A few weeks ago my wife and I witnessed a very moving first communion service at our local Lutheran congregation. I am not a Lutheran by denomination but my Reformed Church congregation is quite far away from home. As an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) I am a minister of Word and Sacrament and can serve in an (ELCA) Lutheran Church like the one I attend near my home. We visited this church five years ago this July and then became associate members shortly after getting involved. We have come to love the people of this church and feel very much at home there. When Anita’s mom died a few weeks ago we were so completely supported by this church that it deeply moved us. On the three previous occasions of the passing of one of our parents no church ever responded to us with such support and love as Lutheran Church of the Master. Both the pastoral team and the people were wonderfully Christ-like and gave us such help and love.
Two years ago, when the pastor of our church had moved on to a different church in Ohio, Anita and I were asked to take the fifth graders through a training program for their first communion. I had never conducted such a class since I had been a Baptist minister during my twenty years as a local church pastor (1972-92). We dutifully used the Lutheran material given to us but we personalized the training and sought to make Christ as real and evident to these kids as his grace allowed to us. I found serving these 29 children, and their parents, to be a powerful pastoral experience unlike anything I had known in my Baptist context.
Anyway, a few weeks ago (April 25), we witnessed another first communion service in our Lutheran congregation. This time I was moved in a different way. One young girl came forward with her mother and sisters, etc. I remembered communing her older sister two years ago. At that time her dad and mom were both there with her. Today her dad was absent because he passed away just a few months ago. Many of us in the congregation wept as this family went forward. The communing minister so carefully handled this moving moment with tenderness and pastoral love.
The liturgy of the entire service is moving. The children were told that after much preparation and prayer they were now coming with their parents to personally experience Jesus in the sacrament. They were asked to confess their faith and asked if they believed that the body and blood of Christ were given for their salvation. Included for the whole church was a “Renunciation of Evil.” This comes right out of the liturgy of the ancient church and is something most Baptists know little or nothing about. We were asked three questions:
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?
Each time we answered, children and congregation together: “I renounce them!” I found myself moved again to confess my own baptism and to deeply confess my confidence in Jesus Christ alone.
I know the response of many evangelicals to all of this. They say, “This is all rote and has no real meaning.” Well, you could fool me. In most of the evangelical churches I know and visit children take communion whenever they feel like it, or when their parents tell them it is OK to take it when it is passed along a row of seated people. The sacrament belongs to the parents, or so it seems in these places. But as my wife said to me during the service, “Kids who take communion in that context will never remember their first communion at all.”
I do remember my first communion as a Baptist. It was required that I confess my faith and be baptized before I could take communion. I so looked forward to coming to the Lord’s Table and thus I remember my first communion very well. It makes me very sad when I see so many churches today where this practice is not carried out faithfully in some meaningful way. When this happens “first communion” has little or no significance at all. Whether you are Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Bible Church or Catholic you ought to make a great deal of this wonderful day. You might be surprised how important this would be to your children if your church took all of this far more seriously. More serious catechizing, and less reliance upon our own ideas, would improve things greatly in almost every church I know.
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My 7 year old just celebrated his first communion at our Catholic Parish on May 1st. It was a beautiful Mass and a very powerful emotional and spiritual experience for both him and I. He celebrated it with the other second graders that he does scouts and plays sports with. It brought back memories of my first communion many years ago. I agree with you that it is sad that so many Churches have reduced this Sacrament and it’s importance to a “once a month tag-on”, with no real significance beyond the immediate moment. I’m very grateful for the memory of mine and I’m sure my son will be too. He was just beaming when the time to receive Christ in the Eucharist came for all the first communicants. I’m convinced that the watering down of this sacrament by so many evangelical churches is grounded in nothing less than a reaction against the Roman Catholic Church rather than serious Biblical and theological reflection.