Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist

A Sketch of an Argument for the Logic
of the Traditional Discipline


When we are baptized into Christ, we are made a member of his body, the Church. As the body of Christ, the Church is called to witness to and be a sign and foretaste of the kingdom of God. The central sign and practice of this body is the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the body of Christ, the Church, is nourished by the body of Christ in the bread and wine. We remember what God has done in Christ and anticipate God’s restoration of all things in Christ. And we participate in Christ and are nourished by his body and blood. The Church is thus a Eucharistic community living in remembrance and anticipation, nourished by its participation in Christ along the way. But, partaking of the body of Christ in the Eucharist also entails judgment. Is the community - and its members - living eucharistically as the body of Christ?

It is the ancient understanding of the Church that this act of remembrance, anticipation, and participation only makes sense as a practice of those who have been baptized into Christ. And that has been the traditional discipline of the Episcopal Church. Some in the Episcopal Church, though, question this traditional understanding and discipline. Thus, it has become the practice in many places to "open" Eucharist to the unbaptised. While this is well-meant, I suggest that such a practice undermines what the Church and Eucharist are about.

What follows is a sketch in several parts of a defense of the logic of the traditional discipline of expecting those who partake of the body of Christ in the Eucharist to be baptized members of the Church which is the body of Christ and living into its discipline.

PART I – Baptism and Jesus’ Disciples at the Last Supper

One question that is often posed is whether or not the disciples gathered around Jesus at the Last Supper were themselves baptized. The answer is that, in all likelihood, they were. Andrew was certainly a follower of John the Baptist (John 1:40) and thus presumably baptized. Even more significantly, Jesus is recorded as baptizing (John 3:26), or at least having his disciples baptize (John 4:1). Whether by John or after responding to Jesus' call, they were baptized before the Last Supper. And, of course, significantly, Jesus himself was baptized.

John's baptism is arguably irrelevant to subsequent Christian practice and we see the early Church understanding it as inadequate (Acts 19:1-7). But, the evidence that Jesus – or at least his disciples on his behalf – baptized those who wished to respond to his call suggests that Jesus was not bashful about making distinctions between those who responded to his summons and those who did not and marking that distinction in public ritual.

While the practice of baptism has its roots in John's and Jesus' practice, it is somewhat other. Since we are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; our baptism is not the same as John's or even that of Jesus and his (pre-Easter) disciples. It is an Easter event. And it is the risen Jesus who commands his followers to make disciples and baptize. Our baptism – and our baptismal discipline – has its roots in the historical practice of Jesus, but it is different in as much as it is an Easter event.

The same is true for the Last Supper. It was the Last Supper, not only because it was the last meal for Jesus before his execution, but because there had been other meals before. But, like Baptism, the Eucharist participates in the Resurrection. Whatever symbolic meals Jesus might have shared in during his ministry, the Eucharistic meal is more than a repetition of what Jesus did before the crucifixion. It is an Easter event. It is a participation in Jesus’ resurrection and an anticipation of our resurrection and the new heaven and earth. Baptism is how we are incorporated into the resurrection, or, at the very least, into the body of witness to the resurrection, and logically precedes the typical meal by which we are nourished in the resurrection life.

Next: PART II – Inclusion vs. Renewal & Incorporation

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