Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Becoming Christ's Body in the Eucharist

There are Christian traditions that believe that when consecrated the elements of bread and wine/juice become the body and blood of Christ.  There are other traditions that believe that the bread and wine are merely memorials of Christ's death and burial.  For those of us who are Disciples of Christ, there is a tendency to take a memorialistic perspective, one that emerged largely in reaction to the more literalist understandings of the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements.

There is another way of looking at the eucharist, one that holds on to the idea of presence without locating that presence in the elements themselves.  The idea here is that the presence of Christ is found in the body -- that is the congregation.  And the congregation isn't simply the institution of the church, but the gathering of the body of Christ around the Table. 

In a book published nearly 20 years ago, Keith Watkins explored in some detail the patterns of prayer at the Table.  He did this so as to challenge Disciples to examine their practice so that the meaning of the meal can be understood and lived out.  Too often our time at the table is sloppy and irreverent, but more importantly our practice often has little theological grounding. 

Among the implications that Keith notes in his connection of the eucharist to the doctrine of the church as body of Christ is that "in the celebration of the eucharist, the congregation becomes what it already is:  Christ's body."

He goes on to define what this means (I'm including a rather extended quotation from Keith's book Celebrate with Thanksgiving):

The way that the Sunday service is structured and the contents of its several parts are the means by which this realization takes place.  Congregants assemble from their separated lives in the world.  The order of worship focuses their attention upon God and upon God's love and justice.  Despite the distractions and sins that have accumulated during the week, worshipers are drawn once again into the orbit of God's redeeming love in Jesus Christ.  They listen to readings from scripture that tell the stories of God's work long ago.  They hear a sermon showing how God continues to work in these same ways in life today.  By now, the people have been welded together again into a strong and unified assembly.  They are now ready to bring their life in the world more directly into God's presence.  In the prayers of thanksgiving, confession, and intercession the people remember what has taken place as they have tried to live faithfully through the week.  All is offered God with the entreaty that God's will for creation and all it's creatures will be fulfilled.

The intentions of these prayers are also expressed in the the physical elements that now become the focus of the service.  Offerings of money and the bread and communion-wine for the eucharist are brought to the table.  Together these emblems depict the natural world of "blood, sweat, and tears," and of wheat and grapes, now converted into new forms.  The labors of natural life become the substance of purposeful life in families and communities.  The foods of the earth are converted into bread and wine, manufactured products that increase their nourishing properties and our joy in using them.  All of these meanings are compressed into the procession that brings these elements to their place upon the holy table.

At this point, the congregation and its leaders approach God in prayer.  They tell the story of God's creative and redeeming work, the story that reaches its climax in Jesus' death upon the cross and everlasting life wit God.  They express in words their sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that the entire service seeks to present to God.  They ask that Christ's life in them be renewed and that they be strengthened to be the body of Christ in the world.  They they receive back the bread and communion-wine as sure signs that God has heard their prayer and will answer it.  At this point, the eucharist is complete and the church has once again become what it already is:  the body of Christ.  (Keith Watkins, Celebrate with Thanksgiving, Chalice Press, 1991, pp. 38-39). 
As you can see it's not just the prayers or the elements, but the way that the service itself is formed that helps provide the context for the congregation to become the body of Christ at the table.  As I read this, I realize that our practice at CWCC doesn't mirror everything that is present in Keith's discussion.  We don't have the procession of the elements nor do we have prayers of confession or of the people.  After the sermon I offer a Pastoral Prayer, something that has emerged over time and has largely replaced the other forms of prayer.  We have a prayer at the offering and we have a prayer for the elements.  But the basic order is present, as we move toward a climax at the Table, for it is there that community gathers to receive a sign that Christ is present in their midst.  I'd like to invite a conversation about ways in which we can strengthen our practice at the Table so that we might become more fully the body of Christ on earth.


Keith Watkins said...

Bob, thanks for citing and quoting this material from my published work. I may want to use this same material in some other things I'm working on, including columns in my blog a little later on. I am glad to affirm this quotation as it stands. I agree with your comments about Disciples worship. While I am not familiar with the patterns at Central Woodward Christian Church, it would not surprise me to learn that its traditional practice is somewhat different from what I recommend. That's the way it is in most Disciples churches I visit. I try not to be bothered by the fact.

You raise an important question, however, which my statement does not resolve, and that is the connection between Christ's actions, especially his death, resurrection, and continuing presence "at the right hand of God," and what takes place at the Lord's table. I have been reading a book that deals with this question: "The Lord's Supper: Five Views," edited by Gordon T. Smith, and I am trying to write an extended essay prompted by the book. I have been drafting short eucharistic prayers (of the type used by Disciples) in the light of these reflections. All of this, however, is work very much in progress.

By the way, there is a typo in line 10 of the first paragraph of the quotation: the word should be "more" rather than "mire.:

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


I do appreciate your comments -- and have made the dpelling change.

I look forward to reading your essay on the Lord's Supper Book. I'll have to check it out as well.

I'm hoping we can get a conversation about the Eucharist going here and hope to add other pieces in the coming days. Unfortunately my copy of Thankful Praise is loaned out to someone who is out of town!

David Mc said...

"Too often our time at the table is sloppy and irreverent, but more importantly our practice often has little theological grounding."

What you see, and what God sees might be different things. Are you talking about home meals?? We know the words of Jesus in the gospel. We are to remember him and then share the meal. There's some theological grounding there. Push hard and you'll get more persons alienated than the opposite.

How do you presume to know and how can you cast doubts upon the ob-servants? Just by observing?

I was raised Catholic, but I feel no need to constrain the practice with needless dogma. You will never get an honest consensus on its meaning- without force.

I do feel, as I observe, the celebration of the table at CWCC is always a superb opportunity to make it personally relevant. Sometimes we might be too misdirected and miss it. Will anything ever solve that?

David Mc said...

I do appreciate your comments -- and have made the dpelling change.

Hee, hee. Someone's working too hard and/ or was too HOT.

David Mc said...

On a more constructive note- I vote a free confession of sin would be appropriate in our service.

John said...


I enjoy the entire service but I feel in my heart that the table is always the main focus. As for the prayers at the table, they depend on the theology of the elder and the heart and skill that they bring to the table.

When I am at the table I want to reach inside and draw out the best that I have to contribute to the community's communion experience. If I can, I want to be an agent of centering and focus. For myself, the prayers at the table work best when they weave together the components of the rest of the service into a culminating appeal to God for blessings and spiritual nourishment, and an expression of the profoundest thanksgiving for the opportunity to commune and draw life-giving sustenance in the presence of God. Paul says that we are to be "thankful in all circumstances," I would add, "especially when we share a table with the Lord of all Creation."

Also, I want the congregation to hear the words of prayer and to join with me in the prayer experience. I am uncomfortable extemporizing at the table. When I stumble, or ramble, or fail to make sense, I feel I have failed to do the job God has appointed for me this day. Some folks are good at it and I enjoy listening and experiencing the wonderful gift God has given them.

My personal theology is that the elements represent the body and blood of Christ - not a mere remembrance and something more than a mere symbol - a potentiality. I love the theology behind the Catholic Eucharist, but I am not really comfortable at the element of magic which transubstantiation suggests. Instead, I envision reaching through the elements to Jesus and grasping his presence in that fashion. For me it is no great leap to respond as the disciples at Emmaus, and discern the presence of God in the breaking of the bread. The best teaching in the world cannot match the potentiality of discerning the true presence which can occur in the breaking of the bread.