Grace, Truth, and Eucharist in an Age of Disposable People

Grace, Truth, and Eucharist in an Age of Disposable People December 14, 2017


I was originally going to write something about Roy Moore and the 81% of white evangelical Alabama voters who said they supported him in the exit survey for the Alabama special election. I was trying to figure out the best angle to score another viral post and chalk up another win for my ideological team. For many years, the purpose of my theology has been to prove the fundamentalists wrong. I have ached and longed for the evidence that would repudiate and dismiss the fundamentalists utterly and completely. But the more I’ve seen it this year, the more I’ve felt disgusted and unsure of myself.

This past year, Donald Trump has been such a gift to every argument I have ever made. He is the proof of every white male evil I have named. And his ascendancy has helped galvanize the apocalyptic reckoning that has overthrown one powerful white man after another. There are men who have done despicable things. It is despicable to grab a woman’s ass while you’re taking a picture together just because you can. It is despicable that that disgusting violation of another person’s body is on the milder end of the spectrum of what too many powerful white men have gotten away with doing for so long.

I rejoice that truth is breaking forth and that some semblance of justice is somewhat starting to happen. This fall I’ve also been haunted by moments in my own past when I pushed for more after a woman drew a boundary. And I’ve wondered if what I did was enough to show up in somebody else’s #MeToo. I’ve had hushed conversations with students who confessed a range of ways they violated someone else’s body. Our campus ministry started a men’s group because we realized that the default assumptions for men in our culture about the “game” of pursuing sexual intimacy can cause even nice guys to be predators by default.

There’s a taboo question that’s arisen in my mind as I’ve watched the downfalls of Kevin Spacey, Al Franken, Matt Lauer, and the rest. It’s a question that stubbornly refuses to leave my heart as a Christian. Are they irredeemable? I’m *not* asking whether they deserve to have uninterrupted public careers or whether we should we focus our attention on pitying them. But rather something like this: if I had been Kevin Spacey’s friend before the word got out about what he did, would it be my duty to humanity and righteousness to cast him out of my life upon learning the truth?

I’ve had taboo private conversations about these matters with progressive Christian leaders who do not share my gender, race, or sexuality but share my unease about what we recognize to be the disposability of people in our time. This disposability is itself the evil we are protesting when we denounce the casual, devastating dishonor of sacred human bodies that sexual violence inflicts. Should we dispose of people who treat other people disposably by warehousing them in prisons to rot and be forgotten?

Disposability also manifests itself in a different way within the arguments that characterize our postmodern age. Postmodern argument is not about persuading another person to consider a different perspective. It’s about proving that the other person’s credibility is not worthy of engagement, that their views and indeed their entire humanity can be thrown away. Nothing is not ad hominem anymore.

According to the exit poll data, the reason why 81% of white evangelical voters in Alabama supported Roy Moore was not because they consciously hate women and think pedophilia is fine. It was because of the ease with which they throw away the credibility of what they label “fake news” from the “opposition” and the resentment with which they react to being thrown away themselves. Though they self-identify as Christians and hopefully act Christlike toward people in their personal lives, their relationship to the universe’s truth is completely encased in postmodern tribalism. Disposable people dispose of other people’s truths. That is the total depravity of the human condition today. It is the opposite of living within the safety of grace and truth that the church is supposed to be creating.

When I talk about the grace and truth that’s supposed to be the fruit of the church, I cannot avoid speaking with a sense of bitter personal failure. This fall has been one of my most difficult seasons in ministry. Without disclosing details, my clumsy inability to foster grace and truth was laid bare. But through the grace of God, this failure has been the means by which God has forced me to my knees to meditate on those two simple, powerful words that are everything Christianity has to offer in the body and blood of Jesus Christ that instantiate our community.

I’ve often felt farcical when I stand in front of my student congregation holding up the small Hawaiian roll that we use as our twenty person Eucharist. Because of our casual setting, it hasn’t seemed right to do liturgy out of a book which means that my off-the-cuff words are supposed to do justice to the body and blood that supposedly heals the world. I’m part of a podcast whose name Crackers and Grape Juice expresses the ambivalence I feel about the capacity of anything I can hold and break in my hands to do what we claim that Eucharist does.

It’s trendy to talk about Eucharist these days in Christian hipsterdom, especially within the post-evangelical narrative of leaving behind the otherworldly intangible religion of abstract dogmatic truth for the tangible truth of bread and wine. If you’re writing a blog post and you’re having trouble landing the plane, say something about Eucharist to “tie it all together.” I’ve done it multiple times. Eucharist is the higher moral ground in every argument. It solves everything, just like “vulnerability” and “empathy,” the other two buzz words of our age.

The church where I go on Sunday mornings has a preacher who’s a bit wild and goofy. Sometimes I roll my eyes at the things he says. But when I consider the two sacraments we have in United Methodism, I think he expresses their meaning more precisely than anyone else I’ve heard. Every time we baptize someone, he does it as part of the children’s sermon and he has the kids in the church repeat after him to the newest church member: “You’re with us now!” Later in the service, he often concludes his grown-up sermons with another favorite phrase that applies to the weekly Eucharist that follows: “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

You’re with us now! God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it! Both statements are amazing promises about finding belonging amidst a world that teaches us to throw other people away when they’re on the other side of the debate or we get bored with them or they ruffle our feathers too much. That’s the kind of perfect belonging Eucharist is supposed to create in this strange reality we call the body of Christ. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he warns against partaking of Eucharist without examining ourselves thoroughly. Though I believe that God’s grace can work through anything, I don’t think we should dismiss Paul’s concern that a glib, presumptuous attitude about receiving Jesus’ body and blood actually constitutes “eating and drinking judgment upon ourselves” (1 Cor 11:29). I don’t think we’re going to hell if we do it, but maybe it does more harm than good.

Eucharist is a farce in a church where everyone is nice because nobody ever says anything that matters enough to be uncomfortable. Eucharist is a farce when it’s snatched by greedy, entitled hands that will soon be back to hammering out self-righteous diatribes on Facebook in the life liturgy that actually defines them. Eucharist is a farce if it is an individualistic act of spiritualism undertaken by an assembly line of strangers rather than the thematic centerpiece of an ordered community life that makes people into God’s family.

Paul says, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). Those aren’t just lines for a pastor to mumble through while the congregation’s eyes glaze over. If we participate in the blood of Christ, that means that we bleed also! If we participate in the body of Christ, that means that we are connected to other Christians in an inextricable enough way that pulling us apart would be like ripping a limb off someone’s body! To receive Eucharist after having “discerned the body of Christ” means being willing to bleed for the sake of remaining interlocked with the other people who have eaten from the same loaf and drunk from the same cup.

For most of the Christian church’s existence, there was no question that what goes into the mouths of everyone who receives Eucharist is actually physically Jesus himself. And for that reason, nothing about the elements of Eucharist can ever be thrown away. Because Jesus cannot be thrown away. I’m not sure whether or not the Roman church’s continued fastidiousness about the physical elements of Eucharist translates into a meticulous concern for the belonging of every human who has eaten and drunk Jesus. But what if we really did treat every person in our churches as someone who has received and actually become part of Jesus’ body and blood? What if we thus operated under the premise that nobody is disposable which means we are determined to have whatever difficult conversations need to be had and negotiate whatever difficult boundaries need to be formed in order to avoid ever throwing anyone away?

That’s the foundation that is needed to establish a space where grace and truth reign. Grace and truth can only happen amidst people who have decided that working things out and staying together is more important than winning or being comfortable. This doesn’t mean that bullies and predators are not held accountable, confronted directly with the truth, and prevented from causing harm. It does mean that our purpose in calling out falsehood with the truth is to create safety and belonging, not to shame others and please ourselves with cynicism.

Grace says I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it, just like the famous bedtime story about the runaway bunny who can do nothing to run away from his mother rabbit. A community defined by grace is a place where I can make mistakes without worrying about unexpectedly reaching my quota and getting kicked to the curb. Sometimes mistakes can be overlooked; sometimes they need to be addressed. The goal is always restoration, empowerment, and healing for all parties involved with a corrective bias toward those who are the most marginalized. Grace looks at a community through that lens and acts accordingly.

When it works, the security of belonging provided by grace makes it possible to have a safe and brave community that lives in truth. I’ve never seen an entire congregation operate this way, but I have a handful of friends with whom I know I am really that safe. In any case, I don’t think we have to wait until somebody else provides the perfect community. All that’s required is for me to unilaterally recognize the humanity of every other person who has shared in Jesus’ body and blood with me (as well as those who haven’t) and to say as far as I’m concerned, you belong and I will not throw you out.

I’m in the midst of student exam season. For the first time this year, I’ve taken essential oils to the breezeway each day where they walk through to get to their exams. The students take a fragrance like lavender or peppermint and rub it on their wrists or their faces as a means of helping them calm down and focus. This got me thinking about another saying of Paul: “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:15).

Aroma is such a perfect way to describe the kind of impact we can have in a community as people of grace and truth regardless of how others decide to act. Even if there’s raw sewage in the street like there is the American public square right now, we might not be able to clean it all up but perhaps each of us can bear our own fragrance of grace and truth to do something about the smell in the air.

Check out my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us!

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