Reframing Communion

Reframing Communion

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During my time in seminary, I was exceedingly blessed to be exposed to a community that made an intentional practice of daily Eucharist.

On a personal level, participating in Eucharist more frequently deepened my sense of wonder at the profound ways in which people encountered the goodness of God through the sharing of the bread and juice.  In those moments there was a sublime sense of God’s presence in our midst, and I experienced almost a transcendent unity with my brothers and sisters at the table.

And yet, as I continued to attend these blessed moments, it was this experience of unity that made me reflect deeply on our shared experience. As I looked around at the people that were receiving the bread and wine, I recognized that many of us did not truly know one another well; in fact, we were blissfully unaware of the struggles and joys of many of the people that we were shoulder to shoulder with at the table.

As I reflected more broadly on the church, I recognized that for many people, not only was there this paradoxical tension of anonymity and unity at the table, but that, at times, communion has been reduced to mere ritual and formality- something we should do, but without any real sense of why.  At times, historically, not only did the practice descend into mere formality, but the table was also the locus of deep dissension and division, predominantly between Catholics and Protestants.

These reflections began to stir some provocative questions within my soul:

“What if Eucharist was never meant to be reduced to this? Could it be possible that the sublime implications of the words ‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ have been eroded by time? What if the profound depth of those words, which once saturated the experience, have slowly evaporated and lost some of their original luster and potency?”

I want to suggest that while the choices between Zwingli’s remembrance, Luther and Wesley’s “real presence”, and Calvin’s appropriation of Augustinian sacramental language are potentially important theological distinctions that perhaps they are overlooking a deeper dimension of the Eucharist. I also wonder if the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practice of denying Protestant Christians communion might actually contradict the implications of the words, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

What if when Jesus broke the bread, gave thanks, and handed it to his disciples he had more in mind than merely partaking of bread and wine? As he gazed into the eyes of these men he had called to himself, whose feet he had just knelt down to wash, and for whom his body was about to be broken, I think that he was fully aware of the rich echoes of a Passover meal shared centuries before. Could it be that the words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” were accompanied with a sweeping motion of his arms that encompassed their intimate table fellowship?

Jesus recognized that the Passover meal was the bread of liberation, shared by a slave people redeemed who had labored side-by-side building bricks for the kingdom of another. Slaves who had laughed together, cried together, watched each other’s children be born, mourned the loss of mutual loved ones, and supported one another in the midst of fear and anxiety.

I am pretty confident that Jesus understood the table as a place where past, present and future were mysteriously entwined. Perhaps he perceived that those slaves of yesteryear were now the fishermen around his table and in the distant future would be you and I. This meal was never meant to be one reduced to ritual, formalism or anonymity.

Instead, perhaps this meal was always meant to be shared over intimate table fellowship, effectively becoming a place where anonymity was dispelled. In the vulnerability of hospitality, I think that this meal is the mat where we were meant to wrestle for unity between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and male and female. Rather than the locus of individual piety, this meal was meant to tear down the walls of hostility elevated by prejudice, socio-economic disparity, and gender based chauvinism.

The earliest references to the Eucharist, such as those found in the Didache and First Apology of Justin Martyr suggest that this sacrament was intimately connected with a communal Agape meal. Perhaps this is why the New Testament is replete with exhortations to overcome conflicts over kosher foods that inhibited table fellowship. Also, Paul’s rebuke in 1 Corinthians 11 confronts socio-economic distinctions threatening unity in the Corinthian church and challenges the fellowship for taking the Lord’s Supper without reflecting on its deeper significance.

As the church began to spread outwards, I imagine that the liberated slaves forgot to laugh and cry together, to watch each other’s children being born, to mourn the loss of mutual loved ones, to support one another in the midst of fear and anxiety, and perhaps most importantly to share an intimate meal in their homes where every hostility is confronted by the love, grace, and mercy embodied in the one loaf that connected them all.

For the record, I do not intend to disparage the theological reflections or convictions of any of my brothers and sisters in the Lord, whether they are Reformed or Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. I celebrate every branch connected to the life of the Triune God through our Lord Jesus Christ and recognize the importance of each individual’s respective tradition. Furthermore, I recognize that due to the breadth of God’s mercy and love that we have all encountered the Lord’s presence in profoundly redemptive ways at the table, despite our differences in understanding of the Eucharist.

And yet, what if the Eucharist was not merely about shared tradition? What if it was also intended to involve intimately interwoven lives traveling the peaks and valleys of this life around a shared table?

I would suggest that this meal represents radical inclusion rather than exclusion over theological distinctives. This meal was never intended to be reduced to mere ritual or to be eaten in anonymity. This meal is not primarily about individual piety or a profound “Me and Jesus” moment, although they may accompany it.

This is the body that was broken for us all and the blood that speaks mercy and forgiveness over us all. This meal is food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty. It is the place where petty resentments and unforgiveness are shattered by the steady gaze of One who died for them all. Communion is the place where selfishness comes to die and unity is born. However, the unity that is experienced at the table must overflow into the streets as we share one another’s joys and sorrows.

I think that perhaps it is time to recognize in the Eucharist the kind of love that would share His final meal with a Zealot and a tax collector, those grasping for seats of power, a traitor and a close friend who would betray him, and all those who would abandon Him in his hour of need.

Perhaps the appropriate outworking of the Eucharist in our lives is to embody the sacrificial, reconciling love of Christ beyond the table, to ensure that those who may come to the table as strangers know that they are leaving as family.


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