the invitation Christ issued is to welcome the outcast and marginal into God’s covenant community through Baptism.

The second proposition is, to me, the most intriguing. The idea of fluidity between guest and host, known and unknown, is quite attractive. But when I turn to the texts put forward as evidence I do not find this pattern—the idea seems to be placed upon the texts rather than proceeding from them. The best treatment of this notion that I have seen comes from Dr. John Koenig’s New Testament Hospitality. Here—working exclusively with material from Luke’s pen—he appeals to seven “role-reversal” scenes. But I find it in only one, the Emmaus encounter: the unknown stranger issued an invitation to be a guest reveals himself to be the Host in the breaking of the bread. I don’t find it in the other cited passages. Yes, Jesus is present; yes, he takes a dominant position—but it is a teaching position, not that of host. The teaching role is different from the hosting role. Rabbinic literature indicates that teachers were invited to meals presumably for the purpose of instructing those gathered—there is no sign that through their teaching they somehow became hosts. I will agree that the guest-host fluidity appears in the Emmaus experience but I cannot see it as a characteristic of meals with Jesus through the rest of the Gospel record.

The argument against gate-keepers, tying into Jesus’ constant warnings about and injunctions against religious hypocrisy, proceeds from worthy motives but fails in its limited scope. CWOB proponents tend to argue hospitality from the pages of Luke-Acts. But Acts in particular presents an overly irenic picture of early Christian relationships. All of the inner-church struggles are resolved peaceably. No one leaves the Jerusalem Council mad; those who hold wrong beliefs are instructed and quickly see the errors of their ways. The letters of Paul and the Catholic Epistles—especially the Johannine Letters—tell a very different tale. Warnings against false teachers fill the pages of the New Testament. They do so not because of a desire to restrict or control God’s message of love and life, but because God’s message is not any generic message of love and life but has actual content to it! These authors understand the Church to be a covenant community, bound in Baptism, connected in Christ, and with covenants come responsibilities. These include both holding and enacting the basic beliefs of the Christian faith: Jesus is the Son of God who came in the flesh to announce the Kingdom of God and through whose death, resurrection, and ascension reconciled God and humanity. The insistence on Baptism is not about gate-keeping but rather about who we are as an intentional community—a covenant community.

Proponents of CWOB are correct to lift up practices of hospitality and to remind us of the Gospel’s call to share our possessions and our lives with others. Hospitality and the sharing of possessions with the stranger and the wanderer is a theme that runs throughout Scripture and is especially highlighted in the New Testament. Indeed, we are covenant-bound to offer hospitality and, if we follow the example of our God who showers gifts upon the just and unjust alike, this sharing of possessions should be extended without doctrinal tests or requirements.

However, the message of the Gospel is not simply a message of hospitality alone. Scripture also insists upon the reality and the responsibility of the covenant community. True Christian hospitality is a sharing of not merely of things or of time—as valuable as these are. Through these vehicles it is a sharing of what God has done for us, a sharing through both deeds and words, and an invitation for the stranger to remain a stranger no longer but to enter the covenant community through Baptism.

Derek Olsen is completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He is an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

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