Lesson 18: Communion

Holy CommunionThe church has always maintained that one place where the Risen Christ encounters us is in the Eucharist. In the gospels, Jesus was constantly sharing meals and this has continued with his coming to us in the Communion meal.

One of our readers, Paul,  has observed that my treatment of this challenged two theories of the atonement that many associate with the Communion meal. He’s right that I find it hard to believe anyone in the 21st century really lives by the blood sacrifice theory. It maintains God is satisfied by a sacrifice that Jesus performs for us on the cross and that sacrifice is manifested every time we celebrate the communion meal.

I find the second theory to be even more irrelevant and counter to Jesus’ teachings. The penal substitution theory sees God demanding that each of us completely lives by his law or pay the penalty of being eternally separated from his presence. Supposedly, the sinless Jesus pays that penalty for us sinners and we celebrate his dying for our sins by thanking him every time we commune.

Now, of course, the two theories are far more subtle and involved. However, whenever I hear someone spouting them, I remember a conversation with a Nobel laureate friend. I was trying to make an argument for this kind of atonement when he interrupted with “Fritz, you have to realize you are engaging in an intellectual exercise based on utter nonsense.”

Ever since, I have been very careful relying on ancient theological arguments. The experience with my friend reminded me theology is an attempt to give meaning to religious experience. It fails in our time if it cannot explain an encounter someone has with Christ in terms that make sense in our scientific age. It especially fails if it allows us to excuse ourselves from living according to what Jesus teaches in the gospels.

I find it far more accurate, consistent, and meaningful to talk about atonement in the context of God’s unconditional love. The gospels talk about God coming to live among us because he loves us. Jesus teaches that God is like a father who forgives us because he loves us. From this perspective, the cross and resurrection mark God’s refusal to let our sin overcome his love. The sacrament is then one place where the Risen Christ encounters us with his unconditional love.

The Bible lends support to a theory of atonement in which God transforms us by capturing our hearts. In fact, his relationship with humanity is often described as a love affair in which two are made one. Modern people seem to grasp this easily when they celebrate Christmas by acknowledging that God becoming one with us inspires our feeling of oneness with other people. At least for a brief period, we find ourselves living that way.

The challenge is to express this in the theology and practice of the sacrament. I think that begins with being conscious of what we say. My non-Christian friends say talking about eating the body of Christ sounds like cannibalism to them.  My confirmation classes snickered thinking of a sexual act in their dirty jokes. Also, resorting to theories as transubstantiation or any other that focuses only on the elements divert us from discerning Christ’s living presence among us. Better to build our theology on Jesus’ promises to be present, the ability of remembering to make present, acknowledging the Body of Christ, not only as the bread, but also all the beloved gathered around the table sharing it, and so much more. Our younger scholars should be encouraged to be creative as they build on our tradition.

As far as practice goes, we all know it is difficult to maintain a meal setting in large churches especially during a pandemic. However, the circumstance might give us an opportunity to evaluate various options for expressing a community sharing a meal with the Risen Christ rather than individuals receiving a magic pill. Although everyone eating at the same time at their places has its problems, so do individuals receiving elements from a priest one at a time. Standing in a circle around the altar table might be preferred, but perhaps just talking about trying to do the best we can might serve to make the point that the risen living Christ is among us when we break bread together.  This is more than an occasional drop-in from heaven during a ritual.

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