Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Eucharistic Presence -- Bringing the Future into the Present

Many Protestants, including my own tradition, tend to understand the Lord's Supper or Eucharist in terms of remembrance.  We take quite literally, Jesus' statement, as Paul recounts it, at the institution of the Lord's supper:  "This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:24).  We treat it as a meal of memorial, with reverence often turning into sober solemnity, as if the one we remember is long dead and buried.  This position emerged in response to overblown doctrines of "real presence" that dominated medieval Catholicism. 

But what if we understood Eucharistic presence differently?  In wrestling with N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, I've made the discovery that Wright is very focused on the resurrection -- and an embodied physical resurrection at that.  Although I wouldn't follow Wright in all of his positions on the resurrection, I do think he's on to something.  And, if he is correct that we should see heaven and earth as overlapping, so that future overlaps with the present, then this might have some implications for how we experience the Lord's Supper/Eucharist.

Wright points out that if we stop with remembrance, simply emulating the gathering of the Disciples as they shared in a last with meal, then we miss out on much of the meaning of the supper.  He writes:

To make any headway in understanding the Eucharist, we must see it as the arrival of God's future in the present, not just the extension of God's past (or of Jesus's past) into our present.  We do not simply remember a long-since dead Jesus; we celebrate the presence of the living Lord.  And he lives, through the resurrection, precisely as the one who has gone on ahead into the new creation, the transformed new world, as the one who is himself its prototype.  The Jesus who gives himself to us as food and drink is himself the beginning of God's new world.  At communion we are like the children of Israel in the the wilderness, tasting fruit plucked from the promised land.  It is the future coming to meet us in the present.  (p. 274).
I find this idea of tasting the future promise in the present intriguing.  As one who embraces the idea of presence at the table, this is quite helpful.  When we gather at the table, sharing in bread and cup, we do so in the hope of the new creation.  The question then is this:  how does this happen in our celebrations.  Can we create the experience, or do we simply allow God to make this presence known to us?  Indeed, how do we know when we have tasted the fruit of the promised land of the new creation?  And finally, what should this lead to in our lives? 


Bob Howard said...

Hi, Pastor Bob,

Thanks for your musings. It seems to me that what happened, especially with the earliest Christians, is that they gathered together with the risen Jesus, now ascended to be "second-in-command" and judge (take that, Rome!) and each other weekly, to celebrate the invasion into "this present age" (to swipe Paul's lingo), of God's New Reality operant in "the age to come" (similar swiping). Consequently, the meal focused past, presence, and future in one grand feast, which simultaneously rooted them in a "God-with-us" tradition, an empowering "Christ-with-us" presence, which then fueled their living into a living-Spirit-enabled participation in the values and saving activities of God's New Reality, now appearing in part in human communities gathered around the Table. In a way, not only was God bringing the future into the present; God was precisely thereby dragging our impoverished present into the promise of God's New Reality.
Thanks for some stimulating ponderings.
Rev. Bob Howard
Gilbert, AZ

Keith Watkins said...

Bob, as you know I spent my career teaching seminary students about celebrating the Eucharist and I have thought much about the theological issues surrounding this rite. Conversations with fellow congregants at my church and new publications on the subject are inspiring me to, in effect, start over again, and later in the summer I will begin posting blogs related to my work. One of the most provocative recent books is "Saving Paradise" by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. My review essay discussing their book is posted on the website featuring the volume. My essay can be accessed at the address below. Thanks for your contribution.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Bob H, thanks for your thoughts.

And thank you Keith. Keith, by the way, is author of a number of important works on worship and the eucharist, including The Great Thanksgiving (, my copy of which is loaned out!

speedyjim5 said...

Thanks for the inspiring blogs. This one reminded me of my time in seminary when our professor for Intro to Christian Worship asked us to go to a worship service at a church that was more "liturgical" than our denomination. I chose to go back to the Catholic church I went to before I joined the UCC. I was blown away when I went to communion and the lay person distributing the elements looked me right in the eye and with great passion said, "This IS the body of Christ!" While I don't really have transubstantion or consubstantion as part of my theological beliefs, it really made me think that celebrating eucharist really is more than remembering a significant event. It is an essential part of the continuation of the new creation inaugurated at Jesus' birth (to borrow from Wright). It is, as Bob Howard indicated, an event, a grand feast filled with the past present and future, celebrating God with us, helping us to remember the future we have!

Rev. Jim Brehler