“On the night he was betrayed he took bread, broke it, and gave it to his friends, and said, “Take, eat: This is my body, which is given for you…”” says the minister. Then he exhorts the congregation to repent. The congregants rise and approach the table. They take of the bread and drink the wine. Later they receive the benediction to go forth into the world to serve and love. And go forth they do. They sprint out of church, each to his car, some flashier than others. Each goes home, one to a stately house and another to an apartment complex. Each has supper, some of more dietary substance than others. Each goes to bed, some in peace and others to be woken by distant gunshots. Each retreats to her life, lives that may not intersect until the following Sunday.
Familiar scene for many of us Christians. Part of the problem is that we leaven the sacrament with our pervading American individualism. So when the minister exhorts us to examine ourselves, we do so individually. Have I committed adultery? Was I unkind to my neighbor? We then repent, take the bread, and go on with our lives.
What we fail to realize is that the words spoken at most communions are taken from Paul’s letter to a dysfunctional church that needed to get a grip on its blatant disunity. Paul says that because there is one bread we are also made into one body (1Cor. 10.17). Any sign of disunity should have no place at the Eucharistic table, because the sacrament clearly manifests the oneness of the body of Christ.
The church, throughout the ages, was keen in keeping this ecclesio-centric understanding of the Eucharist. From the early fathers to even some of the Reformers, they were faithful in discerning the unity of the body in the sacrament. The writings in the Didache, of Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and even Martin Luther, to name a few, make this sufficiently clear.
How should this sacrament address our present consumeristic culture? In the same letter, Paul denounced that during communion, some went hungry while others got drunk (1Cor. 11.20-21). This is not too distant from the description I provided at the start. Class divisions are a form of disunity not acceptable at the Eucharistic table.
We must recognize that it is our individualism that fuels our consumerism. After all, don’t I have the right to spend my money, for which I worked so hard, in any way I please? Yes, except that it is not my money, it is not exclusively my labor, and it should not give any Christian great pleasure in harming others. The Eucharist habituates us to see bread and wine, the fruits of our joined labor, ultimately as God’s gift, which we offer back in worship to God. And there is no harm in partaking of the Eucharist with oneness of heart, joy and thanksgiving.
On the other hand, there is great harm to the community in consuming the fruit of one’s labor without restraint. It is after all what creates class divisions, the most visible marker of our social class being the lifestyles we pursue. Our lifestyles are, in turn, a pastiche of all the stuff and ideas we purchase- a reflection of not only our taste but also our character. Thus where we allocate our money, to the very last penny, is a moral act through and through.
To see the harm that consumerism brings to a community, consider Paul’s approach to another source of division within the same Corinthian church. The Corinthians deliberated over whether Christians were allowed to eat food sacrificed to idols. Proponents excused themselves by claiming that food is food and idols are not real. But for “weak believers,” the concept reeked of idolatry. Eating the sacrificial meat must have been a strong temptation, for in ancient times, people seldom ate meat beyond sacrificial ceremonies. In response to the controversy, Paul agreed with the former party, yet still reprimanded them for tempting their weaker brothers and causing them to stumble against their consciences.
How does that past controversy speak to our current situation? Paul was explaining what’s at the heart of the gospel when applied to a specific quandary: Jesus gave up his life for you and you cannot even deny yourself a chunk of meat for the sake of your brother? In the same way, Jesus gave up his life for us and we cannot even deny ourselves a luxurious lifestyle for the sake of our brothers and sisters? Consider everything we purchase that is truly excessive. The items may seem harmless until one by one, they begin to constitute who we are- our lifestyle, our taste, our moral character, our identity. Then others follow suit because it is ingrained in us to keep up with the Joneses, and those who can’t become the inferior losers of our society. This is regrettable for our culture, when noted that the early church was not trying to keep up with the Joneses, but trying to keep up with the martyrs. Perhaps the free market, with all its blessings it has to offer, would not be in such disrepute if only people disciplined their consuming.
Excessive consumption has become a stumbling block for many a “weak believer.” The church – we – are simultaneously those who cause the stumbling by our gluttony of goods, and those who stumble by our lust of that very same gluttony. The irony of individualism is that when we stumble as individuals, we bring down others with us by default, which goes to show that individualism as an idea is false. The devouring beast of consumerism can therefore only be slayed in community, which makes the Eucharist all the more imperative.
Let us therefore break bread that we celebrate the fellowship Christ has made possible through his self-emptying on the cross, a sacrifice that puts our pretenses of grandeur to shame.
Special to Patheos from Yohan Hwang