I was seventeen years old when my parents and I worked together to discover that I have Celiac Disease. I began cutting out gluten immediately. Being consistent was hard at first, especially being at college and away from my parents, until I realized that I was only going to feel better if I stopped eating gluten. And then my church held the Lord’s Supper. I watched the plate of crackers making its way down the pews, quickly approaching me. There was no way they were gluten free. I knew that. But what was I supposed to do?? Someone would notice I wasn’t participating. They would question my salvation. They would wonder if I had some sort of glaring sin in my life. They would wonder, and they would talk. I was certain. The plate of crackers reached me. I took one. And I ate. And the rest of the night, I was sick.
This particular church held the Lord’s Supper once a quarter. Every time it happened, I took, I ate, and dealt with the consequences later. The next semester I felt the need to try other churches. My roommate, who was a huge help to me with navigating a new normal, took me to her church. They held the Lord’s Supper. As the plate of crackers approached, my stomach turned. She saw my anxiety as I held the plate in my hand. “It’s okay. Do not take one. No one is looking at you, and even if they do, God knows your heart,” she whispered to me. “It’s okay to not eat the bread.” This was the first time anyone had said that to me. Not because people were cruelly expecting me to be sick every time the Lord’s Supper was held at church, but because this is something that simply is not talked about.
My roommate’s words, while kind and comforting, were not an instant cure for the anxiety that crept in whenever the plates with crackers and tiny cups of juice made their appearance at the front of my church. I could drink the juice no problem. But those crackers were, for me, Public Enemy #1. But I continued to wrestle with whether or not to partake of the bread portion of the Lord’s Supper. If you don’t have any food allergies, you may be wondering, what is the big deal? Just don’t eat it? And logically, that was the simple solution. Especially since the church I went to took the bread and the juice separately. I could just take the tiny cup and partake in that part and let it be done.
But my fellow allergy sufferers, especially those who discovered their allergies late in life like me, may be nodding along with this story. Food allergies are the source of a lot of social anxiety for anyone who has them. Whether it’s trying to plan ahead for a dinner or party or the Lord’s Supper, being confronted with a situation in which you are eating in public is scary.
It may not be this way for everyone with food allergies, but this was honestly a spiritual issue for me. I knew I should not be taking the bread/cracker portion of the Lord’s Supper. I knew what it would do to me. But I was so concerned about who would see me passing up on the bread and question my salvation or spiritual growth that I continued to put into my body what was harmful to it. This was not glorifying to God. I made my social anxiety bigger than God’s intimate knowledge of my standing with him.
It was not until my church got a new pastor and started taking the Lord’s Supper once a month that I really began to admit I had a problem. I had stopped taking the bread, but I would duck my head as I passed the plate to the next person, or let my eyes dart around to see who would notice. Sometimes, I would take a piece and then slip it to someone next to me who knew my situation intimately. I was turning my experience of the Lord’s Supper from an act of worship to an act of selfish show. I was so concerned about what other people thought of me when they saw I skipped half of the Lord’s Supper that I began ignoring what taking the Lord’s Supper is really about.
The Lord’s Supper is a celebration, an act of worship, a remembrance of what Christ did for us on the Cross all those years ago. All who believe are invited to participate, to join together in this “feast” as we reflect on Christ’s death so that we could live. And instead of reflecting on what Jesus did for me on that Cross, what he was about to do when the first Supper was taken, I let my fear of man consume my thoughts and a focus on works over grace consume my heart. I still remember that Sunday when our new pastor explained that the Lord’s Supper would be a monthly occurrence. I panicked inwardly. How was I supposed to go through this every month? It felt unfair, like an affront to me. As if this pastor who had barely a month at my church under his belt knew about my anxiety and was out to get me. Spoiler alert, he was not.
But as I panicked, wondering how I would get through the Lord’s Supper every month, skipping the bread, wondering who would see and judge me, my heart grew heavy with conviction. As if from nowhere (but obviously not out of nowhere, the Holy Spirit was working), I began to wonder when I had started worrying about what people thought about me more than what God thought about me. I remembered my roommate’s words from all those years ago (yes, this went on for years), “People aren’t looking, and even if they are, God knows your heart. It’s okay not to take the bread.”
It’s okay not to take the bread.
It’s okay to not be able to fully participate in the Lord’s Supper due to health issues.
I am not gluten free for the fad. I am a genuine believer. My heart’s desire is to be able to fully participate in the Lord’s Supper. And that is enough. God knows my heart, he knows my health, and he is in complete control. So slowly, but surely, by God’s grace, and to his glory, I learned. I learned not to be afraid of passing the plate of bread without taking any. I learned that it’s okay to be physically unable to fully participate in the Lord’s Supper. Because it’s really not about eating bread or drinking juice or wine. It’s about Jesus. It’s about remembering his work on the Cross. It’s about remembering our salvation.
Easter is coming. Easter is one of the most common Sundays for churches to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (or Lord’s Table, or communion, whatever you call it). If you have food allergies or health restrictions that prevent you from partaking in the bread, juice (or wine), or both, it is okay to not partake. God has not neglected you, he is not a cruel master who sits in Heaven expecting you to leave church sick every Sunday you have communion. He knows your heart. Your salvation is secure in him, whether or not you are physically able to partake in this remembering. Praise the Lord our salvation does not find its security in our ability to take part in traditions! Your salvation is secure in the blood of Jesus Christ, who bled and died on a Cross, who took your punishment in your place, so that you could walk free. He is near to the sick and brokenhearted. His love does not depend on your ability to eat a cracker and drink a sip of juice.
Participate however you can, but please do not let your fear of what other people might think drive you to eat or drink something you physically cannot. God knows. He knows your heart. He understands your situation. He is not surprised by your situation. Your situation is part of his sovereign, loving design for your life. Be not afraid. Do not worry about what man can do to or think about. Focus on your Savior, remember what he did for you on the Cross, remember that he died (and rose again) so that you could live.
If you want practical tips on what to do (I know I drank them up as a newbie to Celiac Disease, and still do six and a half years later), here is what I do in the different situations I have been in.
A lot of churches will pass plates with crackers or bread pieces and trays with juice cups through the pews or chairs. These usually happen separately – the bread is taken first, then the juice (or wine). When the bread comes my way, I just keep passing it. I do not take a piece, even to pawn off to someone else. Being seated has the advantage of privacy, and you participate by simply sitting quietly and praying. I take the juice when it comes around, as I am able to have juice.
For the churches where you line up in the aisles to take communion, this can be harder. Let me preface with saying that what you do is entirely between you and God. Whatever you choose to do, let it be because this is how you desire to glorify God during communion. My current church does the Lord’s Table weekly, which is beautiful, but also a little overwhelming. We line up in the aisles, take a piece of bread, dip it in the cup, and return to our seats. Because I personally desire to participate as much as possible, I join the line. My husband and I go up together, one in front of the other. I take a piece of bread, dip it, and walk back to my seat. When my husband and I are back at our seats, I give him my piece and he eats them both.
Joining the line works well for me, but I want to give a huge caveat here: If your church takes the Lord’s Supper this way, you are struggling with worrying about what other people will think if you don’t go up there, and you want to do it this way, I would strongly caution you to prayerfully consider if this is the right option for you. I am by no means a perfect example, and some weeks I still struggle with this. I have to make an effort to focus solely on why we take the Lord’s Supper in the first place and prayerfully block out all other thoughts and distractions in order to do this with my heart in the right place. It has been a process of spiritual growth, but I am in a place where going through the motions of participating is no longer a stumbling block for me. I have not reached perfection or “arrived” in this area, but by God’s grace and to his glory, I am able to participate in this way without doing harm to my health.
Another option, that my husband would like to do, is to talk to your pastor. He may have a solution, such as passing a special plate with gluten free crackers or providing gluten free bread with a separate cup to dip it in. Numerous churches are already implementing systems for people with food allergies to be able to fully participate in communion. This is wonderful! If you do choose to go to your pastor, please remember to approach this with grace and understanding. Chances are high that your pastor is not intentionally leaving you out. This is not a topic that is frequently talked about, and it may take some time for change to occur. This is okay.
However you choose to participate while deferring to your limitations, or even if you have no limitations and can participate in the Lord’s Supper fully, remember this: it is ultimately not about whether or not you can eat bread or drink a cup of juice. The Lord’s Supper is about remembering what Christ has done for us, and reflecting on his saving work on the Cross.