Eucharist (3): Discerning the Body

eucharist1St. Paul solemnizes his recounting of Jesus’ breaking bread and passing the cup of wine by saying that he is passing on to the Corinthians what he had received from the Lord. The words Paul uses here are specialized terms for receiving and passing on a sacred tradition. The only other time Paul uses these terms is to testify to Jesus’ Resurrection appearances. Resurrection and eating and drinking to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” go together. After all, does not the Lord come every time we eat the bread and drink the wine?

These solemn words are an island of peace and tranquility in the middle of a storm of human passions amounting to farce. Preceding them is Paul’s denunciation of the insensitive and chaotic eating habits where some people bring opulent meals to church and eat in front of poorer members who have little or nothing to eat. The deterioration of the sharing in the wilderness that began in John’s Gospel has only gotten worse. After holding up Jesus’ shared meal as a model, Paul warns against eating and drinking judgment by “not discerning the body.” Paul may be warning us not to fail to discern Christ’s body in the bread, but he is not thinking in individualistic terms. Christ’s body surely refers to the church and, given the context, Paul is concerned with failure to recognize this corporate body in the way we share, or fail to share what we have with the community. In his fit of tempter, Paul seems to suggest that the Body and Blood of Christ make people sick cause some to die. But considering how strongly Paul insists on God’s freed Gift of grace, Christ Body and Blood can only be more free grace and forgiveness. However, when we fail to see the Body and Blood in Christ in others, sickness, hunger and many more social ills will abound.

With a church in shambles, is the miracle of the Feeding in the Wilderness a distant memory? I noted in the first article in this series that memory is not just recalling something in our heads. Memory is making present. When we eat the death of Jesus, we enter into our own discord that tears the Body apart with cries such as “I am of Cephas!” “I am of Apollos!”  When we eat the Resurrection of Jesus, we eat the forgiveness with which Jesus greeted is disciples to gather them back together. We also eat the feeding in the wilderness and Jesus’ Desire to heal the people brought to him.

We are not left as orphans who have to try to stuff some ideal of human relating into our heads. We are invited to act with others the human drama of entering into God’s Desire for ourselves and all others. Most important, we are fed with the substance of God’s desire to quicken us on the way.

 Eucharist (1): Christ our Passover

Eucharist (2): Feeding in the Desert

Eucharist (2): Feeding in the Desert

eucharist1The feedings of the multitude in the wilderness give us a vision of the new life that baptism initiates us into and which the Eucharist sustains. (See Divinely Created Abundance) The multiplication of food through both divine and human generosity is quite the opposite of the accusatory, slave-driving society of Egypt or the chaotic violence before the Flood. All six Gospel accounts remind the reader of God’s gift of manna in the desert after the escape from Egypt. It is John’s Gospel that makes this connection most explicit. Just as the manna needed to be renewed each day, we need to be renewed by the Eucharist on a daily, or at least weekly, basis.

It is also John’s Gospel which warns us of how easily we fall away from living by mutually gifting back into contention and rivalry. First, John says that after declaring Jesus the prophet who was to come, the crowd tried to seize Jesus and make him king. Jesus had not modeled a way to rule over other people. Quite the opposite. Jesus had modeled a way of self-giving without rivalry. This is the way of life that should rule us. Making Jesus a political ruler could only drag him and his followers (us) back into the violently competitive life that baptism delivers us from. Then, the people (i.e. us) murmur against Jesus when he tells us that he himself is the bread come down from heaven. We murmur a lot more when Jesus says that we must eat his body and drink his blood. Murmuring is the very same word used of the Jews who contended with Moses and God in the desert.

We could take the murmuring as referring to the bitter arguments over the Christian centuries as to whether or how Christ can be present in the bread and wine. It seems to me that we should take Jesus at his word here and accept that he feeds us with his death and resurrected life. That’s the hard point; not the metaphysics of the “real presence.” We balk at the idea that Jesus’ death and his ongoing resurrected life can feed us. It’s like Jesus body and blood are poison to the kind of life we’re accustomed to living, which they are.

It is typical of John’s slantwise means of conveying the Gospel that he puts Jesus’ discourses about eating his body and drinking his blood in a context outside of the meal in the upper room. This has the advantage of stressing the ongoing nutrition Jesus offers in the Eucharist. Curiously, this separation also seems to spiritualize the Eucharist in terms of Jesus dwelling in us to give us life, but this comes with a shocker that English translations cannot convey. The Greek word for “eat” is trogein, a very strong verb that doesn’t mean dining nicely with good manners. It means to chew, gnash, grind. Jesus comes right in our faces with our eating as a sacrificial act. We are to be painfully mindful of the sacrificial way of life we left back in Egypt but, unfortunately find ourselves carrying with us through the desert.

The sixth chapter of John ends with most of Jesus’ followers leaving because of these hard words. By being food that nourishes us by reminding ourselves of how sacrificial we tend to be, Jesus is indeed refusing to be the king who fixes everybody else’s wagons that we want him to be. We have wandered far from the community of sharing and giving that began this chapter, the place where Jesus wants us to be.

See Eucharist (1) See Eucharist (3)

Eucharist (1) Christ our Passover

eucharist1

Baptism is our initiation into the Paschal Mystery where the death and resurrected life of Christ begin to shape our lives. But how do we keep going so that we can finish what we start so that we are not like the person who started to build a tower and didn’t have the resources to complete it? This question is all the more urgent for those of us who were baptized when we were infants, before we knew what was happening to us. (I don’t dispute for a minute infant baptism for the purpose of raising a child in the shape of the Paschal Mystery.)

Clearly it is the Eucharist that feeds us on the way we have started with baptism. St. Paul’s line “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” that we say just before the distribution of communion says everything about the sacrament and more. What is all the more astounding is that, as Robert Daly says in Sacrifice Revealed, it’s a throwaway line said in passing while writing about something else. That indicates how fundamental a presupposition it was in the early church.

The Passover, of course, re-lives the deliverance of the Jewish slaves from Egypt. The roots of the Passover are obscure but it may have been a protective rite of shepherds that the Jews were performing at the time they were expelled from Egypt for causing the plague that killed far more Egyptian children than Hebrew children. Nowadays, there is the simple scientific explanation that the Hebrew slaves were rigidly segregated from the Egyptians so that it is reasonable that one social group could escape a plague that struck the other. (Medieval cities copied the Egyptians by blaming the Jews for plagues that struck them and expelling them when we now know that the Jews were more intelligent about matters of hygiene.) When Jesus welcomed the children whom his disciples tried to keep away, he demonstrated for all time that God is not a child-killer.

The Passover quickly moved away from its sacrificial origins and became a domestic feast as outlined in Exodus 12 that is to be repeated every year. (In Jesus’ time, the temple priests slaughtered the Passover lambs for those who had come to the Holy City for the feast. In John’s Gospel Jesus was crucified precisely at the time that the Passover lambs were slaughtered.) As the Passover became an oft-repeated practice of remembrance of God’s deliverance, the Eucharist is an oft-repeated renewal of our baptism. Just as the death and resurrection of Jesus are made present at baptism, they are again made present in the Eucharist. For those who, like me, enjoy science fiction and fantasy literature, we could note that these sacraments constitute time travel of a sort.  This time travel is not to change the past but to change the present and the future. (The Greek word anamnesis means memory in the sense of making the remembered event currently present. The fundamental change is to bring ourselves and our communities out of sacrificial, persecuting societies into forgiving societies grounded in the forgiving victim.

In Exodus 12, there is a sense of urgency with the Passover. It must be eaten “in haste.” We don’t usually feel this same sense of urgency while celebrating the Eucharist, but maybe we should. Insofar as we are governed by Pharaoh’s way of living, we really shouldn’t waste any time moving out of that way and entering more deeply into the way of the forgiving victim. The bread and wine are gifts to give us what we need to finish what we started. When we eat Christ our Passover, we need to ask ourselves: How ready and willing are to pass over from one way of living to another? How willing are we to serve one another as demonstrated by Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet?

 

Eucharist (2)  Eucharist (3)  See also Baptism (1)

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (3)

lakeGray1All of the biblical types of baptism that I have reviewed in the first two posts of this series stress the social nature of this sacrament. In the Paschal Mystery, we die to one way of relating (or misrelating) with people to live to a totally new way of relating to others. The traditional triad of renunciations of the world, the flesh, and the devil confirms this social element of baptism. The three are nearly synonymous but their varying shades of meaning are illuminating.

The New Testament word kosmos (world) has mainly negative connotations, especially in John’s Gospel where it means, not the material world as created by God, but the social world organized in opposition to God. In baptism, then, we renounce organizing ourselves socially around scapegoating and persecution. It is important to remember, though, that it was this very kosmos that God loved so much that God gave his only son so that this kosmos might not perish. As Jesus was overwhelmed by the kosmos in his death, we, too, may be overcome by it if we renounce it.

Flesh does not refer to the material aspect of our existence, but rather to the tendency live our embodied lives without reference to God. When we live in the flesh, our social lives are dominated by mimetic rivalry that consumes us. The contentions that Paul denounced in his first letter to the Corinthians was cited as an example of living by the flesh. If we renounce the flesh, we renounce this contentious way of relating and we allow our embodied lives to be guided by the Holy Spirit in whom there is no rivalry or resentment.

Renouncing the devil does not mean renouncing a wicked supernatural creature with horns and a pitchfork. The New Testament word skandalon refers to no such thing. Rather this word means a stumbling block, an obstacle. When we live according to the flesh, we allow other people to be stumbling blocks to our desires and we do the same to them. That is, our rivals become the organizing principles of our life rather than God. In scripture, the Satan is also the accuser, which is what rivals do. They accuse each other endlessly as opposed to praising God endlessly.

The renunciations as formulated in the 1976 Book of Common Prayer amount to much the same thing. Renouncing “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” may seem to imply supernatural forces. I do not rule out such angelic beings who, themselves, put themselves into mimetic rivalry with God, but the anthropological level is what is most important to us in renouncing skandalons in this life. The opposition of such stumbling blocks can seem so strong that they seem transcendent but are really an accumulation of human desires out of control. Renouncing “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” acknowledges the systemic evil of the kosmos which we must renounce and “the sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God” point to our own responsibility to do what the fourth question asks of us, to “turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as [our] savior” and “put [our] whole trust in his grace and love.”

As noted in my last post, the new beginnings promised by the deliverances from the Flood and from the Red Sea were so daunting that, in both cases, those who were delivered returned to the old way of relating with each other and the same has happened with the Church. Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime sacrament in the sense of being an initiation, that is a beginning. A beginning is just that; it is not the middle and certainly is not the end. Baptism is a beginning that must be sustained day by day, hour by hour. St. Paul’s admonition to “take off” the old person and “put on” the new person are verbs used for taking clothing on and off. Living by the Spirit in baptism, then, is allowing Christ to clothe us rather than the rivals who are usually the ones who define us. Being renewed in Christ leads us into a quality of life that we don’t easily imagine. These new clothes seem much too big for us and we get lost in them. Can we allow Christ to stretch us to fit into the new clothes of the resurrected life?

See Baptism: Overwhelmed by the Love of Christ (1)

See Baptism: Overwhelmed by the Love of Christ (2)

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (2)

lakeGray1Two dramatic events from the Hebrew Bible have been interpreted as prefiguring baptism are the Flood and the deliverance at the Red Sea. Both are deliverances from highly dysfunctional societies.

Genesis 6 portrays human society as consumed with violence. No wonder if everybody was like Lamech and inflicting seventy-seven-fold vengeance on anybody whom he thought had wronged him. In his second epistle, believed by many scholars to be a baptismal homily, Peter says that the deliverance of Noah and his family corresponds to baptism which saves us now through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 3:21) René Girard has suggested that a flood is an apt image for a society overwhelmed with retaliatory violence. In such a scenario, a man who tried not to be a part of this violence would be an obvious choice of a victim to unite the fragmented society. The Christological interpretation in Peter’s epistle suggests by being baptized into Christ’s death, we are brought out of society consumed with violence and given the chance to begin life anew, the chance that Noah and his family had after the flood waters receded. It is worth noting that when referring to Jesus descending into hell (Sheol), Peter does not say Jesus just brought out righteous people like Abraham but that he preached to the very people who had brought humankind to the boiling point while Noah was building his ark.

St. Paul says that we all “passed through the sea and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea.” (1 Cor. 10:2) Once again we have an overwhelming flood. Moreover, we have a story of a people delivered from a violent and oppressive society. In his book Jesus: the forgiving Victim, James Alison suggests that the Jews were expelled after being blamed for the plagues scourging the country. If the Jews were expelled, why would the Egyptians runs after them to bring them back? Perhaps they realized they would implode without the victims who were deemed responsible for their turmoil. This is what seems to have happened with the Gerasenes when their demoniac was cured by Jesus. One could take the tug-of-war between Moses and Pharaoh as indicating this same tension. (See Dispossessing a Town Possessed) Being overwhelmed by the waters is, again, an apt image of a society succumbing to its own violence once the scapegoats are gone.

Unfortunately, neither new chance at a new life went well. Noah’s drunkenness and rivalry among the brothers that made Ham a scapegoat set humanity on a course where the curse laid on him was used to justify slavery and lynching. The people delivered at the Red Sea suffered from chronic social unrest, leading to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the desert to stop the plague of violence. Likewise, the church continues to fall back into the same rivalry and persecution. Most lynchers, unfortunately, were Christians. A tendency to see baptism as deliverance from personal sin surely reinforces such backsliding. Baptism is not a magical deliverance from personal sin but is a constant invitation to be reborn into the new social life of God’s kingdom centered on the forgiving victim who, like the bronze serpent, was raised up to draw all people to himself.

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (3)

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (1)

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (1)

lakeGray1“We were buried therefore with him [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  Rom. 6:4

If baptism is our initiation into Christ, our entry into the Paschal Mystery, then baptism is the underlying, ongoing dynamic of our lives in Christ. Dying and rising with Christ is something we need to do every day. The Greek word baptismo means to be overwhelmed, inundated. In baptism we are overwhelmed by and inundated with the Paschal Mystery. I will explore this mystery by looking at a few key scripture passages that give us variations on this one theme.

Jesus himself was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. For John, it was a baptism of repentance from the violent society of his time, to prepare for God’s winnowing fork in “the wrath to come.” But when Jesus comes, he does not bring a winnowing fork; he only brings himself and asks to be baptized. As he is baptized, the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and a voice from heaven says “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”

These words refer to two key verses in the Hebrew Bible that tell us what baptism is all about. These words ring out in Psalm 2, addressed to the king, the Messiah, who is being singled out from the nations that are raging together and rising up against the Lord and his anointed. The inundation of baptism draws Jesus out of the inundation of the nations raging with each other. In Jesus, we too are drawn out of this inundation in the sense of being freed from raging against everybody else. We are not freed from being the target of these raging nations when they unite against the one who has been freed from their wrath. These same words also refer to Isaiah 42:1, the first line of the first song of the Servant of Yahweh. Throughout these songs, we find that the servant has been called out of a violent society and becomes the victim of that society’s violence. Unlike the psalmist who threatens the raging nations with a rod of iron, the Servant does not retaliate in any way against the violence inflicted on him. In baptism, we too are overwhelmed by the Servant’s suffering but then we are overwhelmed by the Servant’s vindication by God.

John’s Gospel does not narrate the baptism of Jesus but, as in so many other instances, John shows us the underlying story in a different key. When Nicodemus approaches Jesus by night, Jesus tells him that one cannot see the kingdom of God without being “born anew,” born “from above” by water and the Holy Spirit. Jesus seems only to compound Nicodemus’ puzzlement (and ours!) by suddenly shifting to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the wilderness. However, the bronze serpent was raised during a social crisis in the form of a plague. (Both the disease and the violence against Moses were contagious.) The phrase “lifted up” refers to Jesus being raised on the cross and then being raised from the dead. The bronze serpent, then, becomes an image of Jesus being raised on the cross to draw all people out of the society overwhelmed by violence into a new society as free of the violence as Jesus is himself.

This is the context of the famous words that follow: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” If God so loves the world, then God is not bringing a winnowing fork or a rod of iron, but is bringing only himself, wounds from the cross and all, to lift all of us out of the world’s overwhelming violence to overwhelm us with his love.

See Part 2