Rescuing the Eucharist from the UMC: Part 2 The Invitaion

“Christ our Lord invites to his table…”

No. He does not.

Christ does not invite. He calls. He commands. There is no common sense of the word by which we may say that any person of the Trinity “invites.” God does not invite, and that is a good thing.

Perhaps, we could invent some peculiar sense of the word whereby we say Christ invites. He leaves it to our free will to accept a call or decline. He does not compel us to obey any command. God does not (customarily) restrain the murderer or physically prevent the thief from executing their crimes. Yet, there are consequences in this life and the next for refusing his commands. If we mean by “invite” only that we have free will to reject a Divine call and thereby disrupt our relationship in Christ, then that is a peculiar definition of the term.

When I receive an invitation to speak at an event, I have the option to respectfully decline the invitation without damaging my relationship with the other party. I may have more critical matters to address. I may consider myself incompetent for the occasion. I may have any number of reasons to decline the invitation while acknowledging the honor of the request and respecting our relationship. It is not so with God. I cannot refuse his call for other more pressing concerns without acknowledging that I have allowed those concerns to be a disruption in my relationship with God. There are consequences for declining. If all that is meant by an invitation is that it uses neither physical restraint nor compulsion to ensure compliance, yet the refusal to accept severs our relationship, then that is a peculiar definition of the term.

In that peculiar sense of the word, we may say that the Incarnation is an invitation from God. He could have manifested himself as an astonishing otherworldly creature descending upon the Temple Mount with two lists. He could have said, “Here is a list of good things. Here is a list of bad things. Do the good things. Don’t do the bad things. Watch out for lightning bolts. See ya later.”  Instead, it reveals something of the nature of God that he chose to come to us in the most extraordinary person the world will ever see. He sat us down in grassy meadows and told us stories. He visited our homes and answered questions over dinner. He walked in our crowded city streets where we could reach out and touch him. In Jesus Christ it as though God is saying, “This is what I am like. This is what I want for you. Follow me if you will. Don’t if you prefer. There are rewards and consequences to each choice. Choose well.” Christ comes to us and says, “Follow me.” It is a wondrous call. It is a beautiful command. It is not an invitation.

it is a good thing to be called of God. Accepting a Divine call intensifies our relationship with Christ. Declining a Divine call weakens our relationship with Christ and possibly severs it.   If we call that an invitation, then it is in a sense so peculiar that it has no place at all in the definition of the word. It is better to use the plain words that speak with clarity than to invent a peculiar meaning for an inappropriate word that creates uncertainty. God does not invite. God calls, and every call of God is a command.

That the call to Holy Communion is a command and not an invitation is demonstrated clearly by John Wesley’s exposition of Scripture in the sermon The Duty of Constant Communion. Wesley summarizes that there is no clearer command in Scripture than Christ’s words, “Do this”! Christ does not invite the world to the table, rather he calls disciples to the table and commands them to keep a perpetual remembrance.

For those of us in The United Methodist branch of the Christian family tree the term “Invitation to Holy Communion” seems so natural that we assume that it (or something like it) must have always been there. That is not true. An invitation to Holy Communion cannot be found in any Christian liturgy prior to its invention and first publication by the United Methodist Church in its 1989 hymnal. I cannot know every prayer book in the world, and I do not concern myself with what the congregationalists do, but nothing resembling it is not found in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus ca. 200, the Apostolic Constitutions ca. 375, the Roman Rite ca. 600 and all evolving liturgies to date, Martin Luther’s Formula Missae 1523 and all evolving liturgies to date, John Calvin’s The Form of Church Prayers, Geneva, 1542 and all evolving liturgies to date*, any edition of the Book of Common Prayer from 1549 to date, nor John Wesley’s The Sunday Service for Methodists in America, 1784, nor any Methodist liturgy prior to 1989.

None of these liturgies contain anything that could possibly be mistaken for an invitation. What they include which the United Methodist rites lack is a call to introspection, a reminder of the great benefit available in the Sacrament, and an admonition to those who will not benefit through participation—the exact opposite of an invitation. Over time this took the form of the Exhortation. Many traditions employ the Exhortation with regularity but not at every service. When the Exhortation is proclaimed, it is customarily the first words of the worship service and is closely followed by the Summary of the Law (The Ten commandments with antiphon and the Great Commandment). It seems reasonable that some form Exhortation and the Summary of the law needs to return on occasion if only for its catechetical value—so we don’t lapse into error through mere forgetfulness.

It also appears that the late twentieth century liturgical reformers intended for the Invitation to replace the Exhortation and the Summary of the Law, but the Invitation is placed late in the service immediately before the Confession and Pardon. Considering its placement in the service and its content mentions nothing of the benefits of the Sacrament nor of conduct at the table, the effect is simply as the opening sentence of The Confession of Pardon as it concludes— “Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.” If it is a call to Confession and pardon then it is an effective one because it mentions only our positive qualities and says nothing of self-examination, repentance, or being open to an amended life. The opening phrase, “Christ our lord invites to his table…” only offers confusion to the rite.

The Invitation is a recent invention, but does it do any harm? It is not necessary that we use two-thousand-year-old phrases and forms for worship. It is both reasonable and faithful to adapt forms and language to the time and place so long as we do nothing repugnant to the word of God. Because this innovation is such a noticeable outlier within Christian liturgy and because it is an innovation in the holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, it deserves more intense scrutiny than it has heretofore received. We ought to ask: Does it do any harm? If so, can it be ameliorated or does it need to be removed? If it is removed then does it need to be replaced (or, in this case, does the thing it replaced need to be restored)?

As we have already discussed in detail, treating Divine call as an invitation misrepresents the character of God. It is a depiction of God who makes no demands of us, to whom we owe no obligation, and whose commands we may disregard without affecting our relationship in Christ. It also misrepresents the Sacrament as an optional worship ritual rather than the effective means of grace that God has established for our spiritual sustenance. Either of these harms is sufficient reason to amend or abandon the practice. Before examining the options, we need to ask another question—What is it about late twentieth century United Methodism that resulted in the perceived need to add the Invitation to Holy Communion that the rest of Christianity has never needed from the days of the Apostles to the present? What problem was this meant to fix?

The answer is a practical one—continuity. Given the shape of the revised order something needs to be in that place to provide a linguistic bridge between the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the table.  United Methodist practice separates the liturgy of table from the liturgy of the word. Regardless of ecclesial statements to the contrary and regardless of rubrics in the liturgy, the prevailing practice has separated word and table. On those infrequent occasions when the Sacrament is celebrated there is a felt need to make the transition from routine Sunday worship to the administration of the Sacrament. The invitation serves the practical purpose of saying, “O.K., we have finished with the preaching and now we are moving on to something else.”

The primary Sunday Service has developed into a teaching session—an elaborate Sunday School class. There is nothing in the typical order of Sunday worship to suggest the existence of the Eucharist let alone its meaning. When Holy Communion is celebrated it is as an addendum to worship, and there is some need to introduce what is about to happen. In other Christian traditions, as in our Methodist heritage, everything in the liturgy leads us through the word to the font and table. It makes no more sense to stop and issue an invitation to the table than it would to stop and issue an invitation to hear the sermon. They have no use for the Invitation.

Even worse (if possible) is the rising fad of celebrating Communion apart from the liturgy of the word. We gather for a business meeting or a bingo game and someone decides it would be nice to “have” Communion. No reading or exposition of Scripture. No time for introspection. This is pervasive not only in local churches but also at district and conference events. Such a void must be filled with some type of introduction. The Invitation serves the purpose. Other traditions may celebrate a liturgy of word without table but never table without word. There are evangelistic and catechetical occasions for a sermon without sacrament. There are occasions for prayer service without table. It is an anathema to offer table without word. They have no use for the Invitation.

When we are at our best, every act of worship including every Sunday sermon ought to lead us to the altar—to the Font and the Table. It should be a natural thing that the closing sentence in the sermon could flow seamlessly into—therefore, “all of you who do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead a new life…”

Who is invited to this table? No one. No one is invited, but his disciples are called to the table. The difference between those little words affects our perception of the character of God, our relationship with him, and the nature of the Sacrament. Substantial benefit could be received by simply changing the one word so that it reads “Christ our Lord calls to his table…” One could drop the Invitation altogether in favor of, “Let us confess our sin before God and one another.” Either of these is a good short-term patch, but not an effective repair. Returning a form of the call to Confession to Confession and Pardon form established liturgies goes a lot further.  

All who truly and earnestly repent of your sins and seek to live a new life in love and charity with your neighbors, following the commandments of God and walking in his ways: draw near with faith and receive this Holy Sacrament to your present and everlasting comfort. To make a right beginning, let us make our humble confession before Almighty God.

Be patient with me as I keep my recommendations modest and few. For now, my role is more of the lamenting prophet seeking relief from the priests—those who are competent to act. One more essay will bring more wide-ranging suggestions for reform. I will try to avoid going beyond my competency.

I have one recommendation to share from my experience that might be helpful at this point. It addresses the concern that we should consider it natural that every order of worship should lead us comfortably to the altar—to the Font or the Table—whether the Sacrament is celebrated or not. To that end I always open the altar at every principal worship service. I am not a Billy Sunday nor a Billy Graham, so maybe these closing words will be helpful to someone.

This altar is always open. Maybe some trouble followed you into this house this morning, and you have not heard the answer. Maybe you came here expecting little and heard a call to surrender something or commit to a new life, yet you don’t know if you have the strength to see it through. God still wants to speak with you. Don’t leave here without hearing. This is his altar. It is a place of prayer—the gate of heaven. He promises to meet us here.

If you want to come forward and be alone with him then come to your right side of the altar. You will not be disturbed there…at least not by any mortal. If you want to share something and desire someone to pray with you, then come to your left side of the altar. I will be waiting for you there.

Usually there are only a few people who appreciate the call. Sometimes the altar is empty, sometimes the crowd at the altar keeps us through two or three closing hymns. The congregation learns to be patient and appreciate being part of the great work.  Through this practice I have been privileged to be around when God does some wondrous things. It also develops a people who expect the transcendent God to break into life and work a change. It develops a community where it seems reasonable and faithful that the real presence of Christ would be found in the Sacrament. It only requires that we offer the genuine Christ, for he will not work on behalf of an impostor. It only requires that we offer an authentic Sacrament, because he has not promised to honor a counterfeit.

The next essay: Confession and Pardon

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