This Sunday we celebrate The Lord's Supper at all three of our worship services, and since we've entered into a new sermon series on "The Method in Methodism" I thought it might be helpful to offer a bit of instruction on what "open communion" means for United Methodists.
The basic answer is found in our communion liturgy, "The Service of Word and Table," which is in our Hymnal and Book of Worship. One of the reasons I love the liturgy is because it teaches us while we are worshipping, helping both congregants and visitors to know precisely what we believe and how that belief is worked out in practice. For The Lord's Supper (which can also be called Holy Communion and the Eucharist), the basic answer to who is welcome at the table is found in the words of invitation:
"Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live at peace with one another."
Notice the three-fold criteria: love for Christ, repentance of sin, and peace within one's relationships. All three are requisite for approaching the table and the liturgy affirms that through the rest of the Service of Word and Table.
In the order of worship, communion comes after the sermon, which is often followed by a creed or affirmation of Christian faith. This allows us to state our faith in Christ and declare our love for him. The Invitation to communion is then immediately followed by a prayer of confession, which allows us to examine ourselves in light of Christ's sacrifice, to confess our sins individually and corporately, and begin the process of repentance. The prayer of confession is then immediately followed by the "Passing of the Peace," which is not the same as merely greeting those around you. The "Peace" has been a part of the communion liturgy since the beginning because it allows people within the community of faith to go to one another to ask for or offer forgiveness for sins against one another. Having declared our faith in and love for Christ, and having confessed our sins to God and each other through the liturgy, we can now all approach the Lord's table with "clean hands and a pure heart" (Ps. 24).
The "open" part of our communion thus means that all who would embrace the three-fold invitation may come regardless of their denominational affiliation or even their past life of brokenness. Wesley believed that communion should be available to all, even to those who may be declaring their love for Christ, asking forgiveness for sin, and beginning a life of peace for the first time that day. Open communion allows for the possibility that someone could come in to a church, be inspired and converted through the Holy Spirit working through the words and spirit of the liturgy, confess their love for Christ, confess their sins, and begin a new life--all at Christ's table. In this sense, communion is an altar call--an invitation to receive the Christ who died for our sins.
Methodists recognize that there's a biblical precedent for this kind of communion. Jesus spent a great deal of his time eating with "sinners" at various tables throughout his ministry (Luke 15:2, among other verses). He even ate at table with the very one who would betray him. Jesus still eats with sinners every time we gather at his table, for none of us is "worthy" on our own. All of us are in need of the grace of God offered through the broken body and shed blood of Christ. While baptism is the one-time sacrament whereby we profess our faith in Christ and are initiated into the life of the church, communion is the regular sacrament that reminds us that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
I saw this beautifully illustrated once when I was serving communion at a wedding at which I was officiating. After the service, one of the bridesmaids came up to me in tears and said (I'm paraphrasing), "I have to tell you what happened to me today. As you were saying the prayer before communion, I felt something happening in my soul--a really deep sense that God loved me enough to die for me. I came to the altar rail shaking with that reality. I was just a bridesmaid here, but today I feel like I'm the most important person in the world to Jesus. I feel incredibly loved." That's grace!
None of are truly worthy of holy communion, but the apostle Paul does warn us that the meal can be eaten in an "unworthy manner." In I Corinthians 11, Paul instructs the Corinthians on proper decorum at the table. Abuses were taking place in that fledgling church because there were divisions in the body between rich and poor, which reflected the prevalence of the Greco-Roman class system. Some in the church, probably the wealthier members who did not work during the day, would arrive at the meal (which was a full meal) and begin indulging so much that there was little left for the poorer members who were likely showing up late. Paul thus says, "When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord's supper (11:20)," because the Lord's Supper is the great equalizer--a time when each member of the church is confronted with his or her sin and the need for God's grace regardless of their status or wealth. Paul thus urged them to "examine" themselves (11:28) before partaking so that all could participate with one another as the Body of Christ where each member has equal status. It's no coincidence that Paul goes on from here to describe that Body in chapter 12!
Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper, is a means of grace that uses ordinary elements, bread and cup, to convey deeply spiritual truth. When we gather together in worship around the table, we know that Christ is present, and when Christ is present things can and do change in the lives of people, no matter where they have come from. We do not know the hearts of those who join us as we come forward, but we trust that Christ does. We do not check people's eligibility for communion at the door because none of us is eligible without grace. It is Christ's table, and he gets to set the guest list. We don't come to the table as finished Christians, but always as people on the way to knowing the breadth, depth, and love of God in Christ.
That's what "open communion" means to me.