Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist

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

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

PART II – Inclusion vs. Renewal and Incorporation

PART III & PART IV – Community vs. Association & Fellow Citizens

PART V – Under Judgment

PART VI & PART VII – Transformation & Whose Table?

PART VIII – Hospitality


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Virginal Conception and Other Preposterous Things

It has become traditional this time of year for some clergyperson or theologian to confidently declare that “modern” people can no longer believe in such a thing as the virginal conception (virgin birth) of Jesus. It goes against the way we know things work.

The virginal conception does seem preposterous. It always has. I doubt Joaquim and Anne found it any less preposterous when their daughter first tried to explain it to them. I don't believe it glibly. I've had and will have my reservations, questions, and doubts about this and other aspects of the Creed. But, I figure, once you believe in something as preposterous as resurrection or that God loves you and is able to do something about it, you're in for a pound, you might as well toss in the penny.

But, preposterous as the virginal conception sounds, I find other things more preposterous and harder to accept given how we know the world works:

Jesus is the measure of all things? The turn-the-other-cheek guy from Nazereth who got himself crucified?

I must love my enemies and pray for them, repaying evil with good?

We are expected to live nonviolently in such a world as ours? Peace is always better than violence?

Forgiveness is always better than revenge or resentment?

Money is "unrighteous" and dangerous to my soul? That my best investment is to give it all away?

All people are created equal? Is there any other "truth" that is less self-evident or more easily contradicted by reason and scientific evidence? The closest I can get to that is we are all of us equally created in the image of God, equally loved by God, and equally the objects of Christ’s redeeming. It’s still pretty hard to believe from a purely empirical perspective.

Humility is a virtue?

Heck, believing that the Mystery at the heart of it all chose to become incarnate in a particular time and place from a particular girl named Mary without the usual male contribution is a relative piece of cake. In truth, most of the time I am only able to entertain these other preposterous things precisely because I believe God has done something so preposterous as being born of the Virgin Mary.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist, Conclusion


The Eucharist is the central sign and practice of the body of Christ. The normal way of becoming a member of that body is through baptism. To reserve Eucharist for those who are baptized does not limit God. As Luther insisted, Jesus – risen and ascended – is present everywhere and can surprise us in our cabbage soup if he so desires. While he is free to surprise anyone anywhere, the promise the Church claims is that he will not surprise us by not being present to his body, the Church, as Redeemer and Judge in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. God is free to surprise us by working outside the norms as has surely happend with some who have participated in the Eucharist before being baptized (cf. Take This Bread by Sara Miles).

Because God remains free to surprise us there is no need for hyper-vigilance to protect the purity of the Eucharist. But if we are not to be hyper-vigilant, that doe not mean that distinctions and norms are irrelevant or unnecessary. The discipline of reserving Eucharist for those already baptized is not about protecting anyone’s purity. It is about maintaining the very boundaries of identity that make a place in which to be formed as a community that can actually practice hospitality.

It is also about being honest about who we are called to be as the members of the body of Christ, what kind of God we have gotten caught up with. It is about being respectful of the real otherness of those who are not yet committed to the loyalties and commitments of this communion.

The body of Christ is a Eucharistic community with all that that entails and we are baptized into Eucharist.

Baptized Into Eucharist, PART VIII

PART VIII – Hospitality

1. Who is the Host and Who the Guest?

The practice of inviting all to the Eucharistic table without regard to baptism is often expressed in terms of “radical hospitality”. Hospitality is certainly a basic gospel virtue. The God revealed in the history of Israel and the ministry of Jesus is an hospitable God. We are encouraged to “welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed [us], for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7). While that particular exhortation is about members of the body of Christ welcoming one another, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages a broader hospitality, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2). Hospitality is thus unquestionably an essential mark of any church. But it is not clear that opening Eucharistic fellowship to the unbaptized is necessarily a good means of practicing such hospitality or that it is actually hospitable or all that radical to do so.

Thinking of the Eucharist in terms of hospitality calls for some reflection on who is the host and who the guest when we gather at the altar. The ultimate host of the Eucharist is, of course, God. But this is not the generic “higher power” as each one understands it. Our divine Host is revealed in the self-giving love of the Trinity, manifested on the cross in the sacrificial self-giving of Christ. To eat at the table of this Host is to participate in the life of this God who wills to reconfigure us in the image of Christ.

Along with being guests responding to the invitation of God, the penultimate host of the Eucharist is the body of Christ that is re-membered in the practice of Communion. But, to host anyone we must have a sense of identity and place:

A welcoming place is rich with stories, rituals, and a history. It is valued, and nurtures life. It is never simply a physical space, but a place alive with commitments and relationships.

Boundaries help define what a household, family, church or community holds precious. However, the modern world is deeply ambivalent about boundaries and community. Although we yearn for home and a place to belong, often we find ourselves more comfortable with empty space where we can “sing our own song” and pursue our own plans. Hospitality is fundamentally connected to place – a space bounded by commitments, values, and meanings. Part of the difficulty in recovering hospitality is connected with our uncertainty about community and particular identity.
- Christine Pohl, Making Room, p. 135 -136

If we are not clear about our own identity and the identity-forming nature of the Eucharist, we have nothing to offer but what Henri Nouwen named “a bland neutrality that serves nobody” (Reaching Out, p.99). It confuses mere pleasantness for deep hospitality. And since it avoids the scandal and offense of particular, bounded identity it is not very costly or radical.

If the penultimate host of the Eucharist is the Church, who is the guest? In a word, God. Paradoxically, in the Eucharist, the baptized are both guest and host and the divine Host is also the divine Guest. We invite the Holy Spirit to descend upon the gifts that they may be the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant”. Because the Guest is nothing less than the Holy Mystery at the heart of all, we pray that we might be sanctified by the same Holy Spirit “that we may faithfully receive” this Guest in the “gifts of God for the people of God”. It is significant that in the gospels Jesus is rarely the host, but rather most often the guest at the table of others. And as Zacchaeus and Simon the Pharisee discovered hosting Jesus brings us face to face with the expectations of Jesus. As those incorporated into the community of hosts through baptism, we have some inkling of who our Guest is and what expectations that Guest places upon the community that seeks to keep his company.

If, as has been argued above, participation in the Eucharistic feast entangles us in particular loyalties and implicates us in a web of mutual expectations and accountabilities, then inviting people to participate who are not already so entangled and implicated by baptism and without alerting them is neither faithful to our own identity nor respectful of their otherness.

2. Hospitality in a World of No Place

Elizabeth Newman has observed that

a pervasive feature of late modernity: a gnawing homelessness, a lack of a sense of place. If we are truly to envision and embody a faithful hospitality, we must see how deeply our current understanding and experience of “home” and “place” have up to now perverted us from living a profound hospitality.
- Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality, p. 34

This is particularly true in contemporary America where our hyper-mobility means few of us live in the communities in which we were raised, surrounded by and connected to family and neighbors with whom we have long history and a sense of place characterized by particular customs and traditions. Absent that sense of place, we are reduced to detached individuals roaming context-less space as tourists and consumers. The public space of the shopping mall is the clearest manifestation of this condition, but it is pervasive. We have been deeply formed to think of ourselves as individuals and trained to be consumers living in space but with no sense of real place. If we are not careful, our worship will reflect and reinforce that formation and that training.

Worship informed by such assumptions will be unable to offer Christian hospitality, a practice that relies on a sense of place, a shared tradition, one in which we are not strangers in the universe (or to each other) but part of God’s good creation, created so that God might love us and so that we might I return love God, each other, the stranger, and even the enemy.” - Newman p.44

In such an environment, what does our practice of Eucharist signify? Inviting anyone to participate wherever they are on their spiritual journey reinforces the ideology of the individual-as-consumer. It signifies that a church is like other public spaces where individual consumers go to satisfy a felt need. The church is then like a sort of religious restaurant with spiritual food on the menu catering to individual customers who come and go through its public space. Is it really all that costly or radical? Should it not rather signify that here is a place where people belong to one another with mutual obligations and to God who gives them an identity as members of a diverse body with many members and many gifts reinforced by the Communion Meal? As William Cavanaugh suggests:
[M]uch of what passes for Christianity in our culture today is addressed to fulfill the spiritual needs of individual consumers of religion. . . . The practice of the Eucharist is resistant to such appropriation, however, because the consumer of the Eucharist is taken up into a larger body, the body of Christ. The individual consumer of the Eucharist does not simply take Christ into herself, but also is taken up into Christ.
- Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, p. 54

Church buildings function both as public space and the space where the body of Christ takes place. As public space, church buildings are open to many people coming and going – sometimes literally as tourists. But, of course, other times as servants and those who are served, as visitors and seekers, as those in need shelter, food, clothing, etc. It is space where the Christian community practices (or should practice) costly hospitality.

But the hospitality the members of church practice in the public space is rooted in the place of the body of Christ “made” in baptism and Eucharist. The community so made should be practicing among itself a hospitality – a hospitality of radical responsibility for, and accountability to, one another in light of the gospel. That we treat fellow members of the body of Christ more like acquaintances than with the deep hospitality due sisters and brothers is a scandal that makes inviting everyone to the communion rail seem trite.

Next: Conclusion

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Earth is the Lord's

“You formed us in your own image, giving the whole creation into our care, so that, in obedience to you, our Creator, we might rule and serve all your creatures.”
- Eucharistic Prayer D, Book of Common Prayer, p. 373

As the leaders of the nations deliberate in Copenhagen, may they make wise decisions and firm commitments to address global climate change. And may we all seek to be better stewards and servants of God's creation.

At St. Barnabas, we have made reusable grocery bags with this logo available as one small effort to be good stewards:

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