Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Jesus-Centric Practice of the Remembrance Feast of Communion: A Manifesto

Luke 22 
 4 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him.15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said,“Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. 
The Passover was the yearly feast, within a host of traditions, laws, festival, sabbaths, and prayers, that functioned for the Hebrews as the anchor, the flag in the ground, the existential declaration of their national/cultural/religious identity.  The nature of that identity at its core, reflected in the purpose of the Passover, was the fact of God's salvation of them as a people out of slavery. In history. It happened in the literal days of time which they passed together and on the literal dirt which they walked together.  The imperative behind the Passover celebration was clear, resounding "Remember!"  Remember that our God has saved us.  And so they told the story, over and over for generations, and so they celebrated the meal, over and over for generations.

National identities are tricky things.  In the early days of the United States of America, European culture-critics scoffingly pointed to this nation's lack of such an identity.  Icons like Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln, the push westward and the sense of manifest destiny, sketched out and solidified that identity.   Now we might add baseball, apple pie, and country music to the mix.  But the Euros were correct early on. Comparatively speaking, the infant US did not have a heritage, a hearty sense of their national personality compared to say, France or China.  There was nothing shouting to American citizens "You are American! Remember!"  And it's true that any nation with a strong sense of identity has things, things that are are a part of their history, part of the rhythms of their life, shouting their name to them.  Describing them, telling them who they are. 

This is what the Passover celebration did. It shouted to the Jews. As a yearly feast observed for millenia, the message and purpose of the Passover became the blood that ran in their veins.  Exodus 13:3 provides the content of what the Passover shouts, to this day, to a Jew: 

Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the Lord brought you out from this place. 

Now, this has all been groundwork. This is all simply prerequisite to any conversation about communion.  The Church's historical tradition of communion, whichever one you find yourself in, is less important in speaking its meaning to us than the Exodus salvation story and the institution of Passover.  That's because Jesus was working with that tradition, not thinking up a new one. It was what he and his friends knew, it was in their bloodstream as Jews.  It's what he clearly had in mind at the Last Supper.

He was not establishing a new tradition, however he was building on an old one, describing it more vividly in terms of what he was about to do.  Or rather, he was showing his disciples that their tradition, that which ran in their veins as a result of God's historic salvation of Israel out of Egypt, described him.  He was adjusting the focus in the salvation picture. This time, it's God single-handedly saving his people from the slavery of sin, and the destruction of Israel's enemies through Jesus' submission to death and the wrath of God.  

What is the tradition of the Lord's Supper shouting to us?  What identity is the church through ages established in?  The fairly obvious answer is found in Jesus' own words:
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood."
They are to identify existentially with the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ.  The lifeblood, identity, and existential self-knowledge of the Church established through centuries of corporate practice, is as the people for whom Christ "by a strong hand brought out of Egypt," only this time it's the Egypt of sin.   First by stepping in front of the freight train of God's wrath that threatens to obliterate all that is identified with sin. Second by revealing the nature of this salvation to the church in such a way that commands and compels attention, allegiance, and affection such that all others are subverted or submitted.  He removes, in the act of submitting to death and the wrath of God, both the guilt and power of sin which rested on and controlled God's people, and threatened to destroy them.  The parallel between Passover and the Lord's Supper is clear:

Subject? God. 
Object? people. 
Event? salvation.
Response? remember.  

Is this "remember," best described by "believing in your heart?"  Not really, though that command is in the story too.  No one really says that they believe in their heart that they were born...they simply were born.  It's existential self-knowledge rooted in an experience from their personal history.  Allow me to paint  a picture. 

What Jesus is doing in Luke 22:4-20 is taking a multi-thousand year long rope, and tying it around his waist.  Then he's taking the other end, tying a stone to it, and hurling that stone forward in time to the end of history, and he's saying to his church "grab ahold."  If and when the church holds on to the rope, they are tugged around, shifted, influenced, by his movements.  As he goes to the cross, those holding the rope feel the shivers and jerks in the rope as he is beaten relentlessly, dragged up a hill, and nailed to a piece of wood.  They feel a series of slightly decreasing tensions and releases as he gasps for his final breaths.  If they are holding tightly enough, and solemnly silent enough, they can hear him cry out that he is thirsty.  

Have you ever watched someone die? I haven't, but I'm sure I would never be the same.  And I'm sure this death, were I watching, would change me like no other.  And by practicing the remembrance meal, that is what we do each time: together, we watch the Son of Man die.  And each time we die with him.  And then, on the third day as the mysterious Church Universal grieves what they have just seen, all of us throughout history will feel a gentle tug on the rope, first imperceptible. Then, unbelievably, we begin being dragged about, with forceful purpose and energy.  He's alive, he's strong, and he's shoving the stone out of the way with his bare hands.  Incredulous, the church feels the movement and intention of the Risen Glorified Christ as he exits the grave leaving death inside.   

Again, most of us haven't seen a man rise from the dead.  But we are given the chance, in partaking of the remembrance meal, to have the Resurrection of history be the event that sets up and compels our own history.  Should we choose to respond to the "remember" of Luke 22, we will begin being dragged into an unshakable conviction that we too will rise from the dead, and that death is as irrelevant as a penny on the railroad tracks.  Not merely our minds and hearts, but our history has changed. That is one of the boldest statements one can make, and the more suffering you have gone through, and the more sin you can see in yourself, the bolder it seems and the more glorious it is if true. 

The essence of establishing onesself, or the "churchself," in a faith that matters with any historical significance and bedrock conviction is to remember.  And here's where we start offending people that are too tightly identifying with the wrong traditions: one does not remember a doctrine. Nor does one remember a subjectively arrived at conviction based on an experience with some numinous or invisible sense of love or joy.  One remembers an event.  Thus we have the heart of the Gospel- the event of a man, the God-revealing man, to be exact.  And the invitation it poses to us: to be shaped by that man's history, by those events.  He did not invite us to believe a set of propositions or feel a shiver and tingle.  He invited us to look into his eyes as the lash tore through his flesh, to put our hands on his body as his muscles tensed and relaxed for the last time, to press our ear to his chest and listen to his heart stop beating. 

One final observation, and then a couple recommendations.


 The practice of communion, and more deeply the way of understanding it in evangelicalism, is existentially irrelevant.  It is sickly and anemic.  It doesn't matter, and that's because we've decided it doesn't matter.  And that implies something much more thoroughly disturbing: we've decided that Jesus Christ doesn't matter in any meaningful way.   The reported tide of "ex-evangelicals" sweeping into Catholic and Orthodox churches testifies to this communion-anemia quite convincingly.  Conclusion? Among the myriad of things that can be said, and are being said very loudly, about the problems in evangelical/protestant Christianity, at rock bottom is the way this branch of the church thinks about(or doesn't think about) the historical Jesus-event itself.  That way of thinking is directly causal with the way we think about and interpret our own past, and thus what how we existentially function. Functionally, most of us are merely philosophers, universalists, shamanists, spiritualists, or agnostics.  The question that will probably bring most of us to our knees, if we ask it searchingly and deeply enough, is this: Do we remember Jesus Christ as a person who made contact with our corporate past? Or do we merely consider him a theory, a theology, a philosophy, a love-y notion, a moral code, or an emotional experience?  Because if we haven't considered the Gospel a man, or if we've sidelined this because we feel that other things are more effective, then we have offended and despised him, and we have said to him, in the very death throes we feel as we grasp the rope, "you are not that valuable." We have stood on the road to Calvary and jeered at the lacerated man walking past us, shouting "I want nothing to do with you!"  

Weep, sons and daughters of Israel.  


I have two simple and perhaps vain suggestions for the Church in the way of correction.  First: When you and your church partake in this historic (and historical) identity-shaping feast in remembrance of Him, don't begin with, don't even say anywhere in the service, "this is a symbol."  Because what that does is devalues the nourishment for the receiver; it fogs the window communion provides to the Son of Man's personhood in real time and on real dirt.  It begins to pry people's fingers off the rope.  In effect what you're saying is "don't remember, admire." The celebration becomes pretty, not effective.  Jesus didn't say it was a symbol, neither did the record of the earliest Church history. Calling it a symbol is not as far as you think from telling people that Jesus was an encouraging myth.  I'm not advocating magic tricks. I'm saying the cross was not a symbol, because symbols don't absorb wrath.  And meals aren't symbols, because you can contemplate symbols all day and still die of hunger.  

Second: Make an event of it, and include what all meals include- conversation.  And let the purpose of this conversation be the intentional abiding, dwelling upon, and remembrance of, Jesus Himself.  Do not talk about God, for this hour or so, except in relation to what is found in Jesus' personal history.  That means do not talk about God's presence, power, or providence in your personal life(charismatics and baptists, this is going to be hard!).  If you must do this, send your story into orbit around the personal history of Jesus Christ. Tell the story of Jesus for its own sake.   DO orbit around him.  DO make Jesus the subject of conversation, not yourselves.  DO make the story of the Cross the culminating moment of the meal as you consume the bread and wine together.  DO stand in awe.  DO it often. 

Because the only thing worthy of the kind of attention and priority and love we are designed to give is Jesus Christ.  By "eating and drinking" of him consistently, our cellular composition begins to consist of him, of his substance.  We begin to see that we and everything else orbit around him, not vice versa. Our practice is one of knowing Him. Food is a picture of Him. The community has Him as its firstborn and cornerstone. Creation is a display of His genius.  Redemption is His work alone. Scripture tells His story. The Spirit is given to unify the body with Him as the head. Life is given and sustained by Him.  In the practice of communion He is the subject, the church is the object.  Remember this.


Bob said...

Well, that's just about the best thing I've ever read on Communion.

Erin Hope said...

I love this.
Remember when we were talking about this, all the stuff that was said in regards to identity? I was thinking about that a lot yesterday.

oh, and, your dad's right. :)

Anonymous said...

what bob (dad) said.