Talking about inviting children to the Lord’s table, people sometimes turn to the apostle Paul’s commands to the church in Corinth and ask, Can children “examine themselves” while “discerning the body of Christ?” If not, will they be partaking “in an unworthy manner” and “eating and drinking judgment on themselves?”
Thorough explanations of the context and meaning of 1 Corinthians 11 include one by Calvin Seminary’s Professor of New Testament, Jeffrey A.D. Weima, in The Forum (scroll down to the Spring 2007 edition). All I’ll highlight for now are two things (both from the Faith Formation Committee’s report in the CRC’s Agenda for Synod 2011, pp. 582ff): 1. Like all of God’s directives, these commands are not meant to be a source of anxiety and legalism; instead these commands are meant to be life-giving! Obeying them brings joy, integrity, and justice. 2. The context of Paul’s commands in 1 Corinthians 11 reveals how rich members of the Corinthian church were celebrating the supper in a way that excluded and humiliated their poorer fellow believers. Paul’s instruction to “eat together” – or to “wait for one another” (v. 33, NRSV) – still encourages us today to wait for, welcome, and receive fellow members of “the body of Christ” (v. 29) so we can all celebrate together around the table.
Paul’s warning to the Corinthians prompts us to ask how well we discern the body today. As in Paul’s time, barriers between believers continue to persist based on economic factors: Many sisters and brothers in Christ who struggle with poverty sadly find a warmer reception at a soup kitchen than a worship service. Other members of God’s family who sometimes feel isolated on the margins include adult singles, persons with disabilities or mental illness, people who have gone through divorce, ex-offenders, and many others. Perhaps children can be added to list: Do they feel like second-class citizens when, despite being told they are covenant children of God, they only get a whiff of the aroma of bread and juice while the nearby adults fully “taste and see” that God is good? Is this a life-giving way for the body of Christ to embrace and obey these commands?
Still, we must not neglect the call to examine ourselves and the warning not to partake in an unworthy manner. Can children do this? In thinking about this, I find the Heidelberg Catechism helpful at Lord’s Day 30 (which is grounded in 1 Corinthians 11):
Q. Who should come to the Lord’s table?
A. Those who are displeased with themselves because of their sins, but who nevertheless trust that their sins are pardoned and that their remaining weakness is covered by the suffering and death of Christ, and who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to lead a better life. Hypocrites and those who are unrepentant, however, eat and drink judgment on themselves. (Q&A 81)
If there’s one thing we cannot accuse children of, it’s being hypocritical! Young children don’t do pretense; generally speaking, they are without guile. Just ask the embarrassed parent whose child said, “Daddy & Mommy like to sleep in on Sundays” after the minister commented on not seeing the family for a few weeks! It’s not until we’re older that we become skilled at hiding the discrepancies between what we say and do. In sum, we should sign up children if we’re looking for role models on being un-hypocritical.
Thinking about not being unrepentant, one of the first things parents teach children (especially when they have siblings) is to say “Sorry.” And often within minutes of the apology, the behavior has been corrected and they’re off playing again. If only I was as quick at offering apologies and then not stewing over the situation for a long time afterwards! And because they’re at a stage where they typically mean what they say, when they ask God to forgive their sins and help to do good things, I cannot help but trust they are being completely sincere. If only I was as childlike at examining myself and receiving God’s grace! Again, children can also serve as role models for not being unrepentant.
The catechism further says that those who “trust that their sins are pardoned … by the death of Christ” are welcomed to the Lord’s table. We speak of childlike faith, of childlike trust. When I invite my child to jump into my arms, they do not pause to consider whether I’ll actually catch them or I’m just playing a cruel joke. They just jump, whether it’s into my arms or into accepting the reality that Jesus died for them. So, again, I see children serving us as role models what it means to truly trust in God without fear or second guessing His grace.
Jesus welcomed children and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” I don’t know whether Jesus specifically had the sacraments in mind when He said this, but we nevertheless often quote this when we baptize infants. In the same spirit, I apply Jesus’ posture and words to the Lord’s Supper, too. Not only do children belong at the table, but adults can even learn from children as the children learn from the adults.
Graphic from the cover of A Place at the Table by Thea Leunk.