Reframing Communion

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During my time in seminary, I was exceedingly blessed to be exposed to a community that made an intentional practice of daily Eucharist.

On a personal level, participating in Eucharist more frequently deepened my sense of wonder at the profound ways in which people encountered the goodness of God through the sharing of the bread and juice.  In those moments there was a sublime sense of God’s presence in our midst, and I experienced almost a transcendent unity with my brothers and sisters at the table.

And yet, as I continued to attend these blessed moments, it was this experience of unity that made me reflect deeply on our shared experience. As I looked around at the people that were receiving the bread and wine, I recognized that many of us did not truly know one another well; in fact, we were blissfully unaware of the struggles and joys of many of the people that we were shoulder to shoulder with at the table.

As I reflected more broadly on the church, I recognized that for many people, not only was there this paradoxical tension of anonymity and unity at the table, but that, at times, communion has been reduced to mere ritual and formality- something we should do, but without any real sense of why.  At times, historically, not only did the practice descend into mere formality, but the table was also the locus of deep dissension and division, predominantly between Catholics and Protestants.

These reflections began to stir some provocative questions within my soul:

“What if Eucharist was never meant to be reduced to this? Could it be possible that the sublime implications of the words ‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ have been eroded by time? What if the profound depth of those words, which once saturated the experience, have slowly evaporated and lost some of their original luster and potency?”

I want to suggest that while the choices between Zwingli’s remembrance, Luther and Wesley’s “real presence”, and Calvin’s appropriation of Augustinian sacramental language are potentially important theological distinctions that perhaps they are overlooking a deeper dimension of the Eucharist. I also wonder if the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practice of denying Protestant Christians communion might actually contradict the implications of the words, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

What if when Jesus broke the bread, gave thanks, and handed it to his disciples he had more in mind than merely partaking of bread and wine? As he gazed into the eyes of these men he had called to himself, whose feet he had just knelt down to wash, and for whom his body was about to be broken, I think that he was fully aware of the rich echoes of a Passover meal shared centuries before. Could it be that the words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” were accompanied with a sweeping motion of his arms that encompassed their intimate table fellowship?

Jesus recognized that the Passover meal was the bread of liberation, shared by a slave people redeemed who had labored side-by-side building bricks for the kingdom of another. Slaves who had laughed together, cried together, watched each other’s children be born, mourned the loss of mutual loved ones, and supported one another in the midst of fear and anxiety.

I am pretty confident that Jesus understood the table as a place where past, present and future were mysteriously entwined. Perhaps he perceived that those slaves of yesteryear were now the fishermen around his table and in the distant future would be you and I. This meal was never meant to be one reduced to ritual, formalism or anonymity.

Instead, perhaps this meal was always meant to be shared over intimate table fellowship, effectively becoming a place where anonymity was dispelled. In the vulnerability of hospitality, I think that this meal is the mat where we were meant to wrestle for unity between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and male and female. Rather than the locus of individual piety, this meal was meant to tear down the walls of hostility elevated by prejudice, socio-economic disparity, and gender based chauvinism.

The earliest references to the Eucharist, such as those found in the Didache and First Apology of Justin Martyr suggest that this sacrament was intimately connected with a communal Agape meal. Perhaps this is why the New Testament is replete with exhortations to overcome conflicts over kosher foods that inhibited table fellowship. Also, Paul’s rebuke in 1 Corinthians 11 confronts socio-economic distinctions threatening unity in the Corinthian church and challenges the fellowship for taking the Lord’s Supper without reflecting on its deeper significance.

As the church began to spread outwards, I imagine that the liberated slaves forgot to laugh and cry together, to watch each other’s children being born, to mourn the loss of mutual loved ones, to support one another in the midst of fear and anxiety, and perhaps most importantly to share an intimate meal in their homes where every hostility is confronted by the love, grace, and mercy embodied in the one loaf that connected them all.

For the record, I do not intend to disparage the theological reflections or convictions of any of my brothers and sisters in the Lord, whether they are Reformed or Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. I celebrate every branch connected to the life of the Triune God through our Lord Jesus Christ and recognize the importance of each individual’s respective tradition. Furthermore, I recognize that due to the breadth of God’s mercy and love that we have all encountered the Lord’s presence in profoundly redemptive ways at the table, despite our differences in understanding of the Eucharist.

And yet, what if the Eucharist was not merely about shared tradition? What if it was also intended to involve intimately interwoven lives traveling the peaks and valleys of this life around a shared table?

I would suggest that this meal represents radical inclusion rather than exclusion over theological distinctives. This meal was never intended to be reduced to mere ritual or to be eaten in anonymity. This meal is not primarily about individual piety or a profound “Me and Jesus” moment, although they may accompany it.

This is the body that was broken for us all and the blood that speaks mercy and forgiveness over us all. This meal is food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty. It is the place where petty resentments and unforgiveness are shattered by the steady gaze of One who died for them all. Communion is the place where selfishness comes to die and unity is born. However, the unity that is experienced at the table must overflow into the streets as we share one another’s joys and sorrows.

I think that perhaps it is time to recognize in the Eucharist the kind of love that would share His final meal with a Zealot and a tax collector, those grasping for seats of power, a traitor and a close friend who would betray him, and all those who would abandon Him in his hour of need.

Perhaps the appropriate outworking of the Eucharist in our lives is to embody the sacrificial, reconciling love of Christ beyond the table, to ensure that those who may come to the table as strangers know that they are leaving as family.

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For the past several years, David and his wife Mary Beth have been working inter-denominationally with the Inspire Movement in the U.K. and the U.S., assisting local churches to develop and implement the vision and practice of robust Wesleyan-style discipleship. This reflects his passion to encourage other believers to flourish in their God-given giftings and to reclaim a biblically grounded spirituality that interweaves discipleship, evangelism, prayer and incarnational living.

8 COMMENTS

  1. I enjoyed the read and am dealing with the lack of unity with in the body of believers. I believe that is what I kept thinking about. The unity around the table as we remember Jesus. ?do you think you have to be born again to partake ?

  2. Glen, thanks for the question!

    I think that I appreciate John Wesley’s position that the Lord’s Supper can be a converting ordinance for those who have not “received the Holy Spirit” as well as be a confirming ordinance for the assured.

    I have copied a snippet from a larger piece on Communion posted from the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship (entire article can be read here- http://www.gbod.org/lead-your-church/holy-communion/resource/table-etiquette-means-and-manners)

    “Essential to Wesley’s argument about the converting power of the Lord’s Supper (as with the reception of the other means of grace) was his recognition of degrees of faith. Faith needed to be present in order to receive and appropriate grace, but it might only be miniscule, like a seed. In a 1755 letter, Wesley noted “that a man who is not assured that his sins are forgiven may yet have a kind or degree of faith which distinguishes him not only from a devil, but from an heathen; and on which I may admit him to the Lord’s Supper.” It is the desire to receive what God pleases to give and a sense of helplessness before God that properly admit a person to the table.”

    Wesley, as Scriptural support, would highlight the fact that the disciples at the Last Supper had not yet received the Spirit.

    I think that in order to come to the table that there has to be an inward prompting of the Spirit toward God, a recognition of our own spiritual poverty and need for His grace and mercy. This may be the point of conversion for some or a strengthening for others.

    What are your thoughts about this?

  3. Hey Dave,

    Great post! I was trying to figure out the main audience you were trying to reach to. This read half way between a seminary paper/theological article and a devotional. I understand that this was edited which might explain for some choppiness in introducing an idea but not fully going into those ideas. As a lay person, I have no clue who Zwingli et al. think and believe or how theologically the eucharist delves into the past, present, and future. Also, I have no idea of what the “communal agape meal” is what it should represent. A seminary/theologian would understand so if that is your audience then don’t mind me. Lastly, it seems to me that your argument/challenge is that communion should be a shared and intimate experience between believers. I’d like you to go deeper into that. What does that look like? How do Catholics and Protestants take communion together with the hurdles of theological and traditional differences? How can we make it a more intimate experience in our regular sunday church when we rarely know the people that sit around us? And what of the challenges that come with the intimacy? You see someone ahead in line that gossips in the church or is just a christian on sundays from 1045-1200 and you start judging them before you take the eucharist yourself. Or you are new to a city and just don’t know anyone except saying hi to the greeter for the first 6 months? Probably enough of my own confessions for today. It really was a thought provoking post and well written. Take care friend.

    • Justin, thanks for all of the thoughts! There are definitely some excellent questions in there.

      Regarding the intended audience, I think that there is a breadth of people to whom I hope to appeal, both seminary and/or bible college trained and those who are not. As such, you rightly noted some of the elements focused on those with more specific training, i.e. mention of some of the prominent Reformers (Zwingli et al.) and references to early church documents dealing with the Eucharist.

      I think that your comment about the Eucharist delving into past, present, and future is an important one. When we come to the table we are ‘remembering’ or in Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 11 ‘proclaiming’ the death of Christ. However, much like the Passover meal, the Hebraic understanding of ‘remembering’ is more than simply thinking back on something fondly, it suggests a very real participation in the past event itself. At the same time, as we are at the table, we recognize that the broken body and shed blood of Christ was vindicated by the resurrection of Christ from the dead… and it speaks a word of promise of his certain return, when we will all feast at the marriage supper of the Lamb. Thus, the table is the place where my present moment meets the remembrance of the crucifixion/resurrection and the living hope for the return of Christ. Does that help explain this at all?

      What the ‘communal agape meal’ signifies is that the reconciliation that Christ came to bring is both with God and with one another, fulfilling the great commandment. It is tangible, messy, and face to face. In the community in Corinth, the agape meal would have involved people coming together over socio-economic boundaries, i.e. slaves and the wealthy… so the meal itself was concrete evidence that the work of Christ has accomplished transformation in time and space. This is why in 1 Cor.11 Paul challenges the wealthier Christians for abusing this intimate space and maintaining distinctions from the day laborers in their communities.

      Regarding overcoming the “hurdles or theological and traditional differences” between Catholics and Protestants, truthfully, I do not know how to approach this, but I think that it is an excellent discussion for us to have.

      I think that communion can become a more intimate experience in our regular sunday church in a number of ways, but perhaps a simple suggestion may be combining a couple of elements that are present in many churches- community meals and communion. By sharing the bread and juice at a common table a couple of things are accomplished. People actually get to know one another over meals. Also, by taking communion in the context of a meal, it challenges the sacred and profane divide, and helps people to recognize the presence of God in the mundane.

      I think that there are always challenges inherent in intimacy, and I think that the friction that naturally arises because of different temperaments is a fertile ground for the Holy Spirit shaping us into the image of Christ. It is the place where our own judgments of other people are confronted, and where we have to explore what it looks like to challenge one another to holy living as followers of Christ.

      Hopefully these responses may have shed some light on your questions! They were great ones, and I apologize for the brevity of my responses! Many blessings my friend!

  4. Good insights, Dave. Reminds me of the divide in depth and experience between a mega-church sacramental “walk-up buffet table” and the potency of the One Year to Live retreat’s communion. Trust all’s well in “Old” England. We’re loving New England, at present! Blessings…

  5. Great stuff brother. Love the eucharist more and more. I’m reminded of this song, that beautifully captures the multiplicity of the Lord’s Table:

    Miss you guys :).

  6. Good article Dave. It reflects what I experienced and grew in as a direct result of daily Eucharist at ATS, as well as exposure to practical theologians such as Bob Stamps, Steve Martyn, and others. And that doesn’t even touch on the sharing and late night discussions with you and so many other students on campus. I’m not sure what awakens an appreciation and desire for Christ-encounter that comes with sharing His table with others (well, but for the Holy Spirit taking hold….), but once it is stirred there is no returning to a ritualistic observance of Communion. All that is left is an incessant drive to share my excitement with the world. I wonder if that is part and partial to what it means for Eucharist to be a converting ordinance?

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