Thursday, August 09, 2007

Communion, Again

I'm not trying to rag on my church in particular, nor my pastor, but I keep coming back to the issue of Communion in my evangelical tradition. It is a worthy theological discussion which I would like to keep having (with myself and whoever has a comment to add!).

Is it really "just a symbol"? That's what we always say in the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Our official stance is that it is an "ordinance", as opposed to a "sacrament". That means we do it because Jesus commanded us to. That means that it means something, but only something symbolic. This symbol is special to us, of course, but somehow I feel we are degrading it.

I wouldn't want to go as far as some traditions go and say that it is a transubstantiation of Jesus' actual body and blood because as far as I'm concerned that is unbiblical, unnecessary, and kind of creepy to be honest. I also hesitate to call the action of taking communion or being baptized as "salvific" on its own. I imagine someone can be saved by the action of baptism or first communion, but that would be because the element of faith is present, not because of some magic power that the action itself has. These are the two reasons my denomination does not call it a sacrament and goes with symbolic ordinance instead.

But let's think about that. What are we doing when we say that? The truth is that we are putting communion on par with all of our other symbols, or meaningful rituals, in the church: Singing, standing, kneeling, giving offering, or clapping even. These are all things we do that mean something. And we do some of them more often than communion so maybe they are actually more important to us!

Furthermore, when we call it a symbol, all the investment of meaning relies completely on us and our sincerity in taking it. It is all on our shoulders whether communion means anything. We have to "get in the moment" and perform the well-worded ritual just right or it doesn't "do it for us", and the implication is that it doesn't do it for God either. Thus we wrap it in prayers and songs and rituals to make it feel holy and sacred and good and right. I am glad we do that, but I wonder if we're missing something.

After all, aren't we basically saying in our evangelical traditions that the real power of rituals are in the sincerity of our faith and the rightness of our well-placed words? Could we even take communion without anyone saying a word? This would be problematic for the visitors we want to be sensitive to, but even beyond that, would we be able to do that or would it feel wrong?

I'd also like to ask: If a ritual like baptism or communion is not salvific, what is? I'd suggest that the way we talk about "going forward at an altar call", or saying the "sinner's prayer", or "asking Jesus to come into your heart", we are making those actions salvific. How are you actually saved? Are you not simply receiving a gift? When have you done that?

Why are we so quick to say these two actions Jesus actually commanded us to perform are definitely not salvific actions but then we go and invest a lot of that salvific meaning into other actions and rituals?

I think it is because evangelicals are word-people. We don't like images, rituals, etc. We carry God in our words. I think we have something powerful there, but I also just don't think it is that simple.

I guess I'm thinking about this a lot because lately I'm not sure I have the words, but I sure do love the rituals. I love that I can just go to the communion table and take it and it is a total gift of God's presence in my life. I'm actively receiving it, but the import of it and the meaning and the reality that it signifies is all on God's shoulders. And he gives it.

I think we lose that when we call it just a symbol. This week my pastor did a great job investing that symbol with meaning. I'm just wondering if we wouldn't have to try so hard to do that if we could get our denominational theology a bit straighter on what is actually going on in communion, with or without our fine words and songs.


Tony Tanti said...

I agree with the sentiment here but what would actually change if it became more than symbol?

Are we talking about simply saying it's more than symbol or are we talking about making communion practicely different? Real wine and bread as Jesus did? Bless the elements as a Priest would? Have communion during a meal as the church used to always do?

Or are you talking about preparing for it differently in the service itself?

I agree with the pangs of desire for communion to be more than it is but what that looks like I'm still not sure. I think the first step is to do it every week as it used to always be done.

What's your take on the solution here?

jon or angie said...

well, i guess i'm talking basically about the way we look at it, but now that you challenge me to the practical ramifications of that i would suggest the following:

-if it is Jesus' Real Presence and it is the Church's responsibility to share it then it becomes the prime act of our corporate gathering, in tandem with the hearing of the Word. this is more like the Reformed or Catholic service but doesn't have to be in latin or void of technology and song. the fact is that these things would take a back seat to the mysticism of it.

let's face it though. this is a mystical communion of a church present with the Church global and the Church of all time through participation in an unchanged activity that Jesus said he wanted done and designated sacred.

i guess i haven't gotten much further than the big picture concept of it ... so thanks for challenging me to think further about real-time differences.

for me the change in the way i look at it has really been important to me and maybe all i want is to share that.

the idea of it being something i gratefully receive out of no merit of my own, not even needing my words, and that i need the Church for it and can't just have it with my wheaties or something ... this is a paradigm shift.

but i'll keep thinking about HOW we'd do it different...

Andrew M said...

I would agree that communion is much more than just a symbol. Perhaps part of reclaiming its importance is to continue to talk about its significance. One of the most important things said was about taking communion out of our hands, of us giving it importance. It holds a power and significance in Christ's presence that we can't force.
It is great to hear this issue being discussed. For too long we have ignored the mystery in Christianity, it is vital that we recapture this element.