I will like to tell you a short story about a change that happened recently at my house church as a result of a shift to a more community centered theology, coupled with a deeper understanding and application of the history and background of Jesus and his disciples. What is even more interesting to me is how we came to be questioning our former practice of Communion, though the new decisions are themselves exciting as well.
Over the past year, we’ve been paying better attention to what discipleship entails, and how critical Christian community is to the nurturing and growth of discipleship. This focus is not only changing our understanding of the gospel, of Jesus’s mission and the life of the church, but surprisingly it has now lead us to ask questions about a central, vital part of Christian community in following Jesus – Communion.
Our practice of Communion is already a bit unusual when measured against what is common in most Ghanaian churches. We have Communion every Sunday, and on the first Sunday we actually have a proper meal alongside it. Everyone was welcome to be part of the normal meal, but the bread and wine was only open to those who were baptized by water immersion. This meant of course that children and non-Christians guests or visitors to our meetings whose baptism status we weren’t sure about were excluded. This seemed to be fine to us, until a few weeks ago when a member began to apply the New Testament image of the church as a new family of people to Communion. Comparing that to the Ghanaian external family, he began to ask questions about why we should exclude the children amongst us from participating in it.
What made this whole thing even more striking was the fact that I’d read Ben Witherington’s “Making A Meal of It” a few years ago and was quite enamored about his portrayal of what a 1st century Christian meeting would have been like in terms of it’s practice of open table fellowship. It’s actually listed amongst my “10 Christian Books That Have Shaped My Thinking So Far”. In addition, I’d just finished James D.G. Dunn’s “Jesus’s Call To Discipleship” a week before this, which laid quite some emphasis on the same issue of Jesus’s open table fellowship. I’d even been listening to a podcast discussion as well on how Communion actually transformed the dynamics of gatherings of Christians on Thursday or so before the Sunday of our meeting, and already questions had been brewing in my mind about our current practice. So surprised was I when our brother raised the issue at our meeting, I just kept nodding my head and smiling as I listened to the serious questions he had about our current practice of Communion on Sunday. I knew something was afoot.
In the end, after much discussion of the issue amongst us, consulting with some people in Anabaptist circles whose opinion we respect and researching a bit more about the Jewish antecedents of the Seder (the Passover meal) which Jesus celebrated with his disciples and co-opted into The Communion, we came to the conclusion over a number of meetings that it was time to let go of the restrictions placed on the Communion. Part of the reason was that we came to the realization that the dominant interpretation of Paul’s admonitions regarding communion in 1 Cor 11:17-33 are based on an individualistic reading of the obviously communal problem that Paul was trying to solve. But paying even more attention to the radical nature of Jesus’ own practice of table fellowship, and including the Jewish background of the Seder from which Communion is derived meant that it was time to lay that restriction down. We simply decided that whether one was a child or a non-Christian/non-baptized Christian, baptism will still be emphasized as the means of showing that one accepted to be a part of this community, but Communion will be open to all.
Of course that presented a slight problem of how to enable the children participate in this, since our wine is proper alcoholic red wine. The solution was to water it down for them, a practice that has existed even before Christianity came along.
But this story reminds me of something I’m learning from the majority of theologians and teachers that I listen to. There’s a difference between knowing theology, and living theology. And when one hasn’t learnt to live it, reflect on it and critique one’s theology in the process of living it, it will stay at the level of knowledge, and will not challenge any of one’s paradigms or traditions. The result is simply arm-chair theologians, who dispenses plenty words with little power to cause actual change.
Reorienting our minds on the communal nature of not just the gospel, but even salvation and church has had drastic effects on our thinking and behavior in our small community. This story I described above above makes me hope that others will wake up to the damage that individualistic readings of scripture has done and continues to do to our churches. I’m reminded of the individualistic nature not only of the small piece of flat “bread” that one receives and along with it’s small cup, but of the songs that we used to sing back in those days at my former church whiles taking communion with others – “Me Ne Jesus Beto Nsa Edidi” i.e. “Jesus and I will eat supper together”. The fact that this was being done in a church with others partaking of the same activity was not only lost on the song writer, but even on the congregation, because according to the words of this song, everyone was having their own private supper with Jesus. I’m further reminded of a very devout Christian man I respected a lot in this church, who was excluded from Communion because he had more than one wife (and who obviously couldn’t shirk his responsibility by divorcing any of them as polygamy has been a normal practice in Ghana for a very long time, and so he will never experience communion with fellow Christians in that church and many others like it). It is these kinds of misunderstanding of God’s total mission of dealing with all the spheres of humanity’s problem – social, economic, political and spiritual – that break my heart.
May the erection of these kinds of barriers that Jesus actively worked to break down, break your heart too. May we learn to see the table for what it is – a foretaste of what the prophet Isaiah spoke of in Is 25 – God’s invitation to all peoples to come and dine with him.