Continuing in reading A Broad Place this week, I came across the background story behind Moltmann’s view of the Sacraments. In The Church in the Power of the Spirit he makes cases (1) for an open table at the “messianic feast” of the Lord’s Supper, and (2) for believer’s baptism over and against infant baptism. This story sheds light on the question of why.
On pages 163 and 164 of A Broad Place, Moltmann recounts that in October 1968 he had “two very different eucharistic experiences”. The first was at a demonstration against the Vietnam War in London. Prior to the event, a group of Protestants and Catholics “met in the offices of the Catholic publisher Sheed & Ward, and with a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, sitting on the floor, we prepared ourselves for the demonstration by agreeing to renounce violence. . . . Bread and wine passed from hand to hand in a small circle, and we felt the bodily presence of Jesus among us” (163). Moltmann then contrasts this with an experience at St. Giles Cathedral. There, “After the sermon, those who stayed behind were served the Lord’s Supper on silver trays by servers clad in black. The participants sat separate from one another, scattered here and there in the great church. There was no sense of community and I went out of the beautiful church depressed.” This leads him to ask and conclude:
Where does Jesus’ feast belong? On the streets of the poor who follow Jesus, or in the church of the baptized, the confirmed and established? I decided for the feast that is open to all, and to which the weary and heavy-laden are invited. Baptism on the other hand, should be reserved for believers. That certainly contradicts the practice of our mainline churches, but it is in conformity with Jesus according to the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus’ Supper is not a church meal for people who belong to one’s own denomination. It is the feast of the crucified Christ, whose hands are stretched out to everyone. (A Broad Place p. 163)
This reversal of conventional mainline practice – opening the table to all and restricting baptism to believers – is one of the most unique aspects of Moltmann’s approach to the sacraments. Yet it seems few have followed him in pursuing these radical suggestions. Later in A Broad Place, Moltmann notes of The Church in the Power of the Spirit that “Hardly a single one of my suggestions was accepted”, and lists his reversal of the inclusivity and exclusivity of the sacraments as an example (Broad Placep. 204). This is curious, given that other theological revolutions in which Moltmann was involved have made lasting impacts, such as rejecting the impassibility of the Greek notion of deity, emphasizing a social Trinity, and rethinking theology in light of eschatology.
In fact, this reversal can be credited to Moltmann’s eschatological perspective on all theology. He writes that “baptism and the Lord’s supper are signs of the messianic era” (Church in the Power of the Spirit p. 243). Baptism marks the entryway into the hope of the coming kingdom of God. It would make sense, then, that only those who have tasted that hope and are committed to living for it receive baptism: “It is a sign of the dawn of hope for this world and of messianic service in it. it is a missionary sign” (Church in the Power of the Spirit p. 241). Similarly, the Supper is an eschatological event, a foretaste of the messianic kingdom coming in its fullness. But because Jesus shares in table-fellowship with all kinds of people, the Supper is open to all. Because the Supper’s “fellowship comes into being on the basis of Christ’s unconditional and prevenient invitation”, the invitation to communion in worship is “as open as the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross” (Church in the Power of the Spirit pgs 259 and 246).
What would happen if some churches actually put these ideas into practice? Who would it offend and why? Is the theology bad, or are these ideas credible? What else (aside from 2,000 years of tradition) prevents churches from making radical changes like this?