Where the Reformation Got it Wrong about the Eucharist

Where the Reformation Got it Wrong about the Eucharist October 29, 2015


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).

Image Courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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

Browse Our Archives

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

15 responses to “Where the Reformation Got it Wrong about the Eucharist”

  1. Snark, bad. Ritual cannibalism, good.

    That’s the ethic of Bad Jesus in a nutshell.

    Hector Avalos (2015) The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. Sheffield Phoenix Press. sheffieldphoenix.com/showbook.asp?bkid=294

  2. Since you’re not a Christian, don’t comment. Go comment on things that concern you.

  3. Dear professor Pigott, I admit to being troubled.

    In my reading, your historical analysis is so suspiciously shallow it might tempt the reader into believing that you are using the facts to suit a preconceived agenda. I got as far as “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.” Come, now, the Didache doesn’t say this; in fact, there is no mention of a bishop in the Didache. Such a sweeping misrepresentation strains credibility.

    The only mention of barring people from the Eucharist (if the Didache is talking about the same thing as the Lord’s Supper, which is not very clear, as there is no mention of the Verba which are repeated four times in Scripture as foundational to the Lord’s Supper) concerns baptism, not obedience (except by inference, as baptism was clearly a process requiring discipline and obedience). The Didache does say: “But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, ‘Give not that which is holy to the dogs.'”

    Of course, this is not the only ancient criteria we can find to bar some from the Lord’s Supper. It is ancient tradition to excommunicate – that is, keep away from the Lord’s Supper – those who are public scandals and refuse to repent. That is, some people need first to confess they have been, I don’t know, sleeping with their father’s wife, and should stop? But that’s crazy, because you lead us to believe that the Bible would have mentioned such debates and concerns.

    Except it does (1 Cor 5). Why? Because Communion is not about an oath of sacred obedience to a higher life of spiritual ethics – which is your conclusion and yet is the very behavior you object to. Your indictment of various Eucharistic theologies fails because your concept of Eucharist is entirely embedded in the transformative justifying act without any willingness to accept that this act happens to give a sign for the gift of faith to cling to. You end in turning the miraculous transformation of a sinner to a saint because of the work of Jesus Christ into a call to obedience. The question is, why? Why are you so worried that we might not be working hard enough, if you believe that Jesus is the one who transforms us? And if Jesus is transforming us and we cannot do much about it, what comes of this article’s emphasis on thinking more regarding whether we have really been changed?

    Let us pray together upon it, dear friend in Christ. Let us together consider why, in protesting the rules barring some from the table, you have decided to put all at the table under another rule. May the Spirit of Jesus guide us. Peace be with you and all the saints.

  4. Problem: John 6 is not about Communion and is not cited during most Eucharistic liturgies. This video critique smacks of incomprehension.

    Edit: Having looked at the description of your “Bad Jesus” material, I feel safe in saying that at least the same limit applies to it. To say nothing of the implication: 1. that sin and error are inseparable from humanity in itself (which makes attempts to address error meaningless and thus negate ethics as a discipline); 2. that Christ’s actions being incarnated in a specific context involved him doing and saying things that don’t meet our moral standards, as though there is any value in saying something would have been good in the first century but would not be today; 3. that the purpose of the Gospel writings is primarily to present an accurate record of Jesus rather than an articulation of the good news about Jesus to a first-century audience.

    Unfortunately this will seem dismissive, but so does the comment above.

  5. Comprehend this:

    …the passage may be applied by them to the Eucharist as one way or method of spiritually eating and drinking the Son of man…

    John 6:53

    > this will seem dismissive

    Favor returned. I don’t really care what you say or believe about your fictional holy book. But…

    You’ve got the term “Bad Jesus” stuck in your head forever now.

  6. Gary –

    I think you kind of missed the point. You are arguing for a minimalist version of exclusion, but in so doing you are claiming that exclusion was done in good faith out of concern for the soul of the prospective communicant. That is simply not a fair representation of the way that it worked.

    As a general rule, discussions about the nature of supernatural things are veiled discussions of spiritual things – what we now call psychology, sociology and anthropology. The truth is we don’t know anything about supernatural things, but we do have some relevant knowledge about spiritual things. And if we lift those veils, which have become hiding places for ambition and domination, we end up with the kinds of spiritual concerns that Kelly was pointing to.

  7. My biggest critique is your title. You’re not just talking about the Reformation’s views of Eucharist, but *the whole Western church’s* views at one time or another. Watch some Catholic post this as an anti-Reformation polemic without reading it, when in reality parts of that Catholic’s own tradition are also being addressed.

  8. Sorry, but I don’t see what this post has to do with the *Reformation* — or the Reformers’ view(s) — on the eucharist.

  9. The reformation view of the Eucharist had to do with Jesus’s words. Jesus does not explain how it is that the bread and wine are his body. He just said that they are. Therefore, those who believe Jesus spoke the truth must accept these words. Reformers objected to requiring people to believe more than that.

    Now later on, there came folks who rejected the words of Jesus and wish to explain them away in the other direction by saying that there is only bread and wine and Jesus body is not there at all.

  10. I don’t think you are right about the doctrine of transubstantiation and the Catholic and Protestant churches. Until the Reformation the whole church was in agreement that the bread and wine actually transformed into the body and blood of Jesus – the difference between the Catholic and Orthodox position was that the Catholic church insisted on defining precisely how and when during the service it did so and making it a matter of doctrine, whilst the Orthodox church didn’t (and doesn’t) preferring just to assert it does, with exactly how unknowable. The Protestent churches not accepting the Aristotelian distinctions and philosophy underpinning Catholic dogma, but equally determined to define the process exactly, then resorted to abandoning the notion that the bread and wine actually are the body and blood and referring instead in various ways to Jesus being in them, or present with them instead. (Hence the resulting bloodbath.)
    I think your point is (approximately) that the reassessment of the Communion was a missed opportunity to (rather than argue over what exactly happens to the bread and wine and when) instead consider the point and meaning of the Communion itself. I agree, but disagree completely with your analysis of this.
    Firstly, the communion is a shared meal. Jesus had such meals with his disciples during his mission on earth and the last supper was simply the last of them. A shared meal is above all shared – the disciples (and us) ate with Jesus, they were not fed by him.
    Secondly, the consensus seems to be this was a Seder meal, which in Jewish tradition was a family meal, so by taking Communion together we assert we are one family with each other and with Jesus.
    Thirdly, what Jesus says after breaking and sharing the bread and after pouring out and sharing the wine is not “eat this” or “drink this” or “say these words” but “do this” – that is break the bread and pass around the wine and share them. The heart of the Communion lies in the people of God sharing food and drink together, not in an individual’s solipsistic contemplation of either themselves or God.
    Fourthly, Jesus says that he is the living bread and kiving water and those who eat and drink will not hunger and thirst. It is therefore exactly the case that the Eucharist is supposed to fortify, strengthen and satisfy us – Jesus himself said so.
    Finally, Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 is explicit as to the purpose of communion: the Church is made one and one with Christ by eating one and the same bread.
    Contrary to your quote, then, Communion is supposed to be the cure for the loneliness of faith precisely because we do have Christ as a companion to eat and drink with, and this gift is given to strengthen us in faith and feed the spirit in us.
    However (and this is doubly against your point, in my view), in 1 Corinthians 11 20-29 Paul is explicit again – we only eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, and therefore eat and drink with Christ if we eat and drink together. I suppose you might say that anyone who takes the bread and wine as an exclusive one-to-one moment between himself and Christ does not discern the body and blood – because the body and blood of Christ – indeed Christ himself – is standing / kneeling there beside him in his fellow Christian eating and drinking with him.
    Whilst I don’t want to get bogged down in mental gymnastics, perhaps two answers as to how and when it is the Eucharist becomes the body and blood of Christ are (1) the body of Christ is act of breaking and sharing the bread and pouring and sharing the wine, not the physical objects themselves, and / or (2) the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ as we consume and share them (which has the advantage of being literally as well as figuratively or spiritually true).

  11. I appreciate the thoughtful article. But, in naming the first of two areas whereby the author believes the Church focused upon the wrong subjects regarding the Eucharist, I disagree with the first.

    Wasn’t it the Apostle Paul who first admonished the Church at Corinth for taking the sacrament unworthily? Paul even instructs the Corinthians to examine themselves before participating.

    1 Corinthians 11:17-31

  12. Very thought provoking article. Particular the discussion in the beginning of the worthiness of the receivers at the last supper (First Eucharist).

Close Ad