Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Controlling Grace

I’ve noticed a rather disturbing behavior in parishioners while participating in the means of grace known as Communion, the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.

It is most obvious when they are partaking of the “wine.”

(Disclaimer: We use grape juice in little cups. I know that it has little continuity with Jesus passing around a cup of wine after the Passover meal, but there are other factors involved.)

Communion is supposed to be a
means of grace. It is one of the “channels” through which God administers his “unmerited favor” to his people. It is well established that humility and surrender are necessary conditions for receiving grace.

But this is what I see: worshippers asserting control when they are receiving Communion.

It is a general attitude. But I have isolated two different behaviors that expose this attitude. One is refusing to take the little cup that is closest. It seems to be a deliberate assertion of self will.

In this situation, the tray has some cups already removed. And one cup is isolated making it easy to grasp. (I often rotate the tray to make these even more accessible.) I watch the person consciously reject the close cup and reach for one farther away.

The other situation could be described as “which one should I take.” In this case, the worshipper looks at the cups in the tray as if they were chocolates in a
Whitman sampler. After a short deliberation, the communicant reaches for the prize with the compressed lips of satisfaction.

What made me aware of this was a jarring moment that occurred while I was distributing the bread. (We use a small loaf of regular bread which I break in two. I often carry a half loaf in each hand.) I extended one of the half loaves to a congregant who quite purposefully reached past it to tear off a piece from the other half.

It was after this that I started to notice the more subtle behaviors I described above.

So what do you think? Have you seen this at your church? What is your attitude when taking Communion? Do you think I have made too much of this behavior?

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”


dbriggins said...

I grew up in a Friends church in California, which didn't practice communion. What I've seen of communion since I've been "out in the world" is that it tends towards meaningless ritual to most. A part of that is the control issue. A far more damaging control issue to me is those who deliberately withhold themselves from communion because they do not think themselves spiritually ready.

In this I see the two sides of the coin of PRIDE. One side is "God can't": purify me from my sin, forgive me, cleanse me, whatever. The other is "I won't": let go of my anger, sin, rebellion, whatever.

Pastor Rod said...


I've experienced the same mechanical observation of Communion. But I assure you that it is not a flaw in the sacrament itself.

I also agree with your statement about the nonsense of "not being worthy" to take Communion. That's the same as being too sick to take medicine.

Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to add your comments.


daniel the smith said...

I know some version of this runs through my head with some frequency during communion: "Hmm, which one do I want... oh wait, it doesn't make any difference."

My first impression is to think that the thought pattern of "which one should I take" is just a habit, and not conscious behavior. I can agree that thinking, "which cup has the most grape juice in it," is silly at best but more likely a completely wrong attitude-- but I wouldn't have thought of it as a control issue. What makes you think of it as that?

Hmm, and dbriggins: That's very interesting. I have the opposite experience: communion is the one part of the service that is pretty hard to ruin for me. I think the whole "not being worthy to take it" (which I've heard of a lot) stems from a reading of the bit that Paul said about taking it in an unworthy manner that fails to consider the context. I've never observed people actually *not* taking it though. Whether that's due to inattention on my part, I can't say.

Very thought provoking post, though.

Pastor Rod said...


I guess that the second example is not so much a control issue as it is an expression of the "religious goods and services" mindset.

Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation.


Phil Perkins said...

I think that the fellow reaching for the other half of the loaf is just being innovative. But your analysis is really fascinating!!

Phil Perkins.

Keith.Drury said...

I'll add one consistent with your thoughts. In our service we offer Communion every week at the end of the service. We use a large common loaf. Our worship folder suggests "come forward with open hands to receive a piece of the common loaf" for the same submission reasons you suggest. This is very hard for a modern/Western/American to do.. about half of our people insist on coming forward to "pluck" the bread out of the minister's hands. Your observations have brought this into a new light for me.

Pastor Rod said...


I'm beginning to see this (along with the consumer mindset with which it is related) as the main obstacle standing in the way of spiritual maturity in our churches.

Of course, this is also a major problem for pastors. I'm thinking about some disciplines to address this issue in my own life.

On a personal note, I have recently been reading and listening to Dallas Willard in significant quantities. Besides his powerful insights, the greatest impact he has on me is his Christlike attitude.

After some reflection, I remembered that I had seen the same thing somewhere else. He reminds me of you, when you are not taking about politics. :-)

Thanks for all you've invested in me over the years.


Pastor Astor said...

This is an ineresting post for me, since I discussed a similar matter earlier this week conserning the lutheran ritual. Here the communicants kneel and are fed the bread and presented with the (common) cup. They can steady the cup as they take a sip, but they don't hold it themselves. I think this speaks beautifully of the gifts as gifts of grace. We can only receive them as children, not claim them as our right. The common cup speaks of us all "taking part" in Jesus together.
I understand that the use of a common cup seems strange to todays americans, but doesn´t that testify to an even deeper spli in fellowship? It might not be fully sanitary, but to demand that from what symbolises a canibal meal is a bit strange too. How much can we sanitize without domesticating the message totally?