2007May8, Tuesday

How Do We Fence the Table?

Posted in The Church at 11:51 by Trey Austin

In another context, i received the following quote by Peter Martyr Vermigli. It is his exhortation at the administration of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. It is very interesting because of the way Vermigli instructs and exhorts his hearers. Here is what he said:

MY BELOVED BROTHERS, we now come to partake in the Lord’s Supper, to which in God’s name I invite all of you who are here present. I also beseech you through Jesus Christ our Lord, [by the blessed hope of his coming, and I by the eternal happiness which we are awaiting,] that as you have been so kindly and gently called and invited by God, you will not refuse to come forward. You know how burdensome and annoying it would be for someone who has already prepared a splendid feast, laid out a table with a magnificent display, and the only thing remaining is to sit down, to then have the guests announce for no good and legitimate reason that they are not going to come. Who of you would not then be upset? Who would not think that you had been done a serious injustice? So you too, dear friends in Christ, should take care lest in refusing this holy supper you provoke God’s indignation against you [and you incur his bitter wrath]. It is easy for people to say, “I will not receive Communion because I cannot.” But it is very difficult, indeed impossible, for this kind of excuse to be acceptable before God. [Suppose God were to ask why you cannot. I ask you, what are you going to reply?] “I am befouled by sin.” Why do you not repent? [It does not take a great deal of time to look back. You can quickly change a plan for a new hope of gain or comfort. You can reverse a decision. You can go against what you decided to do.] But when it is a case of retreating from sin, you say, “I cannot.” When it is a case of returning to God, you make the excuse, “I am not up to it.” Think again and again: these excuses will not work. Those who turned down the banquet of the master of the house because they had bought a farm, because they had to test yokes of oxen or marry wives-they were in no way excused but were judged unworthy of their heavenly calling and invitation (Matt. 22:2-8). I am present here, and in my role as God’s ambassador I invite you in the name of God, I call you for Christ’s sake, I encourage you to communicate for your own salvation. Just as the Son of God has deigned to lay down his life on the cross for your salvation, so you are bound to perform the memorial of his death here [together with the other brethren], even as he commanded. If you absolutely do not wish to do it [and you will not allow yourselves to be led away from a hard and fixed decision], think over carefully within yourselves how great an injury you are doing to God and how great a punishment for this awaits you. And since you are offending God more than enough by refusing this holy banquet, I warn and beg and beseech you not to add another sin to this one. That would be as if you were not going to communicate and stood around like spectators watching the communicants. What will this be except doing a greater injury to God? It is contemptuous to refuse the person who is inviting you, but it is much more than that when somebody stands around and meanwhile will not be seated with the others and will neither eat nor drink. This is indeed to make a mockery of Christ’s mysteries. It was said to all: “Take and eat. Take and drink of this, all of you. Do this in memory of me.” With what sort of face, with what sort of countenance, [with what sort of heart] will you hear these words? What will this be, except neglecting, contemning, and mocking Christ’s Testament? So it is better to leave, to make room for holy people. But as you depart, I ask you to pose for yourselves fully and seriously this question: “From what are you departing?” From this precisely: from God, from Christ, from your brothers, from the banquet of supreme love. Once you have thought these things over in faith, maybe you will have a change of heart and return to the path. While taking communion together we here will be praying that the divine mercy may grant you this. 

(Peter Martyr Vermigli, “Exhortation to the Mystical Supper of the Lord,” in  Life, Letters and Sermons, trans., by John Patrick Donnelly, (Kirksville, Missouri: Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, 1999), vol 5, pp., 275-276.)

Reading this got me wondering about how i hear the Table fenced in most Presbyterian Churches i know. A pastor friend of mine told me that they are thinking of moving their monthly communion service to a monthly Sunday evening service (they have stopped meeting on Sunday nights otherwise). At their church, they have several more attenders than members on a regular basis. From what he tells me, though, when they include Communion in their worship service, many of their members and attenders just flat don’t come to worship. My pastor friend says (and i quote) that it’s “because of the way we fence the Table.”

Now, for the life of me, i don’t know exactly what he means. I suspect, though, it is the way he, as the minister administering the sacrament, gives the exhortation to those in attendance. This is what most of us call “fencing the table.” In conservative Presbyterian circles, this usually consists of a qualified invitation and a stern warning to anyone who is caught in some sin, who has unresolved issues with another brother or sister, or who otherwise does not think he or she can come and receive the sacrament in a “worthy manner.”

I usually don’t go through all of that, and i thought i was strange and out of synch with Reformational teaching and practice when i warn people about staying away from the Table for some minor reason—indeed, i got the feeling that some people think it strange that i even address that issue. My basic assumption is that any baptized Christian who professes faith in Christ and has not been barred from the Table has an obligation to come and receive from Christ. I was delighted to see that Vermigli, in his exhortation above, echoes that very sentiment.

Really, it all comes down to how one sees what takes place in the sacrament. Is the sacrament my action toward God, or is it God’s action toward me? If it is what we do, some act we give to God, i can see how someone would need to wait until he’s in some better spiritual position, or less sinful, or whatever have you, before he comes and partakes. However, if it is something God does for us, a gift in which he provides for our spiritual betterment, and a conduit through which he channels all of the benefits of Christ who sits risen and ascended at the Father’s right hand, then what are the qualifications for coming? Simply recognizing our great lack and need and his great grace and provision. Who, then, could be turned away, except those who refuse to repent, refuse to come to Christ for life and forgiveness, and refuse to seek his kingdom and righteousness?

We don’t have the right unilaterally to excommunicate some brother or sister, nor do we have the right unilaterally to excommunicate ourselves. When Christ says, “Come!,” we come, or else are found to be disobedient. Those who love him will come, regardless of what their spiritual state is at the time. Only those who are willing to disobey their God and Savior will stay away when bidden. We should have more “fencing of the table” like that—the kind that seeks to fence in the sheep instead of fencing them out.



  1. al said,

    What do you think about pastors asking a pair of feuding church members to refrain until their differences are patched up or some other resolution is come to.

    al sends

  2. Fr. Bill said,

    A couple of thoughts from an Anglican vicar …

    When the Eucharist is the hub around which all elements of the worship service revolve, and also the focal point toward which all the parts of the worship service move, finding its climax in that meal, the pastoral issue you raise here gets addressed by the classical Christian liturgy, found in both East and West, and in the streams of Protestantism that retained that catholic pattern of worship (i.e. Anglicans and Lutherans to this day, and originally by Calvin).

    Specifically, confession of sin and absolution routinely engage the sinner’s need for forgiveness and provide assurance of it prior to the celebration of the Eucharist. Cranmer’s Prayer Book provides exhortations for the pastor to employ, as needed, which in spirit are very much like Vermigli’s.

    Prior to the Eucharist, the liturgy of the Word establishes a clear and resonant litany between the Lord (through the reading, singing, and preaching of the Word) and the faithful (through their responses, hymns, prayers, and confession of faith). After this “conversation” has been well-developed, the Prayers of the People lay before the Lord a panoply of intercessions and thanksgivings. Then, and only then, the banquet Vermigli so eloquently describes is laid out, and the people come to the Lord, praying “Grant us gracious Lord so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood,
    that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, And our souls washed through his most precious Blood, And that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us” [BCP Prayer of Humble Access, offered by the congregation prior to receiving the sacrament].

    The invitation to receive the sacrament includes these words: “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort …” Even at this point, the rubrics instruct the priest to withhold the sacrament from those who are open and notorious sinners and evil livers, or from those whom the priest knows to be an enmity with one another. With all the preparation, occasion for righting wrongs and repenting of sin, and express warning that precedes the administration of the sacrament, those unworthy (e.g. unrepentant) who nevertheless present themselves at the communion rail are either spiritually senseless brutes or brazenly challenging the Lord’s grace. The priest’s duty, in either case, is clear.

    The point: when the congregation worships with a liturgy inside of which these exhortations and provisions for sin are routine features, the “need” for extraordinarily prickly warnings that are intended to fence the altar does not arise. Rather, familial entreaty you find in Vermigli is woven throughout.

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