This Sunday a number of our children will receive communion after having had instruction about it’s meaning and significance by Rev. Abby Heinrich. For centuries, churches in the western world restricted Communion to those who could “understand” it. In Eastern Orthodox churches, on the other hand, children are part of this table fellowship from birth.
The biblical rational for limiting communion to adults is from 1 Corinthians 11: 28-29:
28 Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.
The understanding was that in order to participate in communion one had to “discern the body.” In other words, one had to understand the significance of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross in his “fleshly body.” Recently, biblical scholars have suggested another possible interpretation: the body refers to the “body of Christ,” not to Jesus’ body. In Corinth, Christians would come together in one another’s homes for an “agape meal” and to share the Lord’s Supper. The well off, however, would often arrive early, eat much of the food, and sometimes be drunk by the time those who were workers, slaves or common folk came. They were being treated like second class citizens. Paul was furious. This was not the purpose of communion. At the communion table we are all one in Christ. We are all one at the foot of the cross. We are all in need of God’s grace regardless of our station in life, education, wealth, or family status. Thus, Paul’s point is that EVERYONE should be included.
In the United Church of Christ we have taken this principle to mean that children are included in the family of God. Children have a startling ability to understand the deeper meanings of Communion and what it stands for. They may not have a profound or complete understanding (who does?) but they certainly know what it is to be excluded. I remember my children coming up to Peggy and me in tears one time because the ushers passed them over when the elements were passed during worship.
In the sacrament of Communion, the church acts out the drama of God’s love for humankind. God’s grace comes to us through things we can see and touch and taste. In Communion, God comes to us in the bread and the wine (sometimes called “elements”), symbols that we can touch and taste. We bring to the table bread and wine, which represent our daily life and work. We receive back again the bread and wine, now transformed by God’s Spirit into symbols of God’s love and grace.
Quotes from a pamphlet on children and communion shows that young children can grasp the truth that is enacted in Communion.
- A three-year-old described it as “the church’s sharing service.”
- A six-year-old, on entering the sanctuary and seeing the communion elements in the worship space, said with great feeling, “Oh, I love these Sundays. I love having the bread and juice.
A nine-year-old said simply, “I like the Eucharist because I am glad I am a Christian.”
How can we help our children better appreciate what Communion is all about? As parents…
• explain the rituals around Communion that are practiced in our church
• if there is liturgy that accompanies Communion, help children to learn the words
• talk with children about their experiences of Communion
• share some of your own feelings about the meaning of Communion for you• read the story of Jesus’ Last Supper with his friends, from one of the gospels (Matthew 26:20–29; Mark 14:17–25; Luke 22:14–38)
• talk about the ways in which this “meal” is similar to and different from a family mean
As a church we can…
• invite children to prepare the elements by baking the bread or filling the cups
• have children bring the bread and cup to the table as we sing the Communion hymn
• include children as servers of the bread and juice
• organize a “preparing for Communion” session for families before a service that includes this sacrament
• encourage sessions about Communion as a regular part of the church school curriculum — arrange for a time to visit church school classes and speak with children about the sacrament.
Remember, our children are not the future of the church, but they are the church today.