Regarding ruling elders: the ministry of the Lord’s Supper
Margaret’s sitting room is bright and cheerful, and there is the fragrance of fresh muffins in the air. Julia (Margaret’s daughter, a deacon not presently serving) and I have just come from church where we have celebrated the Lord’s Supper. In a small basket I am carrying broken bread and a small bottle of wine (or juice) that have been taken from the Lord ’s Table during worship. Soon we will extend the Lord’s Table with Margaret.
People who are unable to attend worship always enjoy visits from church leaders, especially those visits when the ongoing life of the congregation is shared. “Extending the Table,” celebrating the Lord’s Supper with those unable to come to church can be one of highest ministries to which ruling elders are called. The Directory for Worship, in the section describing the Lord’s Supper, says this: “The serving of the elements may be extended by two or more persons in the ordered ministry of the church, to those isolated from the community’s worship. ... [T]he elements are to be served following worship on the same calendar day, or as soon thereafter as practically feasible, as a direct extension of the serving of the gathered congregation ...” (Book of Order, W-3.3616e).
Visits to homebound members are occasions for meaningful pastoral care, honest talk about life’s joys and difficulties. When extending the Table, the unity of Word and Sacrament is a central focus and so I also carry a Bible, an order for worship from the day’s service, and some notes I’ve made on the details of the service and on the sermon. This ensures that the Lord’s Supper does not become some sort of “magical” ritual or a purely personal “moment with Jesus.” In the Lord’s Supper we “join our voices with prophets and martyrs and with all the faithful of every time and place.” The presence of two members of ordered ministry—deacons, ruling elders, and teaching elders, both active and inactive—gives embodied emphasis to the communal emphasis of the sacrament. If there has been a baptism during worship, it is fitting to remind those at home of their own baptism, as was done with the gathered congregation. Water and the sign of the cross on the forehead may be used, with the words, “Margaret, remember your baptism and be thankful.”
The words we share are familiar: “The Lord be with you.” “And also with you.” “The Word of the Lord.” “Thanks be to God.” “The bread of life.” “Amen.” “The cup of Salvation.” “Amen.” For Margaret, and many like her, these are signs of her inclusion in the ongoing life of the congregation. No special serving pieces are needed for this service. An ordinary plate and cup from the kitchen bring the sacrament even closer to home.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) provides an Order for the Extended Serving of the Communion of the Church at https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/extendedservingorderworship.pdf.
The two-page order can be printed into a small booklet. These are “rubrics,” suggestions for how the service should be conducted. This resource is invaluable to elders and deacons who are ministering by extending the Table.
As we prepare to leave Margaret, our farewells are laced with the assurance of Christ’s presence among us in the sharing of bread and wine. All of us have been blessed by the ministry of extending the Table.
Jane Rogers Vann,Rowe Professor of Christian Education, Emerita, at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, now lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She continues to teach courses in the areas of worship and education.