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Sacramental Double Standards?


In recent weeks, I have had the privilege of conversation with two individuals from Anabaptist traditions regarding the justification of infant baptism.  Those conversations were both challenging and enlightening, and ultimately affirmed my delight in the Lutheran understanding of Baptism. 

As a former member of the Roman Catholic tradition, my journey through the denominational alphabet soup prior to landing in the Lutheran tradition was arduous and circuitous.    I spent a few years as a very active participant in a Baptist congregation.  They had a tremendous love of Jesus and commitment to the faith, but I was never comfortable with their works righteousness or sacramental theology.  What solidified my landing in the Lutheran tradition was the Lutheran understanding of the sacraments and their reflection of and integration with the Lutheran theology of justification by faith through grace apart from works of the law.    I love that Lutherans baptize infants because they believe that the saving work belongs to God and not us.   I love that Lutherans believe that God initiates the relationship with us “while we were yet sinners and enemies of God” and makes the commitment to us in baptism rather than waiting for us to decide that we are committed to Jesus and deciding to invite him into relationship with us.  I love that Lutherans believe that God can give the gift of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and life in Jesus the Christ to an infant; someone who has no capacity to know or understand the tremendous gifts of grace that God is bestowing.  The fact that it is all dependent on God is so FREEING.

That reminder got me contemplating the Lutheran approach to the Lord’s Supper.  As a Roman Catholic I still remember my first communion.  I was 6 and I KNEW that FINALLY I was going to be able receive Jesus’ body and blood.  I couldn’t for the life of me have explained the mechanics of how that happened, but with the faith that I sometimes think only a child can have, I KNEW that when I took the bread and wine, I would be receiving Jesus.  And I KNEW that was a very, very special gift.  It sustained me all day – I was privileged to receive 6 days a week – and I believe that sustenance nurtured my own faith through the work of the Holy Spirit.

When I landed in the Lutheran tradition, I was a little surprised at the practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper.  I had studied the Lutheran Confessions and I knew the sacramental theology, but it didn’t really connect with the practices that I observed.  That was when I began to really comprehend the necessity of BOTH orthopraxy and orthodoxy.  First, the irregular frequency of celebrating the Lord’s Supper was confusing to me.  That, however, is a subject for another time.  What truly befuddled me were the restrictions Lutherans placed on WHO could receive the Lord’s Supper and how drastically the practices varied from congregation to congregation.  The age limitations were very confusing to me.

Many congregations withheld access to the Lord’s Supper until after completion of the catechetical process, the theory being that they must understand the faith in order to receive the Lord’s Supper.  Other congregations allowed for an ‘early’ communion at age 10 with pastoral and parental approval, the implication being that they SHOULD wait until after completion of the catechetical process but were being granted a very special exception because they were more advanced in their faith than their peers.  Some congregations follow the Roman Catholic practice of granting access to the Lord’s Supper at the age of 7, deemed as the age at which children can ‘appropriately’ know the difference between right and wrong.  The theory there is that we must be able to understand the gift of forgiveness which we are receiving.

Multiple readings of Luther’s large Catechism on the Sacrament of the Altar leave me wondering about all of these practices and their inconsistencies with our understanding of the Sacrament of Baptism.  Referring to the Sacrament of the Altar, Luther states: “Now we must also consider who the person is who receives such power and benefit.  Briefly, as we said about baptism and in many other places, the answer is: It is the one who believes what the words say and what they give, …  All those who let these words be addressed to them and believe that they are true have what the words declare.  …Now this is the sum total of a Christian’s preparation to receive this sacrament worthily.”

This presents me with a dilemma.  How is it that as Lutherans we can baptize infants, a practice which Luther himself staunchly defended in refutation of the Anabaptists, while limiting access to the Lord’s Supper to the younger members of the body of Christ.  If I am being truthful, there are more 4-8 year olds in the congregation in which I serve who believe that Jesus is really present in the bread and wine, than adults who do so.  So if those youth are capable of receiving bread and wine and believing that it is Jesus’ body and blood for them  (even if they cannot explain it) how do we dare withhold the sacrament from them?  If we believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit given in baptism can sustain and nurture the faith of an infant without their knowledge and participation, how is it that we cannot trust that same Spirit to nurture and sustain the faith of a young person who would receive the Sacrament of the Altar with a trusting heart in the presence of Jesus?  On the flip side, if we believe that understanding and commitment is necessary for access to the Lord’s Supper, then how is it that we continue to practice infant baptism? 

It seems to me that from an orthodox Lutheran theological standpoint, baptism and a trusting heart in the presence of Jesus for us in the bread and wine are the only prerequisites for coming to the table.  It also seems that might leave us with a double standard when it comes to the practice of our sacramental rites.  Perhaps the Eastern Orthodox practice of communing infants may not be the answer, but certainly, requiring a ‘right understanding’ or completing catechetical studies seems to be inconsistent with Lutheran sacramental theology. 

(Luther quote taken from the Kolb/Wengert version of the Book of Concord: The Large Catechism 470:33-36)


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Watson permalink
    10August2011 07:33

    I completely agree with you on this one. Listening to Lutherans explain why we should wait and what we should wait for is a lot like listening to Anabaptist arguments about an “age of reason” and human responsibility in the sacrament. When kids are holding out their hands, it seems wrong for me to say, “The body of Christ given for you … given for you … but not for you.” I have tried to get away from the 5th-grade tradition here, inviting younger kids for First Communion education, but parents consistently tell me, “They’re not ready.” I wonder if what they mean is, “We’ve never done it that way before.”

  2. Fr. Joseph Summerville permalink
    10August2011 08:25

    Interesting. I gave my son his first communion when I baptized him at the age of six weeks. I lifted all age restrictions on the eucharist in this parish and never heard a peep, and parents gladly brought their children to the altar. The only “problem” has been the practical one of HOW to give it to infants… unlike the Eastern Orthodox, we don’t use a spoon, so it is a bit more problematic.
    I wonder if a lot of it has to do with geography…the Lutherans are somehow different in different parts of the country?

  3. KMF,STS@CCD (I love initials!) permalink
    11August2011 00:03

    While I agree completely that a chronological number should not be the defining mark of when it is time to receive First Communion, we must be nuanced (which is hard to do in a 300-500 blog post) because often the case is presented (note: not made) that if there is no age for communion, why do we need to have other barriers/qualifiers – in other words, why only the baptized?

    FWIW – in a Lutheran Forum (the full fledged magazine, not just the Forum Letter) article, our former prof Cheryl Peterson at Trinity in Columbus wrote a wonderful piece entitled “Font to Table or Table to Font?” in which she argues well for the Font to Table approach.

    Again – I don’t see Katie making the move here that we commune the unbaptized, but I did notice some pushing that point on her Facebook page/post about this blog post 🙂

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