|Holy Communion (stained glass window)|
Sadly, many evangelical churches today de-emphasize and thus neglect the Lord's Supper, with some seeing it as "a distraction from the real business of worship" (p. 146). Why has this happened? The authors note that the answer lies in Christian history with various theological perspectives on the Eucharist developing. Many evangelicals today follow the view of the Swiss Protestant reformer Huldrych Zwingli (d. 1531) who argued against seeing the Eucharist as Christ's "real presence," viewing it instead as simply a memorial (commemoration) of Jesus's death, and the bread and wine as mere "symbols" of that past event. From this viewpoint, "the Eucharist is more about the absence of Christ than about his presence... Communion is simply what Christians do 'until he comes'" (p. 147).
As the authors note, Zwingli's theology of the Eucharist reflected a deep dualism. "He thought that no physical element can affect the soul...Consequently, the signs (bread and wine) and what they signify (body and blood) must be held apart" (p. 147). This perspective reflected Enlightenment rationalism, which favored non-mystical views of all things, including the Lord's Supper. Zwingli was also reacting against the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Unfortunately, in following Zwingli's humanistic, rationalistic approach to the Eucharist, many contemporary evangelicals unwittingly undermine the importance of the meal that Jesus gave us, making it non-essential to the life of the church.
To recover deep church (the church of the apostolic tradition), Walker and Parry advocate that churches restore the Eucharist to its essential, central place in worship. What they mean by this is not returning it as one of other empty worship ceremonies, but restoring it to the place it was given by Jesus himself--the principal place where his church regularly, in community, encounter his resurrected, ascended presence.
To do so, the authors note that we must let go of the dualism that separates (in our minds) the spiritual and physical. In God's economy, there is no such separation. The triune God engages the people of God spiritually in ways that are mediated through the physical world of his creation. At the Lord's Table, Jesus, in his glorified, physical humanity, is present to us and with us in and through the communion bread and wine. Thus, as Walker and Parry note, Holy Communion, rather than being a mere memorial that utilizes interesting (though incidental) physical symbols, "is a key Christian way of knowing God" (p. 149). The physicality is essential to this knowing (this encounter). And thus rather than diminishing in our minds the importance of communion with it's physical (tactile) aspects, we should embrace and celebrate those aspects--the smells, textures, tastes, sights and sounds of the Table. These are all ways that we discern (experience) Jesus' real presence at the Table and in the service that surrounds it an leads us to it.
There are, of course, different ways to try to explain Jesus' "real presence" at the Table. Part of the problem in doing so has to do with misunderstanding what the early church fathers meant in referring to the Communion elements as "symbols." In their day, a symbol (or sign) "was not thought of as being something quite different from the reality which it represented, but... as participating in some way in the reality itself" (p. 151). Though we may not understand how Jesus in his human body (seated as it is in heaven), is present with us on earth in the Communion elements, we understand that it is the Holy Spirit himself "who thins the veil between heaven and earth... [who] makes the crucified and risen Christ really present to us in the Eucharistic meal" (p. 152). However we may conceive of that presence, it's essential to understand that Christ's glorified human body is in heaven but he is spiritually present with us in Communion by the Holy Spirit. He is with us,. ministering to us; feeding us, sharing with us his own glorified humanity; a sharing that brings nourishment and healing: body, mind and spirit.
The Lord's Supper really is "Holy Communion." It is a means (and one might say the principal means) by which we participate in the eternal life in Christ (see John 6:54). The authors comment:
Jesus himself is the spiritual "bread" we "eat" and the "wine" we "drink." It was the unanimous view in the early centuries of the church that taking Holy Communion with faith brought the resurrection life of Christ to those who took it. When you eat or drink something it enters right into the depths of you---it brings you life---it becomes part of you... Jesus speaks of drinking his blood and eating his flesh as a metaphor for taking his very life deep into our own spiritual lives by faith. We are united with him---his life becomes our life. That's what it's all about (p. 156).The authors go on to make this important observation:
The Eucharist bears within itself the marks of the whole biblical metanarrative, from creation to new creation. Like the hub at the center of a bicycle wheel, where all the spokes meet, Communion is that sacred center that gathers together Christian doctrine. Thus to participate in Holy Communion is to practice "right belief"; to engage---often without realizing it---with the breadth of Christian theology (p. 156).Some Christians make the mistake of thinking that Communion should be taken only occasionally by likening it to the Old Testament Passover. But as Walker and Parry note:
Eucharist is not a Passover meal... Christians never treated it as a once-a-year celebration at Passover time---[though] it still speaks of an exodus for the people of God from slavery and of redemption by the blood of a sacrificial lamb. Jesus told his followers to eat the meal together "in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19).... As we hear the story of the first supper over and over in our worship it becomes our story, our memory, we were there...this remembering at the Lord's Supper is owning the stories as our own. In Eucharist we "remember" by immersing the stories of our lives in the story of our Lord (p.158).The authors go on to note that "to inhabit this [Eucharistic] way of worship is to situate oneself in relation to the biblical-narrative" (p. 163), which is the story of Jesus (the gospel), which speaks of creation through new creation and is centered on Jesus' incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, continuing session and eventual bodily return in glory. All of this story is rehearsed and celebrated in communion. All of Jesus is present there with us and presented there to us by the Holy Spirit. When one understands the ancient incarnational, Trinitarian theology of the church fathers this reality becomes even more meaningful. And it is for that reason that I (Ted Johnston), personally advocate that churches place the Lord's Supper at the center of all of their worship services, rather than doing so only occasionally. In Grace Communion International, we have no policy that mandates the frequency of Eucharist in our churches, so this recommendation is the expression of a personal preference.
I conclude this post, and the series in the book Deep Church Rising, with a quote at the end of the book, which speaks to the broad perspective of deep church, and specifically to the way the Eucharist points us on to the church's participation at the Table and beyond in our Lord's ongoing ministry in and to the world:
At the heart of the liturgy [of the church in the apostolic tradition] lies the good news of God's everlasting love and forgiveness in spite of our failures. At this Table we see ourselves as a forgiven people who are called to the spiritual practice of forgiveness. In fact, we are asked to work beyond forgiveness to reconciliation (p. 164.Note: For a related earlier Surprising God post that speaks to an incarnational Trinitarian perspective on the sacraments, including the Lord's Supper, click here.