This post is a response to a recent article on Tony Robert’s blog by guest blogger Lenora Rand, titled “New Communion Words.”

New Communion Words

Rand reflects on her experience distributing communion at the Wild Goose Festival, an annual gathering that focuses on justice, spirituality, music and the arts. The festival is “rooted in the Christian tradition” and is popular among progressive Christians and many involved with the emerging church movement. The name Wild Goose comes from a Celtic metaphor for the Holy Spirit.

Rand said:

I was . . . suddenly so uncomfortable with the words I have always known to say during communion. As they were coming out of my mouth, my head was swirling with questions about whether these particular words adequately reflected my beliefs anymore.

The body of Christ, broken for you.
The blood of Christ, shed for you.

I started thinking about it afterwards though. Wondering, what do I really believe about atonement? And about this sacrament?  What else could I say with conviction during communion?

Rand is raising the issue of how the ancient practice of the eucharist is being impacted by the postmodern world in which many traditional doctrines of the church are being questioned and reevaluated.

When looking at a question of theology and church practice, I always think it is helpful to go back and look at the biblical texts that are at the root of the discussion. Let’s look at what Paul and the gospel writers have to say about the eucharist.

Paul was the earliest New Testament writer. He wrote his first letter to the community at Corinth in Greece around the year 54 CE, a little over 20 years after the death of Jesus. He shared the eucharistic tradition he had learned from members of a Hellenistic Christ cult in Damascus, Syria (although he presents this as a personal revelation from the risen Christ to bolster his authority as an apostle):

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is [broken] for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23–26)

[Note: The word “broken” is not found in some early texts.]

This, of course, is the familiar language of the communion liturgy.

The earliest gospel is Mark’s account, written about 70 CE, at least 16 years after Paul’s letter.

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many.” (Mark 14:22–24)

[Note: The word “new” is not found in some early texts.]

Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels next, sometime about 85–90 CE, another 15 to 20 years after Mark.

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26–28)

Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19–20)

Here is a summary of the eucharistic formulas:

This is my body that is [broken] for you. (Paul)
Take; this is my body. (Mark)
Take, eat; this is my body. (Matthew)
This is my body, which is given for you. (Luke)

This cup is the new covenant in my blood. (Paul)
This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many. (Mark)
This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew)
This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke)

John’s gospel, written about 100 CE, does not portray the last supper. Yet John’s Jesus comments on the practice of eating his body and blood.

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:47–58)

[Note: The phrase “will live forever” found in both paragraphs in the NRSV is a distortion of the Greek text that says “will live into the age,” meaning the new age of the kingdom of God, not an eternal life in heaven. Likewise, the phrase “eternal life” is the “life of the new age” in Greek. Unfortunately, we are often misled by translators with a theological agenda.]

The historical questions and disputes around the eucharist center on whether these metaphors (bread of life, my body, my blood) are a physical reality. Is this a memorial feast (“do this in remembrance of me,” according to Paul) or is Christ actually present in the bread and wine? Roman Catholics believe in “transubstantiation” (the bread and wine actually become the flesh and blood of Christ in a reenactment of his sacrificial death) while the Lutheran perspective is “consubstantiation” (Christ’s presence is “in, with, and under” the bread and wine, yet they physically remain bread and wine). Calvinists do not believe that the physical body of Christ is present, but is merely a spiritual presence.

So, what does the eucharist mean today in the postmodern setting, and how should we practice its celebration for inclusivity? That is essentially what Lenora Rand was struggling with.

The body of Christ, broken for you.
The blood of Christ, shed for you.

The Lutheran liturgy has a slight variation on the words used by Rand:

The body of Christ, given for you.
The blood of Christ, shed for you.

Are these words of distribution the most theologically sound and the most appropriate today? It depends.

How we practice the eucharist depends on which gospel message we are responding to and basing our faith on. The “gospel of Jesus” proclaims the good news that the kingdom of God is breaking into our world and is now present among us. It is a social gospel that announces good news to the poor, the suffering, the marginalized, and the oppressed. The “gospel of Paul” proclaims a different good news—that the sacrificial, atoning death of Jesus fundamentally changes everything in relation to God. For Paul, this creates the possibility of a new multicultural community based on faith alone, and is not restricted to a single ethnic or religious background. These are different gospels, different kinds of good news.

In light of this distinction, I believe that the traditional words of institution are theologically sound for a worship experience shaped by the gospel of Paul. But how would we celebrate a eucharist based on the gospel of Jesus?

The kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus is a vision of how the world would be if God, not Caesar or Herod, sat on the throne. It is a vision of the governing style of God as an antidote to the ancient domination system based on wealth, power, exclusivity, and violence. It is a focus on the creation of a just society. When a church is committed to the vision of Jesus, the eucharist can take on new meaning. It can be seen as a feast of justice, not a sacrament of sacrificial atonement.

Roman Catholic Liturgist Gabe Huck has said,

The Eucharist can become a kind of product created for individual spiritual customers. [But] It’s supposed to have a transforming effect on us so that we leave church determined to do something. We should be seeing the world in a different way and have different priorities because of the Eucharist. It should affect what we do with our time, how we spend our money, how we look for a job, how we vote.[1]

According to Huck, there are five elements of social justice that can be found in the Eucharistic meal.

First, it is a meal of liberation. In three of the gospels it is linked to Passover—which is a celebration of liberation from oppression.

Second, it is an egalitarian meal. It recalls Jesus’ table fellowship with the marginalized and outcast. At a table where Jesus is the host, everyone is accepted and welcomed.

Third, it is a shared meal for a sharing community. In the early church, the eucharist was celebrated as part of a real meal shared by a compassionate community that dedicated their goods and lives to meeting each other’s needs. At least one day a week, all were fed. The eucharist is a call to share our food, so that no one is hungry. It is a call to share our talents and resources on behalf of those in need.

Fourth, it is a sample and foretaste of God’s reign of love. In celebrating the eucharist we are anticipating the day when all the world will be fed because of our compassionate actions for greater justice. The eucharistic meal should encourage and empower us to live the vision of God’s reign today. It should give us the strength to willingly accept the consequences of living that vision no matter what the cost.

Fifth, it is a sign of transformation. In the eucharist, we are reminded that the body of Christ was broken. The term “body” is both singular and plural. In this community gathered around this meal, we become, as the Apostle Paul suggested, a living metaphor for the body of Christ. The Eucharist is an invitation to us to go forth from the meal to break our own bodies and shed our own blood in the service of others, and the communal nature of the meal reminds us that we are not alone in this ongoing struggle for a just society and world.

Martin Luther wrote in 1519:

When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore, or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship . . . all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, pray and—if you cannot do more—have heartfelt sympathy.[2]

So what words of distribution would be most appropriate to a eucharist focused on justice, liberation, equality, sharing, transformation, and service? Perhaps that’s for the poets among us to determine. My own contribution would be something like this, taken from my funeral liturgy which conceives of God as love:

The bread of life for all who hunger.
The cup of compassion for a broken world.

__________________________________________

From my funeral liturgy:

The eucharistic prayer:

L:         For the gentle power of love
in human life and history,
we give thanks and praise.

Long ago our ancestors knew love’s power
and they became the tellers of love’s tale.
Love bound them in covenant,
gathering them in community
with compassion and concern
for the poorest among them.

Yet centuries of domination and violence
shaped a different kind of community
based on selfishness and inequality,
and the lust for wealth and power.

In the struggle against oppression,
Jesus became the face of love,
showing us the way to abundant life.
In word and deed, he announced
love’s new reign of justice, reconciliation, and peace.
Filled with the courage and passion of love’s spirit,
he gave his life to challenge the unjust systems of this world.

On the night of his arrest,
as he shared a meal with his friends,
Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it,
and gave it to his followers, saying:
“Share this bread among you; this is my body, broken for justice.
Do this to remember me.” 

When supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks,
and gave it to his disciples, saying:
“Share this wine among you; this is my blood, shed for a better world.
Do this to remember me.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they shall be nourished.”

God of love, spirit of compassion,
bless us and this bread and wine.
May this meal be food and drink for our journey—
renewing, strengthening, and sustaining us.

When we eat this bread and drink from this cup
we remember the life of Jesus
and dedicate our lives to his vision of a world
where all are fed with dignity and hope.

The table is ready. All are welcome. Come, for the feast is spread.

As the bread and wine are shared, these words are said:

The bread of life for all who hunger.
The cup of compassion for a broken world.

The blessing after the meal:

L:         May this meal nourish us and refresh us,
may it strengthen us and renew us,
may it unite us and keep us in God’s gracious love,
now and forever. Amen

L:         Let us pray.
God of love, we give you thanks for satisfying our hungry hearts with this meal.
Send us from here to reveal your love in the world.
Inspire in us the resolve and the courage, the compassion and the passion,
to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you. Amen

Dismissal:

L:         Go forth in service, remembering the words of brother Martin:
to fight, work, and pray for those who suffer unjustly in our world.

__________________________________________

[1] Gabe Huck, a former director of Liberty Training Publications, as quoted by Robert J. McClory, “Let’s Put the Eucharist to Work,” U.S. Catholic, June 12, 2008. See online article at http://www.uscatholic.org/church/prayer-and-sacraments/2008/06/lets-put-eucharist-work

[2] Martin Luther, “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods,” 1519, published in Luther’s Works, Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960).