Last week I posted that the church is most the church when it is in worship, on Sunday morning, receiving the Lord’s Supper. My friend and colleague Chris James left a thoughtful reply disagreeing with me.
I see his point. Isn’t this actually the problem in mainstream Christianity? We neglect the mission of God in the world because we are so focused on setting up and maintaining our Sunday morning in-house event.
I want to look at the question a bit more:
Is the Eucharist really the heartbeat of the church?
Yes. It is not the whole picture of what the Church is and does, but for my money the Eucharist, more than any other single marker, is definitive.
I’m not alone in saying so. My good friend Gregory Carl Faulkner did his Ph.D. dissertation on Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. He tells me Schmemann argues that the Eucharist actually creates the Church.
In the sacrament, the gathered community receives the promise that Christ’s Body has really been given for us. Receiving that good news, verbally and physically, we know, and experience, that we really are joined to Christ as part of his Body. And his Body is the Church.
The Eucharist is where God calls that reality into being.
Is that a Reformed viewpoint?
What, you might ask, does my stalwart Heidelberg Catechism say on the topic? Well, nobody can expect a Reformed theological text from the 16th century to echo Orthodox theology from the 20th. There are going to be differences.
But still, it is worth poking around on the topic.
In the section on the line by line commentary on the Apostles’ Creed the authors dealt with the Church, and then followed the Creed into the related topic of the “communion of saints.” Here’s the question in full:
55 Q. What do you understand by
“the communion of saints”?
A. First, that believers one and all,
as members of this community,
share in Christ
and in all his treasures and gifts.
Second that each member
should consider it a duty
to use these gifts
readily and joyfully
for the service and enrichment
of the other members.
The connection, at least for today’s readers, comes with the word “communion.” Many of us use the word “communion” rather than “the Lord’s Supper” (the preferred term for the Reformed) or “the Eucharist” (the preferred or more technical term for Orthodox, Catholics, and others).
That is we show, intuitively, in our use of language, that we think of the Lord’s Supper as the time of being “in communion” — but communion with whom?
First we “share in Christ”
In one sense communion is vertical: We share in the life of God, we are connected, in community, with Jesus himself.
The catechism emphasizes this when it says that the communion of saints first describes the fact that we “share in Christ.”
Second, practical love flows outward
In another sense communion is horizontal: We share in life with each other, in community, with each other.
The catechism emphasizes this when it notes that the communion of saints describes the way we should be prompted toward practical love for one another. The sacrament is also about community–and therefore so is the Church,
Both are true. But the first comes first and the second comes second.
Both the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of community are truly the nature of the Church.
As the Catechism puts it
- Sharing in Christ is the essence: we do share in Christ.
- Communion with each other is the implication: we should serve others.
The vertical connection is the orienting axis, like the arrow in a big garden sundial. The things that happen in the outward circles, the very true and holy things of community and mission, happen because of the axis.
Of course in this question the Catechism does not discuss the Church’s participation in God’s mission. That is not the topic at hand. It has more to say elsewhere about what we do in the outer circle where the Church is in contact with the world.
My point is that the Church is most primally the Church where it hears, experiences, receives and lives into the essence of being in communion with Christ.
This is not about institutional maintenance. It is about being people whose identity and existence flows from our life-giving connection to God through Christ.
Admittedly many churches so de-emphasize the Lord’s Supper that it is neither a source of communion with Christ nor something that empowers community and mission. Bad on us.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What can a church do to live into the fullness of what the Lord’s Supper is intended to teach and do in our midst?
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