I became a Christian in a charismatic evangelical context and for many years I struggled to find much of interest in the Eucharist. This was largely because we associated encountering God with ‘the warm fuzzies’ (the kind of feelings you had while worshipping) and ‘the warm fuzzies’ were normally experienced while singing. Stopping the singing to ‘do’ Communion felt like breaking the flow of the worship rather than following the Spirit’s lead. In other words, Eucharist got in the way of worship. Of course, nobody would ever say this—after all, Jesus commanded us to do it—but I was certainly not alone in my unspoken disappointment with the Lord’s Supper.
Behind this disappointment lies an implicit belief that matter and spirit are very distinct things and that God is encountered not in the material but in the spiritual, in the inner world of thought and feeling. Communion is just too darn physical to easily integrate into our Christian worlds. But integrate it we must and the Eucharistic theology that evangelicals usually employ to do so is that of Ulrich Zwingli. According to Zwingli, communion is simply a memorial of the once-for-all death of Jesus. It works by focusing our thoughts on what Jesus did for us (thereby allowing it to work in the inner, non-material world). But it is not about the presence of Christ because Christ is in heaven and cannot be present in the Eucharistic elements. Thus the Lord’s Supper is, for many evangelicals, a celebration of divine absence; it’s about what we do, thinking about Jesus ‘until he comes’.
The problem with the Eucharist for Zwinglian evangelicalism is that there are plenty of more interesting and less weird ways to think about what Jesus did for us. We could, for instance, sing about it. What’s the point of faffing around with bread and wine? Strictly speaking we don’t need the Eucharist at all. Consequently, for many evangelical churches Communion is celebrated infrequently and as quickly as possible so that we can get on with the more important stuff. (We may never put it like that but our actions let the cat out of the bag.) McEucharist, the fast-food approach to Communion, was my world for many years.
No longer. Now I consider the Eucharist to be the central aspect of Christian worship. And the rich, overt physicality of the ritual is a large part of its power. I love it that touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound are all involved. I love it that both time and space are not set aside but are swept up into the sacred encounter and bow their knee before the Lord. We move our bodies: we make the sign of the cross, we share the peace, we go up to receive the elements, we kneel, we reach out to receive, we eat, we drink. And what we receive is so mundane and yet reveals that the mundane can be a place of encounter with the divine.
I love it that in this simple ritual we celebrate the whole biblical story. Here we affirm the goodness of creation (grain, water, and grapes) and of the human work that transforms it (into bread and wine); here we acknowledge sin and our need for ‘forgiveness of sins’; here, in this modified Passover meal, we recall God’s way with his people Israel and the exodus from slavery; here we are drawn into the new covenant relationship with God; here we find our faith in the enfleshment of the Word inscribed into the Eucharistic symbols (and if incarnation does not persuade us of the goodness and spirituality of the material world then nothing will!); here too we ‘proclaim the Lord’s death’, and not only his death but his resurrection for the logic of Holy Communion makes no sense if there is no living Lord to commune with; here God’s Spirit constitutes the church as the unified body of Christ (‘we are one body because we all share in the one bread’); here we celebrate the presence of Jesus with us (because by the Spirit the elements mediate the very life and presence of Christ to us) but also recognize that this presence is currently a presence-in-absence. The Eucharist is also fundamentally eschatological—a foretaste of the banquet in the coming age of the kingdom of God. As foretaste it simultaneously reminds us of both the now and the not yet, the presence and the absence of Jesus. It invites us to affirm our present experience as good but deeply broken and to look forward in hope to the coming kingdom of God. I love it that in one simple ritual meal we are invited to participate in an act that situates us within this grand narrative. It is a ritual through which we participate in a story in which we find our identity.
I also love it that the Eucharist is not a celebration that leaves us unchallenged. Paul hammers the wealthy members of the church in Corinth for allowing the hierarchical social values of Roman society—values embedded in meal practices—to be played out in their Eucharistic meals. But those very values undermine the unity we share in Christ and so Paul concludes that if they eat in this manner ‘it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat’ (1 Cor 11:20). For to eat at Jesus’ table is to acknowledge that everyone else who is present is equally valuable, equally a part of the body, equally loved by God. This feast is subversive and to share it with others comes with a challenge. The meal invites us to think about each other and to treat each other differently. It also challenges us to conform our identity as communities and as individuals to the image of the crucified God. At the heart of the celebration is the narrative of one who loved the world and so set aside his own rights for the sake of others. That sacrifice becomes the model for our own narrative-shaped identities. For Paul the church is called to cruciformity, a patterning of our living on the story of Jesus. That will look different in different circumstances but the pattern remains the same: serving the other in sacrificial, humble love. This meal can serve as one means by which God transforms us by the Spirit so as to embody that narrative and I’m up for all the provocation and support I can get.
On the issue of communion with one another, I love the thought that when we meet around the table we commune not only with the Lord and with those present but also with the saints all around the world and indeed throughout time. There is a very real sense in which during the sacred time of the Eucharist I feel temporally closer to the saints of the past, celebrating with them, than I do to people alive today in secular time. I feel connected with the apostle Peter, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Maximus the Confessor, Anselm, Hildegard, Cranmer, and countless believers who I’ve never even heard of. At this table I feel like we belong together.
Finally, I love it too that the Eucharist is not about what we do; it’s about what God does. ‘This is my body, which is given for you . . .’ (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24). The Lord’s Supper is the Lord’s gift to us. Not a gift for the worthy but the unworthy. The Son of God loved us and gave himself for us. In Communion we come at the invite of the Lord and while we must actively respond to the invitation we don’t make anything happen—God does. In the epiclesis God is traditionally invited to send his Spirit on the elements and on the congregation, for without the Spirit the ritual is nothing. We reach out our hands and receive what it given to us by grace. We do not take the elements as if we deserved them. We come in humility and receive the gift of eternal life. But we come with confidence because God is gracious. I find this thought deeply inspirational. (‘Just as I am, without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me and that thou bidst me come to thee, O Lamb of God I come, I come’). I am not Atlas and I cannot hold the weight of the world on my shoulders. I cannot even hold my own weight. If my future or the future of the world depended on me then we’re all stuffed! But it does not. It depends on God’s purposes and God’s grace. In Communion we celebrate the God who loves and promises and brings to pass. We are the recipients of an unmerited gift. Eucharist reminds me that when we fall, as fall we do, we fall in grace, not from grace.