This past week, the New York Times reported that former Vice President Joe Biden was refused communion at a Roman Catholic Church in South Carolina. It is important to note that the only mention Biden has made of this is to say that it was a personal matter. The priest, in a statement to the media, said he refused communion based on Biden’s support of abortion rights “something the church cannot condone by way of the sacrament.” I am not sure when it was decided that this priest or any human being was the judge of God’s grace, but he felt he was given that power.
In Roman Catholic Theology, the Eucharist is a sacrament. Sacraments provide grace to the faithful, so refusing to commune someone denies them of the sacramental grace. Roman Catholic Theology also teaches that Jesus Christ is present, in a very real way, in the elements of bread and wine, and so refusing to give communion to someone is to deny them the presence of Jesus. I am not sure that is what was intended.
On that Thursday night, in the Upper Room, Jesus gathered his closest friends around him for one last Passover meal with them. Scripture tells us that after supper, he shared bread and wine with them and said to them that these elements were his body and blood that would be shared for them and all so that their sins may be forgiven. He then gave them the command to “do this in remembrance of me.” It is important to note that sitting around that table was the man that would three times deny Jesus and also the man that would betray him, which would ultimately lead to his death. That’s right; Judas was present and, as far as we can tell, received communion from the hand of our Lord himself.
This denial of communion is certainly not the first instance of the faithful being denied communion; this practice has been going on since the day after that first Eucharist. Who is and who is not in communion with the church is a powerful weapon that has been used by Popes, Priests, and Bishops in all times and places of history. This action that is meant to unify and bring grace and peace to people is continuously being used as a weapon to divide, and now it has been reduced to a prize one gets for being “the best in class.”
Although Pope Francis believes that abortion is a sin, he had this to say about withhold communion from people, I think this is from 2013, “The Eucharist … is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Another point I will raise is what has the action of this priest done in the eyes of the faithful? Sure, some will applaud him for taking a stand, but there are far more that will be hurt and divided by his actions. With the belief that communion is the real and actual presence of Jesus Christ when one comes to receive communion, they stand before the very presence of Jesus. What this priest has done is tell Biden and others that Jesus has told them no, go away, you are no worthy of my grace, something that Jesus NEVER did, remember, Judas was at that table.
When I decided to leave the Eastern Orthodox Church for the Reformed Church, it was partly around this idea of closed table communion that somehow, this life-giving sacrament was reserved only for those who followed a particular set of rules. My spiritual and theological understanding of the sacrament, real presence or not, is that it was a gift given by Jesus to everyone as a way to help them, through grace, to be better, to act better, to love better. By denying communion to people, we deny them God’s grace!
On a personal theological note, I do believe that Jesus is present in the elements of communion. I think that something happens when the community gathers around the table and that community asks the Holy Spirit to come. A transformation, a sanctification of those elements takes place and they become something different, not in the physical sense but in the spiritual sense. And when we receive them into our bodies we become sanctified and grace-filled. How can we possibly deny that to anyone?
I am not sure where the arrogance comes from that makes one believe they are the judge of God’s grace, but I thank God that he sent his Son Jesus so that all who believe in him might have eternal life, not just those who follow specific rules.