Thursday, August 6, 2009

who can sit at the table?

The early church fathers developed some very strict guidelines concerning who could and could not sit at the table of the Lord's Supper. It is repeatedly emphasized that the supper is open only to baptized believers (Didache 9; cf. Justin, First Apology 66). Chrysostom even writes, “Let then no Judas be present . . . If any one be not a disciple, let him withdraw, the table receives not such.” (Homily 82 on Matthew). Anyone who had not been baptized into Christ was not permitted to participate in the most sacred meal.

Not only are the un-baptized prohibited from approaching the table so too are impure or sinful believers. Basil of Caesarea lists a number of sins that disqualify a believer from participation in the LS (Letter 217). Included in the list is the “exposure” of infants—the ancient equivalent to abortion. It is important to note that Basil mentions the motive of leaving the infant as a significant factor in determining whether or not the offender has committed murder in the eyes of the church (Letter 217.52; for a contemporary example of controversial excommunication due to abortion check out this story). Another sin that bars one from the table is homicide. Again, differentiation in motive is noticeable. The repentant murderer is punished with twenty years of no supper and unintentional homicide is only punished with ten years of excommunication from the sacred table. Adultery resulted in a fifteen year exclusion from the supper. Included in the barring from the table is a process of repentance that allows the offender to still have some participation in the church, but not as a fully functioning member. The most terrible offense was anyone who denied Christ and thus was “bound to remain in penitence,” only “being deemed worthy of the sacrament in the hour of death, through the faith in the mercy of God” (Letter 217).

This emphasis on purity and holiness at the table is important, but does it reflect the grace exemplified in Jesus’ table-practice? Noted Jewish scholar Geza Vermes argues that it was Jesus’ eating habits that separated him “more than any other” from “both his contemporaries and even his prophetic predecessors” (Jesus the Jew, 224). His association with the dregs of society garnered him accusations of gluttony and drunkenness (Mt 11.19; Lk 7.34). Because Jesus ate with the wrong people the validity of his entire ministry was questioned (Mk 2.15; Lk 15.1–2; 19.7). Marcus Borg in his most insightful book, Conflict Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, argues that it was in the dinning room that Jesus deliberately chose to do battle with the religious elite of his day (pgs 90–134). Where the Pharisees heightened purity practices Jesus broke them as if to say, “All who come to me are welcome at God’s table” (cf. Lk 14). If the sacrament is meant to be a proclamation of the suffering love of God (1 Cor 11.26) then we must ask, “Who would Jesus invite to sit at his table?”


Michael said...

I think it is very interesting that the first writer you quoted said specifically that there was to be no Judas among the feast, considering obviously Jesus didn't follow the same rule. I love the emphasis on holiness and taking LS seriously, but I'm with you that it does seem to be a deviation from Jesus' radically open table practices. I can't imagine what it would even look like today to exclude people from communion. Hmm

Thom Stark said...

Tyler makes a distinction, Michael, between exclusion of unbelievers and exclusion of believing sinners. Does he think one is unfaithful to Jesus while the other is faithful?

Tyler, you failed to mention another sin that got Christians expelled from the Lord's Supper. ;)