October 16, 2018

Rowan Williams on the Eucharist (2)

Rowan Williams on the Eucharist (2)

Today we continue our series of reflections on Rowan Williams’s book, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, continuing with the third big theme of the practice of being Christian — the sacrament celebrating how God welcomes us to his table: the Eucharist.

The resurrected Jesus is doing what he always did. And that is why it is very significant that in the Acts of the Apostles, when the risen Christ is proclaimed, the apostles identify themselves as the witnesses who ‘ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead’ (Acts 10.41). (p. 45)

Isn’t that verse striking? I like it as a description of what it means to be a Christian today as well. We are the people who eat and drink with the risen Christ! This is the essential meaning of the Eucharist. Whatever theological differences believers may have had about the details, this is the heart of it all. At the Lord’s Table, we meet with him and share a meal together.

Rowan Williams puts it like this:

We can see, then, that when the risen Christ eats with the disciples it is not just a way of proving he is ‘really’ there; it is a way of saying that what Jesus did in creating a new community during his earthly life, he is doing now with the apostles in his risen life. We who are brought into the company of the apostles in our baptism – which, remember, brings us to where Jesus is to be found – share that ‘apostolic’ moment when we gather to eat and drink in Jesus’ presence. And that is why, throughout the centuries since, Christians have been able to say exactly what the apostles say: they are the people with whom Jesus ate and drank after he was raised from the dead.

Holy Communion makes no sense at all if you do not believe in the resurrection. Without the resurrection, the Eucharist becomes simply a memorial meal, recalling a rather sad and overpowering occasion in the upper room.

…There is indeed a certain sombreness about some ways of celebrating the Eucharist (and a bit later on, I’ll suggest why that is not always inappropriate). But the starting point must be where the apostles themselves began, eating and drinking with him after he was raised from the dead, experiencing once again his call into a new level of life together, a new fellowship and solidarity, and a new willingness and capacity to be welcomers themselves. (pp. 45-46)

This is why it only makes sense to me that Christians should celebrate the Lord’s Table every Sunday in worship. The reason we meet on the first day of the week is to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and gather in the presence of our risen Lord. The apostolic way of doing that is to break bread together and share the cup of salvation with him at his Table.

They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. (Acts 2:42, MSG)

Comments

  1. A friend says that when he kneels at the altar rail he imagines it stretching beyond the walls on each side. On one side are the persons who shared the Gospel with him, those who shared with those who shared with him, and on back to the Upper Room. On the other side are those with whom he has shared the Gospel, then those with whom they shared the Gospel, and so on. What a glorious picture!

  2. Rick…love the word picture.

    Kneeling at the altar every Sunday morning for communion/Eucharist has been life changing theses last for years in the Lutheran Church.

    Understanding (but not, of course) and realizing Christ’s presence in the meal, is healing, peace, comfort. So different from the symbolic take I had growing up evangelical.

    Body and blood, bread and wine-life giving.

  3. Richard Hershberger says:

    “Whatever theological differences believers may have had about the details, this is the heart of it all. At the Lord’s Table, we meet with him and share a meal together.”

    I don’t think this is true. The split is between those who believe in some sort of real presence, and those for whom communion is a commemoration. For the latter group, “this is my body” and “this is my blood” was specific to one time and place. “Do this in remembrance of me” is the sole operative part for us today. For the former group, both parts are in effect. This was and remains today the great split within Protestantism. On the commemoration side, the eucharist is not a meeting with Christ. It is a remembrance of Christ. These seem to me to be entirely different things.

    • Richard, I think you are correct, and I did not state my thought clearly. I was thinking about historical divisions primarily between churches that take a fundamentally sacramental view of the Table.

      But you are exactly right — the split between sacramental and non is a huge divide. In all my years as an evangelical pastor, I’ll be honest with you, I really had no idea what to do with communion.

    • Although my view is sacramental, it seems to me that Jesus is still there for those with a commemoration view (whether or not His presence is recognized). He has promised to be there wherever two or three are gathered in His Name.

  4. We are what we eat. To injest and incorporate food is to unify it to our being. No wonder God chooses the meal as a rite. It’s all about unification.

    • We eat, but we are also eaten. All our lives we are host to teeming colonies of life that eat from our somatic menu, and when we die, our bodies reenter the food chain more or less entirely, even if our remains are sealed up in an airtight casket. We eat food, and we are food.

  5. Dana Ames says:

    Following along the lines of what ChrisS mentions, the point of sacramentality is to incorporate (take into our bodies) something of God himself. The Eucharist is about so much more than having a meal or being hospitable. It is the way God has provided for us to do what Jesus says in John 6 that we must do in order to have life within us: take in the source of Life Himself, not only “spiritually” or in some kind of a conceptual way accompanied by a certain emotional state, but in a very ***material*** way with/as the transformed bread and wine – very material things. (In EOrthodoxy, we don’t try to explain how the bread and wine are transformed; we simply ask the Holy Spirit to make the change and trust that he does.) I don’t know about anyone else, but as an Evangelical Protestant, I had to essentially block John 6 out of my Bible.

    So it’s not so much that “we are the people who eat and drink *with* the risen Christ” – it’s that, in Classical Christianity, we are the people who *eat and drink the risen Christ*. This was what the whole Church believed until Calvin & Zwingli. And the Eucharist was only given to those who had received the Sacrament of Baptism. (Yes, I know all about the clerical abuse around dispensing the Sacraments – no need to rehash that today; I’m making a different theological point.) And if we are receiving the Body of Christ, we are also in true Communion with everyone who has been united to his bodily death and resurrection in Baptism. This tie with others exists already because of Christ uniting people to himself in the hospitality, if you will, of Baptism, which is open to all; it doesn’t come into existence with the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the continuation and intensification of the prior unification.

    As with any Sacrament, it’s not Magick. If not approached with a heart turned toward God, the Sacraments won’t do anyone much good (eve if one is part of a church that believes in sacramentality). I understand the desire to include people in something very meaningful to us in what we might see as a sign of the love of Jesus – whose love is the most real thing in the universe. At the same time, I wonder why we would seek this level of communion with people who may not be interested in actually uniting themselves to Jesus by becoming part of his Church. [I think the difficulties people have with this have to do with 1) our hypocrisy, 2) the lack of understanding of what the Church is, and 3) the lack of understanding of what Baptism is.] We are already united with everyone by virtue of 1) our common humanity, 2) the Incarnation of Christ and 3) the resurrection of all persons, which Christ brought about through his own Resurrection. The Eucharist goes beyond the union found in all that, even as wonderful as all that is. To reduce what Jesus was saying in John 6 (and remember, many people in his time quit following him because of what he said) to simply the idea of a hospitable meal – even as a table set by the Lord – is to miss the greater meaning of John 6.

    As we are in the line to be given the Holy Mysteries in the Orthodox Church, the choir sings to us:
    “Receive the body of Christ; taste the fountain of immortality.”

    “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh….
    So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (Jn 6. 54b-57)

    If anyone is interested in further reading on the Eucharist, I commend to you Fr Alexander Schmemann’s “For the Life of the World”.

    Dana

    • Dana,
      What do you think is the reason for the absence in John of an account of the Last Supper, which as it is rendered in the other gospels plays such an important and primary role for the development of Eucharistic theology in the Church? On the surface, it certainly seems odd that the gospel which has provided the most material for development of Eucharistic theology makes no mention of the Last Supper itself, which is the original, basis, and model for the shape of the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist.

      • Dana Ames says:

        I think there are a few reasons, Robert.

        In the Synoptics, the whole story leads to the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah/Son of God/King to come. The book of John starts out with us knowing this; this fact simply gets re-emphasized in all the vignettes of Jesus’ encounters with people in John.

        The specifically Eucharistic theology is there, but it isn’t located within the narrative of the Last Supper; it’s in ch 6. However, there is a lot in Christ’s discourse and prayer in John 13-17 about being united with him, which can be connected with what he says in ch 6.

        The understanding of union with Christ and the meaning of the Eucharist are things Christians would have already known about in the context of their catechesis and worship/prayer, so the book of John could “look” different than the Synoptics and still affirm what Christians believed.

        Dana

  6. I’m puzzled. Somehow, I thought this series on such vital topics from Rowan Williams’ excellent book would elicit more response, comments, and discussion.

    • Susan Dumbrell says:

      I made my position on this known here last week in Rowan William’s on the Eucharist (1)

  7. johnbarry says:

    Ric, I think it is because most of the commenters generally agree with Williams , expressed in his fine writing. I agree with your 3.45 comments. Just some fine, right on point comments today and sometimes less is better. I think the article and comments have covered the topic well.