But, if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.
For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord.
Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 316
Though not often read, this exhortation is part of our formal understanding of what we are about in participating in Eucharist.
PART V – Under Judgment
Participating in the Eucharist entangles us in particular loyalties, responsibilities, and accountabilities. There are expectations placed on the eucharistic community and its members. Are they living in communion with one another as the body of Christ such that partaking of his body and blood makes sense? Are they living together into the deep reconciliation God is working in Christ? Are they bearing one another’s burdens? The burden of one another? Is their common life reflective of scriptural mandates like those in Matthew 5 – 7, Luke 6, Romans 12, Philippians 2, Ephesians 4? Is their life together “a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair”? To participate in the Eucharist is to enter into such expectations. With such expectation comes judgment.
1 Corinthians 11 emphasizes that partaking of the Lord’s Supper carries with it serious expectations. That text is about how those who take part in the feast of Christ treat each other as members of the body of Christ. That is what discerning the body means. Unless we take seriously our belonging to one another and caring for one another, we have not discerned the body and our communion is false and our claim to be in communion with Christ, suspect. Thus the Eucharist is as much an act of commitment and accountability as is baptism.
The parousia is to be a time not only of redemption but of judgment, when the “world” – meaning that part of creation which refuses the sovereignty of Christ – will be overthrown. As the sacrament which anticipates the parousia now, the Eucharist is also placed in the context of judgment. Those who do not “discern the body” and become a member of Christ risk condemnation along with the forces that oppose Christ. The failure to “discern the body” refers not only to the body on the table but the ecclesial body as well.
William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, p. 235
Beyond the responsibility for, and accountability to, one another as members of the body of Christ into which we are absorbed in the Eucharist, there is a call to mission. To partake in the Eucharist is to participate in the passion of Christ. It is not a matter of simple passive receiving. Feeding on the body “broken for you” and drinking from the cup, “shed for you” implicates us in the mission to be ourselves broken and poured out for the sake of a hungry and thirsty world. As our Lord told James and John, baptism and Eucharist go together and both implicate us in his life and passion. (Mark 10:35 – 45).
To share in the Eucharist is to be entangled with the body of Christ and the mutual obligations and expectations that come with that belonging. Baptism initiates us into that belonging and the pre-baptismal catechumenate prepares us for the obligations and expectations of belonging. Eucharist nourishes us in that belonging and calls us to live into it ever more deeply.
The fact that many who are baptized members of the Church do not understand the responsibilities that go with discerning the body is a shortcoming of the Church’s catechesis. The fact that all too often the Church does not live into those responsibilities is a scandal that places it under judgment. Inviting people to partake of the Lord’s Supper without being clear about the expectations laid on those who participate places them under a particular judgment unawares and is neither responsible nor particularly hospitable.
Next: PART VI - Transformation & PART VII - Whose Table?