I Didn’t Take Communion Because We Read the Bible Wrong: On Discerning the Body

Alternate title: I Refrained from Communion, Because There Was None

The Eucharist is ‘it’ for me. It’s at the center of my theology, my ecclesiology, my politics. Nothing cured me of my apathy for the elements of the Lord’s Supper like watching it as the climax of an ancient drama known as the Divine Liturgy (of St. John Chrysostom), a weekly constant, for which I was the only bystander in a room of audience-participants. The Eastern Orthodox Church practices a closed-table Communion but to their baptised faithful, and the table never looked so lavish as when I grew hungry from its distance, never so meaning-laden as when I had only time and space and stillness in which to meditate on it to the looping chorus of the ‘Cherubic Hymn’ and to the visual of a privileged procession to it and from which I was barred. For this reason, I’ve compiled and continued intentionally to form memories of incredible intimacy and grace around bread and wine steeped in prayer, praise, woundedness. All the more for this reason, within my larger campaign against ‘bad theology’ for the sake of Church and world, I take especial exception to bad Eucharistic theology, and this week (even in the Olympiadic occurrence of a Protestant Communion) I examined my conscience and concluded that I couldn’t receive the elements.

Debates about transubstantion, memorialism and (my own) phenomenological real presence aside, there is no more abused text concerning the Eucharist than Paul’s entirely misapprehended words of rebuke in 1 Corinthians 11. For my money there is also no more singularly troubling piece of theology developed around the Eucharist. Worse still, if you’ve even once sat in a Protestant church on so-called ‘Communion Sunday,’ I can be certain you’ve heard the error, and many of us (myself not exempt) have even taught it. It’s betrayed just as innocently, earnestly and lovingly as in a pre-Communion invitation I heard this week, that we ‘search our hearts,’ according to 1 Corinthians. More exactly, Paul writes:

A person ought to examine oneself, and in this manner one is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. (1 Cor. 11:28)

To say that what one ought to attend to in examination is the heart or conscience I think sells short the point, even to its deconstruction.

The problem of course is not that we oughtn’t to search our hearts and examine our conscience for sin (meaning here I suppose a disrupted relationship with Gød). This reading of Paul is a not-altogether-bad conflation with Matthew 6:23-24, though I do find it acutely interesting that I’ve only once heard it taught that a pre-Communion examination of conscience should directly result in reconciliation or at least immediate steps thereto. Neither is the issue merely that we sometimes explicitly or implicitly ask people to refrain from sharing in the Eucharist, though this is surely bad enough, since (a) it removes the proper sense of urgency, per Matthew 6, from the reconciliation requisite to Communion and (b) the point of Communion is for it to be shared by sinners!

To really get at the issue I take and why I take it so severely requires us to reread 1 Corinthians 11 for its textual and sociohistorical context, though my argument will be (relatively) shortened since it’s been made enough times elsewhere and by scholars far more qualified to do so, so there’s no need for me to replicate their work. I take it that most preachers and their churches get the set up here: At this time, the Lord’s Supper is still a literal meal, and the church is essentially meeting in the homes of wealthy Christians whose houses are big enough for a large group to meet in but whose tables weren’t large enough for everyone to gather around at once. In Corinth, socially stratified as we should find familiar, the socioeconomically ranking members would get to go to the table and eat first, leaving the poorest to partake last, by which time there was very probably nothing left. Thus, ‘One remains hungry, another gets drunk.’ This is the whole of 11:17-22.

What we overlook rather easily in N. America is that the majority of those living in the Roman Empire at this time are living at or below a caloric subsistence level, or in other words, were either barely-not-starving or starving. To them, whether they got to share in the Lord’s Supper at ‘church’ mattered a whole hell of a lot, because it could make the difference between below-subsistence-level and severely-below-subsistence-level. We lose Paul’s train of thought from 11:23-26 because we recognize these lines liturgically as words of institution, but we should recognize him as cuing us into the tight knitting of his argument with a ‘For‘ in v. 23 and a ‘Therefore‘ in v. 27. Even if we miss that, he brings the whole together with the end cap, ‘So then . . . when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry . . .‘ to suggest that everything between the two mentions of people being hungry at the Lord’s Supper is part of the same body of argument about the Lord’s Supper. In other words, vv. 27-32 has everything to do not just with vv. 23-26 but with vv. 17-22 especially.

So what is the content of 11:27-32, in this frame? Briefly: ‘An unworthy manner’ (v. 27) has no more immediately available example than vv. 17-22, where Paul was yelling at the Corinthians for taking the Eucharist in an unworthy manner, and we needn’t look any further for an understanding of what he might mean. It’s typified as eating the Eucharistic feast without consideration of the poor (or, everyone gathered). ‘Recognizing the body of the Lord’ (v. 29) is the very thing they were failing to do by eating in this socially stratified and unjust manner, for ‘the body of the Lord’ has two senses: his human body and his body of humans, the Church, at least one of which was not being taken seriously in this practice. If the reason for the ‘judgment’ (v. 29) this incurs is unclear, we only need to stop scratching our heads at the inscrutable spiritual realities presented in v. 30 and read it with plain eyes: ‘many among you are weak and ill, and some have died,’ because they’re starving to death, with no help from a community feast celebrated regularly by so-called disciples. Thus, Paul urges them to judge themselves (vv. 31-32) and to wait for each other before eating, eating at home if necessary (vv. 33-34), for those who can really aren’t the ones who need to eat when food is brought to a common table. For them to examine themselves in the light of this rebuke is specifically a call for them to recognize that while they are gathered together, they are no longer ranking members of Corinthian society but rather are one Body of the Lord.

Given this, the problem with teaching the need for an individual introspection of the individual, compounded by suggesting the individual should by this isolated discernment not participate in the communal practice of Communion, is that it reverts from Paul’s intent in examination precisely back into the sort error he was addressing—that is, prior to unjust allocation of food, a failure to discern the social body as the fundamental reality of the Lord’s Supper. Cartesian navel-gazing is by no means tantamount to leaving the poor to starve to death, but it is a failure to heed Paul at the same time that it claims to represent his authoritative teaching, a failure that threatens to leave us blind to our social realities and obligations in like manner like to that blindness that allowed the Corinthians to permit their injustice. Rather than taking the moments before receiving the elements representing/bearing/being the Lord’s body so that we might be ‘recognizing the Lord’s Body‘ there gathered, we instead tuck into our seats, shut our eyes and pretend we’re the only ones in the room with Gød. I can think of no more direct failure to recognize the presence of the Lord’s body in the Church short of us actually perpetrating an act of injustice in the liturgy—though were we to, I don’t know that we’ve left ourselves thereby the optics to see it. For that matter, then, we also fail the opportunity to practice Paul’s teaching as a manner of better realizing what the Eucharist is and what justice might be brought out from our examination of ourselves as a social body.

So what might this look like in said practice? In contrast to the common Protestant N. American practice of taking a tiny single-serving cup back to our seats and praying by ourselves, we might instead always (or at least normatively) take the Eucharist with others. More radically, if the practice of receiving the elements is not entirely embedded in the liturgy, we might do so in the context of small-group discussion about the health of the social body and the kinds of sins that may be bringing ‘illness’ to it and to some of its members. If Communion is fully embedded in the flow of a liturgy (as it should be), such a conversation would be appropriate to have soon before or after, but it would seem advisable for us to incorporate praying with and for others into our immediate practice of taking Communion and for our partners in receiving communion and praying to be those whom we would not first think to list among our friends.

In one church in which I served, one my favorite experiments we undertook one Sunday was our changing out the standard two Communion tables on the sides of the room for single round table in the dead center of the space; people lined up at all four sides of the table, and with the most brilliant and lovely awkwardness fumbled through some kind of order in taking and distributing the elements to each other. I’ve often imagined what it would have looked like for those randomized pairings to go back to the chairs together and to pray together over their own sins, and our church’s many sins, and the world’s sins and Jesus’ goodness. Maybe with enough training and good teaching, the church is capable of this. Even as a socially anxious introvert, I aspire to this. In any case, we must assuredly ensure there is communion in our Communion, else we’d do better to call it by a different name, though whatever that bread-and-juice-hour is, I don’t see the point in participating for myself.

Photo cred: BlackMagic, ‘Bread and Wine #1’ (https://flic.kr/p/6a19bU), cropped

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