We are Lutheran and most Lutheran churches that I know have first communion at around third grade, though it is starting to differ more and more. I used to be fine with this age. To be honest, I just didn’t think about it much. It was just the tradition.
I grew up evangelical, but I don’t remember ever not having communion, but then I had a profession of faith so early that I don’t remember it either. After talking to my Mom, it appears I had communion from the earliest of ages. She doesn’t remember me not taking it, although it’s probably a fair guess that my parents waited till after my profession of faith.
At any rate, my parents didn’t believe in excluding me from the church and the blessings of it, even though I was a child. I participated in worship, Bible study, personal and family devotions, service to others, evangelism (sometimes at my own initiative), and communion. I am grateful to my parents for making all of these things a priority and for taking the time to teach me. I think this “daily life” faith that they taught and modeled is why I have a strong faith today.
I joined the Lutheran church as a young adult, drawn to the strong articulation of grace that it teaches. I was a pastor in North Dakota and gave kids their first communion in third grade. And even though I had taken it since I was a young child, I didn’t really think about the third grade approach. It was just a tradition.
And then Burrito came along and like much of my view of the world, my view of childhood communion changed too. My changing view began a couple months ago when I would take Burrito up to communion with me to receive a blessing and she would turn to me and say, “I want it too!” And I had no earthly reason that I could give her why she couldn’t participate. I agonized over this. I couldn’t imagine telling her, “Well, honey this is just for the adults and the people that can think abstractly.”
Didn’t Jesus say, “Let the little children come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven”? Didn’t Jesus repeatedly tell us that it’s not that little children need to have faith like adults, but that adults need to have faith like little children?
I think our fear of giving communion to children comes from Paul’s exhortation in I Corinthians 11 that warns us of taking communion unworthily. But he simply says that we need to “recognize” the body and blood of our Lord. Years ago, I heard a wonderful sermon by Pastor Jack Hayford in which he pointed out that the only way to come to communion unworthily is if we fail to recognize the forgiveness that God is extending to us. In other words, we need to avail ourselves of the healing power of communion. I suppose this could come either through not acknowledging our sinfulness or not acknowledging Jesus’ forgiveness. I think there’s also a fair argument to be made that what Paul is saying in I Corinthians is actually, “Don’t glut yourselves on communion and exclude some of the believers because so many of you are taking too much!” So, it’s a passage not about how only some believers can take communion but on how every believer can.
The fear of partaking of communion unworthily has robbed all too many people of the blessings of communion. In my congregation in North Dakota, I would talk to some of the older ladies and they told me how only the people who had community status of being “really holy” would come forward to partake. Others felt they would be viewed too prideful to come forward and take the sacrament. They now look back on those days as pretty sad. And I agree. What a twisting of what communion is meant to be when we say that only perfect people can have it! Because, of course, there are no perfect people. We all need God’s grace, and He asks us to come in faith to receive it. To come like little children.
But it never had hit me how important communion can be to a little child until my daughter said to me, “I want it too!”
I began to think about how adults with their ways of making faith too complicated and with their justifications for their sin nature might be much more in danger of partaking unworthily than a little child. I do believe children are sinners too, as a toddler tantrum will reveal! But they are more guileless, simpler and find it easier to believe than adults too. They don’t make things too complicated.
I also thought about how the hands-on aspect of communion was practically made for a child. It’s like a regular children’s sermon on Jesus being with us, forgiveness, community. Kids love things they can taste and touch. In the Old Testament, there are countless celebrations and ceremonies that God calls the people to do and to use to teach their children about faith. I believe one of the biggest reasons why there are so many hands-on symbols in the Jewish faith is for the teaching of the children. We have a fantastic opportunity to teach our kids about their faith in communion but for many of us, the message we are sending is, “You aren’t old enough, you aren’t good enough for this.” We should be inviting them into the richness of communion! How arrogant to think that we adults “get it” but the kids don’t!
My husband and I both began to have a change in our thinking about communion in the past few months. We talked and prayed about it. And in the end, he presented his thoughts to our church council and asked for their approval to change the policy to being when the parent feels their child is ready, with no requirements on the age. They approved this change, and he announced in church that younger children would be able to receive communion on Maundy Thursday if their parents felt they were ready. One more child joined us and clearly was ready.
Last night was a powerful time with children receiving this special gift of Jesus with their families. Burrito and Christopher and I went over and over the basic teachings about communion. She learned to say, “This is My Body, This is My Blood…shed for you…forgive our sins!” She learned to say “Amen” after she received communion and that it means, “I believe you!” I told her that just as surely as when Mommy says, “It’s time for breakfast” and she gets breakfast, when Jesus says, “This is My Body, This is My Blood,” Jesus is really there. We talked about the story over and over again. She helped to bake the bread for communion.
Yesterday, I realized I had been so busy teaching and preparing her that I had neglected to her a cross necklace to remember the day. I ran and looked through my jewelry box and found a perfect gold cross. Christopher teared up when I gave it to her. She had fun showing off her pretty cross to people at church.
She was really excited for the communion service. She whispered loudly through most of the service but said most of the Lord’s Prayer and “hear our prayer.” She pays much more attention to the service than her behavior sometimes indicates. Christopher announced her name along with the other kids taking first communion and she said, “That’s me!” She went up and knelt down with me. I think the most precious moment for me was seeing her hold her little hands up to receive the bread that her Daddy placed in her hands. She ate it and drank all her grape juice. She forgot to say “Amen” but I reminded her and she said it then. It was such a special moment for our family, and I am so glad that she is able to experience God’s grace in communion now. And I am glad not just for her, but for the other children who will come to experience God’s grace because He gave us a change of heart and a change in understanding.
This morning, when I went to get her in her crib, she said, “I drink all my juice!” Apparently, the special moments of communion were still on her mind. Thanks be to God!
(Note: For another perspective on this, my friend Liz has a post about how she let her 23 month old take communion. She is a children's minister.)