Eucharist, Last Supper, and the Realm of God

I am a member of the Disciples of Christ (I'm a Disciples minister). We practice weekly communion, something I believe in, While we share the meal at least weekly, I wonder at times whether we understand what it is we're doing and why. I must admit that at times the Anglican in me wants a bit more structure to the prayers, but it's likely I'm in the minority. Nonetheless my congregation is in the process of exploring the meaning of the Table and asking important questions. This conversation will continue through May funded by a grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. 

At the moment many in the congregation are reading Nora Gallagher's The Sacred Meal. Gallagher is an Episcopalian lay person who serves as a Lay Eucharistic Minister at her local congregation. The books is insightful and merits close reading. At the same time I'm preaching on the Eucharist and reading some other books including Alexander Schmemann's book The Eucharist, posthumously published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.  Schmemann writes from the perspective of the Orthodox tradition and he's predominantly interested in the Orthodox liturgies. There are parts that I completely affirm and others not so much, but he raises an interesting point in his chapter on Remembrance.  He notes that both Roman Catholics and much of Protestantism focus their attention on the cross being the telos, the culmination of what Jesus would have us remember. Schmemann, however, suggests that the telos of the eucharist is the Last Supper itself. Taking note of Jesus words in Luke 22:29-30, he writes:  

In the night of the fallen world, enslaved to sin and death, the last supper manifested the otherworldly, divine light of the kingdom of God. Here is the eternal meaning and the eternal reality of this singular event, which can be compared with  and reduced to no other. The eucharistic experience of the Church discloses precisely the meaning of the last supper. The Church apprehends it as her own ascent to the heavenly reality, which Christ has manifested and granted, once and for all time, on earth at the last supper. And when, approaching for communion, we pray "Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant," this identification of what is accomplished today  with what was accomplished then is real,and precisely in the full meaning of the word, for today we are gathered in the same kingdom, at the same table, where then, on that festal night, Christ was present among those whom "he loved to the end."  [The Eucharist, p. 200].

He goes on to say that the last supper is the end. It is "the completion, the crowning, the fulfillment of Christ's love, which constitutes the essence of all of this ministry, preaching, miracles, and through which he now gives himself up, as love itself." The supper doesn't just point to the cross, it is an experience of the heavenly banquet. To sit at Table is is to acknowledge the presence of the kingdom. It is a sign of God's love.  

If this is true, and I find it compelling, then we need to broaden conversation about the Table. And for those of us who affirm an open Table, then how does the non-initiated experience the Kingdom?  These are important questions to consider if we're to fully experience the power of Eucharistic fellowship. 


Steve Kindle said…
Bob, I, too, as a Disciples pastor, have wondered if we really do Communion justice. My concern is that neither the horizontal (the assembled body) nor the vertical ("the real presence") dimensions of the Supper are apparent to the communicants.

As for the horizontal, Paul took pains in 1 Cor. 10 and 11, to call the congregation to task for not taking one another into consideration at the Table. Where in our practice is any consideration of the local body in effect? We sit silently in our pews unaware of another, except as the communion tray is passed.

As for the vertical, our inherited tradition's focus is on thanksgiving for the sacrifice of Jesus, not on his participation with us at that moment (however we might understand "participation" or "presence").

I would like to see more thought put into how we can, as a body, come together and participate with one another during Communion, what Paul refered to as "discerning the body." And also to become more aware of Jesus in our midst, based on our understanding of resurrection, ranging from bodily to apparition. I believe weak Communion yields weak congregations, for it is a spiritual practice that can lead to healthy living, "For this reason, many of you are weak and ill, and have died (Gr. "fallen asleep").

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