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.