I've been slowly laying down the pieces of a Eucharistic theology over the last year in an attempt to sort of organize my own convictions around church and and the story of God. It's still a scattered mess but I'm starting to see a pattern.
Having Fun With Dietary Laws
I began by looking at the Levitical dietary laws as an attempt to understand the connection between food, purity, the sacred, and the unclean. What I saw was a system dedicated to the maintaining of binaries (clean/unclean, sacred/profane) and behind the holiness code was a means of keeping things in their proper place.
"The idea behind this carefully structured layout was understanding that that which is unclean or common must be kept out of contact with that which is holy."
So why food? Because there's nothing more common, ordinary, or daily than food. By applying the holiness code to their eating habits, Israel would be constantly aware of their own separation from God and their need to purify (or ready themselves) to enter God's presence as made manifest in the tabernacle/temple. What's important to pay attention to here is the ongoing anxiety of keeping the sacred free from contamination through a strict system of separation (or holiness).
The Lord's [Style of] Table
Next I wanted to build off that foundation as a way of rooting the Lord's Supper in something a bit broader than the cross. Or perhaps to give an even greater context to what was taking place on the cross. When Jesus said, "do this in remembrance of me," to what was he referring? My belief is that a richer understanding of the table will help the church better understand who she was meant to be.
At the time of Jesus, the holiness code had grown not to represent the separation between God and Israel, but between those who were righteous and those who were not. This system had now become one of social and religious exclusion - particularly aimed at the poor, the sick, the foreigner, and anyone else of a lower social status who might defile the sacred.
"Many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples." (Mat 9)
Yet what I was seeing over and over again in the life and work of Jesus was someone who willingly crossed those social and religious boundaries to eat with those who were considered unclean. This was creating a theological problem for me.
If, in the Old Testament, God had established a rigid system to maintain distance between the sacred and the profane, how was it that God's very embodied presence in Jesus was now moving in the direction of the profane? The more time I was spending with both the purity laws and the incarnation, the more of a paradox it was all becoming. And I think that's the point.
"Indeed, the table fellowship of Jesus needs to be understood as boundary breaking work, breaking through the very boundaries that separate a holy God from a sinful humanity."
One of my favourite theologians of the twentieth century, Wolfhart Pannenberg suggests that because table fellowship carries with it the forgiveness of sins, table fellowship with Jesus becomes an enactment of the future Kingdom as humanity shares a [banquet] table with God. It's interesting to me that the vision for the coming Kingdom throughout the Hebrew scriptures is centred around a Messianic banquet. Now, in Jesus we are seeing the Kingdom taking place. God's holy presence coming into fellowship with humanity. This also gives a more robust understanding of salvation, moving it beyond just the cross to seeing the incarnation itself as the salvific event.
"In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them..." (2 Cor 5)
I believe that in the Eucharist we are enacting God's vision for the Kingdom as revealed to us in the incarnation. The church is meant to be a Eucharistic community, embodying Eucharistic ethics. How we understand what is taking place in that sacrament matters! This is why the reformation spent more time fighting about the Eucharist than anything else. It forms the basis for our entire practice of church.
We were chatting after class yesterday about the Eucharist and got into the way in which many traditions elevate the table, putting the bread and cup on a stage or altar above the congregation. The problem with this is that it enacts the wrong movement. It's about the unclean becoming good enough to approach the sacred. It's why in that setting we focus on "readying ourselves to come to the table." It puts us back into that system of binaries and gives the church the Priestly job of protecting the sacred from the profane.
It also ignores the incarnation.
The incarnation is a movement in the opposite direction where the sacred moves into the realm of the profane. God puts on human flesh and in the process transgresses all the clean/unclean boundaries. Jesus touches sickness, eats with sinners, welcomes the poor, and is strangely comfortable around the dead and dying. There is a scandal embedded in the incarnation that we miss when our practices no longer reflect that.
The table is not about us moving towards God's kingdom; it's about God's kingdom moving towards us.
To 'do this in remembrance of [he]' means the church is meant to do the same things that Jesus did in his life: to see community as more than an in-group if like minded individuals and to keep eating with those who we normally wouldn't. And somehow in that Christ is uniquely present. Eucharist is the boundary breaking, re-humanizing, forgiveness extending, social embodiment of the Kingdom of God. In short - it's the gospel at work.
God with us.