Thoughtful Eucharistic Heresy

I’ve been happy to reflect, as of late, on the notion of communion, its proper place and its meaning. The institution is an interesting one. A sacrament and material means for the communication of God’s grace and God’s covenant to be a God who loves us unconditionally, communion has come to be historically expressed through the ceremony of Eucharist, the norm of which is supposedly handed down by Christ to us directly. In my own church, the Episcopal Church, we have a special celebration and ceremony for the Eucharist immediately after our Rite, a fact that we at least share in common with Roman Catholic Christians, if not a number of other faith-expressions. Here, the priest breaks the bread as a symbol of Christ’s broken body, eats and drinks for him or herself, and then shares the body with the rest of the congregation. It is a fine ceremony and one that I have enjoyed immensely during my time as an Episcopalian. However, for all its pomp, I am not convinced that this is either the time or place where, so to say, the sacrament is actually obtained.

I say this because, after our services, we have a Fellowship Hour, one in which a member or several members of the congregation more or less provide lunch. All are welcome to eat with us. There is a donation plate, too, but no money is required. We share food with one another freely and without contempt. After dishing up, we sit together, talk, laugh, and enjoy one another’s company, sometimes listening to a speaker but mostly (thankfully) just chatting. We then help clean up and go on our merry way hopefully carrying with us the renewed love obtained.

I will not pretend to be an expert in early church doctrine or ritual practice, and I am not one to say that we need to go back to the way things were at the beginning. That’s never possible, in my humble opinion. Perhaps, however, there is something to be said for the love feasts that were more or less at least part of the early Church’s interpretation of communion. It was not Eucharist as we now celebrate it, but it was the institution emerged from Christ’s command to eat his body and drink his blood. It was, in fact, the institution that the early Christian apologists defend against their Roman accusers (who often thought of it as on par with certain sexually explicit and cannibalistic cult rituals). These are the same feasts, that is, about which Paul excoriates the Corinthians for drawing class distinctions, saving the good portions of food for the wealthy and serving the lesser to the poor.

In this same regard, I believe that the Fellowship Hours that we celebrate at my church are the more important when compared with the Eucharistic. Not only do they emulate the shared celebration of the Good News of Christ, but they do so directly by giving us the chance to act in love with and toward one another. Moreover, all are equal in this celebration; while someone will generally be first in line, this positioning is based solely on an individual’s athleticism and his or her capacity to avoid conversation on the way out of the sanctuary to the buffet line; it is not based on some silly idea of the ontological priority of the priest, just the pangs of teenage hunger! In other words, like the early church, it is in this Fellowship where the truth of all the symbolic sacraments (and I fully understand that not everyone considers them such) actually begin to emerge: that we have been reformed for the capacity to love in a way that we were unable to do before—as equals to one another before the God who saves in Christ—and that our love for one another is practice for the love we are to express to a fallen world.

This need not mean, of course, that we rid ourselves of the Eucharistic ceremony. By no means! To the degree that Eucharist is an explicit reminder of the covenant found in Christ, who may or may not be mentioned in the Fellowship Hours, it points us in the proper direction for our Fellowship Hours: to whose life we should look at and emulate in reenacting the last supper and whose death gives us the power to do so. It’s just that I am becoming more and more convinced that, if the celebration of communion truly transfers the Grace of God to us, the transference takes place not in Eucharist but in Fellowship, for which Eucharist is only a pointer.

In other words, it is only in love and our conformity to it within church walls and beyond, that we are receiving the sacrament; for the gift (the sacrament) must match the nature of the giver, and the giver is the ground of all lesser and anterior expressions of love. After all, I am not wrong to say that the God found in Christ is love.

This love, so it seems, is best expressed in Fellowship rather than Eucharist.

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10 comments
Carl Gregg
Carl Gregg

Good post, thanks. For anyone looking for background on the diversity of early Christian Eucharistic practices -- including what were essentially "potlucks as Eucharist," see chapter 6 in Paul Bradshaw's fascinating "The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy" (http://amzn.to/Anmmcf).

Deacon Hall
Deacon Hall

Hey Rocky, thanks for the insights. I don't think I've been advocating "pot-lucks," although I have to admit I have zero problem with them if that's what a church wants to do. The reason these have worked so well at our church (and certainly nothing else has as of late) is that they've already implicitly followed the suggestions John points out. That's how our Fellowship Hour (which we've called such for very specific reasons) work. As a counter-argument to Sean's piece: these Fellowship Hours are precisely what got me and my wife to attend and stay at our current church.

David
David

I like that you are "becoming more and more convinced that, if the celebration of communion truly transfers the Grace of God to us, the transference takes place not in Eucharist but in Fellowship, for which Eucharist is only a pointer." Eucharist or Holy Communion was never intended to become an institutionalized ritual only to be blessed by those duly ordained to do so. Somewhere along the path of church history, it was moved out of the home and fellowship context for which God intended it (Exodus 12). We should remember that Jesus is not only the bread and wine, but our Passover Lamb (1Corinthians 5:7). Eucharist's proper place is the home. How many of us Christians actually celebrate the meal that our Jewish Savior celebrated with his disciples?

Tripp Fuller
Tripp Fuller

I love Potlucks! BUT if we have to speak of ontological priority I say give it to the Fried Chicken or butter milk biscuits!

Cameron
Cameron

My tradition (the Salvation Army) rejected the practice of the Eucharist over a century ago. There were three reasons: 1) we were (are) a Wesleyan-style holiness movement which stresses the importance of living holy lives. There were (apparently) many in our ranks who thought that holiness was a result of taking the sacraments rather than the infilling of the Holy Spirit, so we withdrew the ritual aspect so people had to learn to rely on God. 2) we were (are) teetotal and had (sadly, not so much today) many alcoholics in our ranks. Drinking as part of our worship seemed a little inappropriate. 3) (this is actually the main reason, although it's been rubbed out historically) The Salvation Army has always allowed women full participation in worship and practice. That was fine internally, but there were huge political problems with other churches when women presided over the Sacrament. The best answer was to stop women serving the Sacrament... and the men too. Now, we can argue over whether or not these are good reasons for stopping the practice, and the idea of reintroducing it comes up from time to time. I doubt that will ever happen, but a few ways forward have been suggested. The main one is, like John suggests, the love feast. The other big one is to reinterpret the Sacraments as realities to be lived in the world rather than rituals inside a church. One of my favourite hymns sums this up: My life must be Christ' broken bread My love his outpoured wine A cup o'erfilled, A table spread, Beneath his name and sign; That other lives, refreshed and fed, May share his life through mine. (and so on for another two verses). My preferred take on the whole thing is to Do What Jesus Did™ and eat meals with people, and encourage others to do the same. Potluck, coffee shop, candlelit dinner... whatever works!

Deacon Hall
Deacon Hall

Great suggestions, both John and dmf!

Rocky
Rocky

This is the second blog post in a week I've read about church meals. The other one (by Shawn Coons guest posting at Pomomusings.com) is the counter-argument to this one, namely that church pot-lucks have to die for the church to thrive in the future. They're insular, exclusive, and not well-suited to their stated aim of building community. Maybe a "love feast" is a worthy experiment to try, as John recommends. I'd love to participate in that.

dmf
dmf

you folks should reach out to Sara Miles (and read her "Take This Bread" if you haven't) to see how her efforts along the road of building community around food/feeding are working out: http://saramiles.net/ she would be a great guest for the podcast

John
John

I have long been an advocate of a "love feast" for Christianity. However, many churches just seem stuck. No matter how many suggestions for change are made, nothing seems to happen. So I basically gave up. Below my suggestion. which I have posted previously on my own blog and in other comments. I have another practical suggestion for maintaining and enhancing the unity of the Christian church. I learned in seminary that in the early tradition of the church there was the practice of a "love feast". There may be some Christians that still practice that tradition. I am not sure. In a very simple way, many Church suppers are just that. But I have never been a part of a practice that was explicitly called a "love feast". I think Christians should start a renewed tradition of a love feast. My guidance for it would be. 1. No priest, bishop, pope, deacon, pastor, minister or any other "official" person within any church may officiate at the love feast. 2. The full meal will be prepared and served only by lay people. 3. No one can be excluded ----- not based upon church membership, belief, lack of belief, social status, race, ability to pay, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. There can be no reason to exclude anyone except those who are violent. The only basis of inclusion is that a person wants to participate and they are willing to be peaceful. 4. Everyone who is able will pay toward the meal and toward the meal of those who may not be able to pay. 5. The only formal part of the meal will be a prayer of gratitude for the meal and for everyone who particpates.

Rocky
Rocky

Love. That. Counterpoint.

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