Monday, December 22, 2008

Unity in the Lord’s Supper: Voices from Around the World

A modifed version of the following write-up appeared in the editorial section of The Fig Tree 26/1 (January 2009): 10.*

A recent gathering of area bishops from various church traditions took place on Thursday, November 6, 2008 in Spokane, Washington. After a time of reflection offered by each bishop and certain participants in the audience on opportunities of outreach, sharing in ministry, and working through conflicts, we broke and ate bread. We were one Christian body. Divisions, theologies, and intellectual interpretations were set aside for a moment.

The experience brought to mind certain voices from Africa, Asia, and Latin America on the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. How can such voices from around the world, voices so different from our own, speak to us here concerning the ongoing need for Christian unity in the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper? How do Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans experience and celebrate this unique sacrament? The inclination among African, Asian, and Latin American Christians to address their social concerns (e.g., injustice, suffering, poverty, disease, hunger, exploitation, etc.) through the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood provides a direct challenge to ecclesial traditions in the West, calling us to move beyond our intellectual or rational understandings of the Lord’s Supper.

The African theologian Laurenti Magesa sees the Lord’s Supper as giving the church its very life and edification. African Christians tend to work out their social concerns through the Lord’s Supper. For Nguyen Y. Doan, a Korean theologian, the ‘living Christ’ instead of the ‘orthodoxy of texts’ makes it possible to address the needs of humanity in the world. Only then does the celebration of the Lord’s Supper at church become meaningful. The Latin American theologian Leonardo Boff ties the celebration of the Lord’s Supper to the liberating and transforming work of the Trinity throughout history.

Traditional voices (i.e., Orthodox, Catholic, and mainline Protestant churches) tend to concentrate on having the correct theological interpretation of the bread and cup (e.g., mystical, physical, real presence, or symbolic). Contextual-intercultural voices, however, celebrate the Lord’s Supper in terms of its communal benefits in addressing the physical, social, economic, and spiritual needs of human beings. The Western tendency to reduce the Lord’s Supper to a lifeless and intellectual custom is an urgent concern. If the sacrament is only a rational participation, celebration, or memorial of Christ’s death, then the church can legitimately ignore the real needs of people. Here the contextual-intercultural voices offer a biblical paradigm: God in Jesus Christ is placed at the center of people’s lives and worship practices. The motifs of ‘table,’ ‘supper,’ ‘eating and drinking,’ and ‘koinonia [communal participation] in Christ’s blood and body’ take on new dimensions pertaining to communal sharing and meeting the needs of human beings.

*For my in-depth discussion of ecclesial unity in the Christian meal, see Lace Marie Williams-Tinajero, “Christian Unity: The Communal Participation in Christ’s Body and Blood,” One in Christ 40/2 (2005): 46–61.