Sunday, April 24, 2011

Eucharist: Gratitude, Community, Civil Disobedience- II

A Devolving Sacrament

The textual history reflected in scripture above evidences the developmental history of the theology of the Eucharist. From its beginning as a celebratory communal meal,

• It loses its communal context

• It loses the actual meal and the act of eating together

• It becomes focused on sinfulness

• It becomes tribal

• it becomes polemical

• it becomes secondary to other narratives and theological concerns

I believe the Eucharist has changed to our detriment as followers of Jesus. These changes include the following shifts:

Community-Focus to Self-Absorption: Paul was insistent that Jesus saw the Eucharist in terms of community, not self-gratification. Paul’s Jesus (admittedly a result of hearsay given that Paul never knew Jesus) states that if you feel the need to focus on yourself and your own desires, eating all you want to the exclusion of others or drinking your fill (to the point of drunkenness) while others have nothing to drink, stay home. That understanding is lost in this evolution which comes to focus on sinfulness, tribal participation and individual salvation. Even sadder, a full meal becomes reduced to fish food wafers and an occasional drop of wine which themselves over the centuries became fetishized and idolatrized.

Gratitude to Existential Angst: The shift from a communal meal of gratitude to a focus on sin and forgiveness is also an enormous loss. The Eucharistic meal was a time of celebration, not self-focused breast beating. The concern was not “Will I get to go to heaven?” - an inherently egocentric focus which I would say evidences sin in itself– but rather “Who is my brother and sister and how can we live together in community as Jesus taught us?” The focus was on this community, this world.

In short, the eucharist reflected the Way of Jesus with its very Jewish focus on this life, on that about which we can be sure and over which we have much control. It was not driven by speculative existential anxiety about afterlife that may or may not actually exist (even as we hope that it does). These shifts in the understanding of the Eucharist reflect an implicit rejection of the religion of Jesus and the embracing of a religion which purports to be about Jesus but in all actuality shows little evidence of his life, his values or his practice.

The Oxymoron of Closed Communion: The rejection of an inclusive community for the gathering of the righteous within the circled wagons of the tribe is perhaps the greatest damage done to Eucharistic practice. A friend of mine who is a sister in the Catholic Sisters of Providence is prone to say that “Roman Catholic is an oxymoron; it’s either catholic (universal) or it’s not.” I certainly agree with her. But I would take it one step further: any practice of closed communion is by definition an oxymoron. It’s either communion or it’s not.

In all honesty, I find it odd to be taking what is an essentially Reformer’s position here regarding the Eucharist, a liturgical practice that for most Protestants is generally truncated at best if not ignored altogether. In all fairness, the myth of a Golden Age of the “Early Church” in which a pure religion was practiced, a religion captured in the Bible only to be later corrupted by Roman Catholicism, is not terribly credible for anyone with even a cursory knowledge of church history. In all honesty, I am much inclined to agree with my independent Catholic priest friend who remarks “I could more easily be a Buddhist than a Baptist.” But I do think there is something to be said in this particular case for looking seriously at the pre-institutional church practices of Eucharist in communities seeking to follow the Way of Jesus.

Civil Disobedience

Last weekend I attended the Jesus Seminar on the Road up at the Church of the Resurrection in Longwood. The Eucharistic practice related in St. Paul’s First Corinthians excerpt was the subject of some parting comments there by biblical scholar (and self-acknowledged Roman Catholic) Bob Miller. He noted that in this excerpt, the passing of the bread and wine are separated by a full meal in which everyone is able to eat their fill. It is only after everyone is full that the cup is passed with the exhortation that it is in this activity of eating together as community that Jesus is remembered. Jesus, the self-described “human one,” becomes real, becomes present when human beings eat and drink together as community in his name.

Contextually, this runs completely counter to the Empire of Caesar in which Paul and the community at Corinth resided. In the Roman Empire (and I would say in its American counterpart as well) the poor are poor because they are necessary to produce the excesses enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful. The hungry are hungry because those at the top of the pyramid of exploitation have more than enough.

Profits are made by not paying workers the value of their labor, according to both Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Taxes are paid by those at the bottom because the wealthy who make the laws exempt themselves from the duties of supporting the society which produces their privilege. (Are you listening, Congressman Ryan?) The stratification of the population into a tiny minority of the wealthy enjoying their privilege at the expense of vast numbers of poor and starving people is part and parcel of Caesar’s exploitative empire. The anawim, Aramaic for the poor and the oppressed at the bottom of the pyramid, are necessary for the empire to work serving essentially as disposable and interchangeable cogs in an exploitative machine.

The communal meal of “G-d’s Empire” (as the Jesus Seminar translates the Greek basilaea) occurs in the face of Caesar’s Empire. It not only reverses the values of that empire, it emphatically rejects them in practice. At a very basic level, the sharing of communal meals which include everyone without question and in which everyone eats their fill without exception is an act of civil disobedience. It violates - and thus draws into question - both the social order of the Empire as well as the religious institutions – with their hierarchies of righteousness - which legitimate that order. In G-d’s Empire the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. In G-d’s Empire, everyone has a place at G-d’s table.

That kind of good news could change the world. It could also get a guy killed.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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