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Instead of Open Communion, Let’s Have Open Baptism

By Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

I’ve been back in the U.S. for six months now, and between travels and that most demoralizing of necessities known as “church-shopping,” I’ve had the chance to view and review all kinds of practices of eucharistic hospitality. As I expected, the range goes from “everyone is welcome” to “all baptized Christians are welcome” to “all who believe in the real presence of our Lord Jesus in the Supper are welcome.”

Regardless of theology, it appears that the real issue is that it just seems mean, and mean-spirited, to refuse communion to anyone. And in absence of any real, communal, loving, and conscientiously scriptural discipline, it is. We are a culture of no-refusal and total-acceptance, at least in theory. (All our failures in actually doing that are another blog post, not to say volumes’ and decades’ worth of discussion.) It is the Lord’s table, so what business do we have denying anyone access? I don’t think many people can come up with a convincing reason off the top of their heads. Even though, realistically, there probably aren’t many unbaptized people out there clamoring for access to a sacrament that means nothing to them.

Nevertheless, those few who still think that there is a compelling and perhaps even salvation-at-stake concern regarding admission to the table won’t get anywhere without a really workable alternative. And I don’t mean a fine-print policy in the bulletin, or an embarrassing dodge (like “raise your hand if you’re a member in good standing who’s taking communion today so I can be sure to count out the right number of wafers”). Something that declares the powerful “welcome” our cultural expectations demand, yet adheres to church teaching.

So how about this: instead of open communion, let’s have open baptism.

indexThat means baptism on the spot, if necessary, right at the altar rail. Yes, it might mean baptizing someone not fully prepared. We do it with infants all the time and follow up later! The same could happen in this case. And there’s actually a good biblical precedent for it (unlike open communion), namely the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8. He’s a proselyte to Judaism and has been puzzling out Isaiah with no success—surely a familiar situation to anyone launching into the Bible unaided. Philip comes along and offers an interpretation centered on Jesus, and the eunuch suddenly says: “Here’s some water! What’s to stop me from getting baptized right now?” And as Philip sees nothing to stop it, he does it. Then Philip vanishes—so much for follow-up. The Spirit who put Philip there, and then whisked him away, can be trusted to look after the eunuch from there on out.

I’d propose, then, that words of invitation at the Supper go something like this: “All who are baptized are welcome to come and receive forgiveness of sins in the Lord’s Supper. And all who are not yet baptized are welcome to come forward and receive the forgiveness of sins in baptism.”

The wording is flexible. Maybe in another setting it would work better to say: “All are welcome to come forward for an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. If you have not been baptized, come forward and receive the waters of life in God’s holy name. If you have been baptized, come forward and feast on the Lord’s own body and blood, given for you in the bread and wine.”

Or: “There is something here for everyone. If you have not yet been washed and sealed in the name of the triune God, come and receive His claim upon your life in baptism. If you are struggling and longing to live out your baptismal covenant, come forward to join in the Supper of the church and receive strength for your journey.”

The point: the welcome is universal. And it is a true and not a fictitious welcome. All the unbaptized are invited to baptism. Perhaps the real error in our eucharistic practice has been forgetting the importance of baptism, a parallel to our lost ability to evangelize. Every time I read Luther I’m struck again at how much he praised baptism. I can’t give any kind of solid statistics, but I tend to think he valued baptism even more than the Supper.

If anyone is inspired to give this a try, please let me know. I’ll be curious to hear if it does what it intends to do. In the meanwhile, if you’d like to read up more on the reasons for reserving communion to the baptized, take a look at Cheryl Peterson’s “Font to Table or Table to Font?” and the petition that LF sponsored a couple years ago in response to some in the ELCA’s agitation for communion of the unbaptized.

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