Confession: when I was in seminary, I was obsessed with Holy Communion/Eucharist. In a way, I guess I still am as a pastor who is credentialed to preside over the elements. My fascination probably comes from the fact that I used to be of the Jewish faith where bread and wine had a meaning all of its own. As a new Christian years ago, I found it extremely fascinating how 2 simple things- bread and wine- had entire theologies behind them, 2,000 years of history, debates, and the weirdest part: that bread and wine were somehow “the body and blood of Christ given for you.” That’s enough to make anyone say, “Umm, what?”
Throughout my studies, I have come to love the history and theology of the Eucharist and have a full appreciation for “This Holy Mystery,” because it is just that: a Holy Mystery. I have come to experience the grace and mercy of God at the table where Christ invites ALL to gather with an open invitation. Each time we have communion at church, I say these words: “The United Methodist table is an open table- you do not have to be a member of this or any congregation to participate- we simply ask that you come forward with an open heart and open mind to receive this gift of grace that is given so freely to each of us.” That is the beauty of the United Methodist Church. It is an OPEN table.
But does that extend to open…internet? There has been a recent debate over whether or not Holy Communion should be offered online to those who might be worshiping from home or office (or anywhere really!) via the internet. You can read more about the debate HERE. The issues come down to defining community, pastoral authority, and questions people may have about communion.
So, should UM churches offer Holy Communion online? Absolutely! Here is why:
1) The United Methodist Church’s mission statement is: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”- so why are we debating over whether or not someone has access to the sacrament of Communion just because they are not physically present? Through Communion, the prayers that are said, the grace that is still present, the blessings that are poured out, transformation is still possible, even if you’re sitting at a computer screen in your pajamas because you just didn’t get up in time for church that particular Sunday morning or if physically disability prevents you from attending.
2) The United Methodist Church focuses on being global and missional. Enough said.
3) The United Methodist table is an OPEN table- who are we to limit that to just those who are physically present?
4) Community is community. I have communities online that are truly communities. We talk to each other. We share each others lives. We pray for one another. We work through issues together. We keep in touch and care for one another. Communion online would be an extension of that community that is the church- perhaps the most important community we can offer to someone.
5) Christ is still present, even over the computer screen. We call Holy Communion “this holy mystery.” Why? Because it is, indeed, a mystery- something that we cannot fully understand for ourselves, no matter how much study we do or how much theology we get out of it. Christ is present in the partaking of the bread and wine, and that’s really all we need to know- Christ is still present, transformation still happens, healing takes place, comfort is given to all who open themselves to it, computer screen or not.
At this list, I imagine some of my seminary professors or clergy colleagues who disagree perhaps banging their heads against the wall. Maybe not. But in this age of technology and social media, the church must continue to strive for relevance whenever we see a chance to do so. If we pass up the chance to “approve” online communion, we pass up a chance to extend grace to a larger audience. (And a side note, shouldn’t the church as a whole be spending more time and effort on much bigger social issues? As I read that article, I found myself wondering how much time and money is being spent on these meetings, papers, and “research” efforts toward this issue- it’s even going to hit the floor of General Conference in 2016- is that really necessary?)
Finally, I leave you with a story- when I was in Tijuana, Mexico with a group of clergy colleagues this past summer, we spent quite a bit of time at the border fence that divides Mexico and the United States. We heard many stories of families being separated by that oppressing wall that even extended out into the ocean. One of the stories that stuck with me is about a priest who comes to the border fence each week to give the Eucharist to families on either side of the fence. At first, he was able to pass the elements through the holes in the fence, but over time, the holes got smaller and he was unable to provide elements for both sides. So what did they do? I don’t remember hearing an exact answer, but I hoped for the family on the side who could not receive it directly that they would provide their own elements to be blessed by the priest from the other side- and that blessing would suffice and the whole family could take communion together- even with a fence dividing them. Was one sacrament host more meaningful than the other? I don’t think so. Was the blessing there? Yes. Was grace received? Yes. Were the families brought together in that moment? Yes.
Open table…open…internet? What do you think?