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  What's the Relationship Between Baptism and Communion?

This week's question comes from Lang in Texas. She writes, "Is there any correlation between baptism and communion in the Christian Church? Who can partake in communion? Does one have to be baptized in order to take communion or can anyone partake in it?"

To answer the question let's begin with the story of baptism and communion in the Church. Many think that baptism is an original rite of the Church, but this isn't so. Just as much of Christianity's traditions stem from her Jewish heritage, so too baptism. Apparently, non-Jews who chose to follow the Hebrew religion were baptized as a purification rite before they could participate fully in the Jewish faith. The Qumran community, of which John the baptist was likely a part, took the ritual further and practiced baptism for the purification from sin and the practices of the "world." Indeed, this is the form of baptism John was practicing when Jesus visited him in the wilderness (Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3, and John 1).

Jesus adopted baptism for the Christian faith and commanded it as one of the rites for the Church, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28.19). Soon thereafter, the Church began to fashion its own traditions and teachings about the ritual.

By 300 CE the Church had developed elaborate steps one had to complete before baptism. It began with years of study of the Old Testament and the "coming" Messiah. Then behaviors, words, and deeds of the candidate were carefully evaluated before they could be baptized. Indeed, before a baptism could be performed, the candidate had to show all the fruits of the Christian faith. Then on "Good Friday," the Friday before Easter, the candidate began a prayer vigil and fast at the church that lasted until late Saturday evening or Sunday morning and then, and only then, was the candidate baptized (people were baptized naked and then clothed with a white robe as they left the baptistry). Immediately following baptism, the new member of the Church heard a reading from the Gospels for the very first time (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and then they received communion which included bread, wine, water, milk and honey.

Thus, in the early church tradition, communion was a ceremony only baptized persons received. This tradition has been maintained today by many churches including the Catholic Church and many Protestant Churches as well.

However, during the Reformation period of the Church some of that began to change. There were those who came to believe communion should not be withheld from anyone who would like to participate. John Wesley, for one, believed that communion was a "means of grace." This meant that communion was one of many ways in which people could participate in an experience of the holy. Because of this, communion became routinely available to children and even infants of some congregations. This practice continues today in many churches across the world.

So, why is communion linked to baptism? Obviously history and tradition play a part. However, behind the tradition includes the notion that one should not receive communion unless it is fully understood by the participant. A question arises, however: how much does anyone really understand communion? Is it transubstantiation (the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus)? Consubstantiation (Jesus is somehow present in the bread and wine)? Or simply a commemorative meal (Jesus is remembered in the bread and wine)? All of these? One of these? More? Less? And what does communion do for us anyway? Does it make Christ more present to us or is it a "means of grace"?

And then there is that rouge passage that Paul wrote to the troubled Corinthian church that says, "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11.27-28a). But Paul has just finished railing against the Corinthians for making communion a potluck supper that wasn't made available to the whole church and so many went without. Still, unless you "understand" communion, one can't very well reflect on the manner in which they take it (of course the question arises, is anyone truly worthy of taking communion?).

So how does the Christian Church view the relationship of communion and baptism? It varies from church to church. Many churches I have served have chosen to withhold communion from unbaptized children. Others let the parents make the choice. Still others encourage it. It's one of those traditions that the Bible isn't clear on - perhaps it's not really a Kingdom Issue.

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