Christendom is dead–I mean, the way of things when the western world identified itself with the Christian religion, and Christian churches claimed whole societies and peoples for their own. Christianity itself is still alive, and I am reckless enough to think that it has a future. But not as the religion privileged by statutory law and social custom, in a world where belonging to a Christian church is an ordinary part of belonging to one’s society and the sine qua non of respectability. That was the world of Christendom, and that world is extinct.
What does the death of Christendom have to do with the way we order our life and worship? We are not hindered from assembling in our churches on Sunday or at any other time; Anglicans are as free to perform their services of worship as Muslims, Roman Catholics, Jews, Greek Orthodox, Buddhists, Presbyterians, or any other religious group. So the end of Christendom does not appear to have any serious impact on our liturgy. And indeed, governments and the courts have tended to treat the internal life of the churches as a “no go” zone. Neither the federal government nor the courts show any eagerness to compel the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, or the Pentecostal assemblies, to ordain women as well as men; it seems unlikely in the extreme that they will seek to regulate the number of baptisms, or the proportion of eucharistic celebrations to services of Morning Prayer, that we Anglicans can perform. So our liturgy would seem to be safe from the consequences of Christendom’s demise.
But the death of Christendom was not a government initiative, nor was it the result of a judicial conspiracy. The Parliament of Canada, the provincial legislatures and the courts merely followed where society at large led the way; and society at large decided long ago that religion was a wholly private matter, without any relevance in public affairs. We are talking about a social, a cultural revolution, not a political program.
The proof lies in a much quieter phenomenon than judicial decisions and governmental policies, a phenomenon which is taking place in the Christian churches themselves, including our own. In the old world of Christendom, baptism was not only a religious obligation, it also had the nature of a social entitlement. As a result, mainline churches did not feel that they had the moral (or, as is still the case for the Church of England, the legal) right to refuse baptism to anyone. Within the past few years, however, we have begun to notice the appearance of unbaptized adults at our Sunday worship. They come as inquirers, “checking out” our church and the faith we confess to see if we and our faith are really for them. These unbaptized inquirers are in their twenties, thirties and forties–which means that their parents saw no need for baptism and church membership over a generation ago. It is as if a full generation had to pass before those who went unbaptized in the 1950s and 1960s could begin to show up in our midst. For they had to grow up and mature and come to realize for themselves that something might be missing in their lives, and that the something might be Christianity.
But the fact that it was missing at all means that society had already lost the reflexes of Christendom–that Christendom had already failed–when they were infants. The church now stands–and has been standing for some time–in a society where a great many people have, at best, only a secondhand memory of any religion. To all intents and purposes, Christianity is new to them, and those who have come to us as inquirers are reconnoitering the Christian religion for the first time in their lives. What we are seeing now are people coming out on the other side of Christendom’s collapse, where Christianity is not a settled expectation which might as well be accepted, but a possibility which may be worth exploring. In many respects, we are in a situation akin to that of the primitive church, communities at the center of reality and on the fringes of society. We are an ancient option which, because of the failure of Christendom, has once again become new.
The very fact that such inquirers are showing up in our pews is, of course, a very good sign. Christendom may be dead, but there is (as I say) life in the old church yet. The arrival of inquirers “not previously baptized” gives us reason to believe that there is–and always was–more to Anglicanism in particular than aerating white Anglo-Saxon culture with the afflatus of religion. Their presence also challenges us to identify what is authentically Christian about Anglicanism, what is at the very center of our life together, for the sake of welcoming them all the more deliberately and including them all the more genuinely.
But that is how the arrival of unbaptized inquirers, in itself a sign of hope, may also be a problem for our church. Identifying “what is authentically Christian about Anglicanism” is no easy task. What makes it difficult, of course, is the sheer diversity of standpoints that Anglicanism harbors. This may be why, in recent years, several parties within the Anglican mix have sought to outflank the diversity by forging a common front and producing quasi-confessional statements of “Anglican essentials.” Such statements might make the parties involved feel better about being Anglican, insofar as they can project an Anglicanism which “stands for something”–or rather against certain things. But I am not sure that they will make inquirers feel better about us and our faith.
On the contrary, I suspect that confessional formulas are more likely to puzzle inquirers and put them off. For inquirers are not yet part of the internal conversation (or debate) which has given rise to the formulas. One has to be already “in the loop” to figure out the point of the exercise. I am all for the Anglican Church of Canada “standing for something,” but I tend to think that the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed together provide a sufficient statement of what it does in truth “stand for” in the confessional sense.
To uphold the two creeds as sufficient statements of faith is, of course, to suggest that “authentic Christianity”–and therefore “authentic Anglicanism”–will include sound belief. But sound belief itself is and always has been much, much more than a matter of knowing and repeating the correct answers to certain doctrinal questions. The church does not have doctrines for the sake of making everybody toe the same ideological line. Doctrines are in place for the sake of living: they are meant to enable the whole community, and each of its members, to grow toward God more deliberately, more authentically and more fruitfully. It is a matter of integrating the way we behave with what we know of God in Christ–and of knowing and loving God in Christ with such consistency that our behavior manifests a pattern of divine grace.
The primary locus of that integration is the public worship of the gathered Christian community. If our Sunday worship does not make it clear that we do indeed “stand for something,” promulgating articles of religion will not help the inquirer. But here we encounter the real challenge posed by the presence of such inquirers at our services of worship. We want to make inquirers comfortable with and in our community, so that they will want to join us. Name-tags, “welcome teams,” inviting visitors to stand up and introduce themselves during the service, after-service coffee hours all help, but only up to a point. There is still the service itself; and if this or that inquirer never comes back after one visit, it is probably not because we failed to be welcoming enough, but because he or she found the liturgy so hard to follow. At the same time, of course, there will be other inquirers who come back and stay with us because of the liturgy, because the very mysteriousness of the liturgy made sense to them.
Nevertheless, the liturgy remains an issue simply because our celebration of it is how inquirers first experience us. Do we try to celebrate “inquirer-friendly” liturgy, that is, fit our services to the presence of seekers in order to make them feel more comfortable? Or do we try to practice our worship with such integrity that our very respect for the mystery we celebrate will commend us to them? In other words, just how far do we go in welcoming inquirers?
This question has lately gained a very particular focus around the issue of unrestricted communion, also known as the “open table.” That is because celebration of the eucharist has become the norm of Sunday worship in most Anglican parishes. So the question arises: how far do we go in welcoming unbaptized visitors and inquirers–even as far as inviting them to share in communion?
Answering this question is complicated by the policy of the Anglican Church of Canada. The official position of our church is to welcome everyone who has been baptized in the name of the Trinity to receive communion. The presence of unbaptized inquirers at our services has led a good many clergy to query the condition. If we welcome everyone to our services and invite all who show up to share in our worship, how can we suddenly withdraw the invitation at communiontime, just because some of the visitors may not be baptized? Isn’t it appropriate to invite everybody present at a celebration of the Holy Eucharist to receive the sacrament, whether they are baptized or not?
Note the wording. The question is not about sharing the eucharist with unbaptized people, if and when they happen to present themselves for communion. In a tacit, almost “closeted” way, we already practice unrestricted communion. The Anglican Church of Canada does not demand that someone produce proof of baptism prior to receiving communion, and most clergy administer the sacrament first and ask questions later (if at all). So the problem is not–or at least, not immediately– unrestricted admission to communion. The problem is the issuing of an unrestricted or condition-free invitation to communion. It is one thing to share communion with each and every person who comes to the altar, without exception. It is another thing to go out of your way to invite everybody present to share communion, without any conditions. The first way, that of a tacit “open table” in practice, is to uphold the baptismal rule while giving strangers in our midst the benefit of the doubt. The second way, that of a condition-free invitation, is to change the rule itself. It is to alter the official policy of the church–and behind that, the basic identity of the church, what it means to be the church.
There are, of course, several ways of describing the identity of the church, mainly in the way of analogies and metaphors. But none is so sociologically exact as “the assembly of the baptized.” Whatever the service of worship we have gathered to perform–Eucharist, Morning or Evening Prayer, a Service of Lessons and Carols–the one constant has been the fact that we have done so precisely as a society of baptized people. That all changes if baptism is no longer the one precondition for communion. The church ceases to be the assembly of the baptized. It becomes instead a caucus of the religiously minded, in which the gospel of Christ may, but need not, be proclaimed.
Advocates of the “open table” most certainly do not intend or want such a bland church. On the contrary, they want to make their parish churches more effective venues of evangelism. So far as the advocates are concerned, requiring inquirers to be baptized in order to share in communion–and excluding them from communion until they are baptized–prevents the creation of such an evangelistic community. For if eucharist is a sign and seal of the gospel promises, to exclude anybody from it on any grounds would seem to deny or even betray the gospel which had just been proclaimed.
Not that the advocates of the “open table” question the importance of baptism; it is, they insist, still necessary–but not as the one nonnegotiable condition for eucharist. In effect, baptism would cease to be a (much less the) rite of initiation, for those inquirers who choose to be baptized will have already initiated themselves when they decided to receive communion for the first time. Baptism would be more on the order of confirmation, a rite of ratification whereby candidates publicly affirm a commitment already made and acted upon. In that case, baptism could be taken at any point after a person has entered full communion.
But such a view prompts two observations. First of all, whatever some advocates of the “open table” may have said, it will surely become increasingly awkward to justify the necessity of baptism. If the sacrament no longer initiates people–if it does not grant new birth, even new creation, but only ratifies a status previously adopted by the candidate through reception of communion–why bother with it at all? For we would no longer be doing what our baptismal liturgies (both in The Book of Common Prayer and in The Book of Alternative Services) say that we are doing. Could we then celebrate those liturgies with integrity? Better, it would seem, to suspend or suppress the baptismal liturgies altogether, at least when the candidates are adults, and use (with appropriate modifications) the rites of confirmation.
The divine welcome
Many might wonder why I am making such a fuss about this issue. If we already give communion to those who (we suspect) are unbaptized, what is the problem with issuing a condition-free invitation? Who’s kidding whom? The doors of our churches are open to anyone and everyone. If we practice an “open door” policy and welcome everybody to our services, why not practice an “open table” policy and welcome everybody to communion as well? Indeed, since we welcome everybody to our services, don’t we have an obligation to make them completely welcome? Surely, Jesus himself practiced unrestricted communion, in the sense that he ate and drank with tax-collectors and sinners. Can we, the body of Christ, be any less hospitable and welcoming to seekers who lack (as yet) only a baptismal certificate? Does baptism have to be “the one thing needful” for communion?
Paul. I do not for a moment believe that such questions arise from a low regard for the sacraments. They arise from a high regard for our duty to welcome and include everyone who comes into our midst, and this sense of duty itself arises, I am sure, from a high regard for one seam of the gospel. In this seam, the scriptures bear witness to the inexhaustible abundance of divine mercy and to the God who seeks out and welcomes sinners.
Now, it was the argument of Saint Paul that all human beings, without exception, are sinners (Rom. 5:12). If that is true, some would extend his argument and say that there can be no difference between baptized Christians who regularly share in the worship of the church and unbaptized inquirers who are wondering if our God is for them. According to Paul, of course our God is for them, for “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11). As Bishop Rowan Williams has said, God does not forgive our sins in order to make us welcome; God forgives our sins because God has already welcomed us in Christ. Forgiveness is a consequence, not a cause, of the divine welcome. In other words, God’s welcome comes with no strings attached. So where do we get off attaching a baptismal rider to our own eucharistic welcome?
As it happens, we get it from Paul–the same Paul who argued that Christ has broken down all the barriers which separate humans. For if “all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” it is because “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27- 28). The barriers which separated Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, male and female, were not broken down–and the divided individuals did not become one–until they had actually “clothed themselves with Christ.” And baptism was that clothing.
Paul was not a closet universalist. He certainly believed that God’s invitation was unrestricted when it came to race, ethnic origin, gender and social class. But he also argued that the divine invitation came with a condition. The condition was faith. For unless the invitee believed in the message of the gospel, the invitation was thwarted. Paul, of course, did not think that God could ever be finally thwarted. This is why he spoke of God’s call rather than of God’s invitation. Humans did not come to Christ because they themselves happened to think it might be a good idea; they came because God had chosen and called each one of them by name (Rom. 8:28-30). Nevertheless, whether we speak in terms of call or invitation, it is designed to elicit the response of faith. Paul himself focused on the fiduciary dimension–faith as personal trust in and commitment to God. This trust-and-commitment was not a warm fuzzy; it had specific doctrinal content. You committed yourself to God because you trusted in the good news that God had raised Jesus from the dead.
So far, so good. Here, however, we need to be wary of anachronism. Living in a North American culture, we take it for granted that faith, like religion, is a private matter, something between you and your conscience (and perhaps your God) alone, and nobody else’s business. Paul, living in the Roman empire around the middle of the first century, did not share this opinion. For him, faith was a public act. Not public in the sense of making a spectacle of it or buttonholing strangers on street corners, but public in the sense of professing that faith in the midst of the community of believers.
We might call it face-to-face faith, where each believer is known as such to other believers by name. How else do we explain the way Paul addresses the church at Corinth, most especially in regard to the way they ate the Lord’s supper? When they came together, several groups remained separated from the rest, “not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:29). In other words, such groups treated other believers in the same assembly as if they were faceless, not really there. The scandal for Paul was not their lack of hospitality so much as their failure to recognize the faith of the brother or sister for whom Christ died. For it was not the mere fact of humanity that made all believers equal in God’s eyes, and as a consequence in the community. It was faith that made them all equal–and faith not only attested in the individual believer’s conscience but also acknowledged in each believer by the community in whose midst she or he professed it. There could be no such thing as an anonymous believer.
In Paul’s teaching, then, the divine invitation was to be welcomed by a public commitment to Christ in faith; and God, having enabled the responding welcome of faith, always welcomed the believer who had accepted the invitation. Now, Paul also saw this divine call or invitation as a calling out–out of the ordinary run of humanity, where divisions, rivalries, violence, and ghettos prevailed–to a new unity where the called were conformed to the image of Christ Jesus. And this conformity to the image of Christ was accomplished through baptism. For Paul understood baptism to be the means by which humans are embodied into the passover of Christ: by immersion in the water one was buried with Christ, and one was raised out of the water as a sharer in Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4). If we follow Paul’s lead, then, God’s invitation is an unrestricted invitation to baptism, for the sake of sharing in the risen life of the crucified Lord.
The Synoptic Gospels. The church has often seen Paul as having an authority second only to that of Jesus Christ. Some may see that as precisely the point–Christ’s authority comes first, Paul’s second. So we appeal from Paul’s teachings to the teachings and practices of Jesus himself. We have already noted how the Lord welcomed himself into the lives of strangers in order to welcome them into the kingdom of heaven. He barged unbidden into the lives of Simon and Andrew and bade them follow him (Mk. 1:16-18 / Matt. 4:18-20 / Lk. 5:1-11); he sauntered past Levi’s tax booth, called him, and stayed for dinner (Mk. 2:13-17 / Lk. 5:27- 32); he walked up to Zacchaeus sitting in a sycamore tree and invited himself to stay at Zacchaeus’s house (Lk. 19:1-10). Jesus initiated the welcome so that others could welcome him into their lives.
But perhaps the term welcome is not quite right; it implies a certain passivity at odds with the initiative that Jesus normally displays in the gospels. The problem with portraying Jesus as one who initiated a welcome is revealed when we consider the curious fact that the reverse did not always hold true. According to the gospels, certain individuals took the initiative and tried to welcome themselves into Jesus’ life, only to get a stiff demand in response. In Matthew’s gospel, for example, we hear of “a scribe” who came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” An unnamed disciple said to Jesus, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:19-22). Likewise in the story of the rich young man: he ran up to Jesus, knelt before him, and hailed him as “Good Teacher”–and was slapped down, told to do what he been doing since his youth, and called to sell everything he owned and give the proceeds to the poor (Mk. 10:17-22 / Matt.19:16-22 / Lk. 18:18- 25).
It is almost as if no one could welcome Jesus until he had welcomed them. When he had the initiative, as in the cases of Simon and Andrew, Levi, and Zacchaeus, his invitation was unconditional. When others took the initiative with him, he immediately reversed it and charged them to test themselves. These stories show the flip-side of Christ’s “welcome,” or rather his call: it was a proactive decision to embrace particular persons by name, not a passive acceptance of just anybody who showed up.
The evangelists do, of course, tell other stories in which Jesus relents when others take the initiative. Perhaps the most spectacular of these other stories is the one which recounts Jesus’ encounter with “a Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin” (Mk. 7:24-30 / Matt. 15:21-28). As a Gentile she was by definition a “sinner” (cf. Gal. 2:15), and the accounts of the episode in Mark and Matthew imply that she herself recognized the fact. Nevertheless, she came up to Jesus and begged him to heal her daughter. He ignored her. She persisted, and, in Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus was finally moved to tell her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When the woman still persisted, “he answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.’” Such an insight, arising from the faith that Jesus had all too rarely met among his own people, moved him to relent and grant her petition. This was the happy denouement of a story in which Jesus for the most part (we may think) behaved rather badly. His mission was only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”–that is, exclusively to Jews and more particularly to those Jews who had sinned against God’s unique covenant with their people. Levi and Zacchaeus, as tax-gatherers, were not representatives of generic humanity; they were “lost sheep of the house of Israel”–Jews who had gone wrong as children of Abraham. In other words, Jesus originally confined his welcome to persons of his own religion and ethnic heritage.
And yet the point of the story of the Syrophoenician woman remains–that even Gentiles, who did not belong to “the house of Israel,” could have saving faith. In a sense, then, this story marks the moment when Jesus’ mission turned out to be universal and his message of salvation became a message for all humanity. But only in a sense. For the gospels show no sign that Jesus followed up on that encounter with the Syrophoenician woman in any consistent way. He never sought out a Gentile and invited her or him the way he invited (or welcomed) himself into the lives of Simon and Andrew, Levi, and Zacchaeus. His relations with such Gentiles as the gospels report him encountering were acquiescent rather than active, and his response to them did indeed take the form of “crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” rather than full-blown admission into the covenant of salvation.
This may help to explain the most curious aspect of Jesus’ encounters with Gentiles–the fact that none of those Gentiles is ever named. The Syrophoenician woman, the Gerasene demoniac (Mk. 5:1- 20 / Matt. 8:28-9:1), the centurion at Capernaum (Matt. 8:5-13 / Lk. 7:1-10), the Samaritan leper (Lk. 17:18)–all remain anonymous, unlike Simon and Andrew, Levi, Zacchaeus, Jairus, Mary and Martha. It is hard to see how one could make someone else a full partner in a covenant without naming her or him, or practice genuine “commensality” (table fellowship) with the anonymous. In this light, then, Jesus did not welcome Gentiles so much as make this or that individual Gentile an exception to the rule of his mission–and that rule was, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
To be sure, the gospels also recount episodes where Jesus dealt with Jews, children of Abraham, who are never named–not only the various scribes and Pharisees who challenged him but also those who had faith in his power to heal them and were healed, like the paralytic let down through a hole in the roof (Mk. 2:3-12 / Matt. 9:2-7), the woman who had suffered hemorrhages for twelve years (Mk. 5:25-34 / Matt. 9:20-22 / Lk. 8:43- 48), the deaf man with a speech impediment (Mk. 7:31-37), the blind man at Bethsaida (Mk. 8:22-27).
So the evidence of the gospels regarding Jesus’ invitation (or welcoming) of others is rather more ambivalent than we might have expected or wanted it to be. We may take his willingness to consort with sinners and outcasts of the Jewish nation and, filtering it through the gospel according to Paul, apply it across the board to all humanity. After all, this is precisely what the church has done ever since the council of Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1- 10; cf. Acts 15:1-19).
But this resolution of the ambivalence in Jesus’ attitude towards Gentiles is a post-resurrection event. Remember that the great commission in Matthew–“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” –is a word of the risen Jesus. The resurrection was the watershed from which the apostolic church saw the stream of salvation flow out of “the house of Israel” to “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). We thus find ourselves coming back into the orbit of Paul. For it is Paul’s interpretation of what Christ means for humanity that allows us to resolve the ambivalence of Jesus’ relations with Gentiles (as opposed to his relations with “the children of Abraham”) and to assert the universality of God’s saving love in Christ.
As I argued above, Paul sees God’s love in Christ as an initiative which expects the response of faith. It is a covenant- making initiative and a covenantal love. That is to say, it is a love which calls for, even as it enables, the beloved to make a public commitment of faith in the community of believers. Even if Jesus himself did not baptize people, he did expect and often demand a commitment of a very public sort when he invited himself into a person’s life.
Paul also expected and demanded such a commitment; and what is more, he implied an intimate connection between that commitment and baptism, as in Romans 6. There Paul blasted those who said (or accused him of saying) that we should “continue sin in order that grace may abound.” This was impossible, Paul retorted, because believers have “died to sin.” How? By means of baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:1- 4). I do not think that I am pressing Paul’s argument too hard if I say that, in this passage, he considered baptism to be something more than a symbolic representation or confirmation of a person’s prior (and private) commitment to Christ. It actually made that person a participant in the life of the crucified Lord who is risen again.
Baptism and eucharist
If Paul saw baptism as making a person to be a participant of the life of Jesus Christ, what relation does it have to the Lord’s supper? The question might be dismissed either as purely speculative or as simply futile, because Paul himself nowhere made an explicit connection between the two. But such a dismissal goes too far. It is not a summons to responsible exegesis; it is the despair of all exegesis and undercuts the legitimacy of preaching. For theological exegesis is not merely a matter of thinking the same things as Paul, in the same way as Paul. It is a matter of thinking with Paul, of discerning the principles of his thought and teasing out their implications for issues which confront us in our day. So it is possible to look at Paul’s handling of baptismal themes and his discussion of the Lord’s supper, then see whether the two concerns have any thread in common. I suggest that they do, in the way Paul deployed the theme of soma Christou, the body of Christ.
In Romans and in 1 Corinthians, Paul used the image of the body to deal with the problem of discerning the unity of the church in the face of its members’ all too obvious diversity (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12-14; cf. Eph. 4:1-16). One solution to the problem, which seems to have been the favored option at Corinth, was to reject diversity and insist that the possession of one or another quality alone determined who was a real Christian. 1 Corinthians 12-14, where Paul exploited the image systematically, is directed against a group which had identified speaking in tongues as the one and only necessary quality. Paul would have no truck with such reductionism. He insisted that the unity of the church was to be known precisely in the diversity of its members’ gifts and ministries, even as a body was known to be single entity in (not despite) the variety of its organs and limbs. And he specifically linked this unity-in-diversity with baptism:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:12-13)
Baptism incorporates believers into the body of Christ, with the same life’s-breath (pneuma, spiritus) that animates his risen body; and it is only as the body of Christ by baptism that the diversities which divide humans–such as ethnic heritage (“Jews or Greeks”) and social condition (“slaves or free”)–are reconciled in a new principle of unity, namely, Christ’s own life.
Now this same image occurs in Paul’s earlier discussion of the Lord’s supper. As I have already noted, he was outraged by the way certain groups at Corinth excluded other believers when the whole church “came together . . . to eat the Lord’s supper” (1 Cor. 11:20). Some gorged themselves on the contents of well-stocked hampers, while others munched on dry bread and still others even went hungry. Paul then reminded the Corinthians of what the Lord Jesus did “on the night when he was betrayed” (1 Cor. 11:23-26). This account of the institution of the Lord’s supper is one of the most frequently quoted and analyzed passages in all of Paul’s letters. But it is the preamble to his argument, not the point of it. The point is:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves. (1 Cor. 11:27-29)
Modern Christians tend to dislike this passage for its menace. Paul intended it to be menacing–but not in such a way as to discourage Christians from receiving communion at all. His purpose was to overbear the exclusionary practices of certain groups at the Lord’s supper.
In this light, Paul’s remarks about eating and drinking “in an unworthy manner” and “discerning the body” take on a broader, inclusive meaning. The body in question is certainly Christ’s body, but that body is the whole community of believers gathered for the Lord’s supper. So “discerning the [Lord’s] body” means recognizing the one Christ in each and all of his members, and an “unworthy” eating of the supper means any behavior which denies the worth, and thus the dignity, of anyone who has been made a member of the body of Christ. And we have seen that Paul considered baptism to be the means by which someone is made to be a member of Christ’s body.
If this interpretation is faithful to Paul’s teaching, it is not hard to tease out the implicit relation between baptism and the Lord’s supper. Since baptism makes the individuals be members of the body of Christ, baptism is what allows communicants to discern the body–and thus to eat and drink the Lord’s supper in a worthy manner. Whether baptized people always do discern the body is another matter. Clearly, by Paul’s account, several groups in the church at Corinth had failed miserably in this respect. But in Pauline terms their sin was not want of hospitality; it was their betrayal of the baptismal truths of their lives as members of Christ’s body. It is as if Paul were saying: “Baptism has made you members of the body of Christ. So be members of that one body when you come together to eat the Lord’s supper with other members of the same body.” Baptism had given them the power to discern themselves and all other baptized persons as belonging to Christ; but they had flipped the breaker of that power and so had thrown the Lord’s supper into darkness.
This is on the negative side. If we took Paul’s strictures to heart, so far from debating whether we should invite everybody to communion, we would be debating the terms for admitting anybody to communion, including ourselves. But what about the positive side of Paul’s teaching? In Pauline terms, I said, baptism is what gives communicants the power to “discern the body” and thus to make “a worthy communion.” Paul does not tie communion-worthiness to repentance and faith, as the prayer book tradition has done. For Paul, communion-worthiness is tied to discernment of the Lord’s body in the assembly of the baptized community as its members eat the bread which “is a sharing in the body of Christ” and drink the cup which “is a sharing in the blood of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16).
A question then arises. What kind of discernment is this? Paul, of course, does not address this question. A hint–and only a hint–of how he might have dealt with it comes in 1 Corinthians 12, when he applies his metaphor of the body to the life of the Christian community. “In the one Spirit,” he wrote, “we were all baptized into one body.” So discerning the body is an act of inspiration by the Holy Spirit.
In this case, inspiration does not mean the bright-eyed “Aha!” of sudden discovery, such as we commonly (and for the most part naively) associate with writers, composers, artists, inventors and scientists. No, in this case inspiration is more like the act of breathing than the sudden spark of imaginative genius. Call it inspiration- in-ordinary.
Such seems to be the point of Paul’s opposition of “flesh” and “the Spirit of Christ” in Romans . “You are not in the flesh,” he wrote; “you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.... If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9,11). The Spirit is now the element, so to speak, that the spirit of the baptized person breathes. At the resurrection God will complete the process: our physical bodies (somata) will be transformed according to the Spirit from the inside out and become somata pneumatika, “spiritual bodies,” bodies entirely animated by the Spirit (1 Cor. 15:42-53). But Paul’s whole argument turns on his conviction that those who are baptized already have the Spirit breathing within them, as a kind of down payment on the resurrection. And it is this divine life’s breath that enables the baptized to discern and honor of the body of Christ when they gather to share the Lord’s supper.
“You receive your own mystery”
But what is “the body of Christ” that we are supposed to be discerning? A very long history conditioned Christians to focus almost exclusively on the eucharistic elements and to talk about the presence (or absence) therein of the individual body that was born of Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried, and rose again.
The relation of “the eucharistic body of Christ” to “the historical body of Christ” is indeed an unavoidable issue, and not merely because Reformation controversies continue to shadow our ecumenical dialogues. At the same time, the western tradition itself bears witness that the body of Christ has a third dimension beyond the historical and sacramental. If the real body of Christ himself is sacramentally present, it is for the sake of mediating corpus Christi mysticum, “the mystical body of Christ.” This third dimension is the final, fulfilled significance of the eucharist– and if the theological tradition followed its own rules, this should mean that the corpus mysticum provides the category which should govern discourse about the eucharist.
Such was certainly the case for Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa from 395 until his death in 430 and arguably the single most influential theologian in the western tradition. No other teacher of the faith did more to shape how Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants spoke and thought about the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of grace and predestination, the doctrine of baptism, and the nature of theological discourse itself. Curiously enough, though, his treatment of the eucharist has not had anything like the same impact. Part of the reason is that Augustine never devoted a whole treatise, much less a series of treatises, to the topic; he discussed the eucharist only when a text, a correspondent, a line of argument or a festival gave him occasion.
Another and perhaps more telling reason is that, even when he did talk about the eucharist, Augustine had little interest in the issues which would come to obsess the later tradition. Not that he denied the presence of Christ’s body in the sacrament. “The bread which you see on the altar,” he once told a class of the newly baptized, “when it is sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. The cup, or rather what the cup contains, when it is sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ.”8 But Augustine refused to stop there or even to dwell on the point; he always moved on into the communion, into what the communion itself signified. “If you wish to understand the body of Christ,” he told another group of newly baptized on Pentecost a few years later, hear the apostle speaking to the faithful:
You are the body of Christ and members of him [1 Cor. 12:27]. If you are the body of Christ and members of him, your own mystery is placed upon the Lord’s table. You receive your own mystery. To that which you are, you respond “Amen”–and by your response you give your assent. For you hear, “The body of Christ,” and you respond, “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s body, so that you may speak a true “Amen.”
In this same sermon, Augustine immediately went on to explain in what sense we “receive [our] own mystery” by reference to 1 Corinthians 10:17 (“There is one bread and we, being many, are one body”). “Who is this one bread?” he asked. “The many who are one body.... Be what you behold, and receive what you are.” In other words, Augustine was striving to maintain Paul’s broader, more inclusive understanding of soma Christou. The eucharist signified, and was identical with, the body of Christ, yes–but the body of Christ included all the members that had been baptized into the body. Augustine expressed it in his Discourses on the Gospel of John:
Let us therefore rejoice and give thanks: not only have you been made Christians, but Christ. Do you understand, do you grasp the grace of God that is upon us? Stand in awe and be glad: we have been made Christ! For if he is our head, we are his members; the whole human being is he and we.... The fullness of Christ is therefore head and members. What is it, this head and members? It is Christ and the Church.
Whatever may have been true of Jesus in the days of his earthly sojourn, there is now no other Christ–Christ has no other body–but Jesus and the community of the Church together, living one common life. That is what the eucharist signifies, and that is how we receive our own mystery when we receive the eucharist.
Here we may see the true basis of the church’s rule that one must be baptized in order to be eligible for communion. A sign is not a discrete reality; it depends on the reality which it signifies. Thus, if the eucharist signifies “the whole Christ”– Jesus and his members together–it depends upon the communicants’ being real members of the whole Christ; and we have seen how Paul bears witness that baptism creates–makes be–that membership, that participation of Christ and mutual relation with him. The eucharist sustains and nourishes what baptism has created anew. If one has not been “born of water and Spirit,” the new creation that the eucharist is designed to feed is not there to receive the nourishment. Baptism, then, generates the condition which makes it possible for a Christian to discern and actually share in the body of Christ. This, in turn, suggests that the eucharist, considered as a sign, not only depends on the reality of the whole body of Christ, but also depends upon baptism, considered as a sign which effects new birth into the order of the new creation that is the body of Christ.
In this light, the call for condition-free invitations to communion–and, a fortiori, for the “open table”–become questionable. For what then are we saying about the eucharist? That it signifies the whole Christ, the mutual integrity of Jesus and those who have been baptized into his paschal life? Or that it signifies a sort of holy Sunday brunch where the Christianly minded attest their warm fellow-feeling by sharing blessed bickies and sips of prayed-over plonk? I am not sure who is being served in this way. Are we doing ourselves any but transient favors? Even more to the point, are we doing honest and honorable inquirers any favors? For they come to us seeking “a still more excellent way” for their lives and, perhaps, for their children’s lives–a way which practices, even as it enables, true integrity in the world whose structures deceive and cultivate self deceit. If we do not practice the eucharist with integrity, if we do not celebrate the mystery with its meaning intact, what are we doing but deceiving ourselves and, worse still, the very inquirers who have come to us because we promised authenticity to them?
Condition-free invitations to communion and “the open table” may not be the way to revive Christianity; they may only be the final rattle of Christendom.