Imagine the scene. Jesus has gathered with his followers in the upper room. He takes the bread, breaks it, and gives thanks. Then he says, "This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me." Then, in the same way, he takes another loaf and says, "This is my low-carb body which is given for you South Beach dieters." And then he takes another loaf and says, "This is my gluten-free body which is given for you?."
You get the idea.
Over a century ago, many American churches began to abandon the use of fermented wine in communion in favor of grape juice (much to Charles Welch's delight). Today, most evangelicals give little thought to the substitution. It's just the way it is. But last Sunday I was unexpectedly jarred into reconsidering the nature of the communion elements when the bread, and not just the cup, departed from tradition.
I sat down after preaching the sermon and another pastor began to lead the congregation in partaking of the Lord's Supper. He invited people to come forward, receive the cup, and tear a piece of bread from a single large loaf. The use of a single loaf, he explained, was a symbol of our unity in Christ. (This metaphor, by the way, dates back at least to the Didache from the first century.) But then he added something unexpected. Gluten-free crackers would also be available for anyone unable to eat the bread.
The additional comment caught me, and many other congregants, off guard. It just seemed really odd, even out of place, amid the liturgy of the table. The sacredness of the moment was lost as we were all jolted back to contemplating individual needs and preferences rather than our collective unity in Christ. The remark deconstructed the symbolism of unity the pastor was trying to convey with the single loaf.
Now, before you unleash the Gluten Gestapo on me for being insensitive to those with serious allergies, let me explain myself. I happen to be friends with a woman in the church with Coeliac Disease who must avoid gluten in her diet. I recognize that it is a significant medical issue for a growing number of people. And I certainly don't think they should be prevented from participating in the Lord's Table. (I've heard that some churches encourage those with medical restrictions to bring their own bread, pass it to the officiate for blessing, and then partake. That seems both reasonable and less distracting from the symbolism of the traditional communion liturgy.) But at what point should the dietary constraints of a few be imposed upon the many? And when should these needs be addressed and incorporated into the liturgy of the Table?
- Tablet and PDF editions of every issue
- Web exclusives and archives on Leadership Journal.net