Last week I responded to a reader question about baptism and Progressive Christianity. Another reader asked that I follow that post up by talking about communion through a Progressive Christian lens. I think this, communion/eucharist/Lord’s Supper, has been a deeply misunderstood part of the Christian Tradition. That misunderstanding has robbed the meal of the subversive challenge and radical vision, and I hope we can begin to restore it.
In the early days of my unraveling I used to read N.T. Wright. While I haven’t engaged his work in a while, he has a great line about the Lord’s Supper. He says (paraphrased), When Jesus wanted to explain what he was up to he didn’t give a theory, but a meal. I think that Jesus’s meal practice—not a one off “Last Supper”—was central to his kingdom vision, and to his overall movement. After all, the first Christians (in Acts) carried on the practice of communal shared meals, and keeping those meals radical, subversive, and egalitarian was important enough that Paul calls out an abuse of the practice in 1 Corinthians 11. The rich were creating a distinction between themselves and the poorer members of the community, and Paul says that their gatherings did “more harm than good.”
So, here are a few thoughts about the eucharist in it’s context, and I’ll wrap up with that it might mean for Progressive Christians today.
To begin with Jesus meals were not comprised of a sip of wine (or grape juice) and a tiny, stale cracker. They were full meals that were intended to image and enact his kingdom vision. This means that the table was radically inclusive and egalitarian—men and women, rich and poor, enslaved and non enslaved, clean and unclean people, all sharing the same food, sitting at the same table. These celebrations transgressed and transcended the boundaries and dividing lines. They were scandalizing to the surrounding culture, and a source of contention for Jesus’s critics.
But what did it MEAN?
It meant that Jesus vision of the kingdom was grounded in sharing our food and resources, ensuring that everyone had enough. It also meant that Jesus kingdom vision challenged the societal categories that were assumed to be “just how the world worked.”
These meals also stood as a challenge to Roman domination. Jesus rejected violence, opted out of the economic system, and these meals were symbolic of his vision of how to throw off Roman oppression: stop feeding the machine. If we help one another, if we opt out of propping up the very system empire that oppresses, then we can actually overcome the dehumanization of empire and create a more compassionate, equitable world.
Even those words of institution in the gospels, “This is my body, this is my blood,” work on multiple levels. One level might be that Jesus is calling the shared meal his vision of sacrifice with the table as the altar, as opposed to the separation of the body and blood of animals in the Temple. Jesus, not as the founder of a new religion, but as a faithful Jewish reformer, had a vision of faithfulness that in many ways de-centered the Temple and challenged the aristocracy, which he saw as compromised due to Roman collaboration.
For Jesus’s followers, as we know, those words also became associated with his death. His body broken and blood poured became a central way of understanding what God is like, and what our task is as a Christian community: we internalize the body and blood, Christ becomes reconstituted in us, and we go into the world to continue that work of being broken open and poured out in love.
So, what might the role of this ritual be in a Progressive Community?
First, I think it can stand to remind us of the larger vision of Jesus—not just sharing a sip of wine and morsel of bread, but the larger call to be actively compassionate and to work for a more just and equitable world. As we eat and drink these elements, we are acknowledging that the real action isn’t in this act, but in that to which this act draws our attention.
Second, it is an act that binds us together. In the community I am fortunate to pastor, GracePointe Church, we read a liturgy each week that grounds us and reminds us that this is Jesus’s table, and that all human beings have a place there. My dear friend Matt Hodges created this text, and it reads as follows:
Come to this table,
You who have much faith,
And you who struggle with believing;
You who have been here often,
And you who have come for the first time;
You who are at peace,
And you who feel despair.
We are all part of the human family
And there is a place for us here.
Christ invited everyone to the table;
May this bread and wine unite us all.
Of course, communion means much more than what I’ve shared here. These are a few initial thoughts about why as a Progressive Christian I still find this ritual beautiful, nourishing, and powerful.
Do you have a question about a Progressive Christian take on a specific concept or issue? Let me know! Send me an email (email@example.com) or drop it in the comments section.
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