by Stephen Edmondson
In my last post, I shared some reflections on the question of the Eucharistic assembly as the “quintessential gathering” of God’s people. More specifically, I talked about the Eucharistic assembly as a place where Jesus’ grace happens, and I explored the relational character of this grace. Implicit within this relational model of grace is an understanding of the Christian community as the body of Christ, constituted in the Eucharist. The fulcrum on which this understanding turns is Christ’s real presence to us in the Eucharist—that in this meal we have fellowship with him, and through this fellowship we are transformed. Christ’s presence and fellowship are incarnate in the Eucharistic community, so that we receive Christ in and with one another as we gather together at table. But they are incarnate there not through the virtue of the community—we’re far too familiar with the “virtues” of our communities to make that claim—but through the virtue of making Eucharist. Through this meal, we the community become a symbol of Christ blessed, broken, and shared. We become Christ’s body, through which the alienated and broken can experience God’s reconciling love
This focus on the transformation of the Christian community in the Eucharist accords with an Eastern Orthodox critique of much of the western Eucharistic debate from earlier generations. The western controversy over the what and how of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine so focuses western thought and piety on the Eucharistic elements that the transformation of the community enacted through the liturgy as a whole often were lost. Indeed, in implicit agreement with this Orthodox critique, John Calvin and Richard Hooker sought to reframe the Reformation debate over Christ’s real presence precisely through an invocation of this broader communal transformation and the reality of Christ’s presence there.
My approach to the church’s transformation differs from an Orthodox approach, however, insofar as it will emphasize the Church as the body of Christ that was blessed, broken and shared in his ministry, much as the elements are blessed, broken, and shared, rather than emphasizing the Church’s ascension in the Liturgy to Christ in the heavenly realm. Much of the power of the Orthodox Liturgy is its heavenly aspect—it’s intention to open the church to the glory of the Risen Christ to whom we have been united. But we must hold together tightly the Risen Christ with the Jesus who ministers in the Gospels, so that the Glory of this Christ is the glory of a life offered and a body broken as a means of sharing God’s love. My argument then is not intended to denude the Eucharist of its heavenly aspect, but to argue that we taste heaven most truly and fully when we meet Christ in his offer of himself at table to us, the broken and outcast.
The Church’s constitution as Christ’s body in the Eucharist is a belief shared broadly in the Eucharistic thinking of many of those who embrace an open table and many of those who do not. But working through the implications of this belief opens up more deeply how proponents of the Open Table understand Christ’s Church. The issue that emerges when we follow the logic of the church as the Eucharistic body of Christ is one of integrity, and this will have at least two dimensions, as we’ll see.
James Farwell in an article in the Spring 2004 Anglican Theological Review (http://www.anglicantheologicalreview.org/read/conversations/1/ ), accepts that Jesus embodied in his ministry the unconditional welcome of God’s kingdom. He argues, however, that the logic of participation in the Eucharist, whereby we are nourished as members of Christ’s unconditionally welcoming body, demands that only those who have embraced this reality, committing themselves to this welcoming, should participate in it. Allowing those who have not committed themselves to Christ’s Kingdom vision to participate in the Eucharist belies the integrity of the mission.
Farwell’s point carries some persuasive weight, but an ironic implication of his argument leaves the Church, in its central and constitutive meal, betraying the Kingdom’s mission of unconditional welcome as a way precisely to highlight and uphold the mission. For proponents of opening the table, we are most faithful to Christ’s Kingdom not by keeping the company of its adherents pure, but by embodying in this constitutive act the unconditional welcome through which it is, in part, defined. Indeed, the practice of opening the table is essential to the identity of churches that practice the open table, apart from the welcome that they offered to strangers, for through this practice they constituted themselves as a hospitable and gracious communal body. Aidan Kavanaugh reminds us that in the liturgy, the Church is “caught in the act of being most overtly itself.” (On Liturgical Theology, p. 75) Given the vision of the gracious and welcoming Kingdom to which the Church is responsible, the Church can be itself only as it embodies in its liturgy precisely this welcome. For proponents of the open table, the integrity of the Church’s mission requires precisely that they embody Christ’s welcoming, embracing love in this, their constitutive meal.
What we must recognize is that to be Christ’s body in the world is to be Christ’s broken body, whose boundaries stand open to the outsider. We must be wary of the attempt to define our communion through the clarity of our boundaries, for these inevitably tend to exclude and become, themselves, oppressive. We must remind ourselves that the world against which the Church defines itself is not those persons, beloved of God, who stand without us; they are, with us, members of God’s family. Rather, the world against which the Church defines itself is those forces that serve to oppress and destroy God’s beloved. The Church as Christ’s body is responsible for service to these, our alienated siblings.
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Edmondson is the Rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in McLean, VA. Before returning to parish ministry Edmondson was an associate professor of Church History at the Virginia Theological Seminary.