Academics speak of primary sources and secondary sources. You can read James Joyce’s Ulysses (primary) or you can read what others have written about Ulysses (secondary).
In matters of faith, experience is primary. How we describe the experience – theology, ecclesiology, etc. – is secondary. Religion itself is a type of secondary source. I think of religion as a container to hold faith, but like the cup that holds the water – the cup is not the water – and religion is not the faith. Religion provides structure to faith, a way or method by which we experience God, but it is not the experience itself.
Experience of and with God, in whom we live and move and have our being, is the goal of theology, ecclesiology, and religion. Closing my eyes and letting myself decrease so that the Divine may increase is one way in which I experience the Divine primarily. Singing is another, along with reading and painting. And receiving the sacramentally blessed bread and wine.
As recorded in the Book of Acts, Peter experienced God in a fundamentally non-theological, non-religious way the day he watched the conversion of that pagan, Cornelius. Cornelius’ conversion, though, violated Peter’s theological understanding of both faith and God. Yes, by now Peter had experienced faith through both the Risen Christ and the pentecostal dispensation of the Holy Spirit. What Peter had not experienced, however, was: a. a divine welcome of pagans, and b. a baptism in the Holy Spirit prior to one’s actual conversion (and prior to water baptism).
But, along came Cornelius, with his very Roman household. They listened to Peter proclaim Good News of God in Christ, and before any of them affirmed faith or gave permission, the Holy Spirit fell unbidden upon them. (Acts 10:44-48) It seems that God refuses to be bound by anyone’s understanding of the way religion ought to be practiced. (Luke Timothy Johnson has written beautifully about this episode in his book, Scripture and Discernment.)
Theology describes experience; theology ought not limit experience. The Holy Spirit falls upon whom the Holy Spirit chooses.
Our Episcopal Church is debating the feasibility of online Eucharist. Online Eucharist means people at home bring the elements of bread and wine to their computer tables to watch the priest, who also has bread and wine, prays the words of thanksgiving and consecration over all the elements, both local and remote. Families then share the consecrated bread and wine in sacramental communion.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry seems opposed to Zoom or FaceBook Eucharist. Perhaps he is more in favor of the National Cathedral’s spiritual communion or the Daily Office. Most – if not all – Episcopal bishops are following Bishop Curry’s lead. In an articulation of reasons, Bishop Curry eschewed the lack of community. But I have to ask: haven’t we discovered that a Zoom community is a community nonetheless?
A friend of mine sarcastically refers to the priest’s work at the epiclesis as “the magic.” You know – the waving of the hands in the form of the cross over the bread and wine turning the bread and wine magically into the body and blood? Only, the priest holds no magical powers, and the elements become sacramental not because of either apostolic succession or priestly designation – but by the relationship of God to the people, and the people to God. What happens is no more static than the Trinity. An egg will always fail to describe Trinity properly, for it is the activity within the Trinity that defines the Trinity, not its static appearance. Love, lover, and beloved. God at the Eucharist engaging a people spiritually and mystically in love is what makes the bread and wine efficacious as Eucharist. Not the waving of hands.
Thus, the Eucharist is blessed not by the priest, but by the people, with God’s consent, or God, with the peoples’ consent. The priest is merely an intermediary, and perhaps the most crucial word of the prayer in the entire Great Thanksgiving is the peoples’ Amen. Yes, we agree.
I understand that our Lutheran brothers and sisters have authorized Zoom blessing of bread and wine, as have other liturgically low church traditions. Returning to Peter – and the Holy Spirit falling on Cornelius without Peter’s permission and inconsistent with his theology – the question becomes, is the Eucharist that the Lutherans practice efficacious, or not? Does God show-up? The proof is in the pudding, or more properly, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
I know some Episcopalians in Palo Alto who now attend a Congregational Church. They recently experienced an online blessing of bread and wine and testify that it – every bit as much as in the Episcopal Church – touched them deeply and sacramentally. God showed-up, which is the testimony of Cornelius, much to the astonishment of Peter and his cronies. And the bishops.
In these challenging times, isn’t it just like the Spirit to lead us into new ways of understanding our experience? But first, the experience.