Holy Communion

‘Live Bread for the Starved Folk’

Photo by Salvador Godoy on Unsplash.

I have a new essay out: ‘“Live Bread for the Starved Folk”: Some Perspectives on Holy Communion’. Ecclesiology 18, no. 1 (2022): 57–77.

The Abstract reads:

This essay argues that ecclesial existence involves learning to view the world and to move in it in ways informed by the Christian community’s sacramental practices. Of particular concern here is the practice of Holy Communion. This looking and moving is not about one thing; it is rather about many things. Frequently, such discussions are exhausted by fruitless debates about the metaphysics of the elements, or strangled by concerns to defend certain prescriptive practices or shibboleths. This essay is unconcerned with these matters. Instead, it brings together some observations about the practices of the Lord’s Supper with a range of themes representative of commitments shared by Christian communities broadly – people, God, stories, hospitality, power, catholicity, martyrdom, and hope – with the intention of provoking a thicker assessment of eucharistic modes of being in the world, and promoting practices marked by the kinds of imaginative freedom that the gospel instigates.

The essay can be accessed here.

Eucharist, and the stuff that matters

Supper at Emmaus. Triptych #1 of polyptych from 9 parts, 2007. Lambda print, Diasec on Dibond, wood frame, 191 × 363 cm.jpg

A pastoral letter by Trevor Hart, to the congregation of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, St Andrews, Scotland

One of the things that sets Christianity apart from most other religious traditions is the centrality and the value it places on the body. Not anybody’s body in particular, but the flesh and blood reality of what it means to be a human being in a world created by God with all sorts of thoroughly ‘material’ aspects. The world was created by God, the Creed tells us, as a reality made up of things ‘visible and invisible’ – things that can be touched and seen and heard and tasted and smelled, as well as others that can’t. So ‘matter’, we must suppose, matters to Christians because it matters to God!

Not for us, therefore, the elevation of some purely ‘spiritual’ reality as an ideal, as though the thing we should long and hope for most is the escape of our ‘souls’ from their current messy and inconvenient entanglement with the world into which our bodies enmesh us. That’s a very common idea in all sorts of other religious and philosophical traditions. But it has nothing to do with Christianity. For Christians, we need to remember, God is to be apprehended and grasped most fully not by leaving our bodies behind (or even, for the time being, straining to do so by screwing our eyes tightly shut and blocking their world out), but precisely when God himself ‘takes flesh’, so making the stuff of touching, tasting, smelling, hearing and seeing his own in a radically new way. And doing so in a way that accommodates God’s own reality to the limitations of our human condition and our human knowing, not merely as a temporary measure, but permanently! (Jesus does not leave his body behind when he returns to the Father, but takes our whole flesh and blood humanity home with him into the Father’s presence.) And, of course, the ‘life eternal’ that God tells us is both our purpose and our promised end is not some wraithlike spectral existence bereft of substance, but something more solid, more real, more substantial even than the world we know and experience now. It will not be the disembodied survival of ‘souls’, but the resurrection life, enjoyed in a material creation restored by God’s love.

The eucharist or Lord’s Supper, so central to our usual diet of worship, is one point in our life together as the ‘Body’ of Christ where all this is paramount and taken fully seriously. Here, instead of mere words – of which our worship already contains plenty! – God calls us to take physical things (bread and wine) and to do physical things with them (breaking, sharing, eating and drinking). And as we do this together in the flesh and blood reality of our gathering as a congregation, God etches the meaning and the reality of the gospel into our hearts, minds and, yes, our bodies in a way that goes far beyond anything which words alone could ever communicate.

The ‘sensory overload’ of eucharist as distinct from some other forms of worshipping is, in other words, a divinely mandated bodily practice; and our bodily presence, bodily proximity to one another, and bodily involvement with solid, flesh and blood elements (taking, breaking, giving, receiving, eating and drinking) are all essential rather than incidental to its meaning. To strip away these things, to take our bodies out of the equation, or even to reduce the multi-sensory experience to one of seeing and hearing alone, is, I believe, to end up with something that is no longer eucharistic worship at all. Worse still, it risks complicity in the wider cultural and religious myth that tells us that disembodied realities are the only ones that really matter at the end of the day.

If anything like the current health crisis had occurred thirty years or more ago (that is, across most of human history), Christians would not have been able to share eucharist together, nor, indeed, any other form of worship. Our generation, with its technological prowess, enables those of us equipped with computers, tablets and smartphones to be ‘virtually’ present to one another. I don’t doubt that this is something to be grateful for and to give thanks for. It is certainly better than doing nothing. But virtual reality is not ‘virtually (‘more or less’) reality’, but in reality a far cry from reality itself. Its modes of rendering us ‘present’ to one another fall woefully short of the embodied engagements and relationships for which we were created, and which are the stuff not just of life but of ‘life in all its fulness’.

So, let’s by all means celebrate the power of Zoom and other bits of clever software that enable us to enjoy this pale reflection of things when the reality of things themselves is not available. But let’s never mistake their thin surrogates for a viable alternative to our embodied dealings with one another. And let’s not pretend that those things to which our bodily presence and participation together is essential rather than merely desirable can carry on perfectly meaningfully for the time being via such fleshless, virtual provision.

That’s why, in this time of exile, although we shall continue worshipping together in ways that Zoom does make meaningfully possible if not exactly as we would choose, I shall nonetheless not be doing what some clergy are doing — that is, livestreaming themselves saying the eucharistic liturgy. For the reasons outlined above, I do not believe this is a meaningful thing to do; indeed, I think it risks (unintentionally, of course, but genuinely) missing the point of eucharist altogether, and encouraging the largely un-Christian notion that disembodied, non-material, so-called ‘spiritual’ (or in its more secular version ‘digital’) realities are not only perfectly satisfactory but may even be what really matters most. They are not and cannot be! Not for Christians at least.

So, bear with me, and join me as your Rector in looking forward to our eventual return from eucharistic exile, when among many other things we shall rejoice in our ability to celebrate the eucharist together once again, and in doing so become more fully who God intends and desires us to be as the Body of Christ.

[Image: Raoef Mamedov, Supper at Emmaus. Triptych #1 of polyptych from 9 parts, 2007. Lambda print, Diasec on dibond, wood frame, 191 × 363 cm. Galerie Lilja Zakirova, Heusden, Netherlands.]

on eucharist and absence

J. M. W. Turner, Seascape with a Sailing Boat and a Ship, c.1825–30. Oil on canvas, 46.7 × 61 cm. The Tate Gallery, London.jpg

Scott Kirkland writes:

COVID-19 has brought the frailty and vulnerability of the body into sharp relief. Some have suggested that in the wake of COVID-19 we should consider practices such as virtual eucharists. I would like to suggest we resist that, and think a bit more about what bodily absence might symbolise.

COVID-19 provides occasion to think about the bodily absence of Christ in productive ways. There’s something about the absence of the eucharist which gives way to a realisation that it is always an act of hope, of anticipation. The Eucharist, however, can be something we take for granted, something we don’t miss until it is gone. The absence of the eucharist is also indicative of the absence of an ability to meet together in, as, and through the body of Christ. That which binds us together as one body is taken away for a time.

Søren Kierkegaard tells a story of a lover watching the beloved disappear on a ship over the horizon. It is in that moment of absence that love is somehow brought to attention. This is more than not knowing what you have until it’s gone, it is a matter of not knowing what we don’t have in the first place. We don’t have Christ, his body has ascended and we await his coming. The eucharist is an enactment of this hope.

Image: J. M. W. Turner, Seascape with a Sailing Boat and a Ship, c.1825–30. Oil on canvas, 46.7 × 61 cm. The Tate Gallery, London.

An interview with Niklas Frank

Niklas Frank.jpg

Today, the BBC World Service’s Hardtalk program ran a fascinating interview with Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, Governor General of Nazi Occupied Poland.

As I listened, I was reminded again that forgiveness is always inescapably personal, and unimaginably hard; and, for some, simply unimaginable: ‘I will never forgive him’.

I was reminded too of the work of the Polish theologian Józef Niewiadomski, who visited Melbourne in 2014. Niewiadomski conceives of the last judgment as an event in which all victims and all perpetrators face each other, and all the evil suffered and inflicted fully is exposed to each person. Were it not for God’s immense good­ness and unrestricted willingness to forgive, and to heal, such an event would no doubt turn into a bloodbath marked by self-justification and accusation of others in which victims and perpetrators would condemn each other to hell. For, as Niewiadomski writes, ‘Each would insist on his or her own status as a victim, each would demand retaliation and each would seek to place on others the punishment that he or she ought to receive’. But confronted with the radical grace of divine forgiveness, he says, ‘hardly anyone [and possibly no one] will withhold forgiveness and continue to insist anachronistically upon his or her own right and revenge’.

That’s hard to believe; it may be even impossible for us.

Perhaps it is a foretaste of this very reality – including its impossibility – that we are given in the Lord’s Supper – a vision of a judgement day marked by victims and perpetrators meeting together around the Table and, in the safe and reconciling love of Christ the host, eat and drink together, and in that action experience the beginnings of healing and transformation and mercy toward the other. Monsters transfigured. We can learn to trust again … and again. It may be that in time, we can move towards forgiveness, apart from which there can be no future.

That’s hard to believe; it may be even impossible for us.

Work of God, Work of the People: Reflections on the Spirit of Liturgical Worship

Coptic worship

A guest post by Chris Green

Liturgy, we are often reminded, is ‘the work of the people’. But that claim has to be qualified immediately by (at least) two other truths. First, liturgy – and, more importantly, the worship that it serves­ is always already God’s work before it is ours. Worship is not our gift to God until it is God’s gift to us. And just because God is Trinity even our gift to God is made possible only by God giving God to God through us. Secondly, the liturgy is the church’s work before it is ours, personally or communally. The liturgy in its various expressions belongs to the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’ and not to my tribe or yours.

Faithful liturgies emerge and are developed over time as ‘accrued wisdom of the body of Christ, led by the Spirit’. That means the ‘liturgical heritage’ of the church catholic belongs to all Christians – indeed, to everyone and everything.[1] As Jamie Smith puts it, ‘these rituals are the gifts of God, for the people of God’.[2] We should be thankful for these gifts. Were our liturgies entirely of our own making, our vision would be tragically narrowed. We would see only that part of God’s work that looks like what we expect to see. We would, in other words, be blinded by our own lights rather than given light to see the light that enlightens everyone coming into the world.

I just said that liturgy serves worship. But how is that so? Iris Murdoch observes that within our inner dialogue, words mean in the same way as ‘outer words’, and this indicates that ‘we can know our own internal imagery [only] because we have been initiated into a shared public world of meanings’.[3] What she says about the work of learning to speak and to read Russian applies at least in some ways that liturgy serves worship:

… I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me … something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.[4]

In other words, it is as we are faced with the alienness of the liturgy in its ‘authoritative structure’ – a structure that cannot be ‘taken over’ or ‘swallowed up’ – that we are humbled, prepared to speak to God and about God more truthfully, more transformatively.

As Israel enters the Promised Land, she is warned against worshipping as the locals do – ‘You shall not worship the Lord your God in such ways’ – or according to her own heart-desires (Deut. 12.4, 8). Instead, the people are bound to ‘seek the place’ where God has chosen to ‘put his name’ (Deut. 12.5). True worship, they are told, can take place only there, in that chosen-for-them place. The same rule holds for us now. Grace, in drawing us into ordered worship, calls us to the place of crucifixion, the place of kenotic openness to neighbor-in-God. The chosen place is identified for us by the liturgy of Word and Sacrament, where we are gathered as a sanctified, Spirit-filled people in a sanctified, Spirit-filled space and time to be present prayerfully to the God who speaks and acts paradigmatically in the liturgy. As we enter into the play and work of liturgical worship, taking its words and gestures as our own, we make ourselves available in a particular way to the Spirit’s sanctifying work.

All that said, let me hasten to add: these forms, by themselves, will not get done what needs doing. Jenson gets it right, I think: ‘the question of our liturgy as liturgy of the Spirit is not so much a question about any particular things we do, as about the spiritedness of the whole performance’.[5] A lifeless performance of the liturgy is a betrayal of our calling. Now, it clearly does matter what we do.[6] But how we do whatever we do is at least equally important.

Of course, spirited liturgical performance is not the only or ultimate concern. In a sense, the truth about the faithfulness or unfaithfulness of our liturgy and liturgical performance comes to light only after the service ends. The question is: do we ‘walk worthy’ (Eph. 4.1) of the Gospel we enact liturgically? Bonhoeffer is unquestionably right: ‘only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of God’s love and mercy’.[7] If we are enacting the liturgy faithfully, then we are going to find ourselves inescapably sensitized to the needs of our neighbors, opened to their world in all of its otherness. The Eucharist, as the center of our worship, first gathers, then scatters us into ever-widening circles of service and care. Filled with the Spirit of the liturgy, we cannot help but live ex-centrically, compelled by Christ’s love to live not for ourselves ‘but for him who died and was raised’ for us (2 Cor. 5.14–15).

[1] James K. A. Smith, ‘“Lift Up Your Hearts”: John Calvin’s Catholic Faith’, Meeter Center Lecture (Oct 2012), p. 15. Available online: http://www.scribd.com/doc/109817080/Lift-Up-Your-Hearts-John-Calvin-s-Catholic-Faith; accessed: August 24, 2014.

[2] Smith, ‘Lift Up Your Hearts’, p. 15.

[3] Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge Classics, 2001), p. 14.

[4] Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, p. 87.

[5] Robert W. Jenson, ‘Liturgy of the Spirit’, The Lutheran Quarterly, 26.2 (May 1974), pp. 189–203 [189].

[6] In Jenson’s own words (‘Liturgy of the Spirit’, p. 191), a ‘relatively superficial, but nonetheless vital level of our concern is, therefore, that the liturgical items be there, by which our service can be eschatological promise and anticipation’.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), p. 100.

A Review of Chris Green’s, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper

Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord's SupperChris E. W. Green, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Foretasting the Kingdom (Cleveland: CPT Press, 2012). ISBN: 9781935931300

Reading this study meant jumping some hurdles. First, while it may well say something embarrassing about me and my reading habits, it is not very often at all that I pick up a book of theology and get almost half way through it without recognising more than a handful of the names mentioned therein. Then again, I don’t read a lot of historical theology concerned to tell a particular chapter of Pentecostalism’s story. Consequently, there were times when reading this study by the young Pentecostal theologian Dr Chris Green (the Assistant Professor of Theology at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland) that it felt something like what I imagine it may have been like to visit a foreign country in pre-flying days where even if you recognised something of the language upon arrival there was simply no escaping that you were a long way from home.

And then there was the inkling that a book on Pentecostals and the Lord’s Supper represents something, to say the least, of an oxymoron. But Green has convinced me that while Pentecostals do still have ‘an “allergic response” to the sacramentalism’ (p. 35) of higher church traditions and their ‘sacramental baggage’ (as Amos Young calls it), it was not always so. Indeed, Green goes to considerable length, and depth, to build precisely such an argument, the presentation of which appears to serve his own apologetic purposes and assists him to avoid the cheap and undue polemics so often associated with wider discussions on the Supper.

The book proper begins with a helpful survey of the scholarly literature in which Green documents what Pentecostal scholars have said and are saying about the sacraments in general and the Lord’s Supper in particular. He begins by noting that while it is widely believed – both within and outwith Pentecostalism – that Pentecostals have attended little to sacramental thinking and practice, and that while Pentecostals have often spoken about the sacraments in predominantly negative terms, ‘this is far from the whole of the story’ (p. 5). Surveying the work of a long list of some 40 Pentecostal theologians – from Myer Pearlman, Ernest Swing Williams and C.E. Brown writing in the 1930s and 50s, to figures such as Simon Chan, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Jamie Smith and Daniel Tomberlin working more recently and whose work represents something of a ‘“turn” to the sacraments among Pentecostals’ (p. 71)  – Green ably catalogues the development and state of Pentecostal theological reflection with regard to the sacraments generally and the Eucharist in particular. He draws attention both to the diverse paths that Pentecostal sacramental theology has taken – it is not an overly unified story – as well as to ‘some common ground’, namely an eschewing of any ‘magical’ views of the sacraments, and a shared allergy of ‘the dangers of liturgical formalism and clericalism’ (p. 72).

Green then turns our attention, in Chapter 3, to a careful and comprehensive reading of the early Pentecostal periodical writings from 1906–1931, attending to the breadth within the movements (e.g., the Wesleyan-Holiness and Finished Work ‘streams’) under the Pentecostal umbrella, and identifying the contours, convictions and habits that characterised early Pentecostal sacramental theology and practice. He concludes by noting that

It is impossible to appreciate early Pentecostal spirituality generally, or their sacramentality specifically, unless one discerns that they arose from a form of imitatio Christi. It was a following of Jesus ‘to fulfill all righteousness’ that fired their experience of the sacraments. They observed the ordinances of water baptism, Holy Communion, and footwashing as occasions for encountering and imitating the risen Jesus and mediation of the grace of divine transformative presence. These rites were never merely ceremonial or memorialistic, although their rich symbolism was not lost on the practitioners. The evidence indicates first generation Wesleyan-Holiness and Finished Work Pentecostals experienced these rites as ‘sacred occasions’, unique opportunities for the Spirit to work in the community. (p. 178)

Green also notes that early Pentecostals ‘did not find themselves compelled to explain the metaphysics of Christ’s presence in the Supper, even though plainly many of them did believe that Christ himself was present to the church through, or at least with, the observance of the Meal. For them, the Lord’s Supper was never merely a memorial feast. Numerous accounts of dreams or visions about the Supper illuminate in an inimitable way how formative the Eucharist was for early Pentecostal spirituality’ (p. 179).

With the literature and historical surveys complete, Green turns then to outline his own constructive proposal beginning, in Chapter 4, with a careful reading and commentary on a number of the key Bible texts, before turning, in Chapter 5, to assemble his own theological vision for a Pentecostal theology of the Supper. Green’s stated intention is to draw ‘heavily on the texts’ “effective history”, allowing what the texts have meant to other Christian readers, pre-modern and contemporary, to influence the shape of [his] own reading’ (p. 3). Matters of hermeneutics and the relationship between Spirit and Word are handled with a watchful and responsible eye, and readings of some key texts (especially Acts 2.41–47, 1 Corinthians 10.14–22 and John 6.25–59, etc.) unearth some creative and theologically mature results. On 1 Corinthians 10, for example, Green consistently and convincingly argues that the Supper ‘shows itself to be one of the ways in which Christ’s body is “there” for the church’ (p. 202), that it is a meal which makes the Community, and which forces on the Community the responsibilities of love such as creativity, humility and longsuffering patience. He suggests too that ‘it is helpful to see the church’s receiving of the Lord’s Supper as a romantic gesture, as a gift between lovers, a tryst with Christ who is jealous for his bride, and a way in which Christ, God fleshed, is bodily present to and for his church’ (p. 207). From the Johannine material, he concludes that because the Gospel teaches us that what happens to us in our sacramental encounter with Christ is beyond human understanding, that it remains too beyond our capacity to answer how it is possible, it also reminds us that the willingness to remain in eucharistic communion with Christ even in the face of confusion marks the decisive difference between those who believe in him and those who do not. Indeed, Green suggests that the mysteriousness of the meal makes possible the articulation of the abiding faith of believers. Furthermore, he proposes that Paul, Luke, and John – in addition to the communities for and to whom they spoke – understood the church’s celebration of the Supper as in some sense a continuation of Jesus’ own ministry, a re-enacting of Jesus’ life of sweeping, boundary-violating hospitality and his atoning death for the life of the world, while all the while pre-enacting the future messianic feast as well. Certainly, Green is, to my mind, correct to consider the Eucharist as both a ‘missionary meal that precisely in its strangeness draws all people to Christ’, and a meal which ‘precisely in its mysteriousness reveals God truly’ (p. 242). He does not neglect ways that the Supper also represents a sounding of divine judgement, even while resituating and re-narrating not only the Church but all creation too into the ‘one story of creation and redemption and consummation, the story of Israel and the church and the world for which they are called as God’s ambassadors and collaborators’. Insofar as the Supper is the promised location in which God in God’s gracious freedom is present in the power of divine love, the Supper is for us ‘the “present tense of Calvary”, and in some sense is also the present tense of all the feasts of God’s people, past and future, including of course the eternal messianic banquet’ (p. 241).

Chapter 5 represents the book’s theologically most constructive chapter, and is concerned with discerning and proposing a theologically mature Pentecostal theology of the Supper. Here is Green in full flight, attending in some detail to those issues that he adjudges to be especially important to Pentecostals. These Green identifies early in the book as ‘questions of how God works in and through the church’s celebration of the Communion rite and how Christ and the Spirit are personally present and active in the eating and drinking of the Eucharistic bread and the wine’ (pp. 3–4). Here he is also concerned with issues of praxis, and with forms of Eucharistic practice which are both recognisably catholic and distinctively Pentecostal. Against the perception – or reality – that many if not most distinctly Pentecostal theologies of the sacraments have tended to be carried out in exclusively baptistic terms, complete with an imbalance on the Supper’s memorialist dimensions and even being spoken of as ‘mere ordinances’, Green reminds his readers that this has not always been the case, and he proceeds in this chapter to bring ‘the fathers and mothers of the Pentecostal movement’, the exegetical work undertaken in the previous chapter, and dialogue partners from both within and outwith the Pentecostal tradition(s) to put forward a ‘constructive and revisionary proposal’ for a theology of the Supper, concerned to ‘remain true to the biblical witness and [to] the Pentecostal tradition’ (pp. 244–45). Along the way, Green attends to many of the familiar themes associated with theologies of the Supper – e.g., the Supper as Divine Lex, the Supper as thanksgiving, Supper as anamnesis, Supper as covenant renewal, Supper as a location for Spirit-led discernment, Supper and healing, Supper as divine-human dialogue, Supper and soteriology, Supper and sanctification or ‘moral formation’ (p. 312), Supper and theological method, Supper and mission, Supper and worship, Supper as a sign and foretaste of eschatological feast or what Green calls ‘an ontologically-transforming proleptic share in the metaphysics of the life everlasting’ (p. 271), etc. – and he does so in ways that betray a mind that is well read and conversant with the issues, with courage to identify practices and ideas that are problematic, and with a genuine concern for the church and her faithful witness to the Word of which she is a creature. The section on the metaphysics of the Supper, in particular, echoes rich Jensonesque tones, skilfully accompanied by John of Damascus and Sergius Bulgakov. It is Green’s contention that ‘Christ is really, personally, and bodily present in Communion because the Father wills it and the Spirit makes it so for the sanctification of the church on mission in the world. In the Eucharist-event’, he believes, ‘the Spirit “broods over” the cosmically-enthroned Christ, the celebrating congregation, and the elements on the Table, opening the celebrants to the presence of the risen Jesus who the Spirit makes in that moment bodily present for them with, in, and through the thereby-transfigured bread and wine’ (p. 282). Green also believes that short of the beatific vision, Christ’s ‘embodiment at the Father’s right hand includes the Eucharistic bread and wine, the preached Gospel, and the sanctorum communio’, and [that] these last serve as sacraments – effective signs in the present of the future eschatological state of things’ (p. 283). So, contra Herbert McCabe, Green contends that bread and wine are ‘both-at-once’ natural objects and eschatological objects. Put otherwise, bread and wine ‘remain natural objects that have been eschatologized’ (p. 285).

On the question of hermeneutics, Green argues that ‘the charismatic and Eucharistic community as it communes in the Spirit with the totus Christus is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture. As a result, it is in the context of the community’s Spirit-baptized and Spirit-led Eucharistic worship that believers learn best what Scripture is and is for, and over time learns the habits necessary for reading faithfully, with an ever-deepening appreciation for Scripture’s “fuller sense”. All the many other faithful uses of Scripture, whether scholarly or devotional, pastoral or evangelistic, should be judged in this light’ (p. 296). And on the question of how the Supper relates to Christian worship, Green is concerned throughout, and appropriately so, to ‘guard against the flattening and hardening of the sacramental celebration into mere ritual’ (p. 319). He is equally concerned that ‘the Eucharist-event should be recognized as the hub of the worship service … as the hearth around which all the other liturgical furniture is arranged’ (p. 316). Fair enough, but just how the Supper is to be both ‘framed and undergirded by Pentecostal practices, such as the altar call, “tarrying”, prayers for healing, testimonies, and footwashing’ (p. 317) is not spelled out, readers being left to work out on their own how such practices ‘underscore the communal reality of Communion’ (p. 318).

The study concludes with a description of major contributions and an invitation to further research.

My enthusiasm for this book does not mean that there are not things therein that disappoint or distract. Here I will note just three: The first concerns the scattering throughout of Latin and Greek phrases. Where such are necessary – and this, I suggest, is on a much rarer occurrence than we find here – some translation should have been provided, particularly for the benefit of those readers unfamiliar with the terms. As it stands, it may just be for many readers a distraction from and hurdle within the main flow of the writing.

Second, there is, from time to time, a creeping Pelagianism at work in this essay. Perhaps just one example will suffice. At the conclusion of Green’s stimulating and fruitful exegesis on some of the key New Testament texts, he suggests that ‘these texts teach us that the sharing of a common loaf and cup is truly the Lord’s Supper for us only as we faithfully respond to the Word of God that comes to us alongside, through, and as the sacred meal’ (p. 242. Italics mine). Not only does such a claim seem to be somewhat at odds with what Green has stated elsewhere in the book (for example, on p. 285: ‘the reality of Christ’s and the Spirit’s shared presence in the Supper does not wait on our believing (in) it. Christ is there by the Spirit, whether we believe it or not’. Italics mine.), but short of interpreting such statements in a more explicitly trinitarian framework, and that particularly in ways that highlight the vicarious humanity of the Son and the revelatory work of the Spirit, such claims on their own threaten to undermine or deny the depths of the twofold movement that God makes possible when and as the baptised gather around broken loaves and generous helpings of pinot noir.

Third, while Green’s essay has been strengthened significantly via (mostly) judicious engagement with voices from across the ecumenical amphitheatre, it is disappointing and unfortunate that there is relatively little engagement therein with the best of the Reformed tradition (to be sure, he draws briefly upon the work of Michael Welker, Jürgen Moltmann and J. Rodman Williams), and that for a number of reasons. Not only is the Reformed a project with considerable sympathy at countless points with that brand of Pentecostalism Green is keen to encourage, but also because such a conversation may well have served to bring some needed clarity around the issue I raised above regarding whatever creeping Pelagianism may exist. I wonder too whether if Green had drawn more on the Reformed (and especially upon John Calvin and, perhaps, George Hunsinger) and less on the Anglicans, the Orthodox and Robert Jenson (upon whom he relies heavily in the final chapter), the thesis would have been considerably better served and the book’s reception among Pentecostals better attend to Green’s own apologetic intention.

These three caveats aside, there is no doubt in my mind that Pentecostals – and not only Pentecostals – will be much blessed, challenged and inspired in the reading of this fine study, a study that is indeed intended ‘first and foremost as a conversation starter for the Pentecostal communities’ (p. xi). To be sure, some readers both from within and outwith that ecclesial tribe may lament that the volume lacks hard critique of current Pentecostal practice, and that Green’s presentation is so revisionist that one can only really read here a ‘Pentecostal’ theology of the Supper by underscoring the word ‘Toward’ in the title, but that would be most unfair, for Dr Green has served up a great dinner here, and I suspect that his readers will no doubt find themselves as I do – in his debt. Now let the conversation begin!

Training for the Christian life

Whenever the body of Christ eats together in Eucharist on Sundays, it does so in the hope that it will have its eyes opened to and participate in what God is up to in the world, not only on Sundays but on Wednesdays too. The claim, made by Stanley Hauerwas and others, that living in a deeper awareness of the story of Jesus and of the Church does, in the freedom and grace of God, ‘do’ something is deserving of a hearing. While there is no magical change of status, and while these graces do not turn the gathered people of God into liturgical automatons nor automatically make them more ethically-consistent or mature, the Church’s gospel-shaped practices are, I suggest, the means by which the Head (i.e., Jesus) immerses his Body (i.e., the Church) in the way of ordinary gospel-posture. Specifically, they are means by which Christ trains us. This is true whether we are talking about something like the Church’s calendar, its fasting, or its weekly praying of the Lord’s Prayer, and it is particularly true when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. Every time we come to the Table, which is where the entire Church’s story is enacted in concentrated form, we are offered training in how to live sacramentally in the world, to unearth its idolatries, and to expose what William Stringfellow calls the ‘transience of death’s power in the world’.

Rowan Williams on the oddness of the open Table

‘[The Church’s] complete sharing of baptismal and eucharistic life does not happen rapidly or easily, and the problem remains of how the Church is to show its openness without simply abandoning its explicit commitment to the one focal interpretative story of Jesus. To share eucharistic communion with someone unbaptized, or committed to another story or system, is odd – not because the sacrament is “profaned”, or because grace cannot be given to those outside the household, but because the symbolic integrity of the Eucharist depends upon its being celebrated by those who both commit themselves to the paradigm of Jesus’ death and resurrection and acknowledge that their violence is violence offered to Jesus. All their betrayals are to be understood as betrayals of him; and through that understanding comes forgiveness and hope. Those who do not so understand themselves and their sin or their loss will not make the same identification of their victims with Jesus, nor will they necessarily understand their hope or their vocation in relation to him and his community. Their participation is thus anomalous: it is hard to see the meaning of what is being done’.

– Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982), 68.

Easter Eucharist, a conversation with a five-year old

Here’s a snippet of a wee conversation that took place this morning between my daughter and myself – in church:

‘So why do we eat bread and drink wine today?’, I asked.

‘The wine is God’s life, and the bread is God’s skin’, she said. ‘We eat and drink so that we won’t die. When we eat and drink, God’s life and our life is joined together’.

Impressed by this young anti-Zwinglian (a description she embraces with some enthusiasm), I enquired: ‘Since when have you been reading Ignatius of Antioch?’ (Ignatius once referred to the Eucharist as ‘the medicine of immortality’).

And she said, ‘Ha? Can we have our chocolates soon?’

An Inaugural Lecture: ‘Learning to See and to Waddle with our Tongues: a view from the Table’

One of the noble traditions around the place where I work is the annual inaugural lecture. It is a public event, and is typically well-supported by Dunedinites, plus a few ring-ins from other places. It was my turn this year to deliver the lecture, and I chose as my subject the Lord’s Supper. The lecture was titled ‘Learning to See and to Waddle with our Tongues: a view from the Table’. A number of folk have asked me for a copy (possibly in the vain hope that it may make more sense the second-time ’round), so here’s what I said:

Robert Jenson on the Supper

I’ve just completed writing a lecture on the Supper. It was great fun to research, not least because I used it as an excuse to read Robert Jenson’s two-volume systematics. And while I don’t engage with Jenson in the lecture per se, his charateristically-stimulating work charged my thinking in ways that I had not anticipated and which birthed some fruitful avenues of thought. Here’s one passage that I spent some time meditating on:

‘When the Eucharist is celebrated, Christ’s promises of the Kingdom and of his presence in it are in fact fulfilled: even though the Kingdom is still future so long as we are not risen, each celebration is already a wedding feast. Anticipation, we may say, is visible prophecy; so in the Eucharist we come together to live the Kingdom’s fellowship beforehand. But our coming together, however faithful and pious, does not locate us at the gate of heaven, unless God puts us there. That he does is the content of faith that has the Supper itself as the external object to which it clings. That is, it is the content of faith in those other promises: “This bread is my body. This cup is my blood of the new covenant”’. – Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Volume 2: The Works of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 216.

Herbert McCabe: ‘Human words become God’s Word’

Back in 2001, for the Feast of Corpus Christi, Herbert McCabe O.P., delivered a fascinating sermon on the Eucharist. It was titled ‘Human words become God’s Word’. It reads:

‘The eucharist is about the way we are with each other, about our unity. This is obvious from its shape, a ritual meal, an eating and drinking together, to say we share one life.

Now it is not just an ordinary ritual meal, but a sacramental ritual meal, because it expresses the mystery of our unity. It is plain that the eucharist is not a meal any more than baptism is taking a shower. It ought not to look like an occasion when hungry people come to eat and drink. It is a token meal, when something is said. The bread and wine are there for symbolism, not nourishment, though of course they wouldn’t have their symbolism if they weren’t food and drink.

A purely ritual meal in which all share a token portion of bread and wine is purely symbolic, a piece of language, a word. It is not because the eucharist is a sacrament that bread and wine become signs: they are already signs in a perfectly ordinary way. To see the eucharist as a sacrament is to see it as symbolic not just of our human friendship or of the human mystery within it, but of the unfathomable mystery within and beyond it, of community in the Spirit of God.

We cannot express this unity in the Spirit in the same signs with which we symbolise human friendship; they have to be transformed into a new language. We can attempt to express the depth of human relationships in human words, but they cannot adequately express our relationship in the Spirit. Only God can speak of God: to express this unity we need not just human speech but God’s speech. That is what it is for the eucharist to be a sacrament: what on the face of it are human words deepen into God’s Word, which speaks the unfathomable mystery of his love in which we share.

The eucharist is also the sacrament of the human body of Christ. The Word by which God’s love is made present amongst us is not in the first place words, but a human being of flesh and blood, not an idea about God, but the enacted life-story of Jesus of Nazareth. When we say God’s Word expresses our unity in the Spirit in the eucharist, we mean that language used for our love for each other is no longer just human words of bread and wine, but the divine Word-made-flesh, the real body and blood of Christ.

This is the difference between Catholic teaching and the idea that bread and wine are human symbols expressing what Christ does for us. Catholics say that this cannot be expressed except in God’s language; it can only be spoken by God’s speaking his Word, the bodily reality of Jesus. It is not just that our language is now used to speak of Christ, but Christ himself, the Word, is now our language: our words, symbolic bread and wine, have become Christ, the flesh and blood of God’s Word.

So while to one without faith we seem to be dealing simply in human symbols, we know that that is only to look at appearances. In reality it is the body and blood of God’s Word, his whole humanity, that is the sign of our unity in the Spirit. When we eat his body and drink his blood, we speak and hear God’s Word telling of our divine friendship, just as when we share human food we speak a human word of human friendship.

Finally, the eucharist is the sacrament of a body broken and blood shed. Jesus’ life-story was completed in his execution. His obedience to his mission to be truly human meant that we, the world, killed him. Because of the disunited world we have made, the Word takes flesh that is tortured and killed. The divine language and sacrament of our unity is Christ’s body broken and blood shed.

This feast of friendship celebrates the cross. This friendship the world will hate and it belongs to those in solidarity with the victims of the world, and expects only suffering and death. The sacrament of love is also sacrament of death – Christ’s death through which we come to a new life in the love which is the Holy Spirit, in which we shall live for eternity’.

To intinct, or not to intinct?

Mike Crowl’s comment on the previous post led me to Richard Giles’ somewhat controversial book Creating Uncommon Worship: Transforming the Liturgy of the Eucharist wherein Giles had this to say:

In every method of sharing communion there lurks a gremlin that needs to be named, and the name of the gremlin is intinction. This is an antisocial habit, which smacks of fear, arrogance and lack of faith, symptomatic of our not thinking what we are doing. It is a problem that needs to be addressed by the community, led by the pastor and his/her leadership team.

Although of ancient provenance (first springing out of the woodwork in the seventh century) it has been repeatedly condemned and outlawed by the Church. Fear of spilling the Precious Blood of Christ, or of catching the plague, may have made sense in the Middle Ages, but surely not today. It is a particularly grave misdemeanour for Anglicans and Lutherans, whose spiritual ancestors fought so hard in the Reformation period for the restoration to the people of communion in both kinds. How ironic if today we were to turn up our noses at the chalice!

Intinction poses two problems, theological and practical:

1.     The common cup has always been a potent symbol of the bond between disciple and Lord. The passing of the cup is a dramatic feature of the gospel accounts of the Last Supper, and those who would be close to him are challenged, as were James and John, with the question, ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?’ (Mark 10.38)

2.     It leaves such a mess for those who come after, especially so in the era of real bread, when those who instinct reduce the contents of the chalice to a soup.

The remedy lies in a renewed education of congregations about the history of the sacrament, the privilege of the common cup, and its safety on health grounds. We also need a few more pastors who will slap wrists. (pp. 200–1)

An undercooked theology? An over-reaction? Or both?

Eucharist and the politics of power

‘The church expresses a corporate existence where divine agency interacts with human affairs, and such an interaction nurtures, that is to say gives life and shape to, the ecclesial body … [A] theopolitics of Christ’s Body in the Eucharist is rooted not exclusively in power, but, in a more primary sense, in divine caritas, which is expressed with a radical gesture of kenosis, reciprocity, and concrete communal practices. This is not to say that power is herein dismissed, or that the Eucharist is a sign of disempowerment. There is a politics of power here. Yet it is a power that integrates plenitude of desire; it is the paradoxical force of sacrifice on the cross; it is the humble power of bread broken into pieces for the purpose of sharing; it is the washing of feet that means a life of service to one another; it is the power of giving one’s life for the other. In other words, this is the theopolitical power of caritas, where the extraordinary embraces and transfigures the ordinary: God’s “sovereignty disclosed at the breaking of the bread,” as Samuel Wells remarks’. – Angel F. Méndez Montoya, The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 115–6.

Thinking with Calvin about the relationship between pulpit, font and table

I’ve just finished giving some lectures on Calvin, part of which consisted of some reflections on Calvin’s understanding of the relationship between pulpit, font and table. I recalled how when Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541, he sought to make the Lord’s Supper the defining centre of community life. His Catechism of the Church of Geneva, penned in 1545 (the year before Luther died), outlines Calvin’s notion that the institution of the signs of water, bread and wine was fashioned by God’s desire to communicate to us, and that God does this by ‘making himself ours’. The signs testify to divine accommodation, to God ‘teaching us in a more familiar manner that he is not only food to our souls, but drink also, so that we are not to seek any part of spiritual life anywhere else than in him alone’. But the signs are not only God’s. They are also human actions, faith’s testimony to the Church’s cruciform identity in the world, to its belonging, its ontology. Moreover, font and table remain places of privilege where believers expect to see, taste, hear and touch the Word’s carnality in ways not expected elsewhere. The drama performed around font and table constitutes the activity of the Church which, together with its pulpit, ‘proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes’. The sacraments ‘derive their virtue from the word when it is preached intelligently’. In his Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, written while in Strasbourg but with an eye on Geneva (where it was printed), Calvin further expanded themes introduced in his Strasbourg liturgy, notably a more christologically-determined epistemology and doctrine of assurance, and the claim that the ‘substance of the sacraments is the Lord Jesus’ himself:

Jesus Christ is the only food by which our souls are nourished; but as it is distributed to us by the word of the Lord, which he has appointed an instrument for that purpose, that word is also called bread and water. Now what is said of the word applies as well to the sacrament of the Supper, by means of which the Lord leads us to communion with Jesus Christ. For seeing we are so weak that we cannot receive him with true heartfelt trust, when he is presented to us by simple doctrine and preaching, the Father of mercy, disdaining not to condescend in this matter to our infirmity, has been pleased to add to his word a visible sign, by which he might represent the substance of his promises, to confirm and fortify us by delivering us from all doubt and uncertainty.

Calvin contended that ‘the singular consolation which we derive from the Supper’ is that it ‘directs and leads us’ to Christ, attesting to the truth that ‘having been made partakers of the death and passion of Jesus Christ, we have everything that is useful and salutary to us’. So in the 1536 edition of the Institutes, Calvin defines sacrament as ‘an outward sign’ which testifies to God’s grace, and which ‘never lacks a preceding promise but is rather joined to it by way of appendix, to confirm and seal the promise itself, and to make it as it were more evident to us’.

Calvin begins his Summary of Doctrine concerning the Ministry of the Word and the Sacraments with the statement that ‘The end of the whole Gospel ministry is that God, the fountain of all felicity, communicate Christ to us who are disunited by sin and hence ruined, that we may from him enjoy eternal life’. And Calvin proceeds to outline that this communication of Christ – which is both ‘incomprehensible to human reason’ and ‘effected by the Holy Spirit’ – is made possible because of God’s desire to ‘communicate himself to us’ through the same Spirit, and involves us being joined to Christ our Head, ‘not in an imaginary way, but most powerfully and truly, so that we become flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone’. This union is effected by the Spirit who, in Calvin’s words, ‘uses a double instrument, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments’. Moreover, Calvin imagines that the union of believers with Christ involves ‘two ministers, who have distinct offices’. There is (i) the ‘external minister’ who ‘administers the vocal word’ which is ‘received by the ears’ and ‘the sacred signs which are external, earthly and fallible’, and (ii) there is the ‘internal minister’, the Holy Spirit who ‘freely works internally’ to truly communicate ‘the thing proclaimed through the Word, that is Christ’.

Implicit here is the weight which Calvin places on the event of the Supper as a whole, and not just on the sacramental hosts. So Trevor Hart:

It is the ‘ceremony’ as such which constitutes the wider ‘sign’ within which the particular signifying power of bread and wine is located. And the ceremony is, of course, a synthesis in which objects, actions and words are juxtaposed and related to one another. So, while Calvin insists that the material signs are vital, he also refuses to detach their meaning from the accompanying immaterial symbolics of narrative. The bread and wine are ‘seals’ and ‘confirmations’ of a promise already given, and make sense only when faith apprehends them as such. There must therefore always be some preaching or form of words which interprets the ‘bare signs’ and enables us to make sense of them, and the ‘faith’ which apprehends them, while not mere intellectual assent, has nonetheless a vital cognitive dimension (Inst. IV.xvii.39) … This does not, it should be noted, reduce the elements to dispensable visual aids, as if the essential meaning of the Supper could be conveyed equally well in their absence. Calvin’s choice of similes is helpful here. Certain sorts of images (in our day we might cite photographic as well as painted images) may well require some verbal context before we can make appropriate sense of them, yet when viewed in this context they undoubtedly possess a power or force of their own which transcends the limits of meaning to which words alone may take us.

Clearly, for Calvin, the sacraments are essentially another form of the word. They are, after Augustine, the verbum visibile (‘a visible word’), ‘God’s promises as painted in a picture’ and set before our sight. They confer neither more nor less than the Word, and they have the same function as the Word preached and written: to offer and present Christ to us. They are, just as preaching is, the ‘vehicle of Christ’s self-communication … the signs are nothing less than pledges of the real presence [of Christ]; indeed, they are the media through which Christ effects his presence to his people’. And they constitute – no less than preaching – the Church’s ministry of the Word.

The separation of pulpit, font and table, and the prioritising of ‘words’ over the proclamation activities of baptism and eucharist, betray a failure to understand how these three particular activities might inform – and be informed by – theories of semiotics, ritual, dramaturgy and the sociology of knowledge. It is also, and more urgently, a failure to understand the nature and witness of Word in the Church’s ‘two marks’, and of the way the Spirit functions to create faith is us and to make us ‘living members of Christ’. And this has, consequently, sponsored both disproportion between word and sacrament, and a tendency towards binitarianism, both to the detriment of Reformed worship and ecclesiology. Certainly, preaching and the proclamation activities of font and table constitute two parts of the one action. A ‘low’ view of one results in a ‘low’ view of the other. As Joseph Small has noted: ‘If word and sacraments together are the heart of the church’s true and faithful life, neglect of one leads inexorably to deformation of the other, for when either word or sacrament exists alone it soon becomes a parody of itself … Reformed neglect of the sacraments has led to a church of the word alone, a church always in danger of degenerating into a church of mere words’. Why a community claiming to be concerned with the proclamation of God’s good news would neglect to taste the Word in the Supper each time it gathers to hear the Word expounded in human speech truly is an oddity.

While Calvin argued that ‘it would be well to require that the Communion of the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ be held every Sunday at least as a rule’, forlornly, many Reformed churches have propagated a situation wherein the pulpit and its associated wordiness have eclipsed the sacraments, sponsoring an arid intellectualism which has turned the worshipping community into ‘a class of glum schoolchildren’. It is not uncommon to witness Baptism’s reduction to little more than a welcoming ceremony, for the Supper to be celebrated infrequently, and even for fonts and tables to be discarded in favour of a pulpit which stands unbefriended in the centre of the chancel. In more appalling cases, the pulpit has joined font and table as relics on the sidelines, casualties of modernity’s techno gods.

Calvin, conversely, placed sacrament and word together at the heart of the community’s life not because he was a dreary traditionalist or obstructionist but because he ‘regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace’. In other words, pulpit, font, scripture and table function alike as witness to the Word who is the life of the world: (i) proclaiming in bold relief the gospel of Christ in whom we have true knowledge of God, and (ii) communicating Christ’s real presence to us, uniting us to Christ in the power of the Spirit ‘who makes us partakers in Christ’. So Calvin: ‘I say that Christ is the matter or (if you prefer) the substance of all the sacraments; for in him they have all their firmness, and they do not promise anything apart from him’.

I could have gone on (and on, and on) about Calvin, and to recall words from others too who further echo Calvin’s heart on these matters, but even lectures on Calvin must come to an end. Anyway, had I gone on, I may have invited reflection on these two passages:

‘[We understand] the sacraments as pieces of earthly stuff that are meeting places with this [triune] God who exists in ecstatic movements of love. They are doors into the dance of perichoresis in God. [They are a means] of God’s gracious coming and dwelling with us. They are signs which enable us to participate in the drama of death and resurrection which is happening in the heart of God. We share in death as we share in the broken body of the bread and the extravagantly poured out wine, and as we are covered with a threat of hostile waters. We share in life as we come out from under the waters … to take our place in the new community of the body of Christ, and to be filled with the new wine of the Spirit. – Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2000), 281.

‘Both sacraments [Baptism and the Lord’s Supper] declare the gospel of participation in the perfect worship of the Son, who has accomplished what we could not accomplish. When we receive the bread and wine at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we echo the cry of Jesus on the cross: ‘It is finished!’ Christ has done what I could never do … But we do more than engage in a memorial service! The word anamnesis, which translates into remembrance, has rich meaning…[conveying] a sense of re-living the past as if it were real today … Not only do we participate in shared and thankful remembrance of Christ’s perfect self-offering on our behalf, but we also participate in Christ’s continuing self-offering of himself on our behalf. We do not remember just the Christ of history – we remember the living Christ today, and the Christ who carries us into the future … The sacrament powerfully draws past, present, and future together in the life of the faith-community’. – Graham Buxton, Dancing in the Dark: The Privilege of Participating in the Ministry of Christ (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001), 137–8.

Rob Bell and Don Golden on eucharist and the new humanity

Jesus wants to save Christians‘In the new humanity, them becomes us, they becomes we, and those become ours. This is why it is very dangerous when a church becomes known for being hip, cool, and trendy. The new humanity is not a trend. Or when a church is known for attracting one particular kind of demographic, like people of this particular age and education level, or that particular social class or personality type. There’s obviously nothing wrong with the powerful bonds that are shared when you meet up with your own tribe, and hear things in a language you understand, and cultural references are made that you are familiar with, but when sameness takes over, when everybody shares the same story, when there is no listening to other perspectives, no stretching and expanding and opening up – that’s when the new humanity is in trouble.

The beautiful thing is to join with a church that has gathered and find yourself looking around thinking, “What could this group of people possibly have in common?” The answer, of course, would be the new humanity. A church is where the two people groups with blue hair – young men and older women – sit together and somehow it all fits together in a Eucharistic sort of way. Try marketing that. Try branding that. The new humanity defies trends and demographics and the latest market research.

In Acts 8 some of Jesus’ first followers are healing people, and a man named Simon sees this and offers them money and says, “Give me also this ability.” Simon is seduced into thinking that the movement of the Spirit of God is a commodity to be bought and sold like any other product. The apostles chastise him for his destructive thinking, because … the Eucharist is not a product.

Chagall - Exodus (1952-66)

Glossy brochures have the potential to do great harm to the body and blood. Church is people. The Eucharist is people. People who have committed themselves to being a certain way in the world. To try to brand that is to risk commodifying something intimate, sacred, and holy.

A church is not a center for religious goods and services, where people pay a fee and receive a product in return. A church is not an organization that surveys its demographic to find out what the market is demanding at this particular moment and then adjusts its strategy to meet that consumer niche.

The way of Jesus is the path of descent. It’s about our death. It’s our willingness to join the world in its suffering, it’s our participation in the new humanity, it’s our weakness calling out to others in their weakness. To turn that into a product blasphemes the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is what happens when the question is asked, What does it look like for us to be a Eucharist for these people, here and now? What does it look like for us to break ourselves open and pour ourselves out for the healing of these people in this time in this place? The temptation is simply to duplicate the Eucharist of someone else’.

– Rob Bell and Don Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 156–8.

Frederick Buechner on the communion of saints

KereruWith the Calvin Conference over, and a few days before I get back into the swing of preparing lectures again, it’s time to share another gem from Buechner (certainly I’m too tired to write anything intelligent myself):

‘At the Altar Table the overweight parson is doing something or other with the bread as his assistant stands by with the wine. In the pews, the congregation sits more or less patiently waiting to get into the act. The church is quiet. Outside, a bird starts singing. It’s nothing special, only a handful of notes angling out in different directions. Then a pause. Then a trill or two. A chirp. It is just warming up for the business of the day, but it is enough.

The parson and his assistant and the usual scattering of senior citizens, parents, teenagers are not alone in whatever they think they’re doing. Maybe that is what the bird is there to remind them. In its own slapdash way the bird has a part in it too. Not to mention “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven” if the prayer book is to be believed. Maybe we should believe it. Angels and Archangels. Cherubim and seraphim. They are all in the act together. It must look a little like the great jeu de son et lumière at Versailles when all the fountains are turned on at once and the night is ablaze with fireworks. It must sound a little like the last movement of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony or the Atlantic in a gale.

And “all the company of heaven” means everybody we ever loved and lost, including the ones we didn’t know we loved until we lost them or didn’t love at all. It means people we never heard of. It means everybody who ever did – or at some unimaginable time in the future ever will – come together at something like this table in search of something like what is offered at it.

Whatever other reasons we have for coming to such a place, if we come also to give each other our love and to give God our love, then together with Gabriel and Michael, and the fat parson, and Sebastian pierced with arrows, and the old lady whose teeth don’t fit, and Teresa in her ecstasy, we are the communion of saints’. – Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 30–1.