"We are not the gatekeepers of God's gifts. Full Stop." by Pastor A.J. Houseman
A few years ago when my nephew was very little, he was at church one Sunday with just my mom. When she went forward for communion, holding a toddler, he reached his hands out for some bread. The pastor did not give him bread but gave him a blessing instead. And as they were walking away, he shouts, “How come I didn’t get any Jesus!”
It's a cute story, yes. But it also alludes to a gate keeping practice that many many many churches take part in. We may say we practice an all are welcome atmosphere, but do we really?
See when it comes to our sacraments, we create rules, we create boundaries, and we create stipulations that go on them. Communion seems to have more than baptism for we churches that baptize infants. Like in the Catholic church, you have to be catholic to take it. Lutherans like to set a minimum age. Or you have to take classes. Catholics have all of the above too.
In a previous congregation that I served at, I did something scandalous, I served communion to a couple of children. I had discussed it with the family ahead of time and they had transferred from a church where they had taken it previously. And I don’t think it's ok to give children this holy gift then take it away again just because they switch churches. But they were below the “minimum” age to receive communion at this congregation. When I was approached about this scandalous action, I said this, “We practice an open table where we would give communion to anyone who came in off the streets, yes? Then why would we deny this sacred gift to our own children?”
The idea is that children don’t “understand” what they are doing without being taught. Recently Bishop Gohl shared with me a story about a congregation that gave him this explanation for not communing children and he replied, “should I give the entire congregation a quiz? And if you don’t get all the answers right then you cannot commune either? Because the truth is, none of us fully understand the mystery of God in Christ in this meal.”
Knowledge is not what brings us to this table. Knowledge is not what brings us to the waters of baptism. It’s the Holy Spirit and faith.
In our lesson from Acts for today, we witness this spirit at work in the life of a man from Ethiopia. He would be of high social class as a court official to the queen, which side note: this is why he was a eunuch, it was to protect the queen and other royal women. But it also gave them a status of being closer to God.
This man was supposedly returning from worshiping in Jerusalem. We do not know how he heard about our God, but through him sparked the beginning of the Christian church in Ethiopia because of this visit. As this man is returning to his home, he comes across Philip.
After one trip, one encounter with God, and one conversation with the apostle Philip, he’s in. He asks Philip to baptize him. And what does Philip do?
Does Philip question him? Give him a quiz of his understanding of God, Jesus, and the sacraments? Does he have to take classes to learn detailed knowledge of this stuff? Does he have to memorize the Bible? No.
Philip sees the spirit at work in this man, sees his faith alive through his asking. Philip doesn’t hesitate, he just does it. Baptizing this total stranger into the faith.
This is not of Philip’s doing. It’s the work of the Spirit.
That's the thing about the Spirit, we don’t understand, we don’t get to know how the Spirit is speaking to someone else and entering into their heart. The heart of a child is filled with the Spirit just as much or maybe even more than we adults who want to know all the answers and have all the knowledge. As Jesus says, have faith like a child.
Who do we think we are the gatekeepers of God’s gifts? I certainly know I am not qualified nor do I believe any person can stipulate who and how God loves and who is welcome to God’s gifts.
From the Episcopal clergy handbook it says, “Everyone, regardless of age, is welcome to receive Holy Communion in congregations affiliated with the Episcopal Church. Baptized infants and pre-adolescent children should be encouraged but not required to receive. Since there is no determinant age for admission to the Holy Communion, the decision in each situation is best reached by parents and children in consultation with the parish clergy.” There is no determinant age…. It’s not in the Bible. Humans made these rules up.
I used to say a lot in campus ministries that the Holy Spirit is like someone wacking you across the stomach with a 2X4 and it’s really hard to ignore. So should we, too, not ignore the Holy Spirit at work in our neighbors, both old and young? Both members of our church and those that aren’t. Because who are we to say who the Spirit is moving?
This week, it was announced by some bishops in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States that they believe that President Biden should be denied the gift of holy communion along with other elected officials who publicly disagree with a certain church teaching. Now whether you agree or disagree with anyone’s political opinions, this is just another instance of persons with power trying to limit God and the work of this Spirit.
Because the thing is, our job is to share this love of God manifested through the Holy Spirit as far and wide as possible. We will never know how or who the Spirit is calling and why. That is not our job to know. Our job is to welcome, to share, and to love. Full Stop.