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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

What the Eucharist means to me (Holy Communion as deep church)

I became a Christian in a charismatic evangelical context and for many years I struggled to find much of interest in the Eucharist. This was largely because we associated encountering God with ‘the warm fuzzies’ (the kind of feelings you had while worshipping) and ‘the warm fuzzies’ were normally experienced while singing. Stopping the singing to ‘do’ Communion felt like breaking the flow of the worship rather than following the Spirit’s lead. In other words, Eucharist got in the way of worship. Of course, nobody would ever say this — after all, Jesus commanded us to do it — but I was certainly not alone in my unspoken disappointment with the Lord’s Supper.

Behind this disappointment lies an implicit belief that matter and spirit are very distinct things and that God is encountered not in the material but in the spiritual, in the inner world of thought and feeling. Communion is just too darn physical to easily integrate into our Christian worlds. But integrate it we must and the Eucharistic theology that evangelicals usually employ to do so is that of Ulrich Zwingli. According to Zwingli, communion is simply a memorial of the once-for-all death of Jesus. It works by focusing our thoughts on what Jesus did for us (thereby allowing it to work in the inner, non-material world). But it is not about the presence of Christ because Christ is in heaven and cannot be present in the Eucharistic elements. Thus the Lord’s Supper is, for many evangelicals, a celebration of divine absence; it’s about what we do, thinking about Jesus ‘until he comes’.

The problem with the Eucharist for Zwinglian evangelicalism is that there are plenty of more interesting and less weird ways to think about what Jesus did for us. We could, for instance, sing about it. What’s the point of faffing around with bread and wine? Strictly speaking we don’t need the Eucharist at all. Consequently, for many evangelical churches Communion is celebrated infrequently and as quickly as possible so that we can get on with the more important stuff. (We may never put it like that but our actions let the cat out of the bag.) McEucharist, the fast-food approach to Communion, was my world for many years.

No longer. Now I consider the Eucharist to be the central aspect of Christian worship. And the rich, overt physicality of the ritual is a large part of its power. I love it that touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound are all involved. I love it that both time and space are not set aside but are swept up into the sacred encounter and bow their knee before the Lord. We move our bodies: we make the sign of the cross, we share the peace, we go up to receive the elements, we kneel, we reach out to receive, we eat, we drink. And what we receive is so mundane and yet reveals that the mundane can be a place of encounter with the divine.

I love it that in this simple ritual we celebrate the whole biblical story. Here we affirm the goodness of creation (grain, water, and grapes) and of the human work that transforms it (into bread and wine); here we acknowledge sin and our need for ‘forgiveness of sins’; here, in this modified Passover meal, we recall God’s way with his people Israel and the exodus from slavery; here we are drawn into the new covenant relationship with God; here we find our faith in the enfleshment of the Word inscribed into the Eucharistic symbols (and if incarnation does not persuade us of the goodness and spirituality of the material world then nothing will!); here too we ‘proclaim the Lord’s death’, and not only his death but his resurrection for the logic of Holy Communion makes no sense if there is no living Lord to commune with; here God’s Spirit constitutes the church as the unified body of Christ (‘we are one body because we all share in the one bread’); here we celebrate the presence of Jesus with us (because by the Spirit the elements mediate the very life and presence of Christ to us) but also recognize that this presence is currently a presence-in-absence. The Eucharist is also fundamentally eschatological — a foretaste of the banquet in the coming age of the kingdom of God. As foretaste it simultaneously reminds us of both the now and the not yet, the presence and the absence of Jesus. It invites us to affirm our present experience as good but deeply broken and to look forward in hope to the coming kingdom of God. I love it that in one simple ritual meal we are invited to participate in an act that situates us within this grand narrative. It is a ritual through which we participate in a story in which we find our identity.

I also love it that the Eucharist is not a celebration that leaves us unchallenged. Paul hammers the wealthy members of the church in Corinth for allowing the hierarchical social values of Roman society—values embedded in meal practices—to be played out in their Eucharistic meals. But those very values undermine the unity we share in Christ and so Paul concludes that if they eat in this manner ‘it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat’ (1 Cor 11:20). For to eat at Jesus’ table is to acknowledge that everyone else who is present is equally valuable, equally a part of the body, equally loved by God. This feast is subversive and to share it with others comes with a challenge. The meal invites us to think about each other and to treat each other differently. It also challenges us to conform our identity as communities and as individuals to the image of the crucified God. At the heart of the celebration is the narrative of one who loved the world and so set aside his own rights for the sake of others. That sacrifice becomes the model for our own narrative-shaped identities. For Paul the church is called to cruciformity, a patterning of our living on the story of Jesus. That will look different in different circumstances but the pattern remains the same: serving the other in sacrificial, humble love. This meal can serve as one means by which God transforms us by the Spirit so as to embody that narrative and I’m up for all the provocation and support I can get.

On the issue of communion with one another, I love the thought that when we meet around the table we commune not only with the Lord and with those present but also with the saints all around the world and indeed throughout time. There is a very real sense in which during the sacred time of the Eucharist I feel temporally closer to the saints of the past, celebrating with them, than I do to people alive today in secular time. I feel connected with the apostle Peter, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Maximus the Confessor, Anselm, Hildegard, Cranmer, and countless believers who I’ve never even heard of. At this table I feel like we belong together.

Finally, I love it too that the Eucharist is not about what we do; it’s about what God does. ‘This is my body, which is given for you . . .’ (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24). The Lord’s Supper is the Lord’s gift to us. Not a gift for the worthy but the unworthy. The Son of God loved us and gave himself for us. In Communion we come at the invite of the Lord and while we must actively respond to the invitation we don’t make anything happen — God does. In the epiclesis God is traditionally invited to send his Spirit on the elements and on the congregation, for without the Spirit the ritual is nothing. We reach out our hands and receive what it given to us by grace. We do not take the elements as if we deserved them. We come in humility and receive the gift of eternal life. But we come with confidence because God is gracious. I find this thought deeply inspirational. (‘Just as I am, without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me and that thou bidst me come to thee, O Lamb of God I come, I come’). I am not Atlas and I cannot hold the weight of the world on my shoulders. I cannot even hold my own weight. If my future or the future of the world depended on me then we’re all stuffed! But it does not. It depends on God’s purposes and God’s grace. In Communion we celebrate the God who loves and promises and brings to pass. We are the recipients of an unmerited gift. Eucharist reminds me that when we fall, as fall we do, we fall in grace, not from grace.

17 comments:

Juan Carlos Torres said...

I have been a part of an Episcopal church for a little over two years now.

I love the Eucharist now for all the reasons you mentioned.The church I was a part of previously was very Zwinglian in its understanding and practice of the communion. We celebrated it weekly but I just never got into it then.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this vital subject.

P.S. I just finished reading The Evangelical Universalist (2nd ed) for the 3rd time

Very slowly and reluctantly I think I have been officially won over to universalism :P

Robin Parry said...

Thanks Juan

we are obviously birds of a feather

Chris Tilling said...

Nice, preach it bro

"Finally, I love it too that the Eucharist is not about what we do; it’s about what God does."

Yes, right, that is perhaps why it also doesn't have a place in some worship services where the emphasis is all on us and our efforts in worship

Terry Wright said...

Amen, Brother Robin.

Darren said...

Thanks Robin

Agree with all that. But I think for those of us who are, as some call us "High Presbyterian", I.e. Calvinist, with a high view of Sacraments,a key thing is union with Christ.

We eat & drink the bread/wine and by faith we feed on him in our hearts with thanksgiving. It nourishes our soul.

Darren

Darren said...

Had another thought

Is the Lord's Supper main thing connecting us to the Passover (& it's fulfilment in Christ)? I'm sure it does to some degree.

OR is it more covenant renewal? E.g. meals in OT where the elders renewed the covenant with God. Some Reformed Churches call it, "Covenant Renewal"

Darren

Alex Smith said...

That's excellent Robin!

Matthew Celestis said...

I don't think the thoughts you articulate here are incompatible with a Zwinglian view of communion. As Darren, points out, you haven't gone into the union with Christ terminology that would make a Zwinglian uncomfortable.

Robin Parry said...

Matthew

Really? How would a Zwinglian be happy with what I said? I am fundamentally denying key aspects of Zwingli's view of the Eucharist.

You are correct that union with Christ is key. Perhaps you could say a little more about how you see it as making Zwingli shudder. I am not at all an expert on Zwingli. Did he have a problem with the notion of union with Christ? That would surprise me but the world's a funny old place.

James Goetz said...

My personal preference for worship is a combination of loud singing, soft singing, silence, and communion. As a charismatic Christian, I would appreciate weekly communion.

I used to think the Davidic dynasty celebrations were necessary for every believer. I cannot completely understand why everybody does not like that type of celebration, but I understand that the New Testament does not require it. In any case, if communion works as central to worship for some people, then that is great.

Matthew Celestis said...

I'm sure Zwingli did not deny the believer's union with Christ.

The question between the Calvinist and Zwinglian views of the Eucharist would be whether that union is enhanced in some way by the act of communion.

Zwingli would say not, the Calvinist would say yes.

I think I would agree with many who argue that the Zwinglian view has been wrongly characterised adn turned into a straw man. He viewed the eucharist not so much as a memorial, but as a pledge or seal.

You said:

"Finally, I love it too that the Eucharist is not about what we do; it’s about what God does. ‘This is my body, which is given for you . . .’ (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24). The Lord’s Supper is the Lord’s gift to us. Not a gift for the worthy but the unworthy. The Son of God loved us and gave himself for us."

That expresses perfectly what a theologically aware Zwinglian believes about communion. It is a sign of what God has done and is doing in Christ.

In this post you articulate a number of other spiritual truths that a Zwinglian need not deny. One could view those truths as presented and symbolised within the eucharist, without them being in any way actualised by it.

What the Zwinglian denies is that communion makes 'something happen.' Calvinists say that the eucharist does do something, but tend to be incredibly vague about what it actually is that happens.

Robin Parry said...

Matthew

Zwingli certainly did see the Eucharist as a pledge but that seems just as problematic as a memorial. It is still about what we do. (Or have I misunderstood him here?)

You say that theologically aware Zwinglians see the Eucharist as a sign of what God has done and is doing. Indeed. And that is not wrong. But is it a sign by which one can participate in the reality to which it points? That's my sticking point even with theologically aware Zwinglians. I.e., Zwingli denies what has been at the heart of Christian understanding of the Eucharist since the early church — the real presence of Christ in the feast and the Eucharist as a means of participating in the reality to which it points.

So I still do think the divide between Zwinglianism and the Christian tradition—which even in all its diversity (Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Calvinist) accepts the real presence of Christ—is significant here, even if there is a lot of overlap.

Of course, the good news is that Z's really do participate in the reality through the Eucharist even if they don't know it. But it is a loss that they don't know it.

That is my view.

Robin Parry said...

Hi James

what on earth is a Davidic dynastic celebration? I have never heard of that. Is it a dispensationalist thing?

Robin

Matthew Celestis said...

Hi Robin,

That is true. It is a departure from earlier views. But is it such a big loss if the communion represents a much bigger picture of what the believer participates in?

I think J.N. Darby provides the best illustration of a theologically astute Zwinglian view.

He talked about a picture he posessed of his mother, from whom he had been separated since early childhood. The picture is a sign of his mother, but it is far more. It was a very real, personal and emotional connection that he possessed to his absent mother. His mother was absent, but the picture brought him closer to her psychologically.

James Goetz said...

Hi Robin, Sorry for possible confusion. I merely meant the demonstrations of celebration and worship that were expressed during the Davidic dynasty as recorded in 2 Samuel to 2 Chronicles and Psalms. Peace, Jim

Robin Parry said...

Jim,

I know what you are talking about! All that ancient Israelite liturgical worship. I never thought of you as a liturgical man!!!

:-)

Ho ho ho

Robin

Robin Parry said...

Matthew

Thanks.

Yes—I do understand the approach yet I still think it a loss. It's not so much in what it affirms (which I agree with) as what it denies.

Eucharist is a means by which we can lovingly think about what God did for us in Jesus. But it is only one of numerous ways in which we can do that. My experience of evangelical Zwinglianism shows the potential danger of this because it can be sidelined for more fun or more "culturally relevant" was to think lovingly about what Jesus did for us.

So the Zwinglian needs to find ways to guard the centrality of the Eucharist.

But the main loss is that the mainstream Christian understandings of the Eucharist all have the Eucharist imparting grace and life and the presence of Christ. It is a place of encounter with divine presence. It's harder to handle that on Zwingli's view.

I'm not meeting my dear departed mum when I ponder her photograph—I am simply thinking about her affectionately. The Eucharist is more like skyping your mum—It is real encounter, real presence-in-absence. Such is my view.