Encountering Jesus in the Eucharist
What happens when we gather at the Lord's Table? Is what we do a simple memorial of Jesus death (he died for our sins is a common prayer)? Are we encountering Jesus at the Table in a unique way? My own theology of the Table has been evolving in recent years. I believe that the Table should be all. As one of our church members in a conversation about a grant proposal suggested -- the Table is a crossroads where people come and go and in the midst of that coming and going encounter God in a transformative manner. I wrote a little book about the evolving theology of the Eucharist that was published last year. I think it's a good place to start -- to see the way in which we have as Christians theologized our Table practices: The Eucharist: Encounters with Jesus at the Table (Topical Line Drives Book 10).
My own tradition, the Disciples of Christ, gather weekly at the Table. Our theology of the Table is Reformed (of the Zwinglian kind). My own theology is closer to that of John Calvin, who embraced a much more robust understanding of presence. For Calvin, as we partake of the elements of bread and wine/juice we are taking into ourselves the very person of Jesus. The Table is a point of communion with Christ that is transformative. Calvin's theology didn't win out in this case among Protestants, but it's much richer.
I bring this up today because I'm finishing my reading of Nicholas Wolterstorff's The God We Worship: An Exploration of Liturgical Theology. I will be offering a review shortly, but this paragraph caught my eye, and in light of the fact that the Gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary are being drawn from John 6, I thought I would share it and offer a few thoughts. I should note that Wolsterstorff who is Reformed in his theology is writing a liturgical theology asking the question of how God is implicitly understood in the liturgy. That is what the theology present in the liturgy, including liturgical actions such as the Eucharist.
Liturgical communion between God and God's people attains its highest form in the Eucharist. By eating the bread and drinking the wine we receive Christ into ourselves, whereupon Christ dwells and works within us. This is a form of communion that goes far beyond that which takes place in mutual address; indeed, it has no close analogue in human interactions. When we were discussing mutual address between God and the people, we could point to close analogues in how we human beings relate to each other and could use those analogues to illuminate what takes place in the liturgy. The form of communion that takes place in an enactment of the Eucharist has no close analogue in how we human beings relate to each other; the analogue bequeathed to us by Christ himself is that of ingesting bread and wine. The God who is of unsurpassable excellence does not only stoop down to listen to us, to hear us, and to speak to us; God steeps down to dwell and work within us in the person of Jesus Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit. In mutually speaking and listening, there remains a certain distance between the interlocutors; in the communion that takes place in the Eucharist, all distance is removed. [The God We Worship, p. 161]
As we ingest bread and wine at the Table in communion with Christ and with one another, Christ comes into our persons, that the distance between God and humanity is removed. It is the most intimate moment of communion. Now Calvin didn't see this in a magical way. Simply ingesting elements didn't create this encounter. We have a role in this. But doesn't this make the Eucharist central to worship? And if it is that central would we not want to gather frequently at the Table?