Deep church: a Eucharistic community

This post concludes our review of the book Deep Church Rising by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry. For other posts in this series, click a number: 1234567, 8

Holy Communion 
(stained glass window)
Wikimedia Commons
Noting that in the Eucharist, "right belief, right worship and right practice embrace," Walker and Parry conclude their book, Deep Church Rising, imploring each church to become a Eucharistic community (p.145). They remind us that the apostolic tradition placed Holy Communion at the heart of the worship service---visually (Table front and center), liturgically (order of service centered on the Supper) and theologically (the gospel, which is re-enacted in the Eucharist, being the basis for the sermon and all other worship elements).

Sadly, many contemporary evangelical churches de-emphasize the Eucharist, some even viewing it as "a distraction from the real business of worship" (p.146). This is largely due to holding to the theological/doctrinal perspective of Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli (d. 1531) and others who argued against viewing the Eucharist as Christ's "real presence." Instead, they viewed Communion as a "memorial" of Jesus' death, with the bread and wine being mere "symbols" of that event. From this perspective, "the Eucharist is more about the absence of Christ than about his presence..." (p.147).

As Walter and Parry note, Zwingli's view of the Eucharist reflected a deeply-held 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, the Lord's Supper included. Also, Zwingli was 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 a return to an empty worship ceremony, but the restoration of the place given the Eucharist by Jesus himself---the principal place where his church would regularly, in community, encounter his resurrected, ascended, human 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 spiritually engages the people of God in ways that are mediated through the physical world that he has created. At the Lord's Table, Jesus, in his glorified, physical humanity, is present with us, in and through the communion bread and wine. Thus, as Walker and Parry note, Holy Communion is not a mere memorial that utilizes incidental physical symbols. Rather, it "is a key Christian way of knowing God" (p.149). The physicality of Communion is essential to this knowing (this encounter with Christ). Rather than diminishing in our minds the importance of Communion with it's physical (tactile) aspects, we should embrace and celebrate those aspects---its smells, textures, tastes, sights and sounds. All these are ways we discern (experience) Jesus' real presence at the Table and in the service that surrounds it.

In referring to the Communion elements as "symbols," the early church fathers embraced the idea of their day that a "symbol" (or "sign") was not something that was different from the reality it represented, but participation in that reality (see p.151). The patristic fathers taught that at the Table, the Holy Spirit "thins the veil between heaven and earth... [making] the crucified and risen Christ really present to us in the Eucharistic meal" (p.152). They taught that though Jesus' glorified human body remains in heaven, he is spiritually present with us at the Table where he feeds us with his own glorified humanity---a sharing that brings us nourishment and healing. Thus the Lord's Supper is for us true and holy Communion---a means (and one might say the principal means) by which we participate in the eternal life in Christ. Noting 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. [Through Communion] we are united with him---his life becomes our life (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 mistakenly think 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 (his-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. It is for this reason that many who embrace an incarnational Trinitarian theology (including Walker and Parry) advocate that churches place the Lord's Supper at the center of all worship services.

I now 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 in which the Eucharist points us forward to the church's participation in our Lord's ongoing ministry in 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 other posts in this series, click a number: 12345678. For a related Surprising God post addressing an incarnational Trinitarian perspective on the sacraments, click here.