>Why I Will Never Get Away from the Centrality of the Eucharist

Posted: 15/01/2010 in church, devotions

>In my previous blog, I listed problems when it comes to placing a minister’s sermon as the pinnacle of Sunday worship. I appropriately tagged that blog as an “iconoclasm” since I know that many who may come across this blog consider such a set up as something so fundamental that I might as well be questioning sanctity of scripture itself. Thing is, I think most people who read enough theology know that iconoclasms are necessary from time to time. Every once in a while you have to scratch at metaphorical icon if for no other reason to get people thinking about why it is there in the first place.

But I would be total cliché tool if that is all I did right? Yes, the average 20-something post-evangelical Christian who attended a private Christian college probably does this all the time. Those of who are (sadly) more well-read than many professional ministers have a lot to say about what’s wrong with churches we usually don’t even attend anymore. We’re so cool about bringing hope to the world, that we make sure we segregate ourselves from the rest of Christianity. If you have to ask why, you’ll never know.

So in order to avoid said cliché and in an effort to ensure that my blog is motivated by Christian charity, I have decided that I will always try to follow up an iconoclasm with something positive.

What do I think should take the place of a lengthy sermon? I don’t think I will ever get away from the worship of Christ though the Eucharist. It is difficult to explain why. Much of what Eucharistic worship means is done by doing, not by reading and not by listening. Nonetheless, here are a few reasons why.

Eucharistic worship, is a largely egalitarian “team effort” form of worship. It is ironic to me that a tradition that has some official sacerdotalism behind is still less sacerdotal than sermonizing in many ways. When a church body takes the Eucharist, the minister my still pronounce a few words, there are of necessity people who serve the wine and the bread, but nonetheless Eucharistic worship does not happen unless everyone in the service takes a role in what is happening.

For instance, many traditions precede the serving of the Eucharist with times of recited prayer in which the whole congregation is involved. Everyone is given a part to play, so to speak. In fact, a “script” analogy works great here. If preaching is central, only one person has a part. In the Eucharist, everyone has a role.

Consider the following liturgy taken from the Book of Common Prayer:

MinisterThe Lord be with you.
People And with thy spirit.
Minister Lift up your hearts.
People We lift them up unto the Lord.
Minister Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.
People It is meet and right so to do.
Then, facing the Holy Table, the Celebrant [minister] proceeds
It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should
at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord,
holy Father, almighty, everlasting God.
Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the
company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious
Name; evermore praising thee, and saying,
Minster and People
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts:
Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.
Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High.

This is fairly representative of most “high church” liturgical settings. The minister is more like a guide, rather than authority to be obeyed, or a Prometheus who brings down the fire from heaven.
Furthermore, when the Eucharist is central everyone takes the Eucharist, the minister included. This is good for the minister, as it allows him to get off the pedestal for moment and join his flock in following the God that they all worship.

The Eucharist was instituted by Jesus himself on one of the most important holy days of the Israel’s calendar. Look through the Old Testament and you will find an elaborate list of rituals, customs, special days and other such details down to the tiniest of minutia of how to worship the God of Israel. As Christians, we know that we are no longer bound by such things and that God has given us great liberty in how we worship him (my Eastern Orthodox friends will disagree with that point). Jesus did, however, instruct us to “do this in remembrance of me” on an incredibly important holy day, and on the night just before he was betrayed and crucified.

If Jesus does not demand that we obey the innumerable laws of Old Testament worship propriety, but he does ask this one particular sacred meal. Furthermore, he asks his disciples on very sacred day in an incredibly intimate moment the synoptic Gospel writers sought to make sure we heard about. Does this not indicate a certain kind of gravity to this sacrament? Compared to ancient Israel, the modern day Israel (Christianity) is asked very little. I like to think on this one thing we can get it right.

Christ is physically present through the sacrament. This last point is a point I suspect that most people reading this blog will not share. I do not believe that that Eucharist is only remembrance of Christ’s death and Resurrection, but that Christ is physically present through the sacrament. In other words, I accept the doctrine of “real presence” and it is an important part of devotional life. Because of this, the centrality of the Eucharist has become fairly straight forward for me: if the Eucharist is the presence of God, why would anything other than the presence of God be central?

I realize that this point is clearly a point of contention. I do not have the space to expand on a defense of this point. I really do understand how weird it is to say “I eat the body of Christ on Sundays.” It took me a long time to really get it myself. I can leave my readers with this small thought: is there not a strange silence on John 6 in many evangelical circles? Very, very few times have I heard this passage even addressed –much less exegeted- by people who do not believe in the real presence. When they do, they usually explain what Jesus didn’t mean when he said “I am the bread of life,” but do not explain what they think he did mean and why.

No, I do not expect everyone reading this blog to be persuaded. I admit that scripture is ambiguous on this issue. Nonetheless, John 6 really tipped the scales for me.

In any case, the centrality of the Eucharist is something I will never get away from. Even as I attend Mosaic West LA I must frequently return to a local Lutheran Church or Mountainside Communion to really feel like I worship fully. The truly communal experience and physical, tangible, presence of God are things that can be found there, and is sadly missing in much of Evangelicalism.

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Comments
  1. Q says:

    >Two things:First, I still think you're falling into a dualist trap, though an odd one. To say that the 'real presence' makes a difference in Eucharist celebration is to assume that physical things are better than spiritual things. Christ is present in the Eucharist; physically or spiritually is a moot point. So I still think it is irrelevant to the argument.Second: show me in scripture (the entire canon) where the emphasis is on a shared meal as the central act of the Church. I understand your point that this was personally instituted by Christ, but your focus is on one day. The entire life of Christ – and the further ministry of the Holy Spirit – is on the proclamation of Christ's reconciliation offered to the world. That is the central ministry of the church. Not only do you find that as the central point of the Gospels, Acts, Paul's letters, and the rest of the New Testament, but you also find the hints of it in the Old Testament. The overwhelming central ministry of the Church (and why it is and rightfully should be central to church services) is the proclamation of the Word to the world.There are actually huge consequences to placing Eucharist which are too dense to expand on here, but the nutshell is that the Church runs the risk of replacing culture for Gospel. Western culture (or the way of doing the Church according to western culture) becomes the norm rather than the Gospel, which constantly challenges, redirects, and reorients the Church back to God. Eucharist does not and was never intended to fill that role.I'd challenge you to look through Scripture to see what the central ministry of the Church is. I guarantee you it's in the proclamation of the Word, not Eucharist.

  2. Dan says:

    >I want to thank you for publishing this post because it helped me understand your thoughts better than the last post. I still disagree, but as you have stated, now is not the time for offense or defense. You presented your case well.

  3. Jin-roh says:

    >Q, thanks for being my foil and commenting as you have.I think I actually would need to understand the position the Presbyterians take on this, and why preaching is central on a Sunday Worship service. Maybe it's your turn to write a nice blog?You know I'm a lousy protestant anyway. 🙂

  4. Stu says:

    >This is basically the Orthodox understanding of Holy Communion. I've got your back on this one, Joel.

  5. Q says:

    >My position is actually more of an ecumenical position than a denominational one (ecumenical here meaning World Council of Churches). My argument is a missional one. It's also heavily influenced by the class I took my first year here that studied George Linkbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, Reinhard Hutter, and Karl Barth in depth, particularly about ecclesiology and mission. The first three guys all focus on sacraments as central to worship, and ultimately the churches that put the centrality of Christian life on the Eucharist end up having mission programs that expand western culture rather than the Gospel. Lesslie Newbigin, Andrew Walls, and Lamin Sanneh can be helpful here.Presbyterians (at least PC(USA)) is moving in a more missional direction, but especially East Coast Presbyterians have a pretty high liturgy. West Coast Presbyterians are a different story. But again, the importance of the sermon and preaching stems back to Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. And the main thrust of preaching was to proclaim the Word (though their motivation was in reaction to the Catholic church more than a missional emphasis). One could argue that we don't necessarily need to take Calvin and Luther as seriously now because their reaction stemmed from the Catholic church essentially taking away the Bible from their congregants, but most of our society is literate now and can read the Bible on their own. Then again, all I need to do is point to the Left Behind series, Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes to emphasize the need for GOOD biblical interpretation and preaching based upon that interpretation.If I write a post on this, it will probably be in awhile since I have a lot on my plate right now. But I'm not even necessarily arguing that preaching has to be the central practice of worship (though it's important). It's rather that there is a danger in centering the entire life of worship on something that is internal. The Bible never suggests that the central ministry of God is personal improvement of humans. Overwhelmingly it is God reconciling the world to God's self and commanding humanity to participate in that ministry (i.e. mission). Missio Dei is another way of talking about it. Barth also talked about it in this way (if you want REALLY dense reading, you can read Church Dogmatics 4.3.2, which basically fleshes out his thinking on this). So Eucharist should always serve mission and strengthen the Church to engage in mission. If it's the central act of worship and becomes primary over mission, then it becomes dangerous.I can send you an article about it if you want by J.C. Hoekendijk from the 1950s. It's a great article, pretty short, that explains what I'm trying to say well and with more support.

  6. Eric Gregory says:

    >Jin-Roh:As an Episcopalian, I have your back as well (though it'd be odd to "fight" over this issue).I would contend, against Q, that the centrality of worship is necessarily communion with God. We are by no means "communing" with God when we merely hear the word preached (especially when less-than-gifted orators take the stage). That isn't to say that we don't hear God, or that the Spirit isn't at work, but simply that we are not feasting on God if we make that feast out of words alone. Q's supposition that it is the central work of the church to "spread the word" is at best ambiguous – a definition of "the word" is needed as even Q does not defend "preaching" as the central part of church.The idea that liturgical churches which emphasize Communion/Eucharist as the central act of worship somehow spread only culture is inane – I would argue exactly the opposite as "spreading the word" in its normal form for PCUSA tends to look a lot like spreading the theory of penal substitutionary atonement – something entirely Western and rejected in both the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches. When one takes "sola Scriptura" to it's fullest extent (e.g. to the exclusion of all else) what you have is a thoroughly Western understanding of the world in which experience and history do not matter, only a blind faith in a text (written by who knows how many people) rather than a relationship with the one true God.The idea that there is, as Calvin's lifelong goal was to prove, a single way to understand the whole of Scripture is a bit misguided. Systematic theology, though we all yearn for a formal and linear way to understand Scripture, doesn't allow breathing room for varied atonement theologies or the sort of story-telling by which the Jewish oral traditions share truth. Indeed, even the Great Commission instructs us to "make disciples" not simply "spread the word" – we are called to baptize people, not to talk at them.As one who participates weekly in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist, I, as Christ asked us to do, partake of "this – his flesh" and "this – his blood" in remembrance of the saving work of the Cross that we are all called to. There's more to dive into here (why "bread" and "wine" are important over and against "wafers" and "juice"), but I think this is sufficient so far.

  7. Q says:

    >To summarize briefly:- "The Word" means Gospel, the good news of the Reconciliation of God offered in Jesus Christ. That's not the same things as the gospels, to clarify.- While I'm not offering a single interpretative method understanding the Bible, the central aim of the Church is to be a witness. Again, it's dense, but go to Church Dogmatics 4.3.2; Barth spells it our very well that vocation of all Christians is to witness. He summarizes it this way, talking of the Church:"If even in the most holy reserve and modesty and prudence [the Church] prefers to fold its hands and therefore to rest in itself, it is certainly not the true Church. The true Church may sometimes engage in tactical withdrawal, but never strategic. It can never cease wholly or basically from activity in the world. It does not ever exist intermittently, nor … only partially, as the sent community, but always and in all its functions it is either leaping out or on the point of leaping out to those to whom it is sent. In every respect, even in purely inner activity like prayer and the liturgy and the cure of souls and biblical exegesis and theology, its activity is always ad extra. … It is recognised as the true Church in this venture of obedience. Self-criticism in the Church is meaningful and fruitful only if it does not arrest it in this venture but stimulates and impels it afresh and as never before. And only as it makes this venture can it be sure of the forgiveness of its sins. The world exists in self-orientation; the Church in visible contrast cannot do so."Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.2, Section 72, pg 780.- It would take too much space to respond to how sole focus on the sacraments inevitably leads to proselytizing and the spread of western culture rather than conversion to the Gospel. I'd point you to "The Church in Missionary Thinking" and "The Call to Evangelism" by J. C. Hoekendijk (both found in the International Review of Missions). Anything by Walls though is fairly enlightening. The short answer is that the Church doesn't live for the Church's sake, it lives for the world's sake. If Eucharist is not practiced or directed toward the Missio Dei, it is ultimately not serving the call of the Church. That's not to say we shouldn't practice the Eucharist, but it means we have to get back to what the Eucharist is about: witness to the Gospel for the world.- I'd like to reiterate that while I'm Presbyterian, my position represents an ecumenical understanding. Again, I'd point you to documents from the World Council of Churches (available on their website), one of which is "Baptism, Eucharist, and Mission" (called BEM for short). Eucharist is certainly important, don't get me wrong, but again, I'd challenge you to find in scripture where it says the centrality of the Christian life lies in communion with God through Eucharist. When I read scripture, I see the centrality of Christian life as witness to the Gospel. Luke 24:46-48, "He told them, 'This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning with Jerusalem. You are my witnesses of these things'" John 20:21b-22 "'Just as the Father sent me, so I send you.' And with that he breathed on him and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'" Acts 1:8 "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…" I Cor 11:26 "For whenever you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. There's a lot more I could point to, but I will leave it at that.So much for a brief summary. :-\

  8. Jin-roh says:

    >Yeah Q, there is no such thing as a short summary when you quote Karl Barth!

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