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The Open Table: the Christian community as the body of Christ

The Open Table: the Christian community as the body of Christ

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.

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Gary Paul Gilbert

Bill, Any identity necessarily excludes. Cat is not dog, says structural linguistics. The question is how much to exclude.

The prodigal son is a much more popular parable than that of the wedding banquet. One could say each passage is equally inspiring or that some passes really are better because the community has found them more helpful. This would be discernment. Then there is the parable of the dishonest steward. That one could inspire some people too.

The parable is a very open genre and can be read in different ways. The father who welcomes the son back need not be allegorized as God. If one sees him as any old landowner, a question would be how he made his money, as William Herzog says in his book Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.

Gary Paul Gilbert

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Bill Dilworth

I'm sorry not to have included this in my previous comments...

The assertion that "[w]e 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" seems problematic. Is this in fact true? Do we really find that we ourselves experience such boundaries as oppressive? Is the fact that religions with very clear boundaries - Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Parsiism, or even individual Christian confessions like Eastern Otthodoxy, the Armenian Church or the LDS - see us as falling outside those boundaries really oppressive? Does the refusal of groups like the Druze, who not only regard me as an outsider but reject the possibility of my ever joining their community, really harm me in any way?

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Bill Dilworth

"might *not* be a situation in which a priest"

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Bill Dilworth

Dr Edmondson, thank you for responding to my comments, and for clarifying the use of “unconditional welcome” and the unbaptized/marginalized issue. In my defense regarding the second, I have read defenses of CWOB/OT that specifically made a connection between the societally marginalized and the unbaptized – one post here at the Café used an undocumented worker (IIRC) and a small child as examples of the unbaptized.

It seems to me that the only way that you can privilege the Prodigal Son in terms of Eucharistic practice is by ignoring other parables that historically have been understood to have some bearing on the subject. I’d be very interested to hear how the Wedding Garment figures into your understanding, for instance.

I've identified five concerns I have with the practice of giving the unbaptized Holy Communion. Just to be extra tedious, I've numbered and labeled them...

1. Purposes of the Sacraments - Different sacraments do different things. The Eucharist is not how we become members of the Body of Christ – that happens in Baptism; the Eucharist renews, reinforces, and nurtures a relationship that already exists. Giving Holy Communion to the unbaptized makes no more sense to me than giving them sacramental Absolution or ordaining them would.

2. Commitment - The targets of CWOB/OT most often mentioned are seekers who intensely want communion with Christ but who, for some reason, cannot or will not seek Baptism first (if ever). The stated reason for this is usually an unwillingness to make the commitment that Baptism represents – as if Holy Communion were some sort of commitment-free test drive. I don’t think that the Church has ever taught that Holy Communion is a no-strings-attached hook-up, though, and don’t see why we should start now. If the Church teaches that participation in the Eucharist carries very definite expectations of commitment for baptized Christians (and I think it does), it doesn’t make any sense to lead the unbaptized to think any differently.

3. Fetishizing - Sacramental grace is not magic, but CWOB/OT seems to treat it that way by inviting everyone present to take Holy Communion. “Everyone present” is not limited to the sort of earnest seeker I refer to above, but could easily include casual visitors with no more exposure to Christianity than the first 20 minutes of a weekday Eucharist (to which they may or may not have been paying attention). I have read defenses of the practice that suggest God will supernaturally break through any possible ignorance or lack of interest on the part of such communicants and turn their hearts. That’s not our ordinary experience with receiving the Eucharist, of course: Christians who happen to make a careless Communion don’t usually have important, positive spiritual experiences; I know I haven’t. Expecting someone to be zapped that way, as it were, seems to treat the Eucharist not as a sacrament but a sort of fetish. Not every unbaptized person who receives Holy Communion has a Sara Miles experience.

I’ve read accusations that opponents, in not inviting the unbaptized to communicate, actually deny them contact with God - as if the physical reception of the Eucharist were necessary for that. That sort of insistence on the physical reception of the Sacrament as necessary for contact with the Divine strikes me as another fetishizing of the Eucharist and (as a glance at the BCP’s Communion of the Sick would show) a pretty unAnglican one at that.

4. Balance - Proponents often seem to send mixed messages about the Eucharist. That is, statements about God zapping the nonchalant communicant with sacramental grace are reserved for answering objections to the practice, while the invitation itself almost invariably speaks only in terms of table, meal, and hospitality. Yes, the Eucharist is a shared meal. It’s not only a shared meal, though, and framing it solely in those terms presents a false picture of the Sacrament to the intended recipients of the invitation.

5. Disappointment - Christians don't expect every Communion to be a profoundly moving experience, and know (or ought to know) that sacramental grace is not dependent on "spiritual experiences" or emotional transformations. There's no reason to suspect that the unbaptized communicant knows anything about this, though; they might very well expect that eating the Body of Christ and drinking his Blood would necessarily be accompanied by some intense mystical experience. I worry that if that doesn't happen (which I think is more than likely) the person will be disillusioned, think "There's nothing to that, then" and resume their seeking someplace else.

I don't pretend to think that every single person I've ever offered the chalice to as an EM has been baptized, nor do I find that particularly troubling. I don't pretend that, in exceptional cases, God cannot zap the unsuspecting, unbaptized communicant and effect a conversion. I don't pretend that very extraordinarily, there might be a situation in which a priest might encourage an unbaptized person to receive the Sacrament. Using mistakes, the miraculous, or the extraordinary to frame sacramental norms, however, seems like a very bad idea.

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Donald Schell

Bill,

I really liked everything Pamela said about baptism and I like this response of yours as well:

"...to use a bad analogy, Baptism is the most important point in my religious history the same way that being born on American soil is the most important point in my political history. Both had real consequences."

I'm glad for Stephen's response on the Prodigal Son, but would add that I wasn't proof-texting with that or II Corinthians, but responding to your question about what a particular language meant. I do think that Jesus' teaching in the Gospels and the calculus of following and integrating Paul's eschatology, 'being in Christ,' and 'Christ all in all' lead to a point of God's universal embrace of humanity and all creation. I'm fully aware that this universalist strand parallels another different strand in New Testament and patristic thinking and teaching.

And on repentance, the Gospel as I heard it as a child and young person was very, very clear that only our full and adequate repentance gained access to God's forgiveness and we heard a lot of preaching challenging us to scrutinize our moment of repenting our sins and accepting Christ to make sure it had been sincere, real and authentic. That mindset haunted me through seminary and pushed for a kind of scrupulosity (and anxiety and provisional guilt) that made me as frightened (and resentful) of God as Martin Luther before he'd grasped God's grace. And the moment I heard Jesus in the Zacchaeus story in Luke inviting the sinner to feast with him BEFORE any sign of repentance, when I heard "Donald, come down, I'm going to feast with you," so Zacchaeus and my repentance were a spontaneous expression of love and gratitude and not the condition of blessing and communion, I mark that moment about a year after I was ordained priest as my real conversion.

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