A Feast of Meanings: Theology of the Eucharist (Part 1)

I’m starting a series on the Eucharist based on some lectures and writing I’ve done recently. Here is the first installment.

For 2000 years one of the most visible emblems of historical Christianity has been that believers have ordinarily met together to share an extraordinary meal, celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, varyingly called the “breaking of bread”, “communion”, the “Lord’s Table”, the “Lord’s Supper”, an “agape feast,” and my favourite term the “Eucharist”.[1] It is genuinely sad that this meal, which is meant to be a sign of unity within the church, has been a point of fierce and enduring divisions. It has separated Catholics and Protestants from each other. It has also separated Lutheran, Free, and Reformed churches from each other as well. Many pressing questions arise such as: In what way is Jesus present in the bread and wine? What benefit does one get in partaking? Should we call it a “sacrament” or an “ordinance”? Who can preside at communion? How often should communion be held and who can attend?  These are hard questions and we cannot shy away from them.

The reason why we cannot avoid these questions and retreat into a meal-less and symbol-less Christianity is because too much is at stake in the Eucharist. The meaning of Eucharist is ultimately anchored in a story, in fact, the story. It is a snap shot of the grand narrative about God, Creation, the Fall, Israel, the Exile, the Messiah, the Church, and the Consummation. Eucharist is ultimately a microcosm of our theology as what we think about gospel, salvation, and community, impacts our theology of the Eucharist. The bread and the wine tell a story about God, redemption, Jesus, and salvation. Tom Wright suggests, “The question for us must be: how can we, today, get in on this story? How can we understand this remarkable gift of God and use it properly? How can we make the best of it?”[2] I propose that the Eucharist is the gospel meal for the gospelizing community. It is the celebration of the new covenant, the new exodus, and our new hope in the Lord Jesus.  The Eucharist is essentially remembering Jesus’ death, reinscribing the story of Jesus’ passion with paschal imagery, restating the promises of the new covenant, rehearsing the victory of Jesus over sin and death, and refocusing our attention towards the parousia of the Lord Jesus. It is with a renewed understanding of Eucharist that we may propose a radical praxis for the way that we perform this meal with our brothers and sisters in the Messiah Jesus. Yet before we starting thinking how we can maximize gospel unity in the gospel meal, there’s an awful lot of desert we have to trek through first.

[1] The word “eucharist” comes from the Greek eucharistia meaning “thanksgiving”.

[2] Tom Wright, The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2002), 34.

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