Communion and the Church
In my last blog post, “Giving Up or Growing Up?” I wrote “I love the idea of the church. A group of people who in gathering around a shared meal of bread and wine commit to being one body—one family devoted to the disciplines of love and forgiveness and the commitment to make the ways of the realm of God present on earth as in heaven. I will always be part of that community” even as I declared that I am done with participating in religious structures that harm others. Interestingly, a common response I received to that post was “So, you’re giving up going to church?”
I get that in our culture the term “church” refers to a place or at best an event. I get that trying to hold fast to the idea that the term ecclesia refers to the people – gathered or called together for a purpose (mattering not if they are physically together in any particular place at any given time) – can be a losing battle these days. But this is one of those things I have to hold fast to. We do not go to, get together for, or do church, we are the church.
Oh, it is trendy to talk about being the church, but such discussions quickly dissolve into how we do church. There must be rules and schedules and planned activities and (most importantly) codes of hierarchies and etiquette that must be observed. It’s like being roommates with Sheldon Cooper. It’s not about community, but about staying within the bounds of predetermined appropriate patterns of behavior.
With such responses to my post fresh in my mind, I then read (and got really annoyed by) Preston Yancey’s post “When if the Eucharist is just a symbol, to hell with it.” It hit me that we do to church what we have done to the Eucharist. The historical shift in Christianity from the Body of Christ being the people for whom the bread and the wine were a blessing, to the Body becoming the actual elements removed agency and identity from the people. Adding pseudo-magical ideas like transubstantiation and consubstantiation to theologically back-up that shift (yes, I know I just pissed off most of Christendom…) further distanced people from an identify as being the church to those who do church. Now there can be people arguing that if the elements of the Eucharist are just a symbol of who we are and not something mystical in and of itself, then to hell with it.
We have obviously lost ourselves along the way.
But the critique and the confusion got me thinking. If we are the church that lives in community and choose to demonstrate that we are part of this family together by breaking bread and sharing wine together, then maybe we need a third way between mystical elements and mere symbol to think about that act. Something that moves beyond the lists of rules that set strict boundaries for who we permit to share our bread but which also helps us be and not just do church.
(And this is where I let my nerd show.)
Linguists talk about the power of certain forms of language to perform in their utterance that which they mean. Referred to as speech acts, the idea is that by saying something, we do something, as when in saying “I promise” I actually am making a promise or when a minister joins two people in marriage saying, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” We have mystically applied this idea to Eucharist (by saying the elements are blessed they become so), but what if Communion (and yes I used this term deliberately) was seen as being like an actual speech act. In breaking bread and drinking wine together (in whatever form that actually takes) we are performing the act of being a community, a family, the Body of Christ. It isn’t the symbolism of or the rules around the ritual, but the fact that bread and wine are shared that matters.
Communion is more than a symbol because eating with each other is a vital part of life. And it is not something mystically transformed and delivered by only the one invested with the power to say the right incantation over it. It is far more powerful and active than that. We are a community when we commune with each other and since we are human, that is almost always around food. In the church I used to serve, we called this being foodal (a riff on missional). We did life together over food. We were the church when we were being a community around a table. Over the years, I’ve affirmed my identity as part of the body of Christ by sharing Doritos and Mountain Dew with teens in a youth group. I’ve affirmed this identity by raiding a diaper bag and sharing juice boxes and animal crackers. I’ve affirmed this identity at potlucks, in taking meals to families with newborns, and having dinner with friends. I remember the ways of Christ through such communion, but live it directly in simply being in community. And yes, sadly, I’ve had people refuse to commune with me because the bread wasn’t of the correct type, because the food didn’t pass through the hands of an ordained priest, and because I lacked a penis and therefore could not offer them the food of our shared table. But more often than not I’ve broken bread and shared the cup in joyous ways with my brothers and sisters.
I am not giving up on being the church. I will continue to break bread and share wine as an act of community with those who have chosen to follow in the way of Jesus and live out the dreams of God on earth (or who simply want to join in the community of those who do). For in eating that bread and drinking that wine with whoever so desires to share the table I live into my identity as part of the body of Christ – I am the church.