A number of recent discussions I’ve had with Kurt Willems and Carson T. Clark have revolved in one way or another around questions of ecclesiology and sacraments. Today I’m taking a look at one of the most universally-acknowledged sacraments across Christendom: The Lord’s Supper, otherwise known in some circles as “the Eucharist” and in others simply as “Communion.”
Churches vary widely in just how they practice the ritual meal of bread and wine, instituted (so we say) with Jesus’ repurposing of elements of the Passover meal on the night before he was crucified. But while they disagree (sometimes to the point of mutual exclusion) over the ritual details, over whether the practice includes an element of the miraculous or merely material symbols of transcendent truths, and even over who is authorized to lead or conduct the ritual itself…despite all these disagreements, every church I know, in its own way, has made of “the Lord’s Supper” a highly ceremonial practice, conducted in the context of a worship event, usually in a place set aside for such events.
Returning, as I contend we always ought, to the original words of Jesus, it seems to me that perhaps we’ve missed something vital here. I grant as previously stated, that Jesus’ original institution of what we now call “The Lord’s Suppper” was in the context of another highly-ritualized meal, the Jewish Passover. It is not, therefore, as though Jesus was unfamiliar with, or hostile to, prescribed religious practice. Jesus certainly repurposed the broken bread to symbolize his body, and the cup of wine to represent his shed blood. Only Luke, and later Paul in 1 Corinthians, actually tell us that Jesus also told his disciples they should share the bread and the cup “in remembrance of me” see Luke 22:14-20 and 1 Cor. 11:23-26 (note that this is a rare, if not the only, instance where Paul says what he’s relating is something he directly “received from the Lord”). And it is Paul’s account in which we learn that Jesus told the disciples to remember him in the bread and the cup “as often as you drink it.”
This is not enough upon which to hang a doctrine or destroy somebody else’s fondly-held belief. But I wonder if Paul had an insight we have lost in our ritual. Rather than creating a sacred, symbolic (or miraculous) meal to be received in the context of a sacrament, I wonder if in fact Jesus’ intention was to take ordinary staples of life and imbue them with the sacred memory of himself…not so we would have a monthly, or quarterly, or weekly ritual “in a church,” but so that as we break bread and drink wine together in loving fellowship, the memory of Christ is front-and-center.
This is certainly consistent with the way God instituted the teaching of his law even from old: to talk of it “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:4-8). God’s intention was that there be no boundary between the sacred and the profane, but that every activity in which his people engage, be an opportunity to learn and remember his way.
It’s also consistent with the character of Jesus. Though as I mentioned above, he was no stranger to ritual, Jesus was also the one who got in trouble–along with his disciples–for not keeping the Sabbath in the rigidly-prescribed manner of the Pharisees (Mark 2:23-27 and parallels). More importantly, though, we learn in Luke 24:35 (the two disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus) that Jesus was “known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). Might we, by sacramentalizing the “breaking of the bread,” have robbed ourselves of the opportunity to know Jesus each time we sit at the table?
C.S. Lewis said something similar about wine in his essay “Miracles,” which is part of a collection entitled “God in the Dock.” Lewis was talking about the miracle in which Jesus turned water into wine at Cana, and suggested we only really recognize the miracle when “if whenever we see a vineyard or drink a glass of wine we remember that here works He who sat at the wedding party in Cana.” I find this strangely compelling, particularly if taken together with Jesus’ own words in Mark 14:25 and parallels: “Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Jesus, it seems to me, was inviting us to remember him, not only in a formalized ritual, but every time we lift a glass of wine.
So what does this mean and why do I care? I believe that by ritualizing the Lord’s Supper, we may be missing the presence of Jesus in the everyday. Our ceremony has created–or at least heightened–a false dichotomy between the “sacred” and the “profane.” Jesus, in contrast, calls us (as God has since the Old Testament) to see the sacred in all of life…in particular the life of followers of Jesus in community–communion–with each other. I do not (necessarily) advocate the abandonment of the sacramental ritual, for it has brought blessing and comfort to many for many years. But however necessary–or at least appropriate–our ritual is, it is not enough.
Buddhists have a concept they call “mindfulness.” I’m no expert, but the best I understand, it involves disciplining oneself to be conscious of the present moment and all that it contains. I suggest we consider a different, perhaps more timeless form of mindfulness, in which we recognize Jesus every time we break bread and look to his coming every time we share wine.
In remembrance … till he comes!