I love communion. I was delighted to learn that my first pastorate was in a congregation that took communion once a month (more often than many Mennonite churches). But there is one question I’ve struggled with since I was child, taking my Wheat Thins™ and seedless grapes from the pastor: What’s with the grapes? Why, in so many low church Protestant traditions, do we feel the urge to serve our children Jesus Lite (trademark pending)?
I searched the Scriptures. I studied them for seven years, earned two degrees, and have yet to find where Jesus said,
There’s no biblical justification for a two-tiered, merit-based communion. In fact, Jesus’ approach seems to be an integrated classroom, where multi-degree Pharisees read the same textbook as widowed prostitutes; where Donald Trump has to square with the same ethical imperatives as Rigoberta Menchú.
Most of our communion theology comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians 10-12. (Our communion liturgy is lifted straight from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.) Understanding what Paul is trying to say, however, is an interpretive effort, because Paul weaves together several issues. Right before the communion liturgy, Paul explains why women should wear veils. Before that, he debates the merit of eating food offered to idols (a theological dumpster diving which he ultimately concludes is sanitary). Paul’s focus throughout these now-anachronistic arguments is to do contextual theology—theology that is mindful of the social context of the Corinthians. The Corinthians were using communion to reinforce secular socioeconomic divisions. Their communion table was a full meal and the poorest members never got to eat. Paul introduces a standard practice in order to ensure no one goes away from the feast table hungry. In short, Paul’s word of institution—the words we still use—are an argument for a standardized communion, both in text and consumption.
If the case for grapes is not biblical, can we defend it based on tradition? In the Anabaptist tradition, grapes seem to be a way to distinguish baptized from unbaptized members. At one time, this may have been useful. In a pluralistic world where polarizing evangelicalism is the loudest Christian voice, it’s alienating. The implication is that you are not a Christian until you “level up” your faith and get baptized. But Christianity was never Super Mario Brothers! We don’t advance past certain sins then get level 8 sins in the next stage of our lives. Sin is sin; throughout our lives, our temptations generally follow a consistent pattern—to break a relationship for our own gain. Jesus does not extend grape-level grace to new Christians and, once they accept Jesus in their hearts, offer them bread-level grace. Grace is grace is grace.
The argument I hear in favor of grapes most often is that children don’t understand what they are doing. Isn’t this paternalistic and condescending of us? Do adults understand what God does in communion? If they did, we wouldn’t have charts like this:
Christians can’t make up their minds about what communion really means! But they can agree that God is unfathomable, beyond our knowledge. What hubris to claim adults have a greater understanding than children, when Jesus said we must become like children in order to enter the kingdom of God!
This logic creates a more insidious problem. Because children do understand. Children understand that they are not special enough for communion; that they are an afterthought of holiness; that they won’t truly qualify grace until they level up. They see the adults telling them what they can’t do—and what they learn is that communion must be earned. Our well-meaning attempt to help children only feeds into guilt-trip theology and merit-based faith. What our denomination needs is a thoughtful discussion about whether or not this is the message we want to communicate.
The Mennonite Confession of Faith says, “All are invited to the table who have been baptized into the community of faith, are living at peace with God and with their brothers and sisters in faith, and are willing to be accountable in their congregation.” This statement was always aspirational. If it were literal, I would walk to the pulpit every month and say, “Well. I paid war taxes this month out of the paycheck you gave me—I’m not living at peace with God and I’m not qualified to serve or partake in communion with you.”
It’s flippant but true. My faith is always somewhere between sinner and redeemed. Faith is always a journey. We take communion in spite of our sin, aspiring to transcend it. In spite of our role in perpetuating violent systems, we reach for peace with God and people—communion is a reminder of what God offers us, not what we earned based on good attendance. The only words of this sentence that matter are the first three: All are invited. Jesus is the bread of life. The bread, the grace, is extended to all.
Communion is our regular practice of cognitive dissonance. Of knowing we are sinners. And knowing we are saved. And somewhere in the mess of being both of these things at once, of not understanding how such a thing is possible: we find our faith.