Most Christian churches include a ritual meal in their worship liturgy. They refer to it in different ways – participating in the Lord’s Supper, taking Holy Communion, celebrating the Eucharist – and they take part in it with varying frequency. Some have a weekly observance, some a monthly, and a few “take Communion” quarterly or annually. But the vast majority of Christians, excepting the Quakers, the Salvation Army and a few others, include the Eucharist in their worship.
Around the world on any given Sunday, tens of millions of Christians sip wine (or grape juice) and eat a piece of bread. They do this in response to instruction that Jesus gave. It is done differently in different traditions, to be sure. Nevertheless, it is a practice that Christians around the world share. It transcends race and ethnicity, gender and language differences. More than almost any other practice, it ties us together.
And yet, the tie that binds also tears us apart. Catholics can’t worship with Lutherans around the Communion table because the doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation divide them. And this is true, even though most Catholics and most Lutherans couldn’t differentiate between the two. Place the Anglicans at the table with them, and things get even more complicated. The Anglicans don’t even agree with each other, much less with the Catholics and Lutherans.
And then there are the dissenting churches and their descendants, who reject such explanations as transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence, spiritual presence, and pneumatic presence. They hold that the ritual meal provides Christians with an opportunity to remember what Jesus did for them—period. The other traditions would agree that the Eucharist provides that opportunity, but argue it is also an occasion for receiving grace in the present.
I first came to faith in a tradition that saw the Lord’s Supper (that was what it was usually called) as only a memorial. I didn’t know there were other views until my sophomore year in college and, of course, I took for granted that everyone else was mistaken.
During my junior year, I started attending a nearby Catholic church at the invitation of a friend. I found the liturgy helpful and beautiful. Of course, when it came time to celebrate the Eucharist, I didn’t dare go forward. I did not want to offend, and I had learned the divide between Catholics and Protestants over this practice was deep and the contention bitter.
Years later, I was invited to speak at the funeral of a Catholic friend, which I was honored to accept. But imagine my surprise when the officiant asked me to help with Holy Communion. I told him that I would be glad to help, but I doubted whether his diocese would sanction a Protestant pastor taking – and serving – Holy Communion. I told him I didn’t have a problem, but I thought his church would. He just smiled.
If there is a theologically authentic way for those who hold transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence, spiritual presence or memorialist positions to come to agreement, no one has discovered it – and maybe they don’t have to. Maybe it’s okay to disagree about what Communion means so long as we agree about what Christians do when they share it.
Whatever else one may say about it, the Lord’s Supper was intended for people who have sworn allegiance to Jesus. However many layers of meaning the ritual holds, those who participate in it are affirming their covenant membership (“This cup is the new covenant in my blood”) with God as the people of Jesus. By doing this together, they acknowledge and encourage one another’s commitment to Jesus as Lord “until he comes” and establishes God’s kingdom.
Those who “take Communion” – whether in a grand Cathedral in Rome or in an underground church in China – identify themselves to heaven and to each other as members of God’s covenant people. Some of them believe in transubstantiation, others in consubstantiation (or something else), but they all believe in Jesus. By taking part in the ritual, they renew their commitment to be his people and reaffirm their loyalty to his rule.
I can gladly share the covenant meal with people who hold views that differ from my own, so long as they follow the same leader: Jesus.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/4/2017