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Recognizing the Body: Discovering that the church is bigger than my own tradition

Shortly after I made public profession of faith in the Christian Reformed Church I grew up in, several members of our church (including our youth group and my parents) attended a Roman Catholic folk mass in our town. A group of priests had been attending a lecture series in our church, and they, in response to our hospitable welcome, invited us to worship with them. Towards the end of the service, everyone was invited to come forward to receive the Eucharist. I watched my parents move forward and then glanced inquiringly at our youth leader, who responded with a quick shake of his head. Our entire youth group—including myself—remained seated. At that time my communion theology was dominated by a vague but powerful sense that partaking in an unworthy manner was a serious offense, and, having no idea how to apply that theology in this unfamiliar situation, I played it safe.

I had occasion to reflect upon this theology several years later while enrolled in a Greek Bible-reading course taught by a Jesuit priest. Because the student makeup of that class was highly varied denominationally, the professor would regularly invite each of us to interpret a passage in light of our own heritage. I still clearly remember the day we focused on passages related to the Lord's Supper, and I learned that the Reformed tradition was the only one represented that emphasizes the 1 Corinthians 11 passage that warns about eating the bread and drinking the cup in an unworthy manner. What was I to conclude from this? Did I come from the only tradition that took self-examination seriously?

Learning to Discern

The verses in question (referred to in the Christian Reformed communion preparation form) read as follows: "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves" (1 Cor. 11:27-29, NRSV). The passage describes three distinct but interrelated activities: examining oneself, discerning the body, and partaking in a worthy manner. The key to all three lies in Paul's concluding phrase that stresses the importance of "discerning the body" (11:29).

The congregation at Corinth was a highly divided church, split according to preferences for certain apostles (1:12), a hierarchical ranking of spiritual gifts (ch. 12), and wealth (11:22). The divisive spirit of this congregation manifested itself in its celebration of the Lord's Supper. There was no common day of rest in the first- century Roman Empire, so the wealthier members of the church would arrive early and begin the love feast, finishing the food and even becoming drunk by the time the empty-handed slaves arrived to worship (11:21). We are not surprised to hear Paul declare that such worship "is not for the better but for the worse" (11:17).

Paul admonishes such a church to recognize the body of the Lord. This recognition involves two interrelated truths: first, the Lord's Supper is a celebration of the gift of grace. Paul reminds the Corinthians of Jesus' words: "This is my body that is for you" (11:24). The bread and the wine remind us that our identity is rooted in gift; our spiritual ancestry, spiritual giftedness, and bank account have absolutely no bearing upon our worthiness to partake. Jesus Christ, says Paul, "became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption." Therefore, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord" (l:30ff.).

Second, this gift is the great equalizer. As those who share in the gift of the body of the Lord, "you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (12:27). Recognizing the body not only involves recognizing grace, but also perceiving that we stand before the cross as brothers and sisters of all those who have been covered by the blood of the Lamb, equally needy and equally blessed. We may have difficulty shaking our worldly hierarchies, but "God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another" (12:24ff.). Thus, examining oneself and partaking in a worthy manner involves recognizing the body of the Lord in these two ways.

A People on the Way

There is an irony or a tension here that was brought to light for me in that Greek class many years ago. Paul's call to a self-examination rooted in recognizing the body is a call to reflect upon the depth of one's abandonment to this gift of grace and one's commitment to the community formed by it. Yet self-examination improperly construed very easily culminates in varieties of legalism and works-righteousness that undermine both God's grace and the Christian community. Unhealthy self-examination gives breathing room to some unspoken questions: "Am I worthy to partake?" and "How does my worthiness compare with that of others?" I came to see that my vague but powerful adolescent theology of unworthy partaking was formed more by this sense than by Paul's. To partake in a worthy manner is to declare, "Lord, I am unworthy, but worthy is the Lamb who was slain; in his name I dare to partake with all those who share in his death and resurrection."

There is one more aspect to recognizing the body, one that is implied in this passage and stated more clearly elsewhere in Scripture. The sacrament has an anticipatory character, for "as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (11:26). As we partake in the Lord's Supper, we recognize that we are a people on the way; the supper is a traveling meal to nourish pilgrims who have not yet arrived. "Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face" (13:12).

In the dim light of our present-day pilgrim understandings, we have many different denominations and communion theologies, but we know that these differences are a result of those "dim reflections" that limit our vision. We recognize that the body is much larger than our own little denominations. When we do see face-to-face, we shall all feast together at the wedding banquet of the Lamb.

Now I see that I did not properly recognize the body when, as a teenager, I was afraid to participate in that folk mass. Since then I have been privileged to receive Holy Communion in many different denominational settings, including Roman Catholic ones. I like to think of these as warm-ups for the wedding feast, an appetizer of the meal that is to come when we shall truly recognize the body in all its rich diversity.

 

Excerpts
FROM A RETIRED GOVERNMENT WORKER WHO HAS OFTEN SERVED AS ELDER IN HIS CHURCH

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Lord's Supper is the movie Places in the Heart. In the last scene, all the characters are having the Lord's Supper together in church. It shows a picture of reconciliation—people who were at odds with each other finding peace together. It surprised and moved me when I saw it.

When I was a child, the town where we lived didn't have a church of our denomination. The church we did attend served the Lord's Supper every Sunday. But my dad was very strict about not participating. He'd grown up in a very conservative denomination, and taking the Lord's Supper in a church of another denomination wasn't done.

Even as an adult, after I'd made profession of faith and could participate in the Lord's Supper, I remember visiting a church of my own denomination on a communion Sunday. We were called into the council room so the council could verify that we were members in good standing elsewhere.

How times have changed! Now the onus is on individuals to take responsibility for their own spiritual lives. My wife and I attended a Catholic wedding and were invited to participate in communion, and we did. A church in our neighborhood always has a Christmas Eve service where communion is served, and it's very meaningful to join with others in walking to the front and receiving the bread and the wine.

In fact, the action of coming forward to be served communion, rather than sitting in a pew while the plate and cup are passed, is very meaningful to me. It requires action on my part to leave my seat and deliberately come to take what the Lord is offering to me.

I think I have problems with the concept of closed communion. I'd rather have "close" communion—with the Lord and with my brothers and sisters.

FROM AN ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD GIRL

We used to belong to a church where there were no rules about children going to the Lord's Supper. If you believed in Jesus, and your parents allowed you to, you could take communion. I started taking communion when I was about seven or eight.

When we moved to this city, we started going to a church where we couldn't take communion anymore. We were kind of disappointed. Now my mom told me our church is thinking about letting children take the bread and the wine. I looked in the Bible, and I found some verses about kids, so I told the church leaders to think about these verses when they decide about it. These are the verses: Matthew 11:25: "At that time Jesus said, 'I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children,'" and also Matthew 18:3: "And he said: 'I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.'"