THE MEAL JESUS GAVE US: Understanding Holy Communion. Revised Edition. By N.T. Wright. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. 86 pages.
From the beginning of the Christian movement in the First Century CE, Christian life has been centered in a sacred meal. The meal has roots in the Jewish Passover, but Christians continue to gather for this meal because it is understood to be instituted by Jesus on the night before his death on the cross. Following biblical tradition, it is understood that Christians should continue with this observance until Christ returns at the end of the age. This meal is called by many names including Eucharist, Lord's Supper, Holy Communion. Some Christians believe that when properly consecrated, the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus (even if the elements retain their outward appearance, including taste, the substance of the elements are transformed into body and blood). Other Christians believe that the bread and wine/juice remain simply bread and wine/juice. What occurs at the Table is a meal of memory. Of course there is significant gradation in between. While some Christians gather frequently to share in this meal, others do so only occasionally. This meal is supposed to stand as a symbol of Christian unity, but because of the variety of interpretations and practices Christians it is anything but a Table of unity. Indeed, quite often Christians are quite adamant about excluding each other from coming to “their” Tables.
So, what is this meal that was supposed to unite Christians but instead divides? Many have taken up the task of writing on this topic. Some write many paged tomes, others have chosen to offer brief treatments that can open up the topic to a wider audience. I’ve tried my hand at this, as has Anglican biblical scholar and former Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright. His book The Meal Jesus Gave Us is a revised edition of a book published in the late 1990s. Not having read the original version, I can’t say how it has been updated. Nonetheless, while Wright is known for producing dense academic tomes, this brief treatment of Holy Communion is light and engaging. The book is, in fact, designed to be a study guide for those seeking a deeper understanding of the meal.
The way in which Wright approaches the topic suggests that he wants to connect with people who might find traditional sacramental language strange or off-putting. Therefore, he speaks of the supper in terms of a party—in fact, he speaks of several kinds of parties, including birthdays, freedom, and thanksgiving. a thank you party to be specific. He also describes the meal in terms of a drama, in which the church re-enacts the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. In using these and other metaphors and analogies he is not suggesting that we let go of the sacredness of the meal, but he wants to overcome some of its foreignness.
As he lays out the meaning of the meal, he brings into the conversation its relationship to Jesus’ death, the fellowship of Christians, and the belief in Christ’s presence. He takes note of several theories, including the Catholic understanding of Transubstantiation and Luther’s view that both bread/wine and body/blood are present in the elements. As for himself, he prefers Thomas Cranmer’s more spiritual understanding of presence, one that touches base with the understandings of John Calvin. This should not surprise us, since Wright is Anglican. One of the key insights that Wright brings into the conversation is that when we gather at the Table, past and future enter into the present. He suggests that the Table invites us to look at time differently. Reflecting on Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:26, which suggests that when we eat and drink of the bread and cup we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes, he writes:
The present moment (“whenever”) somehow holds together the one-off past event (“the Lord’s death”) and the great future when God’s world will be remade under Jesus’ loving rule (“until he comes”). Past and future come rushing together into the present, pouring an ocean of meaning into the little bottle of “now” (p. 51).
While willing to use playful metaphors to draw us into the conversation, his understanding of the Eucharist and the way in which it should be celebrated is fairly traditional. Being that he is an Anglican it is not surprising that he believes that such a meal needs to be presided over by duly ordained ministers. While he is ecumenical about this, believing that all Christians should be invited to the Table, he holds on to the belief that ordination is key (though perhaps not episcopal). Since this is a serious meal, he prefers that it be celebrated in an appropriate sacred setting. That is, he believes the sacrament should be celebrated in a church building. Thus, there is some openness to participants, but he remains fairly traditional.
Being that I am part of faith community (Disciples of Christ) that practices frequent (weekly at the very least) communion, but which is not as concerned about who celebrates the sacrament or its location, I wonder what he would think of our practices. Would he deem our communion service deficient, or would he see it as a valid expression of Jesus’ vision? These are questions for which I don’t have answers. Nonetheless, even faith communities like mine could benefit from engaging with a scholar and church leader of his stature. And the Anglican in me likes some decency and order.
Thus, even where I have differences of opinion, I find this to be an insightful introduction to a sacrament that I personally believe stands at the center of our faith. In this meal, as Wright reminds us, past and future enter our present so we might encounter the life-transforming presence of Christ who is present to us through the Spirit. With him, I also believe that this meal should be a means by which Christians grow into unity. I heartily affirm this statement from his closing paragraph:
Sharing Communion together between Christians of different denominations ought not to be the goal at the end of a long process of unity negotiations. It ought to be the means, the thing we already do, that will create a context in which we will be able to understand and respect one another, and grow towards a richer unity (p. 85).
To this all I can say is: AMEN!