I’m teaching a course in church renewal right now, and one of the topics we’re examining is renewal through the liturgy, and particularly the Eucharist (or Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, etc.). We might well consider our celebration of this sacrament one of the most important keys to the renewal of the Church. After all, true renewal, whether of individuals, a church, or the Church universal, is the work of the Holy Spirit. With many Christians I believe that one of the most powerful places in which we can encounter the Spirit is in the Eucharist.
Perhaps in your tradition, the Eucharist is simply a remembrance. This is sometimes called a “Zwinglian” understanding of communion. If that is the perspective of your tradition, I respect the theological difference. In many traditions, however, the Eucharist is much more than a remembrance. It is a real encounter with the living Christ through the power and work of the Holy Spirit.
I’m no liturgical theologian, so some of you who are more knowledgeable than I am may wish to correct me on these matters. It seems, however, that if we wish to draw fully upon all that God makes available to us in the Eucharist, there are a few elements of the celebration that are essential:
1. Prior confession and pardon: In the Eucharist we are celebrating and giving thanks for Christ’s saving work on our behalf. Christ’s death on the cross really does effect the forgiveness of our sins, and therefore, if we come to God in repentance and humility, we really are forgiven. We confess because our sin is real. We receive pardon because God’s forgiveness is real. We celebrate and give thanks because of the new life we receive in Christ.
2. The Great Thanksgiving: We rehearse together God’s saving work for us, expressed through the persons of the Trinity. If we omit the Trinitarian economy of salvation, we misrepresent God’s saving work for us. By recalling how God has acted so generously on our behalf, we understand more fully the meaning of the bread and the cup that we receive.
3. The Words of Institution: As a part of the Great Thanksgiving, we remember specifically Christ’s words at his last supper with the disciples, in which he spoke of the bread and the wine as his body and blood given sacrificially for us and initiating a new covenant.
4. The Epiclesis: We call upon the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ. We need not think of this happening according to a doctrine of transubstantiation. Rather, Christ may be fully, spiritually present in the communion elements without a change in the substance of the elements.
Can God act if we do not include each of these components of our eucharistic celebration? Yes, of course. Nevertheless these various elements of the celebration teach and remind us of God’s saving work for us. Here we are wise to bear in mind the old maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi–as we worship, so we believe. Additionally, the components of our eucharistic celebration facilitate an encounter with Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.
One would think, then, that we would want to be very intentional and careful in our approach to the sacrament. If we really consider theologically what is happening in the Eucharist, it is clear that a great deal is at stake.
In the UMC, we have an excellent teaching document called This Holy Mystery. If you are a United Methodist, and particularly if you are a UM clergy person and have not read this document, I commend it to you. It is one of the best pieces our denomination has ever produced. It is a model of how we might clarify our thinking on a number of topics moving forward, including our theology of ordination.
Yes, the Eucharist can be a key element in the renewal of the church. It is a reliable means of grace whereby we receive the transforming work of God and enter ever more fully into the new life available to us in Christ.