N.T. Wright on Word and Sacraments: The Eucharist

(Part 3 of 3)

The following is the third of a three-part series based on a transcript of a lecture given by Dr. N.T. Wright at Calvin College on January 6, 2007. (Parts 1 and 2 of this lecture can be found in RW 89 and 90.) Much of this lecture is based on Dr. Wright’s previous writings, particularly the book Simply Christian (New York: HarperCollins, 2006). We are grateful to Dr. Wright for allowing us to share this lecture with our readers. An audio recording of this and other lectures can be found at http://www.calvinseminary.edu/

In the bread and wine of the Eucharist, as in the sacrament of baptism, the past and future come to meet us in the present. God’s filling of all creation, like the grapes the children of Israel ate in the wilderness, anticipates our being strengthened, through the Eucharist, by the presence and life of Jesus—not just to defeat evil in our lives but also so that we can shine God’s light into the world.

Participants in the New Creation

The Eucharist is not just about “me and my salvation.” It is a necessity, a part of what enables us to be God’s new creation people. We taste the new creation on our tongues, in our lips, in our mouths, in our bodies, so that we can go out and do the kind of work in the world that helps bring in the kingdom, God’s new creation.

Now, if you are isolated or for some reason can’t partake of the sacraments, I believe God does have ways of making it up to you. But the normal means to equip ourselves for participating in the new creation is the route given in the gospel, which is the physical feeding: the bread and the wine. This Eucharistic theology of new creation rejects the false antithesis between spirituality and action, the view that says the Lord’s Supper is either a piece of sympathetic magic or a bare signpost.

This theology of the Eucharist that I’m sketching out with you is closely conjoined with a holistic view of mission. The mission of God in the world is, of course, the challenge to repent, to believe, to accept Jesus, to know him for yourself, to rejoice in his salvation in and through your whole being—but also simultaneously to become agents of new creation wherever there is hunger, poverty, or injustice.

God’s work in the world is never merely pragmatic. It isn’t simply “We can organize a program to go and do this.” If you think we can do God’s work like that, read the lives of people like William Wilberforce and think again. You can’t. You need prayer, you need the sacraments, you need that patient faithfulness—because we are not wrestling against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and the world rulers of this present darkness. Read biographies of great Christians. Read about Desmond Tutu. Who would have thought forty years ago that at the start of the twenty-first century there would be a black archbishop in Cape Town chairing a commission for truth and reconciliation; listening to white thugs and black thugs confess their sin? Who would have thought that?

Of course, God had other ideas, because that black archbishop used to spend three or four hours on his knees every morning, day after day, week after week, and get others to do the same. He was living the sacramental life of the church and claiming the victory of Jesus over the principalities and powers.

Charged with the Grandeur of God

In terms of the biblical story of new creation, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. In the Lord’s Supper the world is represented by this bread and this wine. The name for the grandeur of God in the New Testament is Jesus. So how do we work out what that means in terms of Eucharistic devotion? I think it has to be up to individual churches and traditions.

I find when celebrating the Eucharist that I’m often very deeply moved by a sense of the presence of Jesus, not the physical presence but his presence in that “new creation” sense I’ve been trying to articulate. When confronted with that reality, it’s very difficult to do anything but prostrate yourself on your face. I don’t usually do that because then the congregation will think I’ve keeled over or had a heart attack. But it seems to me that we’ve got to allow ourselves to experience the presence of Christ and to know him in the mystery of the Eucharist in whatever way is appropriate for who we are as God’s people—without being silly about it, on the one hand, but also without being too hung up about it. We need to affirm the truth of the heavenly reality without collapsing either into the transubstantiation of Aristotelian ontology or the denials of radical Protestantism.

John Calvin, as I’m sure many of you know, articulated the Eucharistic theology by saying it isn’t a matter of Jesus coming down from heaven to this table, it’s a matter of us being caught up in the Spirit to feed on the risen Christ in heaven where he really is. I would go even a little further and talk about heaven and earth overlapping. This is difficult for us in the West. We in the Western world have been told to prize above all others the ways of knowing that are scientific—that can be known by weighing, measuring, testing, and so on. And we’ve been taught to downgrade the modes of knowing that we might loosely call “faith, hope, and love.”

I believe that love is the highest and richest mode of knowing, and that all other knowing—including simple scientific knowing—are sub-branches of love. Love offers the objects of knowing full respect and yet enters into the appropriate relationship with that which is known.

When you understand that love is the primary motive, then knowing Christ in the Eucharist ceases to be a merely odd, mysterious, or mystical experience—the kind of thing that you can’t give a proper account of—and is instead a kind of knowing that is primary and prior to those other scientific modes of knowing we in the Western world so quickly collapse back into.

A Living Sacrifice

At the same time, this theology of the new creation might enable us to speak wisely about sacrifice in relation to the Eucharist. The sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrificial self-offering of believers is always, from the human point of view, the response to grace. In Romans 12:1 Paul says, “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship.”

Sacrifice in the pagan world was sometimes a way of twisting the arm of this or that god to convince him or her to be kind or to ward off evil. But within Judaism the sacrificial system was always a way of responding in gratitude and love and prayer and adoration to the God who had saved his people in grace. Sacrifice, then, becomes a sign of the reconciliation and the coming together again of God and God’s people.

Protestants are always afraid that if you say that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, you are somehow repeating the crucifixion. Catholics are always afraid that Protestants are trying to do something that adds to the sacrifice of Christ. Ironically both Protestant and Catholic polemicists have regularly accused each other of adding to the finished work of Christ. As the polemics ratchet up, often what is really being said on both sides has not been heard.

But let’s at least agree that the Eucharist, precisely because of the nature of Christian time, is not a second crucifying of Christ, nor is it detached from or an addition to the sacrifice of Christ. It takes us back in sacramental time to Calvary itself as well as taking us forward to the time of new creation.

Why, Who, When, Where, How?

So why, when, where, and how do we celebrate the Eucharist? And who should participate?

Asking why we should celebrate the Eucharist is like asking why we breathe. We celebrate the Eucharist because we celebrate the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night whose name is Jesus and who’s in our midst as he promised. The Eucharist is the sign and seal of his presence in our midst, and if we avoid it or downgrade it or marginalize it we are actually scorning our risen Lord himself. Above all, we need his transforming life to be our life to transform us for his mission in the world.

Who should join in? The Orthodox Church allows little babies to share in the Eucharist at baptism. My own tradition at the moment has said that with proper discipline, order, and organization, children from the ages of six or seven, after age-appropriate instruction, can be admitted to the Eucharist. In other words, they can come before confirmation. When I was growing up, confirmation was the point at which children or adults were admitted to the Lord’s table. This was a medieval invention. The medieval bishop was required to oversee one’s confirmation and after that individuals could be admitted to communion.

But there’s nothing in Scripture that says confirmation has to be the means of entry. It seems to me that the Eucharist is a family meal, and the family is constituted by baptism. Once a child has been baptized, I see no major theological objection to that child receiving the Eucharist. And as I said before, some of those little people may be a lot more “full” by the grace of God than many of the older ones. I’m happy to go with that, with proper, appropriate discipline.

When and how often should the Eucharist be celebrated? There’s a wonderful tradition in having a weekly, Sunday by Sunday, Resurrection celebration of the Eucharist as the central feast of the church. But by no means do all churches do that. Some celebrate it every day; others once or twice or four times a year. That’s something for different churches and different traditions to work out—but I suspect that for many of us, celebrating the Eucharist more frequently might bolster our faith.

Where should it be done? You can, of course, celebrate the Eucharist absolutely anywhere, I celebrate the Eucharist in hospital wards. I celebrated the Eucharist on the beach wearing a T-shirt and shorts with a group of pilgrims in the Middle East. You can celebrate almost anywhere. But I believe that if you have a fine wine, it’s worth putting it in the right sort of glass. You can drink a fine wine out of a plastic coffee cup, but you won’t appreciate it quite as much. The Eucharist is the finest wine there is, so why not actually celebrate it in buildings designed by wise architects to resonate with the message which is being proclaimed?

Ultimately, then, what is the Eucharist? It is a narrative like baptism. It is a story. It’s God’s story, it’s the world’s story, it’s Israel’s story, it’s Jesus’ story—and it’s our story. Liturgy matters. And the liturgy has to tell that story, reaching its initial climax as the gospel is read.

In my tradition, we stand up to hear the gospel. It’s a sign that when Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are read, there is already something sacramental going on. There’s the presence of the living Jesus, and, having had our hearts warmed with the reading of Scripture, we come in prayer and we know him in the breaking of the bread. That’s how the narrative works. We are not at liberty to fool around with it.

All sorts of things flow from this, but the idea I want to close with is unity. I believe passionately that all those who believe in the Lord Jesus belong at the same table, no matter what their ethnic, cultural, moral, or social background may be. According to Galatians 2, that’s actually what justification by faith is all about. All those who believe belong at the same table. I look forward to seeing signs of that, I hope and pray, during my lifetime.

N.T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham, England. Dr. Wright has written over 40 books and hundreds of articles at both scholarly and popular levels, and has broadcast frequently on radio and TV.

Reformed Worship 91 © March 2009, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.