Where the Reformation Got it Wrong about the Eucharist

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On the night of the last supper of Christ, a weary group of disciples gathered at the table. The gospel writers go out of their way to describe just how inept and clueless they were. No one there had fasted or confessed their sins or had orthodox Christology. They were troubled and filled more with doubt than faith. Their leader, Peter, was about to turn apostate. Judas had already sold Jesus out. I think it’s safe to say that they were all scared for their lives. And over the next twenty-four hours, all of them will reject Jesus. All of them. One will be so desperate to get away he’ll flee naked, a pale body fading in the darkness.

This was not an elite group of the super-faithful. They weren’t even “Christian” in the way that the word is generally used today.

Nonetheless, Jesus stood before them and offered His body and blood in the form of bread and wine. The liturgy that has been passed down in the gospels and in Paul’s letters gives scant commentary on the moment, allowing the power and the mystery of Jesus’ sacrificial language to speak for itself. From day one it was understood as grace. Ultimate grace, even. For as Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NRSV).

Despite this foundational theology at the first Lord’s Supper, the early church quickly turned it into a battleground as believers argued and fought over this sacred act. And the Eucharistic battles only escalated over the centuries. When should we celebrate communion? Every Sunday? Once a quarter? Should Easter be linked to the Passover? Should it be linked to the Jewish or Roman calendar? What about the elements? Leavened or unleavened bread? Grape juice or wine? Sacramentalist or memorialist? Open or closed service? Have you been to confessional? Fasted? Abstained from sex? What happens to the bread? Transubstantiation? Consubstantiation? Is it merely a symbol?

Perhaps the church began to stray when it became obsessed with two subjects. The first, which began as early as first century as evidenced in the Didache, was a discussion concerning the worthiness of the worshipper. Suffice it to say that it became increasingly clear that no heretics or sinners were allowed. For in worship, when the time came for communion to be served, only the spiritually elite were allowed to gather around the table. Anyone who was not in good standings with the bishop was invited to leave.

The second obsession occurred about a thousand years later when the western church debated over what happened to the bread and the cup. The word “transubstantiation” was adopted as the official position of the Roman Catholic Church, describing in a fairly technical and Aristotelian way how the substance of the bread turned into the literal flesh of Christ, while allowing the “accident” to remain bread.
But the matter was by no means settled. Over the centuries, alternative views were presented, and by the 16th century, a major fight broke out over the issue. Things got so bad that church leaders not only excluded fellow believers for disagreements over Eucharistic theology, they also tortured and killed them.

I’m not sure it’s possible to paint a picture more different than the one described in the gospels with Jesus and his disciples. But as odd as it may sound, perhaps it’s easier for us to talk about what happens to the bread and wine than it is to do the real work that communion demands, which is to follow Jesus by becoming living sacrifices.

Because for this to happen, we must focus our attention on things that makes us uncomfortable. And this is really hard to do, especially of late since it goes against the grain of popular Christian culture where the priority seems to be that worship should make us happy.

But worship isn’t about an attitude adjustment. Nor is it about exclusion. It’s about union with God. And in the context of communion, it’s about processing spiritual food for ourselves, by meditating on the Word and by listening to the Spirit. It’s hard. Very hard. Because here the truths that we learn about God must be fleshed out. For example, it is not enough to believe because you’ve been told to believe that Jesus died for your sins. You must experience it here in His presence as you agonize over a horrible mistake that you’ve made that has tragic consequences. It is not enough to believe because you’ve been told to believe that Jesus loves you. You must find Him here even though you cannot physically hug Him. You believe that God is always with you, but you will not truly believe this until you cry to Him at the table, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Many modern Christians have been led to believe that worship will satiate us, like the gorged feeling one gets after eating a super-sized combo meal. The truth is, true spiritual food, like what happens when we consume the bread and the wine, burns us, like the hot coals on Isaiah’s lips. It breaks us, like when Jacob wrestled with God and his hip was dislocated. It frightens us, as when Moses hid his face when he heard the voice speak from the burning bush. It reveals our neediness more than anything else, as Job discovered when he proclaimed, “By the hearing of the ear I heard Thee, and now mine eye hath seen Thee. Therefore do I loathe [it], And I have repented on dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6, Young’s Literal Translation).

When we consume the bread and the wine we become naked, vulnerable, compelled to draw near to a God who instills both dread and affection. Beware. When we acquiesce, WE become that which is truly transubstantiated as we share in the very passion of Christ. So that the eternal question one must ask of communion is not, am I worthy? Nor is it, what happens to the bread and the wine? Rather, what happens to me? Do I change into the flesh and blood of Jesus? If in some small way this happens, more often than not we will find ourselves walking away from the service not commenting on the preacher or the band or the drama, but silent, because we have become intimate with the One who understood Himself to be the “man of sorrows.”

Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest who suffered as one who craved intimacy but found it to be just out of reach. He spent the latter years of his life working with those challenged with mental disabilities at L’Arche-Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada. As he sought to relate to a God who always seemed distant, Nouwen, like many of us, believed that something must be wrong because of his constant battle with emptiness. And then one day, Nouwen realized that there wasn’t anything wrong with him at all. Rather, he was misunderstanding what it meant to consume the body and blood of Christ.

He writes,

When he reaches out to us and puts the bread in our hands and brings the cup to our lips, Jesus asks us to let go of the easier friendship we have had with him so far and to let go of the feelings, emotions, and even thoughts that belong to that friendship. When we eat of his body and drink of his blood, we accept the loneliness of not having him any longer at our table as a consoling partner in our conversation, helping us to deal with the losses of our daily life. It is the loneliness of the spiritual life, the loneliness of knowing that he is closer to us than we ever can be to ourselves. It’s the loneliness of faith (Robert Jonas, Henri Nouwen: Writings Selected With an Introduction by Robert A. Jonas (Modern Spiritual Masters Series), Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998, p. 91).

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Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors at kellypigott.com. Follow him on twitter @kellypigott

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