by Pastor Doug Kings

The story is so bizarre you would be excused for thinking it was from The Onion. An Arizona Catholic priest is leaving his parish after it was disclosed that for over twenty years, he had been conducting baptisms without using the proper wording. He has baptized thousands of people, mostly children, during this time, and because of his mistake, church officials have declared that all these baptisms are invalid.

His offence? Instead of saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” he said, “We baptize you….” I have not read any explanation for the change, but I assume the priest wanted to emphasize the communal nature of the event: the community of the church is welcoming the newly baptized.

It’s a minor change and I kind of like it. But this is another case of church hierarchy insisting everyone color inside the lines. According to the bishop of the Phoenix Diocese, “The issue with using ‘We’ is that it is not the community that baptizes a person, rather, it is Christ, and Him alone, who presides at all of the sacraments, and so it is Christ Jesus who baptizes.”

The interpretation arises from the conservative Catholic view that a priest is Christ when administering the sacraments. That many lay people, as well as priests, gave up such a view long ago doesn’t matter to these authorities; it’s canon law.

Hopefully someone with a heart and brains in the Vatican will intervene and say the people baptized don’t have to suffer for the priest’s “error.” But they may not. Sadly there is a long history of church authorities of all kinds, including Lutherans, setting up rules, regulations and requirements for receiving the sacraments.

I cannot commune in a Catholic church, for example, though some priests wouldn’t care. But neither can I commune in most Missouri Synod Lutheran congregations. In both cases, inter-communion is not allowed where the denominations are not “in fellowship” with one another.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a best-selling author, popular speaker, and ELCA pastor. She was the founder of House for All Sinners and Saints, a congregation ministering to the rejected and the down-and-out of metropolitan Denver. Last summer she published a blog post titled “On communion. Who gets to receive the goods?” In it she tells a story demonstrating how seriously she took her church’s name.

A young parishioner named Rachel had gone home to visit family. She called Bolz-Weber in tears.

“Nadia, I’m at my parent’s church and they’re serving communion and (her voice cracks) I’m not allowed to take it.” Rachel hadn’t thought much about her childhood church’s “closed table” (the term for when a church only allows certain people to take communion) until now. But she had spent a year with HFASS, a community centered around the grace of an unapologetically open table, and without even noticing it had happened, she had been changed by it. Every Sunday she had … [heard]these words: “We have an open table at House, which means that during communion, everyone without exception is invited to come forward at communion and receive the bread and wine – which for us is the body and blood of Christ.”

Bolz-Weber then explains the context for this inclusivity.

Jesus ate supper with more types of people than I myself would feel comfortable with. Sinners, tax collectors, soldiers, sex workers, fisherfolk, and even lawyers. And his LAST supper was the worst. He broke bread with his friends who were just about to abandon, deny and betray him. And yet, he took bread, blessed it, broke and gave it to these total screw-ups and said “this is my body, given for you, whenever you eat of it, do this in remembrance of me.” … And then what does the church do in remembrance of him? – try and keep the “wrong people” from receiving the Lord’s Supper.

A few days later, Bolz-Weber told Rachel’s story to a small group at the church. The spirit of inclusion had obviously infected all of them.

Without skipping a beat, Stuart (the church drag queen) said, “Well then we’ll just have to take her communion at the airport.” So at 10 PM on a Wednesday, eight of us showed up to Denver International airport with a cardboard chauffer’s sign that said “Rachel Pater” on one side, and “Child of God” on the other, and waited for her at the bottom of the escalator. We then made our way up to the interfaith prayer room. I spoke about how on the night Jesus was betrayed he gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom, and then we handed her what had been withheld days before: the body and blood of Christ.

In seminary we learned one description of the sacraments was “visible words.” Sacraments are the gospel in tangible, physical form, a message Jesus proclaimed to and for everyone. Regulations and hoop jumping were never part of his ministry.

Telling someone their liturgical “welcome to the family” is invalid because of a grammatical error is exactly the mentality of the scribes and Pharisees which Jesus so pointedly condemned. So too is denying a place at the table to those who aren’t on the approved guest list. Are there NO limits to who can participate, some may ask? Perhaps there are, but I’m not going to waste time figuring them out. As Bolz-Weber concludes, erring in excluding is far worse than welcoming too many.

If we are to be judged for having gotten this wrong, let it be that we sat more at the table than fewer. Because it’s not our table. It’s God’s.

Blessings in your life and ministry.