For God, for Each Other


Since I haven’t posted in some time, here’s a little something for you–a doctrinal position paper on the Eucharist. Keep in mind that this was written as an assignment and with a page limit, hence it’s brusqueness and lack of depth. More soon!

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus offered the bread and the cup to his companions and said, “Eat and drink in remembrance of me.” In the ensuing 2,000 years, Christ’s followers have done just that, and with a wide range of understandings of Jesus’ instruction. What is the significance of his words claiming the bread as his body and the cup as his blood? This paper will briefly present three perspectives from within the Reformed tradition, each with its variation on the significance of the Eucharist for the people of God. Ultimately, all three writers considered will agree that the bringing together of God’s people in true fellowship with one another is the holy gift of Eucharist practice.

With an eye to the Reformed tradition’s tradition of Eucharist, Stanley Grenz, a theologian and Baptist, outlines the early reformers’ debate on the subject. Grenz posits that the Eucharistic practice ties us to the past, the future, and each other. While the first two generations of reformists, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, disagreed on whether or how Christ is present in the elements themselves, the importance is that Christ is in fact present to us in the act. In Grenz’ estimation, the act itself serves a two-fold purpose: that of fellowship (belonging to each other) and obedience (belonging to God). “By our participation in this act of commitment,” he writes, “the Holy Spirit powerfully reminds us of who we are as persons in Christ, of our covenant with God and one another, and of our participation in the community of God.”[1] For Grenz, the practice of coming together to celebrate the Eucharist is a way of affirming belief as we form God’s community to carry out God’s work in the world.

William Cavanaugh also (and perhaps more so) emphasizes the community-affirming or fellowship aspect of the giving and receiving of Eucharist. He writes, “The action of the Eucharist collapses special divisions not by sheer mobility but by gathering in the local assembly.”[2] While Cavanaugh emphasizes the catholicity or universality of the church in general, he makes a strong claim in particular that every local gathering of the church fully represents the body of Christ completely and on its own. Both within the global church and the local congregation that is physically present together, Cavanaugh sees the significance of Eucharist as the collapsing of space in which “we are not juxtaposed but identified.”[3] In other words, our differences are not erased in fellowship, but instead we are more fully seen in our individuation. For Cavanaugh, this process turns our gaze toward the weakest or most-in-need-of-care members in the community. Eucharist, therefore, is a process of truly seeing one another in the presence of Christ.

From her critical feminist perspective, Leanne Van Dyk affirms the fellowship aspect of Eucharistic practice and she agrees with the intention that it makes each of us more visible to one another—and she takes it a few steps farther than both Grenz and Cavanaugh, strongly critiquing the church’s efficacy in achieving fellowship via the sacrament of Eucharist. As for the previous two theologians, Van Dyk sees the Eucharist as a gift from God—for her, one that is a response to our deep human longing for God’s presence. Unfortunately, “One of the scars that marks the history of the church is the way that the sacraments have been diverted from such expectant hope for God’s grace to an instrument of exclusion and silencing.”[4] For Van Dyk, the work of theology is to undo harm that has been done and expand our understanding of God for the flourishing of all people and the earth, too. Fortunately, in this work Van Dyk finds that coming back to reformed roots is actually helpful much of the time. For example, Calvin wrote about the gifts of God meeting us in our unique needs, and feminist theologians can hold him to this idea: “Both feminist and womanist theologians can link the language of ‘union with Christ’ with other Christian theological, biblical, and ethical themes that clearly value the individual worth of each child of God.”[5] Therefore, entirely new theology is not always needed. Rather, we may hold each other accountable to the theological values we’ve held for centuries but which have been corrupted by a heavy overlay of patriarchal exclusionary values.

For all three of these writers, coming-togetherness is the central theme and value of the Eucharistic gift given to us by Christ and carried out by the on-going presence of the Holy Spirit. Where they differ in their understanding of the sacrament is the difference between theory and practice. It is no wonder that the feminist writer and not the two men is the one who puts forth the greatest critique. While all agree on the value of fellowship, Van Dyk is the one who questions how well this is lived out in practice. One may argue that the two men just have different areas of interest or foci in their work, but there are profound social reasons for why they would engage the topic without engaging exclusion and why Van Dyk finds herself either unable or unwilling to do the same.

[1] Stanley Grenz, “Community Acts of Commitment, The Lord’s Supper: Reaffirming Our Identity,” in Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 540.

[2] William T. Cavanaugh, “The Myth of Globalization as Catholicity: The World in a Wafer,” in Theopolitical Imagination (London: T & T Clark, 2007), 113.

[3] Ibid., 120.

[4] Leanne Van Dyk, “The Gifts of God for the People of God,” in Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Amy Plantinga Pauw and Serene Jones (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 205.

[5] Ibid., 216.

Bibliography

Cavanaugh, William T. “The Myth of Globalization as Catholicity: The World in a Wafer.” In Theopolitical Imagination, 112-122. London: T & T Clark, 2007.

Grenz, Stanley. “Community Acts of Commitment, The Lord’s Supper: Reaffirming Our Identity.” In Theology for the Community of God, 531-541. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.

Van Dyk, Leanne. “The Gifts of God for the People of God.” In Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics, edited by Amy Plantinga Pauw and Serene Jones, 204-220. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

 

 

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