Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Partaking of the Bread of Life


48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:48-51 Common English Bible)

Jesus says “I am the bread of life.”  These words are spoken in response to those seeking  seeking free bread (after he feeds the 5000 plus).   Free bread had always been used by the powers to be to keep the masses quiet or to buy their support.  The crowd seems to be saying to Jesus – you give us bread and will give you our allegiance.  

Jesus will have none of it.  He’s not asking for their allegiance in a bid for political power, but is inviting them into a spiritual relationship. But of course it’s more than simply that.  As with the story of the woman at the well (also in John), Jesus offers himself as the means of achieving union with God – eternal life.   The way this conversation plays out gives us an Eucharistic picture, and historically this text has been used as a means of defining real presence in the Eucharist.  Since John doesn’t have an Institution narrative, many believe that this text provides John’s definition of the Eucharist.  

As developed by later interpreters, as we partake of the Eucharist, we take into ourselves Jesus’ real body and blood.  By doing so we receive the means of eternal life.  In participating in this sacrament we essentially achieve union with God.

I realize that many in the Progressive Christian community have problems with Eucharistic language, especially when it has sacrificial tones.  Indeed, many have issues with speaking of eternal life, believing that such talk takes away from the important work to be done on earth.  But, having hope for eternity need not take away from commitment to the transformation of this world, but it does provide a broader picture of reality.

I share the concern about some of the language as well, especially when it gets too graphic, but I wonder – is the Lord’s Table simply a communal meal?  Or does participation in this meal have even deeper spiritual impact?  That is, by participating in this meal, might we, by faith experience oneness with Jesus, and thus with God, as we gather at the table?

17 comments:

Steve Finnell said...

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Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

Bob, what do you make of Luke 22:16-18? "He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Is Jesus' "real presence" available in the absence of the fulfilled kingdom of God? Just asking....

John said...

In the early days of the church were not Chrisstians accused of being cannibals? This carries with it for me the implication that the first followers of jesus understood the Eucharistic feast to be a consumption of the true presence.

But I do not accept the atonement theology often asserted by Christians. If God engages in purposeful violence, (which I highly doubt) he does not do so to punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty. More likely God chose to die on the cross to bring hope, hope that life is more than preparing for death

One way I have looked at ithe purpose of the real presence is to start from the fact that in our baptism we are born again, into a spiritual body - nothing we can see, feel or taste, but nevertheless real. Jesus then offers his own flesh and blood as food for our new bodies, spiritual food to nourish spiritual bodies. If one believes he cannot be present in the Eucharist because our senses deny it, then we are not of the spirit, because our senses cannot verify this either.

Brian said...

Liturgically and as worship experience Christ is fully present in communion. This I believe with all my heart.

I think we mock God when we say "what really happens" through abstract speculation. (I'm not hearing this in the original post.)

The real presence is not magic. It is the gathering of sisters and brothers to share the meal. Christ is really present every time.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Steve K.,

I wrote this late in the evening after a long day, so it's not as finished a product as I'd liked to have been. But, as to your question, of whether the presence available with the absence of the fulfilled kingdom? Taking Brian's point as a hint, Paul speaks clearly of the church being the body of Christ, thus as Christ is present in the body through the Spirit, then the presence is there, though not yet in its fulness. So, it seems to me that we'd best see this in both/and terms rather than either or.

As to John's questions -- yes the early Christians were accused of cannibalism because of the language, but they always denied that this was true. Only later did the doctrine of transubstantiation emerge that made this a much more graphic idea.

In John 6, it seems that Jesus is assuming that one partakes of his flesh as bread as belief in him as the means of salvation.

John said...

Bob,

I think the early church took the idea of the "real presence" very seriously rather than as a mere symbol. Ancient Roman/Greek/Jewish society was not so unsophisticated as to fail to understand the nuance of metaphor and symbol. I am convinced that the accusation of cannibalism arose from the fact that early Christians believed, and spoke of their belief that they were indeed consuming the body and blood of their master - sure, it remained bread and wine in appearance, but they believed that it had been transformed on a higher level by the consecration every bit as much as they had been transformed by their baptism. They believed that Jesus' body and blood was present in those elements, not just symbolized by them.

Also, I always found it significant that in John 6 when Jesus says you must eat my body, the Greek word translated as "eat" is really better translated as "munch" as in 'eat heartily' because there was hearty food here for the one who partake.

Finally,and clearly off the point, I have heard it rumored that in the past the Church only permitted the priest to consume the Eucharist. Is this true? What then was the justification? What led the church to change and allow all to partake?

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

I'll take the last point now. I don't know that there was ever a time that only the priest took the Eucharist, but there was movement to just giving the bread. This occurred after the doctrine of Transubstantiation emerged. It was done so for a couple of reasons -- one was to try to make sure that the wine/blood was not spilt on the ground. So, just the priest took it in both kinds. Related, many came to believe that simply contemplating the Host was sufficient, no need to eat. But again this is a Medieval practice not in the early church.

Brian said...

One aspect that is uncomfortable, but beautiful, is how intimate our relationship with Jesus Christ is. We are invited to literally have Jesus Christ enter our bodies, just as he enters our hearts and minds. In other words, our relationship with the risen Christ is intimate and highly personal (no, not uber individualized). Intimacy with Christ is one of the aspects.

(Pre-coffee writing. Sorry if it is disjointed.)

Brian said...

Morning Thoughts on Steven's Post: Luke's eschatological take on communion is beautiful and hopeful. While the presence is real with us now, Luke offers a vision that a day is coming when we will be with the risen Christ in even more profound ways. Such a claim cannot be proven, but it can be experienced as a communal hope. Jesus talks a lot about a future for creation that will be peaceful, just, and abundant: SHALOM.

Such a hope and vision doesn't require a belief in supernaturalism and "afterlife". After all, we already have eternal life, so there is no need for an afterlife. That said, 1st century people thought the afterlife was very real. Maybe it is. It sounds good to me! (In my heart the afterlife is true, I just try not to focus on that any more.)

PS - I was so excited to meet Kindle on Bob's blog. Kindle wrote one of my favorite books that I read in seminary on theology in Disciple's history. In that book he helped me to find fellow liberals that I could relate to. It is nice to find kindred spirits.

Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

Bob, to your point: "thus as Christ is present in the body through the Spirit, then the presence is there," has nothing to do with communion revealing the "real presence." If the real presence is a constant, then communion cannot add to this presence. It is then a memorial in the classic sense. That's why Paul said to do this in memory...until he comes. Of course, Paul believed that Jesus' coming into the kingdom was right around the corner, and the "real presence" would be actual presence. Perhaps we can say that observing communion is to remind us of that "real presence" that is always with us. Sacraments had to be invented to create a special category of "means of grace" that seem to me to be irrelevant precisely because of the constant presence of Christ through the Spirit.

John said...

Steve,

You said:
"If the real presence is a constant, then communion cannot add to this presence."

I disagree.

In one sense you are correct. The Spirit is always in the room, and indeed always within each of us, whether we are believers or not. We don't have the authority to order God out. We can only choose to ignore the presence.

However, this sense of 'presence' is not the same concept as the 'Real Presence' being operative in the elements of a Eucharistic Feast. Jesus was involved in a number of episodes where he partook of rituals, such as foot washing, communion, baptism, anointing, praying, and fasting. In each of these instance he clearly meant to indicate that the ritual was special - that something special was happening - that in a more immediate way God was involved, more present as it were. Obviously God was already present - because Jesus was there. But Jesus lifted up the ritual not as a mere symbol, but an act that had special value in the relationship between God and the participant. He lifted up the ritual because in the ritual, God was not just present with the participants in the usual way, but the participants were in some way directly engaging the divine. You are right, God was already in the room and already in the participants - but the ritual amped things up as it were - now God and human were directly connected on a spiritual plain but on a plain of which the participants are consciously involved. In the moment of such rituals, symbolism is no longer at work, but concrete actuality. Such rituals are not just symbols - not just remembrances, but engagement, connection.


Of course it is possible to just go through the motions and singsong through the words; when you do so, you opt out of the engagement - you ignore the chance offered by the ritual for the encounter.

You assert that sacraments such as communion were "invented" suggesting apparently that their invention allowed the church "a means of grace" which it could control, thus investing it with an authority which it otherwise would not have. But in the scriptures the church has no significant role in the recorded rituals. While the participants are often from among the apostles, they are not always so, and in many instances where the apostles are involved, they are involved not because they are of the Twelve, but because they are present or because they believe.

So while I can accept the understanding that the Church has often hijacked sacraments, I do not think this diminishes the holiness or sacredness of the sacrament per se, only those who would abuse it for purpose of power.

Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

John, so nice of you to engage me on this. I wonder if what you are saying in "but the ritual amped things up as it were - now God and human were directly connected on a spiritual plain but on a plain of which the participants are consciously involved," is what I am saying. Nothing more is "present" than the participant's heightened awareness. That's what rituals are for, including the Passover, to make us actual participants in the event being reenacted. This, indeed, makes us more aware of what already is present but, perhaps only vaguely recognized. Perhaps, instead of "If the real presence is a constant, then communion cannot add to this presence," I said, "If the real presence is a constant, then communion cannot add to this presence except in our appreciation of the already present Jesus," could we agree?

As for the invention of Sacraments, of course they were power grabs meant to control the masses (pun intended). And they are very dependent upon Greek categories of substance which are foreign to the New Testament, just like Sacraments themselves.

John said...

Steve,

We are trying to define how God works in a participateular situation. Both of us are trying to put God in a box, trying to define a mystery. We are being very Greek, very Enlightenment here. Whatever rational sense we try to make of it, can we agree that it remains a mystery which we can only glimpse vaguely?

That being said, in my description I am attempting to leave room for God to move and respond in ways which defy description and definition. I meant to say that in a sacramental event something more happens than "heightened awareness" in the communicant - that God is also engaged moreso than before the sacramental event. While on one side, we seek, knock, and ask, on the other side, God responds. And the divine response is something less passive than a benign nodding of the divine head.

It occurs to me that photosynthesis provides a good metaphor: we see the sun passively shining down on a field of grass, and to our eyes the sunlight makes the grass appear greener and more vibrant. In fact something much more profound is going on, the very sunlight is acting on and within the plant, entering to the physiology of the plant, nourishing it, enhancing it's life and making it possible for the grass to live on, be fruitful, and multiply.

When we partake of a sacrament, I think something similar happens, that we allow the ever-present divine to act within us, making us more fully alive, and more intimately and yet more substantially connected with God.

But again, all of this is mystery, which suggests that too much precision is problematic - like looking too closely at an impressionist painting.

I guess I am saying that in sacred and sacramental moments not only does the human have a greater awareness of God's presence, but God is also more active - elsewise, why pray at all?

Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

John,
You like the analogy of photosynthesis. I like the analogy of Luke 24, the Emmaus walk. Even though Jesus was revealed to the disciples in the "breaking of bread," he was right there all the time. His real presence was constant; the only thing that changed was the disciples' awareness of his presence. Since I see most things theological through the lens of Process thought, I don't see a need to separate out communion as a special (mysterious) activity of God, since how God acts on humans and the world is always constant and mysterious.

Determining the situations in which God is more active seems to me to be putting God in a box (and very Enlightenment). I do believe that there are many ways that we can open ourselves up to the mystery of the divine activity within us, one being communion, but this has less to do with God increasing divine activity as it does with increasing our appreciation of it.

Your photosynthesis analogy is wonderful in many ways. I will be using it in the future, not only for communion but for God's comprehensive, ever present activity on the cosmos. And it was beautifully written. Thank you.

John said...

Steve,

Thank you.

I know little of process theology, though I suspect my theology falls pretty much within its ambit, but I have to ask why you would claim that God's actions/presence in the world must be constant?

As I understand process theology, it anticipates that God is dynamic and subject to change and can otherwise be stimulated in response to human activity. If that is true, then why should we think of God as being in anyway a "constant"?

Perhaps to us at our level of comprehension God's presence appears to be constant, however, on a macroscopic level or on a microscopic level there may well be all sorts of things happening.

The stars appear relatively constant to the naked eye but viewed against the cosmic backdrop and over time they are very dynamic. So too a common object can appear stable and fixed but on a microscopic or atomic level, with the action of electrons, etc, there is incredible dynamism. In either case, we are captive to our own limited senses, we can only see energy and light when it manifests in the range of visible light. Just because something appears fixed, doesn't mean that perception is accurate in any absolute sense. The best we can do is to approximate. And wisdom is the awareness that we are approximating.

In my mind, the single most all encompassing characteristic of the universe and of each and every component of God's creation is dynamism (nothing is ever as it was, or where it was, or when it was) - and thus, I am sure that dynamism is a characteristic of God.

Forgive me, but I am always skeptical when I hear God defined in any fixed terms.

Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

John, in describing God's actions/presence in the world as constant, I don't mean to say they are unchanging, just always there. In fact, I find your description of God's dynamic action vis a vis the world compelling and beautifully written. God is anything but fixed, and is ever changing, but always present. Before, during and after communion. Something tells me we are speaking past one another.

John said...

Steve,

I actually think we are have an excellent dialogue. I think we agree on most things, and the highlighted differences are more semantic than anything else. I think I cling to my preferred semantic nuances because I value the language choices with which I am most comfortable. I never stray too far from my Roman Catholic roots, always seeking ways to affirm the theology I learned first.