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.

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)