Opening the Eucharistic Table to All

Robert D. Cornwall, Ph.D.

Note: An abridged version of this paper was shared at the June 2024 Online American Academy of Religion meeting. This was one of three papers shared at the joint session sponsored by the Ritual Studies Unit and the Open and Relational Theology Unit.


            The Lord’s Supper (known variously as the Eucharist and Holy Communion) is a central rite of the Christian faith. Since at least the second century CE, access to this meal has been limited to approved members of the Christian community. Usually, that means they have been baptized. The first evidence of attempts to fence the table comes in The Didache, which states: “You must not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those baptized in the Lord’s name. For in reference to this, the Lord said, ‘Do not give what is sacred to dogs.’”[1] Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the Second Century, speaks similarly to The Didache:

This food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ has handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Christ.[2] 

Despite this evidence from the Second Century CE that reveals the exclusive nature of the church’s observance of the Lord’s Supper, we must ask whether this fits with Jesus’ own practice of table fellowship. 

            What I will argue in this paper has its origins in a larger project tentatively titled Eating with Jesus: [3]Reflections on Divine Encounters at the Open Eucharistic Table. In that book, I begin with the premise that our gatherings at the Lord’s Table should reflect Jesus’ own practices of table fellowship. While it is likely that Jesus’ dining partners were Jews—since in Acts 10 we read of Peter’s discovery of the permissibility of sharing table fellowship with Gentiles—the witness of the Gospels is that Jesus shared meals with a wide variety of people, to the extent that he was condemned for eating with “sinners and tax collectors.” What is important to note is that, when it comes to gathering at the Lord’s Table, I can find no explicit calls in the New Testament that limit access to the Table only to those who are baptized or confess faith in Jesus as savior. Although I acknowledge that I am arguing from silence if we follow Jesus’ practices of eating with “sinners and tax collectors,” as well as the leading citizens of Jewish society, then should we not be open to welcoming all to the Table?

In line with the guidance given in The Didache, one could argue for the necessity of fencing the Table based on Paul’s counsel to the church in Corinth, where he told them not to eat the bread and drink the Lord’s cup in an unworthy manner (1 Cor. 11:27). This is often understood in doctrinal terms, such that one must have the right belief to be admitted to the Table. In some communities that means affirming a particular view of what happens to the bread and the contents of the cup, but is this what Paul has in mind? If we view this word in context, Paul is speaking here in response to questions about the decorum at the church’s meals. More specifically, he is addressing the divisions present in the church, which appear to be social, economic, and cultural, rather than doctrinal. Therefore, Paul’s response does not focus on prerequisites such as affirming a particular creed or having been baptized. Instead, he focuses on behavior, which he deems inappropriate. That is, he condemns the practice of some members, who appear to be wealthy, to eat and drink to excess, such that some are drunk, while others, likely the less affluent members of the congregation, go hungry. When Paul speaks of partaking in the supper in an unworthy manner, such that their practices betray Christ’s body and blood, he is speaking of these practices that denigrate the death of Christ on their behalf. Since Paul speaks of the church in terms of the members being the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13), to discern the body is to discern the welfare and the common good of the entire church (1 Cor. 11:29).

            When it comes to how we might understand the nature of the Lord’s Supper, including questions as to who is welcome at the Table, from an Open and Relational perspective, there is to my knowledge, no one position regarding the Lord’s Supper. In large part, this is because very little work has been done within this rather diverse movement on questions of ecclesiology and the sacraments. That could be due to another fact. People who populate this movement come from a variety of ecclesial traditions, especially Wesleyan traditions. I offer this reflection on the Open Table as an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This tradition is noncreedal and practices weekly communion. We may gather at the Table even more frequently, but at least weekly. I hope that this paper, along with others offered at this session, might provoke a conversation within the Open and Relational movement regarding the Sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper. 

Even if there is not one specific position among Open and Relational thinkers on the sacraments, there are certain hallmarks of Open and Relational Theology that can help us define what it means to share the Lord’s Supper worthily. Most specifically, we can start with the premise that God is, by definition, love. Because God is personal and relational, as Thomas Jay Oord writes, from an Open and Relational perspective, “God is concerned about each creature, each entity, and the world. God shows concern without playing favorites.”[4] That fits well with Peter’s discovery when it came to welcoming Cornelius and his household into the Christian community. After experiencing a vision, in which he heard the voice from heaven declare “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15), he declared to Cornelius and his household: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

If Peter, who accepted the invitation of Cornelius to spend time with his household, an invitation that surely included meals, could extend the boundaries of table fellowship, should that not be true of the church today? If so, since Jesus often shared meals with marginalized members of the Jewish community, including those deemed “sinners and tax collectors,” should not this fact compel the church today to remove the fences to the Table and offer unfettered hospitality to everyone who would come to the table, such that divine encounters at the table at which Jesus presides, and where the Holy Spirit is at work transforming relationships with God and with all who gather, can occur. That would, it seems to me, include strangers and persons living outside the Christian faith. As the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2 NRSVUE). With this as a starting point, following Open and Relational thinking, the church can be a welcoming place for the marginalized of society. If so, the church can contribute to the creation of a less violent and more welcoming world. 

            As I have noted, down through the centuries, Christian churches have erected fences around the Lord’s Table, either requiring a prerequisite such as baptism or some form of theological agreement, including affirming that tradition’s understanding of what happens with the eucharistic elements of bread and wine. Because of this, the ability of Christians to gather together to receive communion has been circumscribed, which undermines the principle of unity that the supper symbolizes. As Paul writes to the Corinthian Church “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).

            When we gather at the Table for the Lord’s Supper, Ernst Käsemann speaks of being “Guests of the Crucified.” With that in mind, he draws our attention to the ethical implications of the Supper. He points to the possibility that the Corinthians largely viewed the Lord’s Supper as something akin to the rites of the mystery religions, such that they perceived the meal to be a pietistic event without any ethical dimensions. When it comes to the exclusionary elements of the Corinthian enthusiasts and the implications for the present day, Käsemann writes:

This is the primary issue: Dare we in the Lord’s Supper exclude this world and anticipate heaven as though we belong already to the band of the perfected? To put it polemically, yet necessarily: Do we, at least in our Western churches, not too quickly hear the call to gather together when what is needed is the call to continue marching on? Are our worship services not too closely focused on our own needs (sometimes even imagined ones) —without first having tirelessly resisted them— while forgetting that entire continents have become stomping grounds of the demons? How can we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in an affluent society while increasingly accommodating ourselves to the surrounding conditions, not even noticing our idols, much less naming them and daring to offer resistance?[5]

Käsemann raises legitimate issues regarding the ethical dimensions of the church’s observance of the Lord’s Supper. It can and has been a liturgical event limited to those who look, think, and believe like the majority of the people gathered for worship. In many cases, this act of exclusion is required by the church’s doctrine. But it is not just doctrine that is at play. In many cases, it is a social and cultural requirement. Even if we have moved past the overtly racist segregation of an earlier age, there still can be subtle hints that not everyone is welcome at the Table.

            Several different kinds of fences have been erected around the Lord’s Table. Perhaps most visible are the fences that limit access to the Table to Christians from a particular tradition, excluding Christians from partaking of the elements. While we could discuss the question of who is allowed to preside at the Table, that is a different area of concern beyond what we have before us in this paper.

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann, whose recent passing many of us have mourned, fits within the Open and Relational orbit. He speaks directly to this area of concern, writing that while the Lord’s Supper stands at the center of the Christian life, and is by its nature a unified event, it has become a source of division. Therefore, “though the Lord’s supper in itself is fundamental to the wealth of the church, in history it has unfortunately also been the occasion for the misery of schism and denominational conflict.”[6] While most mainline Protestant churches welcome all Christians to the Table, they may require baptism as a prerequisite to reception. Others may request that those who partake have confessed Christ as Savior. There are also many Christian communities, including Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, along with some Protestant communions such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, who restrict access to those who are members of their communion. Returning to Moltmann, he reminds us that the Lord’s supper is “not something organized by a church or denomination. The church owes its life to the Lord and its fellowship to his supper, not the other way around. Its invitation goes out to all whom he is sent to invite. If a church were to limit the openness of his invitation of its own accord, it would be turning the Lord’s supper into the church’s supper and putting its own fellowship at the centre, not fellowship with him.”[7] If it is Christ’s meal and not the church’s then the question of whom Jesus would eat with comes into play.

            As Käsemann reminded us, there is also the matter of social and cultural fences that have existed, such that some Christian communities may overtly or subtly exclude persons from the life of the church because of their ethnicity or economic status. Although the Letter of James does not speak directly about the Lord’s Supper, he does address the problem of distinguishing people based on their economic status. I believe we can extend this to ethnicity and race as well. I would also add gender, sexual orientation, and gender diversity to the list. James writes to those in the church who exhibit acts of favoritism, stating that “if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’’ or, ‘Sit at my feet.’ Have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts” (James 2:1-4). Moltmann reminds us of Jesus’ own teaching that speaks of an open invitation, such that “the fellowship of the table cannot be restricted to people who are ‘faithful to the church’, or to the ‘inner circle’ of the community. For it is not the feast of the particularly righteous or the people who think they are particularly devout; it is the feast of the weary and heavy-laden, who have heard the call to refreshment.”[8]

Jon Paul Sydnor, an Open and Relational theologian, speaks of a universally open table: “The invitation to communion is an invitation to community. Since communion is universal, one reality sustained by one God, the community of the table is universal, one gathering at one feast. An exclusive ritual cannot express inclusive love.”[9] With that in mind, Sydnor asks a pertinent question about whom Jesus would have excluded. Should that not be the guideline? 

In Jesus’s day, those who would pollute a table, those who were to be excluded from table fellowship, were the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind, so Jesus says: “When you have a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:13–14a). Who are the outcasts today, with whom we would not share a meal? At table, we should exclude only those whom Jesus would exclude, but Jesus included Thomas who would doubt him, Peter who would deny him, and Judas who would betray him. We conclude that Jesus would exclude no one, as do we. The table must be open.[10]

If the table, as Sydnor suggests, is meant to be universally open, we can go further to ask the question of whether it is appropriate to invite people to the Table who stand outside the Christian faith community. That would include members of other religious traditions such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism, among others. Having participated in Jewish Seders and Islamic Iftar dinners, both of which are considered sacred meals by those communities, I am forced to ask whether it is appropriate to invite those who include me at their sacred meals, to the meal served in Christian churches. Building on the foundation laid above as to whom Jesus would invite and whom Jesus would exclude, Sydnor writes that at the congregation served by his spouse, “Our invitation to table is open, and we have served Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics, humanists, and Jews. Utilizing pastorally revised yet biblically grounded language, we began referring to the elements as the “bread of heaven” (John 6:51) and “cup of salvation” (Ps 116:13; see also 1 Cor 10:16).”[11]

If we assume, as I do, that when we gather at the Lord’s Table, we do more than remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples but start with the assumption that God raised Christ from the dead allowing him to serve as the host at the Table, then the question is how Christ is present at the Table. If we approach this conversation with a robust trinitarian theology, such that following the Gospel of John, we have the promise of Jesus that upon his departure God would send the Holy Spirit to remind Christ’s followers of all that Jesus taught (John 14:25–27; 16:4–7). With this promise in mind, we can posit the possibility that the Holy Spirit ministers to all who gather at the table, whatever their background, but most especially the ones Jesus calls the “least of these” in Matthew 25.

 The prayer of Great Thanksgiving includes the epiclesis, a prayer inviting the Holy Spirit to be present in and with the Eucharistic celebration.Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, writes that when we call down the Spirit, “we ask the Holy Spirit to effect a miraculous change in all of us, to make us capable of receiving these gifts, and as we receive them to go out ‘in the power of the Spirit to live to God’s praise and glory.’ So the Holy Spirit, who always brings Jesus alive in our midst, is very specially at work in the Eucharist, making it a means of spiritual transformation.”[12] Williams goes on to say that as we go out from the table “to the work of transfiguring the world in God’s power: to seeing the world in a new light, to seeing human beings with new eyes, and to working as best we can to bring God’s purpose nearer to fruition in the world.”[13] Thus, as we pray the epiclesis, we ask the Spirit to rest upon us and move among us, enabling us to participate in the life of Christ, so that we might experience salvation and be empowered for service.

Jürgen Moltmann adds to the role the epiclesis plays in our gatherings at the Table:

The prayer for the Holy Spirit (epiclesis) is also an inseparable part of this feast, for the feast itself is celebrated as the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who allows Christ to be truly present in the meal and gives fellowship with him in bread and wine in accordance with the words of institution. It is the Spirit, who as the power of the kingdom, gives a foretaste of the new creation in the feast. Through him the fellowship of the table receives life and the powers of the new creation and the assurance of the coming kingdom.[14]

As we experience this encounter with Jesus through the Spirit at the table, we are united not only with the Triune God but we are united with one another. As Moltmann writes: “Because the fellowship of the table unites believers with the triune God through Christ, it also causes me to unite with one another in messianic fellowship.”[15] If this is true, then should we not remove the barriers that prevent believers from gathering in the Spirit at the table so we might experience this oneness with God and with one another?

When it comes to these barriers that stand between the Spirit and the communicant, which often are human–instituted requirements, unless the sacraments minister to a person outside the faith of the person, then there does not appear to be an ethical reason to bar a person from gathering at the table. Therefore, if someone wishes to come to the Table and share in the Lord’s Supper, should we not make room at the Table for them, allowing the Spirit room to work in their lives?

As I argued above, if we take seriously the idea of a universally open table, with no fences surrounding it, then is it not appropriate to extend the invitation to people whose faith commitments stand outside the Christian faith so they might share in table fellowship with followers of Jesus? In answering this question, we can consider the role the Holy Spirit plays beyond Christianity. Grace Ji-Sun Kim writes: “In so many ways, the Spirit opens rather than closes the door for us to be in conversation with the world’s religions. Thus, the presence of the Spirit creates an ‘open space’ wherein we encounter the other—in fact, all others—in full dignity and uniqueness.”[16] Similarly, Amos Yong points out that when we approach interfaith/interreligious dialog with Jesus as the starting point, the conversation often goes poorly due to past encounters with people claiming to follow Jesus. But if we approach such conversations pneumatologically there is a greater possibility of engagement. He writes: “A pneumatological theology of religions may in fact assist in reducing feelings of religious or cultural superiority vis–à–vis those in other faiths and promote a more humble and Christ-like attitude, thereby allowing genuine interreligious communication and the sharing of the Gospel to proceed.”[17] Kim and Yong invite us to consider ways in which the Holy Spirit reaches beyond the Christian tradition to mediate divine encounters that might take place at the table where Jesus serves as host. In other words, might we envision the Lord’s Table serving as a place where people, whatever their faith tradition, might experience spiritually transformative encounters with God and others through the mediating work of the Holy Spirit? If we are to make this invitation, then we must be clear that the point is not proselytization but relationship-building through the Spirit at Jesus’ table.

When it comes to the role the Holy Spirit might play in interreligious conversations and engagements that include eucharistic fellowship, Brazilian theologian Claudio Carvalhaes offers this intriguing thought:

It is the Holy Spirit who is truly free to decide what Eucharist might mean. Logically, this freedom also entails the possibilities of the Spirit to warrant traditions to celebrate the sacrament in specific ways that are important for the community. But what we gain is the openness to other possibilities that the Holy Spirit might offer us. Thus, we don’t need borders against my brothers and sisters, be they baptized or not, or from one or another denomination or religion, since what is at stake at the celebration of the Eucharist is our deep care for these sacred things as an assembled community, under the movement of the Holy Spirit.[18]

If we allow the Holy Spirit to move within the gathered community at the Lord’s Table, then borders and boundaries should be unnecessary. The only barriers the church will want to keep in place are those that protect against harm done by exclusion. Again, following Carvalhaes’ lead, we hear this word “If we are to offer that table to people of other faiths; and, if we are to trust the Holy Spirit as that which will make our celebration a sacrament, then, the result can be dazzling, powerful, and transformative.”[19]

If the churches open the Lord’s Table to people outside the Christian faith, they must do so with great care. While conversion can take place at the Table, the churches must not make conversion or proselytization part of the experience of gathering at the Table, any more than an invitation from a Jewish community to share in a Passover meal would be oriented to conversion. Rather, any such invitation should be seen as an opportunity to show hospitality to those who would come to the Table, knowing, of course, that Jesus serves as the host at the Table. If this is to be a blessing to all who participate, the host community will need to use great discernment in how the supper is observed. With that in mind, I turn again to Jon Paul Sydnor, whose congregation, pastored by his spouse, invited a Jewish congregation to share in the congregation’s ritual life. As both communities sought to share in each other’s ritual life, the decision was made to include the Eucharist. Out of that invitation, Sydnor writes:

Christianity is the majority religion in America. For a majority religion to invite a minority religion into shared worship is different from a minority religion inviting a majority religion into shared worship. The majority invites from a position of numerical strength and cultural reinforcement. The minority lacks these bulwarks. Any simplistic application of the Golden Rule to interreligious ritual participation will inadequately account for the complexity and ambiguity of the invitation. We may invite and be invited, but we must do so with great respect and humility.[20]

Since Christianity remains the majority religion in the Americas and Europe, the churches must always keep in mind that an invitation to the Lord’s Table can be perceived as an attempt at proselytization. While the table might be a crossroads where transformative encounters with God can take place in the person of Jesus, who meets us at the table through the ministrations of the Holy Spirit, we must invite with great care. If we approach such invitations in the Spirit in which Jesus shared table fellowship, then it would seem possible to make the invitation to gather at the Table with Jesus. The key is, as Sydnor suggests, a matter of reciprocity. That is full openness to the other:

By extending the right hand of ritual fellowship, we invite flow across borders—not just one way, but both ways. Interreligious ritual hospitality is reciprocal. It makes transgression our business and their business, thereby putting us on equal footing with the other methodologically (though never historically or politically).”[21]  

It is this reciprocity that makes the table truly transformative, for it allows the Spirit to minister across human boundaries. Such an approach to Table fellowship, one that extends the boundaries, so that everyone, especially those who live on the margins of society are welcome at the Table of Christ Crucified and Resurrected. This approach to the Table not only fits with an Open and Relational perspective but, as I understand Jesus’ own practice of Table fellowship, it would fit with his approach to Table fellowship. I close with a word from Jürgen Moltmann, who writes of the open invitation to the Table: “As a feast open to the future it demonstrates the community’s universal hope, it acquires this character from the prevenient, liberating and unifying invitation of Christ.”[22]           

Robert D. Cornwall is a minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) —now retired. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.

[1] “The Didache 9:5” in Early Christian Fathers, Cyril C. Richardson, ed., (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 175.

[2] “First Apology of Justin, 66” in Early Christian Fathers, p. 286.

[3] Eating with Jesus: Reflections on Divine Encounters at the Open Eucharistic Table (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, forthcoming).

[4] Thomas Jay Oord, Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas. (Granmere, ID: SacraSage Press, 2021), p. 57.

[5]Ernst Käsemann, “Guests of the Crucified,” Word and World, Vol. 33 (Winter 2013): 67. 

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, Margaret Kohl, trans., (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 244.

[7] Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, pp. 244-255.

[8] Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, p. 259.

[9] Jon Paul Sydnor, The Great Open Dance: A Progressive Christian Theology (p. 327). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition

[10] Sydnor, The Great Open Dance, (pp. 327-328). Kindle Edition.

[11] Sydnor, The Great Open Dance, (p. 329). Kindle Edition.   

[12] Williams, Being Christian, 56–57

[13] Williams, Being Christian, 57.

[14] Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 257.

[15] Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 257.

[16] Kim, Reimaging Spirit, 3.

[17] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), p. 63.

[18] Carvalhaes, Eucharist and Globalization, 257.

[19] Carvalhaes, Eucharist and Globalization, 269.

[20] Sydnor, “Blessed Transgression,” 71.

[21] Sydnor, “Blessed Transgression,” 80.

[22] Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, p. 260.

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