June 6, 2008
This is My Low-Carb Body, Broken for You
Is the communion table becoming more about personal preference than church unity?
Imagine the scene. Jesus has gathered with his followers in the upper room. He takes the bread, breaks it, and gives thanks. Then he says, "This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me." Then, in the same way, he takes another loaf and says, "This is my low-carb body which is given for you South Beach dieters." And then he takes another loaf and says, "This is my gluten-free body which is given for you?."
You get the idea.
Over a century ago, many American churches began to abandon the use of fermented wine in communion in favor of grape juice (much to Charles Welch's delight). Today, most evangelicals give little thought to the substitution. It's just the way it is. But last Sunday I was unexpectedly jarred into reconsidering the nature of the communion elements when the bread, and not just the cup, departed from tradition.
I sat down after preaching the sermon and another pastor began to lead the congregation in partaking of the Lord's Supper. He invited people to come forward, receive the cup, and tear a piece of bread from a single large loaf. The use of a single loaf, he explained, was a symbol of our unity in Christ. (This metaphor, by the way, dates back at least to the Didache from the first century.) But then he added something unexpected. Gluten-free crackers would also be available for anyone unable to eat the bread.
The additional comment caught me, and many other congregants, off guard. It just seemed really odd, even out of place, amid the liturgy of the table. The sacredness of the moment was lost as we were all jolted back to contemplating individual needs and preferences rather than our collective unity in Christ. The remark deconstructed the symbolism of unity the pastor was trying to convey with the single loaf.
Now, before you unleash the Gluten Gestapo on me for being insensitive to those with serious allergies, let me explain myself. I happen to be friends with a woman in the church with Coeliac Disease who must avoid gluten in her diet. I recognize that it is a significant medical issue for a growing number of people. And I certainly don't think they should be prevented from participating in the Lord's Table. (I've heard that some churches encourage those with medical restrictions to bring their own bread, pass it to the officiate for blessing, and then partake. That seems both reasonable and less distracting from the symbolism of the traditional communion liturgy.) But at what point should the dietary constraints of a few be imposed upon the many? And when should these needs be addressed and incorporated into the liturgy of the Table?
For example, I've heard that some in the congregation have requested the use of sugar-free juice during communion. Apparently the thimble cup of grape juice contains enough fructose to agitate their insulin levels, or disrupt their strict adherence to Dr. Atkins' low-carb lifestyle. I know another church where people have insisted that only whole-grain bread be used for communion. Heaven forbid constipation-inducing white bread be used.
The issue is not the presence of those with legitimate dietary restrictions at Christ's table, but rather the growing expectation that the church must accommodate every personal need or preference. When the church is expected to supply not only a variety of programs, service times, worship styles, but now even communion bread and cup options - can we finally acknowledge that we have crossed the line into absurdity? Have we elevated personal preference so far above corporate unity that we have little imaginative framework for even understanding the corporate intent of the Lord's Table?
I wonder if our first step down this slippery slope was the move away from a communal chalice to those ubiquitous communion cups - those hygienic disposable vessels that fit comfortably between thumb and forefinger but seem designed to never relinquish the final drop of Christ's blood. The stylish fluted cups reinforce the cultural assumption that communion is really about "me" and not "us." Once communion ceases to be communal, the door is opened for personal preferences to be expressed, accommodated, and even demanded.
I wonder if decades from now when every communion service includes a variety of beverages choices (wine, all-natural grape juice, sugar-free grape juice, fair trade grape juice) and bread choices (whole grain, unleavened, gluten-free, vitamin enriched, low-carb) will we even think twice about it? Or, like the substitution of wine with juice today, will we simply say, that's just the way it is?
[Be sure to answer Url's poll question in the left margin about how your church approaches communion.]