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).