The Common Good

Eucharist: A Call For The Church to Be One

When it comes to sharing the Eucharist among faithful but separated Christ followers, I wonder if Jesus is waiting for the churches simply to be the Church?

Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images
Christian woman receives communion wafers in Kashmir, India. Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

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For the sake of this uncommon meal and the One who gives himself to us in it we can partake together, not on the shaky foundation of our present tragic divisions but on the firm ground of our promised unity by joining now in the Great Feast we will celebrate with him forever in eternity.

It is, after all, his table. It is a table set not only in the presence of our enemies in this world but set also in the unseen realm of Christ’s anticipated future rule that in a mystery comes to each of our houses of worship simultaneously as we gather in hope to encounter his resurrected person, week in and week out.

In this scenario, we remain mindful and respectful of our present divisions yet act on the coming unity we know is ours now by promise because no prayer of Jesus, certainly not his prayer that we be "one," can ever fail (John 17).

This union at the Eucharist can only be accomplished by the Holy Spirit, not by consultations, conversions, or ecclesiastical realignments, which depend on the power and wisdom of men and remain (as a matter of history) ineffective at dissolving the boundaries that keep us apart.

The Eucharist is, after all, an eschatological act; a foretaste of the Kingdom where all divisions and separations will come to a decisive end.

The Sacrament is Christ himself in our midst, unifying us in himself, drawing us to himself and his imminent reign. The Eucharist is a journey that lands us in the Kingdom Come.

We apply this principle of a future hope of glory to everything else in our walk with Christ — salvation, perfection, life that never ends — why not also to this central mystery that reveals the body of Christ (”And though we are many, we all eat from one loaf of bread, showing that we are one body” 1 Cor. 10:17)?

This is not a gnostic denial of our contemporary separations, a burying of our heads in the sand, or of seeking unity in the absence of the truth or integrity, but an affirmation that we are one in Christ even now, perfect in him even now, by this anticipation of our future perfected communion in Jesus, by his high priestly promise that we can count on despite the real troubles of today.

While involved in full-time ecumenism more than a decade ago I first met this idea that sharing the Eucharist between separated brethren was tantamount to premarital sex, a similar transgression of holy order and initiation, because divided Christians were not yet in full institutional communion.

I believe this confuses the sacraments, as the entrance to Holy Communion is Baptism, where we are all made, though many, one participant in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Many will say that we don't all agree on what the Eucharist is, what it means. What are we partaking of?

Since when in traditional sacramental theology has the substance of the Eucharist, what it is, what Christ says it is — "my body," "my blood" — dependent on what any given person believes about it? The gift is given whether or not we acknowledge it for what it is. It is what Christ says it is, with or without our consent. Communion makes us participants in Christ's body and blood (1 Cor. 10:16) whatever the quality of our faith or life. Like Christ Jesus himself, it is all a matter of grace.

It would be good to refrain from sharing the Eucharist from time to time as a symbol that we still carry the cross of our rifts and disagreements in this dying world. Yet this would be the poignant exception — perhaps during Lent? — and not, as it is now, the unfortunate rule.

I know this is a controversial proposal but it comes from one who has tried everything, who has witnessed much, and read so much more, and I find our efforts at Christian unity sadly wanting.

Only Christ's presence with us in the Eucharist, in our assemblies and in us can bring us together.

As Peter Leithart wrote some years ago, every Eucharistic gathering of persons has more transformative power than any political or social action. Why not give our God the chance to do what we have failed to do apart from his presence with us in bread and wine?

The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Mich.

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