I need to start this by disclosing that I received communion for years before I was baptized because I truly thought I had been appropriately baptized at the time I received. If I had known that I was not appropriately baptized, I would not have received it until I was, and I would have been baptized much earlier and perhaps been saved from some serious heartache. Not being baptized complicated spirituality for me and I’m so thankful that through some wise direction, and the love of a willing friend, I was able to receive the sacrament of baptism on 27 September, 2021. I desired baptism, I desired to be a Christian, and I believe God honored that, because God comes to us where we are at, and he did that for me. I did everything all the wrong way. This story is NOT a recommendation for receiving communion before baptism, it’s a story about how God worked in me despite how things went down, and about how baptism is crucial to communion.
My history with both the Eucharist and baptism is long and complicated, and before I am able to explain my position on taking communion before baptism, I need to tell part of that story, one that isn’t your traditional Sunday School story, told via the Godly Play curriculum, but it is a story of the absolute redemptive power of Jesus.
It’s a story I need to tell to introduce my theology about the Eucharist, without which, my position on needing to be baptized before receiving communion probably won’t make sense. There are many parts of the story, especially at the beginning, that I’m very ashamed of, but I’ve told it because it helps put things into context, and I’ve noticed that it appears that a person’s theology about the Eucharist is what informs their view on whether baptism needs to happen before communion.
Many, many years ago now (thanks be to God), when I had just become a legal adult (the age of which is 18 where I’m from), I sat on an altar to the ancient Canaanite god Baal that the Israelites in the Old Testament kept wandering off from God to serve, with a consecrated host on my breast. I was offering Jesus to Baal in the ultimate act of desecration. I had obtained said host from a Catholic priest.
It turns out that the Father’s thirty pieces of silver he was willing to sell Jesus for was the cost of a blowjob from a nineteen-year-old homeless prostitute. It took me a long time to realize that while purchasing Jesus from a man of God in exchange for sexual favors was a disgusting thing to do, that it seems even worse that a priest would trade Jesus for sexual pleasure. I hope he found repentance and healing, as I have done.
I was on that altar of Baal’s as a willing sacrifice, ready to offer up my blood in the chalice of this evil perversion of the mass. If I had realized the implications of the host on my breast, that it truly was Jesus Christ himself, I’d have consumed it, and ran away from this unholy scene, because even then, perhaps especially then, I was seeking Jesus. Jesus was on my breast, remaining with me, until the act of desecration was finished. Jesus was there with me, Jesus saw me, and Jesus has forgiven me, thanks be to God.
I first walked into an Episcopal church when I was in my early 30’s on All Saints Day. I had no clue what I was doing, or what I was getting into, but I was seeking Jesus, still, and wondered if I might find him there. I did find Jesus there, when I received communion, and it was a moment of conversion for me. I still remember what I was wearing when I walked in, because I was so clearly out of place I might as well have had it tattooed on my forehead. I wore shredded jeans that were bedazzled with rhinestones, and a tank top with a skull on it, because even though I was seeking Jesus, I wanted these people to know I was tough.
A woman named Mary turned to me, acknowledged me, and helped me navigate the service and the prayer book. She explained to me that anyone who had been baptized was welcome to receive communion, and that if I were not baptized, I could come to the altar so that the priest could give me a blessing. When it came time for communion, I hesitated, because I wasn’t sure if I should or not, because I was not Episcopalian. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever even seen an Episcopalian before. I was, I had thought at the time, baptized, though. It would be years before I knew that wasn’t so.
An usher saw me stand up, walk two steps, and nervously sit back down in the pew. He came up to me and said it seems like you want to go take communion, and you are welcome at the altar, how about you come with me? I’ll show you what to do. I nervously followed him, my desire for the Eucharist stronger than my desire to not feel awkward and out of place.
He knelt at the altar, and so I knelt beside him. He cupped his hands, the right on top of the left, and put them forward to receive the bread, and so I did the same. The body of Christ, the bread of heaven, the priest, who I had cursed out six months before I showed up to church, said, as he looked into my eyes and placed the bread into my hands.
The usher put the bread into his mouth immediately, and so I put the bread in my mouth and, although I was in church, a sacred space, a jolt went through me and I said to myself, in awe, oh shit, I just ate Jesus. A woman leaned over in front of me to guide a chalice to my lips, and I took a sip of wine. The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation, she declared. I had the same reaction as I had with the bread. I just drank the blood of Jesus Christ himself! This experience totally changed my life. I had found Jesus.
The day before I was baptized, I had intended to receive communion just like I had every other Sunday since coming to the Episcopal Church, but on the way to church God clearly asked me not to receive, and after arguing with God for most of the service, I decided to do what God has asked of me. Baptism was such an important thing to me that I asked a friend to do it for me and was privately baptized the very next day. My friend then turned and served me communion from the reserved sacrament, and it was amazing. I was so thankful for baptism, the gift that God used my friend to give me. It shifted things so much for me spiritually. I had no idea how different it would be to have the Holy Spirit come into me until it happened.
So how is it, then, that someone who for years took communion but was not baptized, believes in waiting for baptism?
Requiring baptism before communion is the only rule the Episcopal Church has for the sacrament, as far as who can receive it, at any rate. They really don’t ask much. If I had known I had not been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I would have crossed my arms across my chest to request a blessing that day, and every day afterwards until I had the opportunity to be baptized. It would have expedited baptism.
As I’ve observed arguments from either side, I’ve even been on both sides at some point. There have been things that have stood out to me about this issue. From what I’ve seen, it appears to me that one’s view on baptism before communion often depends on their Eucharistic theology to begin with.
The trend I’ve noticed at least among the people that I am around, is that those of us who believe the Eucharist is the literal body and blood of Christ believe that baptism should take place before communion, and those who take the view that the bread and wine are symbolic, or that other things are more important than the Eucharist within our spiritual lives, tend to believe that there should be no requirements whatsoever.
I firmly believe that the Eucharist is the very body and blood of Jesus, and I know this because that was my experience. I knew there was something very special about it back when I was involved in desecrating it, I knew it instinctively. I had done awful things to obtain that wafer, and I’d done worse things with the wafer. I knew it when I first received it in that small Episcopal Church in a holy and reverent manner.
It seems to me that theories of atonement also color what a person believes on the issue of baptism before communion. I’ve observed those with a more theologically liberal atonement theology trend towards no requirements whatsoever for communion, while those with more conservative thoughts believe in waiting until after baptism. I’m a person who has come to a moderately conservative theological persuasion because of my experiences with God, but socially I tend to be liberal on most things, my politics also being experiential to a large degree.
Jesus calls us to enter his kingdom, his counter-cultural movement, to new and unending life in him, through repentance and baptism. It’s not because he’s trying to be exclusionary, which is the argument I hear for why we need to drop the requirement of being baptized for receiving communion, it’s because following Jesus, living the values he asks us to live, is a commitment. He’s asking us to live in a completely new way, and partaking of his body and blood is part of living in that way.
I could argue that there are no exclusions on communion, because baptism is available to anyone and everyone. According to the Episcopal Church, any baptized Christian can baptize another, and while I’d recommend having a church baptism and being baptized by a priest in most circumstances, I’d also baptize anyone who asked it of me who had an understanding of what they were asking and for whatever reason couldn’t have it done in a more traditional way.
Baptism is an opportunity to come to Jesus. It’s the sacrament that enters us into the Christian life, the point at which the Holy Spirit comes down to live within us as an individual, a gift for baptism. I received the Holy Spirit at baptism, because that’s when the Holy Spirit is given. It’s how God established this to work.
Like I have explained, my story is different, and is not an example to follow. In the Bible there are a few people who received the Holy Spirit without baptism, but that was a gift given to each of those people individually, it’s not the way things usually worked. It was done that way for that individual for a specific reason that God had already planned. I had not received the Holy Spirit until baptism, but I met Jesus, and experienced him, in maybe the only way that would make sense to me at the time.
Requiring baptism first isn’t an exclusion at all, it’s in fact an invitation to come to Jesus.