>This week we start a new series for the New Year. Each week will be broken into 3 acts.
Act 1 will look toward a Big Tent Christianity perspective.
Act 2 will outline where I am currently at on the issue.
Act 3 will introduce a new idea that I got from somewhere else.
Act 1: Sometimes it is good and helpful just to know that there are other perspectives out there and to know what those perspectives are. Here are four quick snapshots of the historical landscape (as I currently understand it).
Transubstantiation is the famous catholic position. The belief is that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ – which still remains bread and wine**. This may seem confusing or like a contradiction to some but those who hold this position are comfortable with “mystery”. It is the same way that they believe in Jesus being fully God and fully man at the same time… it is mystery. The same would go for Mary (Jesus’ mother) being a perpetual virgin and also exalted mother.
** late edition: it turns out that most catholic thinkers hold to a more historic position whereby it does not remain bread and wine but only appears to. Here is a link to an explanatory note about the physics debate. I hope my confusion can be forgiven – it is a very elaborate topic even for those within the fold. **
Consubstantiation is the Lutheran position. The concern is not that anything happens to change the bread and wine but that Christ’s “real presence” is in and around the elements. The important part of this idea – and related ideas – is that something special happens in this meal and that is why you have to be careful with WHO is allowed to take it and also who is allowed to SERVE it (often called sacerdotal).
* my friend Dave S. (who holds something like this view) says that something does happen to the elements but that the bread and wine are now mysteriously not just bread and wine.*
Both ‘Tran’ and ‘Con’ would hold to the idea that communion is a “means of grace”. That the grace of God comes to you in a unique or special way through eating these special elements.
A third perspective on this ceremony holds that the meal is a Symbol. This is what I grew up with. The idea is that the meal is a Sacrament (meaning that we use concrete things to represent spiritual or abstract ideas) and that the bread is just bread but that it represents (symbolically) the meaning that Christ gave to it at the Last Supper.
The fourth snapshot is of the Quakers. This group holds the communion meal in such high respect that they don’t celebrate it! They hold that since the spiritual body of Christ (the church) is so fractured, that it would be unimaginable (and maybe blasphemous) to participate in a ceremony that exalted the body of Christ broken that we “may be one” (as Jesus prayed in John 17).
All four of these groups would be ‘sacramental’ at one level or another – seeing them as ‘outward signs of an inward truth’ or some other formulation. Some refer only to the first two ( Tran and Con) as sacramental since they have a “high” view of the sacraments and then others would be seem as only symbol or ceremony.
Act 2: I grew up with the Symbol understanding and that has always been the way that I have participated in communion. I am still primarily there but with a few modifications : one in the positive and one in the negative.
In the negative, I do not believe it to be a “means of grace”. I think that the grace of God will come to you just fine without a special meal of special elements. I do not believe in that sort of meta-physics anymore. I think the presence of Christ is the same during that meal in a church building as it is having coffee with a friend. I love taking communion at church! I just don’t think that it is a means of God’s grace nor that Christ’s presence is thicker there and then than it is at any other time or place.
Some may think that this seems very unreligious but actually it is very religious! I think that the presence of Christ is with us every time we break bread with someone (this is my positive change). Every time you sit across the table from an “other” you are reconciling in Jesus’ name and bridging the gap – this is the ongoing ministry of Christ through you! And the important thing is that Jesus is just as present when you have lunch with your co-workers and a pint with your mates as Jesus is at church when the bread and cup are up front! Jesus is with you all the time. For me, it does not get much more religious than that.
Act 3: Richard Kearney proposes the idea that the early church was so focused on substance and status (which were very important to establish in those early centuries) that it may have missed something vital in the teaching of Christ. By over focusing on whether the bread became the body and blood of Christ, it missed something possibly even more profound. Christ’s body became the bread.
The implication for this is that Jesus is saying “what they are going to do to me, do not do this to others”. That the big deal with communion is not whether the bread becomes the body, but that Christ’s body becomes the bread. Jesus is saying eat together–I have given my life for every one so that no one needs to be killed like this in God’s name.
The everyday theology application: Communion is not about ceremony and ritual during a worship service at a grandiose cathedral owned by the religious establishment, served by professional clergy and robed priests to those who have been approved and indoctrinated. Communion is a meal that those who love Jesus and live in Christ’s way share with those who are both near and far from the church.
When we break bread together, that is communion. It is not so much about whether the bread becomes the body, but that Christ’s body has become bread. No one is to be killed because of their opinion or belief about God–for Christ’s sake! This is the exact reason that Jesus changed that famous Jewish Passover ceremony for his followers. Within 300 years of Christ’s death and resurrection, we were back to religious ritual, robed priests, militarized religion, and violence done in God’s name. People being killed over this continued into the 1800’s.
I am comfortable going out on the limb and saying A) it’s almost as if Jesus never came. The only thing that changed was who was doing the violence. Now they did the violence in Jesus name instead of some other god’s name. B) this is not what Jesus wanted.
Here is the thing:
I am for a Big Tent Christianity. So I want to break bread with those who believe that the bread becomes the body, with those that believe that Christ’s presence is with the bread, and with those – like me- who see it as a beautiful symbol and metaphor.
Do I believe that in the age of physics that it is silly to say that the bread becomes the body? No – it is consistent with a historical position.
In a post-Christendom world is it tenable to have a “means of grace” controlled by religious professional and distributed to only the approved members? No.
But I do think that it’s tenable for us to continue to participate in the metaphor if the body becomes bread – it is a symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation that anyone is free to participate in no matter what they believe about it.