Eucharist and Baptism

Currently, there is a conversation going on in the Episcopal Church concerning the relationship of Eucharist and Baptism:  specifically, whether or not Baptism must precede participation in Eucharist.  I think there are legitimate arguments for both sides.  Based on other blog posts I have read recently, I think the level of contention and rhetoric is too high to have fruitful conversation right now.  I am going to explain my own views on the subject and why I am in favor of everyone participating in Eucharist for all, regardless of someone’s Baptismal status.  I am open to and welcoming of discussion of this topic, but I am not open to contentious debate.  Regardless of our stance on this subject, we are all members of the Body of Christ and we can have civil disagreements.  In other words, we ain’t[1] Washington D.C, and we aren’t going to behave like that either.

I will not attempt to nail down the metaphysical specifics of what takes place in the Eucharist.  I think this is both a slippery slope and serves little to no purpose.  As Webber says in his book Welcome to the Episcopal Church, “The Trinity and Incarnation remain mysteries; we can offer possible explanations and suggest ways of thinking about them that may be helpful, but the ultimate nature of God remains beyond human reason.”[2]  In much the same way, I believe that what exactly happens in the Eucharist and Baptism, and especially the relationship between the two, is a mystery.  We do not have a cheat sheet to confirm our beliefs about the Eucharist, or any theology for that matter.[3]  That being said, I believe that when we are partaking of the Eucharist, we reaffirm our place in the metaphysical Body of Christ by participating in what was the physical body of Jesus that was the sacrifice for our salvation.  Christ triumphed over death to bring us life everlasting and we reaffirm our belief in that every time we consume the Eucharist.  We are sitting at Christ’s table prepared for us.

But, you ask, isn’t the heart of this debate who falls into the “us?”  The central question of this debate is when does a person join the Christian community or the Body of Christ?  The Nicene Creed says that Baptism is for the remission of sins, but it is also to be an outward sign of an inward conversion.  Baptism is a necessary and vital part of the Christian life, but Baptism is not necessarily a precursor to joining the Christian community and participating in the Eucharist.  Baptism is a transformative experience, but so is the Eucharist.  I am an unabashed MacDonald Universalist[4], so I believe the Body of Christ is everyone who will believe in the salvation offered by Jesus the Christ.

I understand the arguments offered that Baptism is a person’s entrance into the Body of Christ.[5]  I understand them.  I can logically and rationally grasp the arguments, but I cannot agree with them.  I cannot say to someone that they are not welcome at Jesus’ table.[6]  Christ welcomed all to his table, and he ate with people regardless of their spiritual status.[7]  In fact, in the prototypical Eucharist, the Last Supper, one of the people who partook was Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus to the religious authorities who ultimately crucified him.  Jesus shared his table with all of these people, and I doubt he asked them if they visited the mikveh[8] that day.

As I said before, I am a proponent of MacDonald’s Universalism and this ties into how I view the Eucharist.  Participating in the Eucharist is a reaffirmation or a re-dedication to the salvation process offered by Christ’s sacrifice.  By consuming Christ’s body, we are saying yes to the “pruning” that entails.[9]  Participating in the Eucharist means both assenting to the salvation process and an acknowledgment of our need for that process.  The Eucharist is a declaration of a need for continued formation and refocusing on Christ and the Triune God; a declaration for us to continue distancing ourselves from sin and a desire for triumph over death.

However, let me be clear.  I firmly believe in an ethic of the Table.  I am arguing for everyone to have the option of participating in the Eucharist.  For my view of an open table to work, one has to be educated about what participating in the Eucharist means.  I know there are plenty of churches that do not do this, and I would imagine that there are many church members, to say nothing of visitors, who are not clear on what the Eucharist is or does.  For someone to assent to a salvation process, one has to understand first that to which one is assenting.  Having any sort of table, open or otherwise, demands education about that table.

Having a table ethic also demands that no one should be coerced into joining the Eucharist simply because it is open.  Coercion and faith or religion should be like oil and water.  The two simply do not mix.  Coercion corrupts and twists what is good in faith and belief.  If one is press ganged into joining the Eucharist, then it takes away the power and beauty of participating in Christ’s table for everyone involved.

[1] Despite my level of education, I refuse to give up the word “ain’t.”  Ain’t is a terrific word to use for special emphasis.  If you don’t like it, I kindly suggest you take your boojee behind to another blog.  J

[2] Webber, Christopher L. Welcome to the Episcopal Church: An Introduction to Its History, Faith, and Worship. Morehouse Pub Co, 1999.  Pg 66.

[3] Well, we do, but it’s known as the afterlife and people aren’t all that communicative once they have experienced it.

[4] Universalism, in Christianity, is the belief that salvation is for everyone and, to a certain extent, everyone will be saved.   I will write a post later on universalism and MacDonald Universalism in particular.

[5] In point of fact, I took Eucharist before Baptism the first 14 years of my life because I was born in the Southern Baptist church and my family moved to the United Methodist Church.

[6] I realize that this is a sensitive point to those who argue for the necessity of Baptism before Eucharist.  However, telling someone they can only receive a blessing until they are Baptized rather than allowing them to participate in the Eucharist is still exclusion.  It would still sting to not receive Christ.

[7] Mark 2:15-17, Matthew 9:10-13, and Luke 5:29-32

[8] The mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath and the precursor to Baptism.  The mikveh were depressions built into building so they would collect the little rainfall that falls in arid Israel.  The baths are meant to wash away the spiritual impurities that collect over the course of time.  Ironically enough, the water is actually quite dirty.

[9] John 15:1-2


“Southern Seen” and Dr. Larry T. McGehee

I was reading the New York Times today when it occurred to me that writing a blog is a great deal like writing a column in a newspaper.  Of course, when I thought of writing a newspaper column, I thought about my friend and mentor, Larry T. McGehee[1].  Dr. McGehee wrote a column entitled “Southern Seen” for a number of decades, and some of the best columns have been collected in this book.  I highly recommend it.  Many of the columns deal with theological topics, and while it may seem unintentional, I doubt it was.  All of the topics deal with the deep subjects of life.  I am not going on a tangent with this post,[2] for Dr. McGehee certainly lived out Micah 6:8.  You will see that as you read the tribute I wrote for Wofford’s newspaper after Dr. McGehee passed away.  Who are the people in your life who live out Micah 6:8 and have influenced your life?  Here is the tribute[3]:

This is Dr. McGehee with the book of his collected columns, “Southern Seen.”

You may not have known Larry McGehee, and even if you had seen the elderly man wearing the patchwork, madras coat walking through campus, or more likely driving through campus on his golf cart, you probably did not know him as Dr. McGehee.  However, we are all impacted by his loss.

I came to know Dr. McGehee soon after I arrived here at Wofford.  He recognized that I was someone in need of a friend and support, so we began having long talks in his office about nothing and everything in particular.  I come by his office at least once a month, more often bi-weekly, to have these conversations with Dr. McGehee about nothing and everything in particular, and they especially helped me through my very difficult sophomore year.  After each one, he was always sure to give me a long and big hug and tell me how he loved me.

Dr. Larry McGehee taught me the true meaning of friendship, especially about being friends to those who need it most.  After I found out that he had passed away, I remembered a passage from one of his columns, entitled “Birds,” in his book Southern Seen:  “It warns us that the institutions we build in order to tend to the work of the public square very often evolve and expand into layered bureaucracies which misplace their statements of original purpose.  If we forget the birds [individual people], soon we will forget each other” (22).  Dr. McGehee would not allow people to be forgotten at Wofford College, for he intentionally sought out people like me who needed a friend.  There are untold numbers of people like me who Dr. McGehee has befriended and mentored in the decades that he has taught and worked at Wofford College.

In this same column, Dr. McGehee talks about how the birds of his yard build their nests, or institutions, anew every year:  “Sometimes they use twigs and debris from the old nests, but they use them to make new ones” (22).  Wofford is growing and changing, and we should make certain that Dr. McGehee’s example and value in personal relationships is something that we take with us “from the old nest[].”  It is people like Dr. McGehee that create in Wofford one of its best characteristics, the close-knit community.

Dr. McGehee reflects on how he reached out to another “bird” in need of his assistance when at the end of this column he speaks of holding an unconscious hummingbird in his hands, and “[i]t suddenly awoke and arose,…and was gone.  But not really gone.  No one who has held a hummingbird is ever the same” (23).  I am not the same person I was before I met Dr. McGehee.  Although he is gone now, he is “not really gone,” for we who he has so affected, loved, and influenced are still here to carry on his legacy of not forgetting people in the bustle of life.  I, and others who he has so loved, will not forget Dr. Larry T. McGehee, but we will surely miss him and his love of life and friends.  Goodbye Dr. McGehee, and may those who now have the pleasure of your company cherish it every bit as much as we have.

[1] For those of you who know me and have wondered why a baseball is always in my backpack, Dr. McGehee gave it to me.  In his final years, his office was right behind Wofford’s baseball field.  He would wander out there and collect the foul balls.  He gave me that ball a few months before his death.

[2] I promise that I will go on tangents and off topic for this blog.  Simply put, this is my blog, and I will write about what I want.  J

[3] Keep in mind that I wrote this at the beginning of my junior year in college, so the writing style probably reflects that.

An Explanation of The “Christian Right” and Their Views

This is my first foray in blogging.  I have been a student for most of my life and have spent the past six years studying religion, particularly Christianity.  I have no doubt that if I continue blogging that I will say many things about “traditional” or “conservative” Christianity.  No doubt, most of it will be arguing against those things, but I want the first one to be a defense of the people who hold those views.

I grew up in rural South Carolina.  While growing up, Church was not a choice but a weekly requirement.  In fact, the more I have thought about it, the more I have thought that requirement was also true of the adults.  In my region, it did not matter what the sign said outside, everyone tried to be Southern Baptist.  I grew up in a United Methodist church, but the congregation is Calvinist and believes in predestination.  Pastors’ attempts to come in and create a Wesleyan formation[1] have been disastrous.  I have yet to meet anyone from my region, who did not go off to school that is, who does not believe that the Bible is inerrant.

I was never quite comfortable with this Christianity.  I wanted to believe.  I desperately wanted to believe in a God who loves me and watches over me, but given my only options for Christianity, I could never fully take the plunge.  I went to Church.  I prayed, but my heart wasn’t in it.  How could I reconcile what I learned in school and strove so hard to master with a faith that said those things were false and I could not believe them and Christianity.  In many ways, I felt terrible about myself.  Chiefly of all, I felt that I was the lukewarm that Jesus was going to “spit”[2] into the lake of fire.

Wrestling with these things, I graduated from high school and went to a small liberal arts college.  There, I formed friendships with those people like me, as humans are wont to do.  In this case, I formed friendships with the Christian and academic crowds.  At my Alma mater, there was a great deal of overlap between the two.  While I was forming and solidifying these friendships, I was seeking a major.  Eventually, I settled on religion.  Obviously, as someone struggling with how to combine faith and intellect, the religion major would appeal to me.

Fast forward to my junior year, and at this point, my social circles are firmly entrenched.  At a small school, this means that I have taken on several labels that restrict my movement socially.  I am supposed to go out with the Christian crowd and that’s about it.  However, at this point in my major, I start digging in deep and wrestling with my faith.  I am encountering and reading thoughts and arguments that I have never heard or read before, and they change my faith.  It was, at times, a painful transformation, but I finished it freer and more comfortable with my faith than ever before.  But it has concrete ramifications.  I no longer believe in the inerrancy of the Bible.  In fact, I think that belief is dangerous, harmful, and antithetical to the Christian faith.  I believe that homosexuals and other LGBTQI folks should be fully included in the life of the church.

These thoughts and feelings are not something easily hidden when you spend every day with folks and attend church with them.  My views “come out” to my friends.  Most were not all that willing to accept said views and my social venues dwindle down to a select few.  In their eyes, I was a dangerous heretic that had to be put out before I infected others.  From then on, they were not comfortable discussing faith or spirituality around me, and if they were, then it was only to argue with me and prove the strength of their faith compared to mine.  In many ways, I experienced a very real social death.  But let’s get some perspective; I experienced it for only two years.  Even in the midst of it, I was aware that I was going to graduate in two years and those fights and lost friends would be minimal in comparison to the rest of my life.  Obviously, making the choice to hold to what I believed to be right despite the retaliation had an impact on me, but the retaliation is pithy in light of my leaving that situation in two years.

This is where my defense of the “traditionalist” comes in.  Let us imagine Jack.  Jack is a middle aged, upper-middle class Christian in the South.  Jack is a banker with a wife and two children.  He goes to church on Sunday morning and Bible study on Wednesday nights.  He has his friends with whom he watches sports and plays golf.  He votes Republican because he is a financial conservative and the social things are secondary.  He believes that the Bible is inerrant, women should not be ordained, and LGBTQI folks should not be a part of the church because that is what he was always taught and he never gave much more thought to it than that.

Let’s imagine that Jack starts hearing arguments for pro-gay marriage on the news.  Let’s imagine that he doesn’t reject it out of hand, but he starts thinking about the other side.  Pretty soon he starts thinking about other issues he held for granted.  Soon after that, he’s not certain what he’s sure of anymore.  At this point, Jack is not certain that he is pro-gay marriage or does not believe the Bible is inerrant, and as a result, he is not certain about voting Republican anymore.  He’s not certain but he talks with his friends and church family about his thoughts and struggles anyway.  They do not react well.

Jack is not a college student.  He is firmly entrenched in his societal avenues and circles.  His wife is firmly entrenched in hers and, to a certain extent, so are his children.  All of a sudden, his church family does not respond to him in the same way as they used to.  Jack’s pastor wants to discuss things with him and make certain that his “faith walk” is okay.  His golf buddies are reluctant to discuss things with him that they otherwise used to.  His wife wants to know why social invites aren’t coming in the way they used to.  His children want to know why they don’t play with his friends’ children anymore.  Isn’t it so much simpler that before any of this happens, he just rejects the questioning to begin with that the newscast brought up?

Obviously, I have given an extreme hypothetical example.  This would not happen in every case and certainly not to the extent that I have described.  There are, of course, many other reasons that Jack will not change his mind.  But the point is this, that in many ways we can become imprisoned in the walls of the society that we surround ourselves with.  We, progressive Christians, would love for Jack to have a transformation like I had and for Christianity to not have members oppressing their fellow human beings.  We are incredibly frustrated by the fact that people continue to choose ignorance.  I offer this thought, this perspective to you in the hopes that it will give you a second thought of love for those who continue to feel that exclusion and condemnation are the paths that Christ would have them walk.

An example of this would be my own experience.  Whilst going through my own spiritual transformation in college, I started looking for answers from those Christians whom I knew were not like those I had grown up around.  One of these people was one of the directors of my scholarship program.  She is a wonderful human being whom I am still friends with.  We met and discussed issues like the ones I have highlighted above an hour a week for a semester.  I am certain that numerous times I said things that were offensive to her because I was trying to work out my own preconceived notions about many issues.  However, she did not respond as she probably would have liked to.  She responded with patience and Christian love.  Would I have come to hold the beliefs that I do today if she responded as she would have liked to?  Perhaps, but she definitely had a large hand in bringing my views to the progressive side of Christianity.

We would love for people like Jack to walk and preach of Jesus’ radical love and inclusivity, but it is our duty to love them regardless of whether they do or not.  If we do not love, if we became the venomous option in a raucous debate rather than a viable option for their views, then why would they change their views?  Why join someone whom you merely view as a threat to your way of life.  You wouldn’t and neither would Jack.  If we wish to change the mind of the “Christian Right,” if we wish to redefine the public image of Christianity to reflect a more public stance, then we must love our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we disagree.  It is far easier to have interfaith conversations than intrafaith conversations, but if we are to live out Christ’s charge to love our neighbors as ourselves, then we must lovingly have those conversations.

[1] John Wesley (1703-1791) was an Anglican priest who is credited with beginning the Methodist movement that became the denomination.  One of the most characteristic things of what could be called Wesleyan formation is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a methodology for theological reflection that holds that theological conclusions should be sifted through the sieves of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

[2] Despite the common translation, the verb used in Revelation 3:16, εμεσαι, most closely means vomit.  An even more terrifying image!