Eucharistic Eating

In my last post, I wrote about how I wrestle with the celebration of the Eucharist within the Evangelical community. The Eucharist has been reduced to a very privatized, individualistic act with little to no guidance on what we as a community are actually celebrating.

Maybe the celebration of the Eucharist is tied to how I view eating. For instance if I simply look to food as a necessary activity in order to survive, eating is imply a very natural act. The food I eat is absorbed into me – the necessary vitamins, nutrients and minerals I need in order to make the most out of life. I view food as I do almost everything else in life: an object for me to consume with little to no thought on how it impacts others. Therefore, when I come to the Table, the Eucharist is reduced to an act I have to do in order to survive spiritually. I am, after all, a spiritual consumer, looking for what I need in order to make life work. The Eucharist is an activity I can quickly do, in order to hopefully get more Jesus.

If I hold to this view, I am no different than the 5000 people Jesus fed in John 6. Immediately following the feeding, the people wanted to practically kidnap Jesus and force him to be king (John 6:15). When they realize that Jesus has escaped their grasp, they go looking for him (John 6:24), according to Jesus, “Not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” (John 6:26). In Food & Faith, Dr. Norman Wirzba comments on this situation, “For them, much like for the Israelites in the desert, what they most wanted was fuel to fill a digestive hole. What made Jesus so attractive to them is that he could provide the product on demand” (p. 155).

Jesus then explains to the people, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56).

Jesus is not advocating a natural understanding of eating, where I get a little more of him each time I partake of the Eucharist, for the goal of the Christian life is not for Jesus to be absorded into me but rather for me to abide with Jesus and be altered by him. Dr. Wirzba refers to this as Eucharistic eating: “Eucharistic eating has to do with learning to abide with Jesus so that our abiding with others can take on a Christological form. In other words, Eucharistic eating alters the relationships that make up our lives, gives them a self-offering character, and in doing so changes the practice of life itself” (p. 155). He later writes, “With this kind of eating I am inspired, corrected and nourished by the other without the other being completely destroyed. The other, that is, Jesus, continues to live on in me not as de-formed matter but as food that in-forms life from the inside. This is eating founded on mutual abiding” (p. 157, emphasis original).

The goal of Eucharistic eating is a fuller participation in the ministry of Jesus Christ: namely the proclamation and manifestation of the Kingdom of God in this world. It is the recognition of Paul’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). But this in no way implies that my individuality is annihilated; Paul’s metaphor of the body comes to mind, where Christians are all part of one body, but have different functions. And the body must celebrate the other for without a multiplicity of gifts, the church could not be a body (1 Cor. 12:12-31).

Dr. Wirzba states the goal of Eucharistic eating this way:

Persons who feed on Jesus are challenged to relate to others in a new way. Rather than engaging them primarily in utilitarian terms, absorbing them to suit personal need and satisfaction, eaters of Jesus are invited to extend his ministries or attention and welcome, feeding and forgiving, and healing and reconciliation…. Remembering Jesus, in other words,  inspires us to remember others (p. 157-158, emphasis original).

Therefore, as I am part of the local body and we celebrate the Eucharist together, we do so for a two-fold purpose:

First, we celebrate the great love of the Trinity for us in accomplishing what we could not ourselves – our salvation. We feed on Christ, as he is the author and perfecter of our faith, who now sits at the right hand of God interceding for us. The author of Hebrews paints a beautiful picture of what the death of Christ has wrought for us.

Second, not only do we celebrate the fact that Christ has united us to him, we also celebrate the fact that we are united to each other through his body and blood and to be empowered to live for the other as Christ has uniquely gifted each of us. Again as Dr. Wirzba writes, “To participate in the body of Christ is not only to have Christ in me as the one who corrects and transforms me. It is also to have others in me in such a way that what I know of life – what I need, desire, and enjoy in life – makes no sense apart from the fellowship of life together” (p. 172). The Eucharist is the remembrance that we desperately need each other as we learn what it means to abide with Christ.

So how could this understanding manifest itself in the local church practically? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas and will offer some of my own ideas in the next post.

Rethinking the Eucharist

I recently finished reading the last chapter in Kevin Vanhoozer’s work The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. The chapter is a brief attempt to flesh out how his approach to theology would play out in the church. Vanhoozer defines doctrine as “direction for the fitting participation of individuals and communities in the drama of redemption” (p. 102). The goal of doctrine is not simply that we as Christians should know a lot about God, but that it would empower us to live as true citizens of the Kingdom of God.

For Vanhoozer, “the church’s role in the drama of redemption is to present the body of Christ” (p. 407). The company of believers is called to celebrate and make known that which only they can perform – namely the Eucharist – “But the cry of Christian celebration is not ‘Eureka, I have found it’ but ‘Eucharisto, He has found us!” (p. 407)

Along similar lines to the centrality of the Eucharist is the theme of reconciliation. “The church’s very existence, that is, is testimony to God’s being reconciled to humanity” (p. 434). However, it is not the church’s job to achieve reconciliation, Christ already accomplished it, but rather to simply display the reconciliation. One way in which the church can do this is through table fellowship, for it is virtually impossible to enjoy a meal with someone who is your enemy.

The two are almost one and the same thing. We celebrate the Eucharist as a corporate body demonstrating the reconciliation Christ has wrought for us that in turn allows us to be reconciled to one another. As Paul writes, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17). We are one body in Christ because of what He did on the cross:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility (Eph. 2:14-16).

But here is my problem, and something I constantly wrestle and struggle with. In my experience in the Evangelical church, the Eucharist has been reduced to an overly privatized event that takes places solely between me and Jesus, celebrated once a month, if that. In some churches, the elements are scattered around the room, and one is invited to partake when one feels ready, after having strongly considered Paul’s admonition, “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup” (1 Cor. 11:27-28). I vividly recall these words striking fear in me all through my childhood.

The whole communal element of communion is lost on us today. If the Evangelical church is going to be a place of belonging and reconciliation, which is what many people are yearning for these days, I believe we need to rethink what it means to celebrate the Eucharist.

It is easy to say this, but it is much harder to offer some constructive ideas. I have celebrated the Eucharist a few times in an Anglican church, and there is something to be said from going to receive the elements from the priest as a group and sharing in one cup, instead of a thimble of grape juice. And why couldn’t a love feast follow the celebration of the Eucharist at least once a month? This might be harder to do in a church of thousands, but within the megachurches there are smaller groups for people to feel more connected, so I am sure that those groups could host the love feast. Or maybe to foster a greater sense of belonging within a larger church, different small groups pair up each month to allow people to get to know others. Yes this would require more from people, but living in community is not easy. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together:

The day of the Lord’s Supper is an occasion of joy for the Christian community. Reconciled in their hearts with God and the brethren, the congregation receives the gift of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and, receiving that, it receives forgiveness and new life, and salvation. It is given new fellowship with God and men. The fellowship of the Lord’s Supper is the superlative fulfillment of Christian fellowship. As the members of the congregation are united in body and blood at the table of the Lord so will they be together in eternity. Here the community has reached its goal. Here joy in Christ and his community is complete. The life of the Christians together under the Word has reached its perfection in the sacrament (p. 122).