by Dan Hauge
As I began to read through Bo’s post, Eucharist Isn’t Enough, the other day, I began to steel myself for disappointment. I feel keenly the problems of consumerism and commodification that Bo talks about, but I have intuitively felt for some time that an emphasis on the Eucharist really has the potential to help the church combat these less-than-humanizing cultural tendencies. So getting ready to hear how the Eucharist just won’t cut it brought up a certain defensiveness in me.
However, as I read his critique of how the Eucharist plays out in many church contexts (providing people a religious service with bread and wine serving the same function as a biscotti and latte) his critique began to make a lot of sense, and I realized I agreed with him—if we’re talking about the Eucharist as the specific ritual where we gather in our (mostly) demographically homogeneous communities, partake of thimble-sized versions of the elements, and place a great amount of importance on whether God’s presence really or symbolically resides in those thimble-sized elements.
At least in my own evangelical contexts, taking communion has come to be primarily an opportunity for us to intellectually “remember” the events of Good Friday, and then privately reflect in gratitude on whatever significance we believe those events have for us. In some more creative versions there is space for people to mingle and interact, and while all these things are valuable in and of themselves, I believe there is potential for more.
My own understanding of the eucharist has been shaped by the distinct possibility that many early Christians experienced it as a common meal. Jesus’ final supper, whether a Passover or not, is definitely portrayed as a full meal. The Didache offers instructions for a Eucharistic prayer to be read “after you have been filled” (10.1), and the latter part of 1 Corinthians 11 seems to describe a Lord’s Supper where the community is sharing a meal together. And eating together implies a lot of sharing—sharing space, sharing resources, and sharing the fruit of your labors, whether the farming, purchasing, or cooking. What is key for me in all of this is the sense of unity—people coming together, sharing what they have, embodying the deeper truth of our interdependence as co-equal children of God.
The way in which the ‘feasters’ were behaving during a meal that was supposed to embody commonality was turning it into a time of self-gratification. (I’m tempted to call it a time of “consumerism”, but I suppose we shouldn’t slide over the real cultural and economic differences between their time and ours). Still, this exercise of privilege, enjoying their own resources at the expense of the inclusion of people of lower class, is for Paul a matter of taking the bread and cup of Jesus “in an unworthy manner”.
In fact, it’s worth questioning whether Paul’s reiteration of Jesus’ instructions to take the Eucharist “in remembrance of me” is really geared toward remembering the theological significance of Good Friday (as it’s often been understood), or if he might rather be emphasizing “remembrance” of who Jesus was—his radical inclusive love, his barrier-breaking kingdom (or kin-dom, if you like). How you treat each other—with dignity, with mutuality and shared purpose embodied in the equal sharing of sustenance—matters a great deal if the Eucharist is truly going to reflect who Jesus was and what he calls us to be.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that Paul doesn’t seem too concerned about uprooting the class structures themselves. His solution to this particular issue is a little more mundane—if you really want to chow down, do it at home and don’t bring it into the context of the shared meal with the rest of the body. But this is a case where I think we can take the basic principle (don’t exacerbate class distinctions within the community of Christ) and extend it to the issues of class, marginalization, and oppression in general.
If the community of Jesus followers is supposed to be about sharing the vision of God’s shalom with the wider world, shouldn’t our Eucharist celebrations embody that? Can we celebrate the Eucharist in such a way that calls into question the fact that we live, work, and eat every day in the midst of grossly unfair class structures that divide us, excessively rewarding some and punishing others?
I think about a UCC church I once attended in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (an area with a significant amount of poverty and drug use), where right after the service the “coffee and snack hour” was open to the entire neighborhood. It was one (rare) instance where it did not feel like the church fellowship was one community “serving” the poor community it lived in the midst of. Rather it felt like one community gathering, where it just so happened that most of the people didn’t choose to attend the formal service the hour before. How can Christians of privilege, who constantly benefit from the dominant system even as we critique it, engage in genuinely mutual community with those the system leaves behind? Can we create ways of truly eating together, to embody real communion in our communion?
It will require ongoing analysis of my privilege in society, a willingness to examine how my ways of being, eating, and doing contribute to making life harder for others, and a recognition of how all of this creates a barrier to mutual relationship with others. A barrier that Jesus died to overcome, but that is only overcome as we follow and trust Jesus, finding ways to share together, strive together and eat together “in remembrance of him”.