10—Theology of the Sacraments

Even among Mennonites and other “low-church” traditions, an appreciation for the sacramental practices of the broader Christian tradition has been growing.  As well, many from Christian streams that have seen the sacraments as more central to church life have become attracted to the Jesus-centered ethically oriented focus of “baptist” churches.  So, the theme of the sacraments, in particular, the Lord’s Supper or communion, requires our attention.

Communion’s symbolism

Back in the late 1970s, my wife Kathleen and I were part of a non-denominational church.  We took communion every week—in wildly varying ways.  Whoever wanted to could lead the service.  One Sunday we might have saltine crackers and cool aid.  The next would be grape juice and bread.  And every once in a while this one guy would try to get us to use regular wine—even though about half the people in the church were teetotalers!  Communion often symbolized people’s joy and enthusiasm in knowing Jesus, and in being with others who shared those feelings.  Everyone was welcome; I don’t think any of us had a very sophisticated theology of the sacraments.

Most of us in the congregation were from low-church backgrounds, many others were new Christians who hadn’t been in church much at all before.  So we didn’t have a particular formula we felt we needed to follow.  We had no desire to make communion a sacrament that required a priest to legitimate it.  Rarely, if ever, did we talk about anything happening to the elements—they were bread (or crackers) and juice, that’s all.  What mattered was that they provided an occasion for us to thank Jesus for saving us through his sacrificial death—and usually, in some sense, to express our commitment to follow him.

About the same time, Kathleen and I often visited her family in Arizona.  When we could we would go to Mass with her widowed Roman Catholic grandmother.  Gramma loved for us to accompany her.  And she loved for us to take communion with her, even though she knew we weren’t Catholics.  She said she was sure the priests wouldn’t mind, though she never asked any of them about it.

For Kathleen and me, the Mass was meaningful partly because of the connection with Gramma, partly because we liked the content of the liturgy, partly because we were pretty ecumenical in spirit and liked sharing this ritual with fellow Christians from a tradition different than ours.  However, I started learning a bit more about Catholic theology and realized that according to the teaching of the Catholic Church we were not legitimate participants.  I found this offensive and eventually began to decline to go forward to take the elements.

A number of years later, my parents retired and moved to a new community.  My father had grown up the son of a Lutheran pastor, but in the small town in Oregon where I grew up, we had no Lutheran church.  So I had never attended a Lutheran service.

In their new town, my parents now had a Lutheran church to attend.  So Kathleen and I went along the first Sunday they were there.  This was the first time in 40 years my dad had a chance to be part of the kind of church he grew up in.  When it came time for communion Kathleen and I hopped up and partook, even though the pastor said it was only for people who believed in the “real presence.”  But my parents stayed seated.

I found out later that in the church where my dad grew up, communion was open only to church members.  So he didn’t think he should take communion in this church until he joined.  As I thought about it later, I felt that part of what was symbolized both by the pastor’s statement about the need to believe in the “real presence” and, even more, by my dad’s views, was that communion could represent the church as a kind of closed club—if you believe in the right thing, or if you have a certain kind of congregational membership you can take part.  It could be kind of like a lodge; the value of my membership is heightened by the fact that some aren’t members.

Just recently, I noticed a letter in a church periodical from a seminary professor arguing against an essay that had advocated opening communion to anyone who is thirsting for God.  To open communion in this way, so that we “open the breaking of bread to people who have not made the covenant with Jesus,” is to jeopardize our understanding of the church according to this professor.  Church, it would appear, is a place where it is important to make clear distinctions between who belongs or not.  The symbolism here seems to be, in part, that communion is one place where we must clearly draw lines between in and out.

From these examples, I mostly perceive a sense of communion as a boundary marker, a way to make distinctions between worthy participants and those who, due to theology, congregational membership, or some other factor, are not worthy to partake.  The one counter example would be the chaotic practices of my old house church.  That congregation took communion very seriously, practicing it every week, but strictly as an activity symbolizing the wonders of the merciful salvation God makes available to everyone.

However, another element of communion symbolism comes to mind when I think of a good friend of mine who models faithfulness to Jesus’ gospel of peace.  This friend works hard, for justice and reconciliation both inside and outside the church.  He puts his very life on the line—in fact, he was nearly killed while witnessing for peace in Iraq in 2003.  He also puts his reputation and ministerial status on the line by welcoming sexual minorities to his congregation.

For my friend, sharing in communion is extraordinarily important as a source of spiritual sustenance.  While not formally a Roman Catholic, he feels strongly drawn to Catholic sacramental theology.  For him, communion symbolizes solidarity with other peacemaking Christians, an identification with the long Christian tradition, and his receptivity to the Spirit’s nourishment through the bread and wine.

I know many other Christians who share my friend’s convictions about peacemaking and his experience of the depth of meaning in the communion service.  So I would not want to try to drive a wedge between sacramental practices and costly discipleship—even though I am suspicious of the sacramental tradition for tending to emphasize external churchly ritual over actual deeds of justice and compassion.

The prophetic concern

Let me turn to a biblical passage that touches on my concerns as I reflect theologically on communion.  The book of Amos focuses on the spiritual state of the nation of Israel.  This people had been formed by God for the purposes of living faithfully to the message of Torah.  Amos understood that at the heart of Torah lay God’s concern for justice and equity among all the people of the community.  Community rituals were meant to encourage this justice and equity.

Instead, according to Amos, Israel had departed from the intentions of God for its common life.  A central expression of this departure could be seen in how the rituals had been delinked from the ethical core of Torah.  Shockingly, in Amos’s view, the rituals themselves became an occasion for sin.  They were not an expression of faithfulness to God but actually expressed the opposite—utter disregard to the core message of God’s will found in Torah.

Here we have the image of people who share in religious rituals as a means of demonstrating their piety to onlookers while being blind to profound social injustice.  The rituals had become ends in themselves: go to services, get blessed, and you are set.  God is in the holy sanctuary; God’s presence is mediated through the religious leader—the only demand on the believer is to show up, go through the ceremonies, and go on with life as if God’s commands for social justice are optional.

Virtually any ritual runs the risk of evolving into the kind of approach that Amos spoke so vehemently against.  When faithfulness can be equated with simply sharing in an external ritual, the ethical practices of the participant easily become marginalized, secondary, and optional.  Only in this way could we have the endless repetition of the practices Amos condemns—people of faith actively attending services while also actively participating in unjust social practices.

Communion as welcome

Let me mention yet another symbolic expression of communion.  I learned of this story from reading an encouraging book—Take This Bread by Sara Miles.  Miles grew up an atheist.  She cared deeply for justice in the world, devoting years of her life to working in Central America.  She eventually ended up in San Francisco, a bit burnt out from her work.

One Sunday she found herself attending an Episcopalian worship service.  Miles went simply to watch, not even sure what had drawn her to attend.  Then in the middle of the service, when the priest announced, “Jesus invites everyone to his table,” she found herself caught up in the movement forward and took the bread and wine.

Miles was suffering in many ways at this time.  Her father had just died unexpectedly.  The father of her daughter had separated from her.  She carried the pain of her experience in Central America.  Taking the bread and wine seemed to speak to her need, though she didn’t know how that could be.  She remained skeptical, but couldn’t stop going back to church and accepting the invitation to Jesus’ table.

About the time she accepted that she had become a Christian, an opportunity arose for her to begin a food pantry at this church.  So, as she grew in her faith and her understanding of what it meant to share at Jesus’ table, she found herself sharing food with others who also, as she had been, were hungry.

Ultimately, Miles links these two experiences inextricably together.  Jesus’ table symbolized by the communion service at Sunday worship complements Jesus’ table symbolized by sharing with hungry people at Friday food pantry. Both expressed God’s welcome: to all who hunger for spiritual wholeness and to all who simply hunger for food.

She found inspiration in stories such as Jesus feeding the 5,000, breaking bread and sharing it indiscriminately with all who were hungry for physical food.  Typically, Christians oriented more in a sacramental direction do not view this story as a precursor to the communion service.  After all, Jesus shared indiscriminately here.  He did not limit the “elements” to believers.  However, for Miles, the key points of continuity between Jesus’ sharing food in this Gospel story and her own experience of coming to his table at communion could be seen in Jesus’ compassionate response in providing nourishment in face of people’s hunger and his blessing the “elements” before sharing them with those in need.

Miles also drew inspiration from when Jesus sits down for table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, announcing that his message of healing was for all who needed their brokenness bound up (Luke 5:27-32).  Jesus provides a model for a celebration that includes at its heart sharing with people in need and welcoming “sinners” (rather than excluding them).  The food that is blessed and shared meets people’s physical needs while also symbolizing God’s welcome and promise to heal their souls.

Is God needy?

I have to mention one last kind of symbolism.  Some Christians may have a tendency to think of communion similarly to the ancient Israelites in Psalm 50.  Thinking that it is an offering to God of something God needs in order to be favorably disposed to them.

We can see two expressions of this sense of giving God something God needs.  Maybe God needs our obedience, so taking communion regularly in some sense provides God with payment so God will accept us.  Instead of the communion symbolizing and celebrating God’s mercy already shown to us, it is seen to symbolize some payment God needs in order to accept us.  This sense of communion as obligation probably reflects a kind of popular spirituality more than an explicitly articulated theological affirmation, but it is a widespread part of the meaning of communion for many regardless.

A second, more theologically developed, understanding would see that communion either symbolizes or in some sense manifests how Jesus, through his death, offered a sacrifice to a needy God.  This sacrifice satisfies God’s holiness and allows God to offer forgiveness.  Communion may be seen as necessary for the Christian in order that we may be covered through the sacramental act, by the needed sacrifice and thus protected from God’s condemnation.

The psalmist, though, makes it clear in Psalm 50 that God is not needy.  Simply offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  What God wants is gratitude for God’s bounteous mercy.  If we apply this message to our understanding of communion, we could say that communion is not something we do in order to gain God’s favor.  Rather, communion is an expression of gratitude for the favor God has already, unconditionally, granted us.  The ritual is purely a ritual of thanksgiving.

The thanksgiving is a transformative act with powerful ethical elements.  The ritual serves as a reminder, a reinforcement, a public statement, of our humanness as creatures in God’s image who thrive best in loving relationships with God and our fellow human beings.  Hence, the ritual also serves as a reminder that to be human before God is to resist and seek to overcome all the forces in the world that break relationships and oppress our fellow humans.

Sorting through the symbols

So where does this cacophony of symbols (note, s-y-m-b-o-l-s) leave us?  Communion can symbolize God’s mercy, God’s empowerment for peacemaking, communities of generosity and support.  Communion can also symbolize boundary lines between insiders and outsiders; communion can symbolize human efforts to find assurance of God being on our side.

Let me suggest this.  No human ritual is in and of itself sacred.  God is not to be evoked mechanistically, through the performance of some specific ritual that guarantees God’s presence when the correct words are recited and the appropriately credentialed leaders officiate.

We could say, instead, that rituals may provide a context for encouragement to love.  We should see our practice of communion in the Christian churches as continuing in the line of the biblical practices of keeping Torah, especially keeping the Sabbath.  Jesus gave us definitive guidance when he asserted that human beings are not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for human beings.

The purpose of the Sabbath from the start was to serve human wellbeing, not to be ritual that works as an end in itself.  Sabbath observance began, according to the story, as a political statement: the Hebrews were free from slavery.  After their-liberation, they were to live as free people.  To symbolize this freedom, they were to keep the Sabbath—a time for rest, communal fellowship, and worship of God.  The on-going practice of Sabbath observance meant to remind the people of God’s mercy and of God’s radical transformation of their social lives.

We may say the same thing about communion.  Certainly for Christians, as well as for Jews, the radical memory of God’s liberation in the exodus and creating the community of God’s people as a light to the nations remains central.  Complementing the memory of the exodus, Christians also point to the liberation effected by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—liberation memorialized in the communion service.

So, I do not believe we should focus on communion as the ritualistic re-enactment of Jesus’ death as a necessary sacrifice that brings about salvation by enabling God to offer forgiveness in a way God could not before.  Rather, the Lord’s Supper may better be linked with the liberation Jesus himself evoked when he talked about his impending death as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  “Ransom” was used in the Old Testament as a metaphor for the liberation of God’s people (see Exodus 6:6; 15:13; Isaiah 43:1-7; 44:21-23).

Communion, as with Sabbath observance and Torah in general, best serves its purpose when it is understood as a human response to God’s mercy.  This response, like all life-fostering ritual, helps make concrete the experience of healing that God offers.  This evocation of God’s healing mercy is why we do well to hold the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes and sharing meals with tax collectors and sinners together with the story of his sharing his “last supper” with his disciples.

The stories of these meals all add important dimensions to the meaning of our communion service.  The feeding of the multitudes reminds us that Jesus indeed cares about actual food and actual hunger.  And this care reflects his inviting disposition that out of compassion welcomed all to hear his word and be nourished both spiritually and physically.  The sharing meals with sinners reminds us that Jesus meant to reach out to and welcome people on the margins, just as they were.  The “last supper” underscores the cost of following Jesus’ way of mercy and justice.  It is a reminder of his call to his followers to take up our crosses, sharing his life of resistance to tyrannies.  The “last supper” also points to the importance of a coherent community as the host for the on-going remembrance of Jesus’ message.

Ultimately, Jesus’ message underscored the heart of the message of Torah.  We have been noticing throughout these essays the centrality of his great commandments to love God and neighbor.  Let us remember Jesus’ affirmation that these commandments summarize the core message of the law and prophets.  This love is what Torah (and our rituals) should foster.  As Abraham Heschel wrote, “Above all, the Torah asks for love—love of God and love of neighbor—and all observance is training in the art of love.”  I believe that our task is to work at making the rituals work in this way.

Rituals serve the call to love when they make us aware of God’s presence.  With our doctrine of the Holy Spirit, we affirm that God is always everywhere present.  But we don’t always realize that.  Rituals can remind us, open us up, heighten our awareness.

This is basically what I understand “sacrament” to mean, some act that makes us aware of God’s presence in ways that serve our call to love.  Some have said that singing together is a quintessential Mennonite sacrament.  Maybe potlucks are too.  Certainly sharing generously with a person in need or finding reconciliation in the face of damaged relationships—these fit the definition of “sacrament.”

Maybe then we could say that to live “sacramentally” is not so much about constantly sharing in official church rituals.  Surely such rituals do have the potential to heighten our awareness of God’s presence when practiced with care.  More so, though, living sacramentally has a lot to do with an openness to perceiving God in all our social interactions.

When we think about sacraments as if Jesus matters, we will not privilege any particular rituals as “objectively” evoking God’s presence simply because they are authorized by church hierarchies or because they follow certain prescribed formulae.  All rituals and all other attempts to evoke God’s presence face the same test.  Do they help us love God and neighbor?  Do they foster healing and reconciliation?  Do they empower us to see Jesus and to follow in his way?

Sometimes formal Christian rituals (the traditional “sacraments”) do pass this test—and sometimes they do not.  Our challenge is always to hold together the life-giving elements with the ritualistic practices.

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