The Lord’s Supper as Speech Act: But Who’s Doing the Talking? (Part 4)

To link the uniquely Mennonite soteriology as seen in Yoder and Weaver with an understanding of the Lord’s Supper that goes beyond mere memorial to include the action of God, we must look elsewhere. The Roman Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh has developed an understanding of the Lord’s Supper that seems to do just this. While he does not deny transubstantiation, Cavanagh locates the primary activity of God during the Lord’s Supper not in the elements themselves but in the gathered congregation.

For Cavanaugh, the Lord’s Supper is not simply a sign or symbol that points to or represents a new and different way of living in the world, as if the Lord’s Supper helps us imagine the possibility of a new politics or social reality). If this were the case, once we discovered that new social reality, the Lord’s Supper would cease to be of value. Nor is it a sign or symbol of something beyond this world. Rather, the Lord’s Supper creates a new social reality as it incorporates individuals into the body of Christ. “We become Christ’s body in the Eucharist.”[1] As in salvation, this new reality is formed, the congregation is formed, as both the human will and divine act in cooperation. And in this way, salvation is enacted both in individuals and in the community, as a physical and social reality.

Like Yoder, Cavanaugh places a great deal of significance on the practice of church discipline. Unlike Yoder, he locates the source of church discipline in the Lord’s Supper rather than in the baptismal vow. Since the Lord’s Supper is the means by which the congregation is incorporated into the body of Christ, is must also be the source of discipline for the body.[2] By locating discipline in the baptismal vow, Yoder reveals the hidden monergism that lurks within the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Using the baptismal vow as the source of church discipline reveals that human vow to be the source of the church itself. The congregation is created not by a work of God but through mutual human agreement. In contrast, locating church discipline in the practice of the Lord’s Supper reveals the essentially divine origin of the body of Christ. It also makes sense of the importance of preventing those under discipline from participating in the Supper. It is not to avoid scandal in the eyes of the world, but to prevent the unworthy from eating and drinking judgment on themselves. The former shows concern for the church to escape the judgment of God. The later shows concern that the sinner not be subject to the judgment of God. It is in essence an offer of reconciliation. But what judgment of God comes on those who eat or drink unworthily if God does not act in the Lord’s Supper?

Like Weaver, Cavanaugh sees the establishment of the kingdom of God as the primary purpose for the coming of Christ. He affirms that Christ came to inaugurate the kingdom and the resurrection reveals that this kingdom is the true reality.[3] But how does that kingdom become realized in the individual Christian and the Christian community? For Weaver, it is through the human will, and this simply cannot be. For Cavanaugh, the Lord’s Supper is that link between the past event of Jesus and the present church. It is through the practice of the Lord’s Supper that the Spirit acts on the individual and the community to bring the power of the resurrection across the temporal gap from the first century into the present.

Even Cavanaugh’s terminology lends itself to the forms generally used to describe the Lord’s Supper in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, albeit with a deeper meaning attached. Remembering is a key concept in his Eucharistic theology. Anamnesis for Cavanaugh is not a mere psychological recall of past events but a re-membering, a knitting together of the body of Christ by our participation in his life, death and resurrection in the Lord’s Supper.[4] As we eat the bread and drink from the cup, incorporating the physical elements of the Lord’s Supper into our bodies, we are incorporated into Christ’s body. Both the historical body of Christ and the eschatological body of Christ. In this way, the Lord’s Supper is a remembrance of the future as well – not only the bridging of the gap from the historical Jesus but also the inbreaking of the eschatological kingdom into our present reality.

As Christ speaks in the Supper, “This is my body” referring not to the elements but the congregation, the Spirit moves to enact those words. And as we receive in faith, that reality is enacted in us. John 6 and 15 then reveal the meaning attached to those words in the Supper. In faith we participate in the Supper, eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus as John 6 commands, and God acts alongside our act to bring about the unity with Jesus that is promised. We live in Christ and Christ lives in us. And as we remain in Christ, Christ remains in us. It is this act through which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals through the power of the Spirit.[5] And unless we want to claim that is only the collective will of the community that creates this new reality, that creates the body of Christ, we must allow God to act in and through the Supper.

[1] William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 14.

[2] Ibid., 236.

[3] Ibid., 209.

[4] Ibid., 229.

[5] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 25.

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The Lord’s Supper as Speech Act: But Who’s Doing the Talking? (Part 3)

The Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has primarily held a synergistic understanding of salvation. Salvation, redemption, eternal life are provided by the work of Christ alone, and then enacted in the human person and community by the will of God working along with the human will.[1] Unlike monergistic traditions such as the Reformed churches, we do not believe only the will of God is active in both the provision of salvation and the enacting of salvation. Nor are we Pelagian, believing that the human will alone is sufficient to enact salvation apart from the will of God. And yet, there seems to be in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition a monergistic understanding of the Lord’s Supper. It is the same fault, albeit from the opposite direction, that the early Anabaptists found in the Roman Catholic practice of the mass. And given the connection between the practice of the Lord’s Supper and the work of Christ it intends to memorialize, it seems likely that a monergistic understanding of the Lord’s Supper might betray an essentially monergistic understanding of salvation in a Pelagian sense, the very same critique applied by the early Anabaptists and Protestants against the Roman Catholics.

This monergistic understanding of the Lord’s Supper, that the only actor in the Supper is the individual or congregation can be clearly seen in contemporary Mennonite theologians as well as contemporary Mennonite church practice. John Howard Yoder’s Body Politics is essentially one long example of this point. Speaking of church discipline, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, he says “the practices are ordinary human behavior. To reconcile through dialogue, to share bread with one another, or to fuse two cultural histories into one new shared community are not mysterious. No esoteric insight is needed for them to make sense. A social scientist could watch them happening.”[2] Yoder is clearly basing the efficacy of the practices of the church entirely in the will of the members of the congregation. Interestingly, this is in direct contradiction to the Roman Catholic view of the sacraments, where a scientist would not see the results of the consecration of the elements in the Mass.

J. Denny Weaver, a disciple of Yoder, goes even further. For Weaver, salvation is an alternative social structure, a nonviolent way of living in submission to God’s will, which results in the accumulation of love and service in human social structures in conformity to the lordship of Christ. Humans are invited to participate in these alternative social structures that make up the kingdom of God, making salvation both individual and communal. It is the life of Jesus that proclaims what the kingdom of God is to look life, and it is his death that guarantees that the power of the kingdom of God will overcome the power of the kingdom of Satan.[3] Where Yoder sees only the practices of the church in a monergistic fashion, Weaver makes the whole of salvation an act of the human will, albeit one that is enacted in conformity to the nonviolent example of the work of Christ. What we have in Weaver is essentially the logical outworking of Yoder’s monergistic Lord’s Supper, and it is this danger that must be avoided in the practice of the Supper in the contemporary Mennonite church. After all, if one discovers the salvific meaning behind the Lord’s Supper and can enact that meaning through their own will, why continue to participate in the Supper at all?

A truly synergistic soteriology then would appear to require a synergistic Lord’s Supper. But if God is acting in the Supper, what is God doing? The Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has been firm in rejecting transubstantiation, so that cannot be the locus of God’s action in the Lord’s Supper. Nor should it be. A focus on the elements is an exercise in missing the point. The focus should not be on what God does to the elements used in the Supper but what God does in those who partake of the Supper. Whether one wants to use the term “sacrament” or not, a Supper where God both speaks and acts is one in which grace is provided to the participants through the working of both the will of God and their own will. Unfortunately, neither Yoder nor Weaver link the salvific work of Christ with the practice of the Lord’s Supper.

[To be continued concluded…]

[1] See Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology, 147. Finger highlights the various images used to describe salvation in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition (such as justification, divinization, rebirth, righteousness, Gelassenheit), and then proposes that we “distinguish between two permanent but paradoxical features of justification: basis and content… Viewed in terms of its basis, justification arises entirely from the divine righteousness. Humans can do nothing to alter or increase this basis… Justification’s content, however, consists in the human acts and states arising in response to and dependence on this basis.”

[2] John Howard Yoder, Body Politics, 44.

[3] Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 92.

The Lord’s Supper as Speech Act: But Who’s Doing the Talking? (Part 2)

While we might see some openness towards a more sacramental understanding of the Lord’s Supper in some Mennonite statements of faith[1], others show movement in the opposite direction. It is this movement that is most concerning. A quick comparison between the Mennonite Brethren confessions of faith from 2001 and 1902 reveals this trend. The 2001 Confession of Faith:

The church observes the Lord’s Supper, as instituted by Christ. The Lord’s Supper points to Christ, whose body was broken for us and whose blood was shed to assure salvation for believers and to establish the new covenant. Through the supper, the church identifies with the life of Christ given for the redemption of humanity and proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes. The supper expresses the fellowship and unity of all believers with Christ and embodies remembrance, celebration, and praise, strengthening believers for true discipleship and service.[2]

Contrast this with the 1902 statement on the Lord’s Supper.

  1. In this holy supper we are brought to see that Christ’s holy body was sacrificed on the cross and His precious blood shed for the remission of our sin, and that He now being glorified in His heavenly state, is life-giving bread, meat and drink for our souls, and unites Himself with all true believing souls for spiritual communion according to His Word: Behold I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him and he with Me.
  2. Only the gracious enlightenment and fellowship of the Holy Spirit can enable the believer to rightfully examine himself, and prepare him to partake of this holy supper in a worthy manner and teach the hidden meaning of the same, so that in partaking of the Lord’s supper they may be fed with the body and blood of Christ, thus to partake of all His sufferings and His merits and be greatly comforted in the strong covenant of grace with God, their heavenly Father.
  3. Thus this sacrament becomes for the believing church a supper of praise and thanksgiving, in which it rejoices over the blessed promises of the holy supper with their divine Redeemer and all His saints in the Kingdom. It becomes a supper strengthening the believer for ready service and true following of Christ in patiently bearing His cross and for growth in true love in all things into Him, which is the head, even Christ, for the building up and betterment of His temple, the Church. All this is carried out as a joyous thank-offering through Jesus Christ for all gifts of divine grace and well doing to the glory of God the Father.
  4. This supper of holy communion of the believers with Christ, their head, is at the same time the expression of holy communion of the believers among themselves and it binds them together in love, peace, and unity according to the words of the Scriptures: The cup of the blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ ? For we, being many, are one bread, and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread.

Note the marked difference between these two statements. There is a clear sense of efficacy attached to the practice of the Supper in the later, while the former explicitly denies any notion of efficacy, preferring to maintain an exclusively memorialist understanding of the Supper – that is, the only act performed during the Supper is an act of remembrance.

This is confirmed to a greater degree in the commentary on the 2001 Confession, “Grace, pardon, forgiveness, and new covenant are not effected through participation in the Supper.” This highlights the belief that the Supper has one actor – the congregation. God may act prior to the Supper, but God does not act in and through the Supper itself. The only act performed is that of the congregation. And yet, it would appear that God does speak in the Supper. The very words of Christ are read aloud as the Supper is celebrated; “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me… This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me.” How can it be that God speaks and yet does not act?

[To be continued…]

[1] See for example the commentary on the Lord’s Supper from the 1995 A Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective, “2. The bread of the Lord’s Supper is a sign of Christ’s body, and the cup is a sign of the new covenant in his blood (Luke 22:19-20). As Christians eat the bread and drink the cup, they experience Christ’s presence in their midst. The Lord’s Supper both represents Christ and is a way in which Christ is present again (“re-present”) in the body of believers. In this meal, the church renews its covenant to be the body of Christ in the world and to live the life of Christ on behalf of others.” (http://home.mennonitechurch.ca/cof/art.12)

[2] The official commentary offered by the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches on this statement confirms this interpretation: “The Anabaptist position is that the Supper is an ordinance and not a sacrament. Grace, pardon, forgiveness, and new covenant are not effected through participation in the Supper, but rather participation in the Supper represents the fact that grace has been accepted and people have entered a new covenant relationship and community. In the Supper we eat and drink to the reality that we are the redeemed people of God. In participating, we acknowledge the sacrificial death of Christ on our behalf, our incorporation into the new covenant people of God, and celebrate our union with Christ in the church.” (http://www.mennonitebrethren.ca/resource/the-mb-confession-of-faith-detailed-edition/#Lords-supper)

The Lord’s Supper as Speech Act: But Who’s Doing the Talking? (Part 1)

When God speaks, God acts. We see this affirmed throughout the scriptures, starting with the moment of creation in Genesis 1.

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, with a divine wind sweeping over the waters. God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness. God called light ‘day’, and darkness he called ‘night’. Evening came and morning came: the first day.

We have here a description of the creation of all that is through nothing but the speech of God. In clear defiance of all other Ancient Near East creation myths, where deities fashioned the universe through a struggle with the primordial chaos, the author of Genesis has God creating through the power of God’s words alone. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo makes much of this distinction, but often the focus of this doctrine is more on the lack of pre-existing materials rather than on the means by which God creates. Nonetheless, this means of creation, simply speaking into being, is just as significant for our understanding of the way in which God acts in the world.

John 1 takes this same image – the speech of God in the beginning– and applies it to the incarnated Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him. What has come into being in him was life, life that was the light of men; and light shines in darkness, and darkness could not overpower it.

The speech of God is revealed to us now as the person of Jesus Christ. Not only as the creator of the universe but also the provider of life. And not only the provider of life in the beginning but the provider of the eternal life that the darkness of the world cannot overcome. This is the eternal life that weaves its way through the gospel of John. Both life in the beginning and the life eternal are brought about through the power of the Word of God. Whatever God speaks, God brings into being.

But how do those humans for whom the Word came to save appropriate this eternal life? How do we access this word of eternal life spoken by God? For an answer, we jump ahead to John 6 – the feeding of the 5000. It is an event included in all four gospels, but one given particular theological import by John. Given that the event itself is likely more familiar than the theological discourse that follows, we will skip ahead to that discourse, John 6:28-59 and quote it at length.

Then they said to him, ‘What must we do if we are to carry out God’s work?’

Jesus gave them this answer, ‘This is carrying out God’s work: you must believe in the one he has sent.’

So they said, ‘What sign will you yourself do, the sight of which will make us believe in you? What work will you do?. Our fathers ate manna in the desert; as scripture says: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’

Jesus answered them: In all truth I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, it is my Father who gives you the bread from heaven, the true bread; for the bread of God is the bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

‘Sir,’ they said, ‘give us that bread always.’

Jesus answered them: I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever hunger; no one who believes in me will ever thirst. But, as I have told you, you can see me and still you do not believe. Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me; I will certainly not reject anyone who comes to me, because I have come from heaven, not to do my own will, but to do the will of him who sent me. Now the will of him who sent me is that I should lose nothing of all that he has given to me, but that I should raise it up on the last day. It is my Father’s will that whoever sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and that I should raise that person up on the last day.

Meanwhile the Jews were complaining to each other about him, because he had said, ‘I am the bread that has come down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Surely this is Jesus son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know. How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven?” ‘

And now in response to their complaints, Jesus doubles down on the bread of life imagery.

Jesus said in reply to them, ‘Stop complaining to each other. ‘No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me, and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets: They will all be taught by God; everyone who has listened to the Father, and learnt from him, comes to me. Not that anybody has seen the Father, except him who has his being from God: he has seen the Father. In all truth I tell you, everyone who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the desert and they are dead; but this is the bread which comes down from heaven, so that a person may eat it and not die. I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.’

Then the Jews started arguing among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’

And here we have yet another upping of the ante.

Jesus replied to them: In all truth I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise that person up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person. As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me. This is the bread which has come down from heaven; it is not like the bread our ancestors ate: they are dead, but anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.

Those of us in non-sacramental churches have traditionally shied away from reading this passage in light of Christ’s words in the Last Supper. More common is Luther’s interpretation of this passage, “The sixth chapter of John must be set aside altogether, as not saying a single syllable about the sacrament” (Babylonish Captivity of the Church). The irony of course was that Luther’s understanding of the Supper was more in line with the papists than the memorialists he so virulently scorns. But those who adhere to a strong memorialist-only understanding of the Supper often share Luther’s desire to divorce this passage from the ordinance.

Yet given the nature of John’s gospel, the way that words and themes wind their way through the whole of the gospel, such a notion seems unlikely. As the last of the gospels, the author of John would have been familiar with both the gospel accounts of the Last Supper and the liturgical celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the early church. Even a non-sacramental reading of this passage must take into account the connection between the eating the flesh and blood of Christ as the means to eternal life through union with Christ and the eating of the bread and wine in the rite of the Lord’s Supper.

[To be continued…]