Monday, March 22, 2010

Explaining the Sacrament

In my American Religious Histories class, I have a requirement that my students attend worship in a religious community with which they are unfamiliar. Yesterday, in fulfillment of that requirement, one of my students attended Church with me. Others of my students have done this before, but this student was the first to stay for all three meetings, for which I was grateful. I've always felt that often some of the most significant things that happen at Church happen in the intimacy of Sunday School, Priesthood, and Relief Society class discussions.

Whenever I have students come to Church with me, I always take a moment before entering the chapel to explain that Mormons have what the rest of the Christian world calls a "closed communion" (i.e., non-members are not allowed to partake of the Sacrament). This is necessary because many liberal Protestants are accustomed to worshiping in communities where all who have faith in Jesus Christ are invited to partake.

After Sacrament Meeting, we walked down the hall and found the Gospel Essentials classroom. We were the first to arrive, and while we were waiting, I asked her if she had any questions. There had been some ward business involving releases and new callings, and she was curious about the "sustaining" ritual, which I explained by pointing out that in my entire life I've never seen a single negative vote; but that that was not the general purpose of the sustaining vote anyway. I pointed out that this was an opportunity for members of the ward to commit to support the individuals called in any way they could.

She then asked me about the Sacrament. She noted the use of water instead of wine or even grape juice. She wanted to know how Mormons viewed the Sacrament. Was it merely symbolic, or did Mormons believe in some kind of "real presence" of Christ in the elements like Lutherans, or a transformation of the elements like Catholics? I explained that, no, for Mormons the Sacrament was understood to be a memorial of Christ's sacrifice -- no mystical notions like consubstantiation or transubstantiation. Mormons, I explained, see the Sacrament as a renewal of their baptismal covenants -- which explains why non-members do not partake.

She then noted that I had not partaken of the Sacrament even though I identify this Church as mine. "This is because you're excommunicated, isn't it?" she clarified.

I nodded yes.

She asked me if Mormons do this every week (some Protestants have much more infrequent communion -- once a month or even less frequently). When I explained that, yes, the Sacrament is a weekly occurrence for Latter-day Saints, she then asked, "Is that boring for you?"

I thought the question was very interesting -- particularly that she'd assume I might be bored. I suppose in some ways, boredom represents a refusal to participate in something. I've actually seen instances of boredom that are actually kind of passive aggressive. To assert boredom implies one's belief in the irrelevance of what is transpiring, along with a desire to escape. Nothing could be further from how I experience the Sacrament than that.

"That's actually my favorite part of the morning," I explained. I described to her how some of the most comforting, most reassuring, most powerful and precious moments of spiritual communion I've ever experienced have been in those moments of silence after the Sacrament has been blessed and is being passed. I told her how I cannot partake of the bread and water, but I actively listen to the prayers, and in my heart I make those promises, and commit myself to live them the rest of the week. I told her how grateful I am for the opportunity even just to do that.

After Sunday School, I found a sister who was willing to accompany my student/friend to Relief Society, while I attended Priesthood Meeting. I've been thinking a lot about the experience I described in last week's post. As he arrived at Priesthood Meeting, my bishop greeted me. I smiled and waved back, and my heart was just overflowing with joy.

Folks, I'm OK. No, I can't participate as fully as I'd like, in so many ways. But that time is coming. One way or another, I will someday stand among the Saints and bear my testimony. It is as inevitable as that the dawn follows the night. And when it happens, what a testimony that will be!


Reuben said...

John, I'm not sure the "closed communion" thing is still actively practiced in the church. My general impression is that most investigators participate. I feel like most members of the church don't go out of their way to tell non-members not to participate in the sacrament if they want to. I might be out-of-touch since I commune with not-exactly-orthodox Mormons online WAY more than I commune with IRL Saints these days.

I saw one opposing vote once while I was a missionary. The nay voter and the newly called Bishop had a history of butting heads. Nobody was surprised he raised his hand in opposition. The Stake President pulled him out of Stake Conference. 10 minutes later, they both returned. I can only speculate about the conversation. Of course, the new Bishop retained his position regardless of the dissenting vote.

J G-W said...

That's interesting... A few years ago, I actually saw an individual in our ward pulled aside (I think at the bishop's request) and told that she should not partake of the Sacament. I've also been explicitly told that I am not to partake. So I'm pretty sure the "closed communion" doctrine is still in force. Though in practice I doubt that it's seen as any sort of "offense" if individual nonmembers partake unknowingly.

I've also heard stories like yours of vociferous protests during a sustaining -- usually for similar reasons. I think I even remember reading an account of a situation where a majority of ward members objected to the calling of a bishop on moral grounds that were apparently well known to ward members but unknown to the Stake President. So I know it can happen, but I personally am yet to witness that much excitement during Sacrament Meeting sustainings!!

Beck said...

Though the intimacy and free-change of ideas and "most significant things" are more likely to take place in priesthood / RS / SS, does not come near to the intimacy and free-change of ideas and most significant things that occur during the time of silence of the sacrament!

J G-W said...

Wow, Beck! Amen to that.

Zack said...

I don't understand something. I attend Evergreen International which pretty much teaches the same as the church that homosexual activity is not good for your spiritual or physical well being. Do you think that the Church is going to change it's stance on this issue?

Anonymous said...

In my branch, they never forbid investigators to partake the sacrament. They just say that the sacrament would mean nothing to anyone but the worthy member.

I also saw a no vote few months ago. It was from a daughter who said no to his father's calling as the president of the branch. I thought it was very interesting.

Anyway, it's really good idea for you to ask ur student to go to religious community with which they are unfamiliar.