Thursday, June 28, 2007

Communion and Salvation

What does communion have to do with salvation? After all, we might agree that no sacrament alone or in combination with anything else is necessary for salvation. And it would sound funny, at the least, to say communion is alone, or with baptism, sufficient for salvation. What of it, then--a relation between two items, neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the other?

Communion, it may be said, is eating Christ (in some sense whose determination I leave aside for the most part). We should, I think, say Christ is really present in the bread and wine:

The Gifts of God for the People of God.

And right here we come to the crux of the issue of CWOB. Who are the people of God then, for whom the body and blood of Christ are intended? Surely the baptized are among them. One might venture to say that baptism is a sufficient condition for counting as one of the people of God. If it were also a necessary condition, then the case of CWOB would be closed--in my opinion. That is, CWOB would be forbidden. But we have good reason for being extremely hesitant about presuming to restrict the number of the people of God to those who have been baptized.

The most important reason is rooted in the very nature of God; being omnipotent, he does not need baptism as a means of counting one among his people. He may do so by his sheer fiat; if he can create sons of Abraham from stones, why not people of God in these latter days too? In short, I see absolutely no reason to take baptism--clearly a sufficient condition--as also a necessary condition.

If there is some disjunction between the people of God and the baptized, then holding the body and blood of Christ apart from the unbaptized would--pretty clearly--contradict the performance of the ritual. The ritual would be incoherent in practice. Whatever else that might imply, it surely could not be a rite in the service of Truth.

II.
Note well the words accompanying the distribution of bread and wine:

The Bread and the Cup are given to the communicants with these words

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee,
preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat
this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on
him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.

The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee,
preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in
remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be
thankful.

or with these words

The Body (Blood) of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in
everlasting life. [Amen.]

or with these words

The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven. [Amen.]
The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation. [Amen.]


That is, the bread and wine are distributed with a particular intent: that the recipients be saved. The text of the Eucharist itself implies a close connection of some sort between communion and salvation with this hope that distribution will go with salvation; let it be so. It seems to follow that the hope expressed in the Eucharist is that the people of God be saved. There is no implication that the recipients will in fact all be saved, just as there is no such implication about baptism.

The connection postulated in communion between distribution of the body and blood of Christ and salvation is reconciliation with the Father. All of the eucharistic prayers we have imply the problem is our estrangement from the Father, and that the distribution of Christ in our ritual meal is a means of overcoming that estrangement. In effect, the rite enacts what Paul or his students wrote in Ephesians (1:7-10):

7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

I cannot help but draw your attention to the phrase "through his blood" which to my ears alludes to--among other things--some such rite as may well be our Eucharist. But note what the Father is said to be doing with the blood of Christ--gathering up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth. Perhaps some other time we may reflect on the quantifier "all" and wonder whether that is really what Paul meant.

What is important to see here for the moment is that the blood of Christ is a means the Father employs to reconcile the wayward to himself. But also, there is a time at which this will be finally carried out: in "the fullness of time". The reconciliation effected in passing by means of the Eucharist is to be effected finally in the fullness of time--the two are not exactly identical, but the Eucharist is part of the movement of reconciliation in history here below. It is not sundered from the Eschaton, but points to it--what it is about is finally achieved at the Eschaton.

In that sense we may say the Eucharist should not be sundered from the eschatological reality to which it points. And our practice of it should not so sunder it.

The point of all this with respect to CWOB is if that eschatological reality just might include the reconcilation of all to the Father--and esp. of all human beings--then our practice of the Eucharist here below May express that possibility. For it seems to me something to be hoped for that Leviathan be finally bound, that the power of God be made manifest in glory by turning every ounce of evil to good, that even the Hitlers and Pol Pots be reconciled with God and their victims--with no remainders. The issue, so far as I can see, need be nothing more than what is permitted: congregations should be permitted the practice of CWOB. There are, after all, very good reasons behind it.

III.
To criticize[edited] CWOB, one might turn to I Cor. 11:

27 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. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For all who eat and drink* without discerning the body,* eat and drink judgement against themselves.

I am not sure where baptism is implied as required for discerning the body or eating Christ in a worthy manner. Baptism surely could not seriously be thought sufficient for that. At best, it would have to be accompanied by something else--like a catechumenate.

But then, why would baptism be thought necessary? Presumably the Eucharist comes after confession, the reading of Scripture, prayer, and preaching. Is it possible that any of these might suffice for satsfying the pauline requirements of worthiness and discernment? If it is even possible, then Baptism cannot be necessary for that satisfaction. To suppose that God cannot effect worthiness and discernment by those means--even without Baptism--seems to me arbitrary in the extreme. Does God even need those means? Might there be some counted worthy and discerning who had never heard the name "Christ" or as much as a verse of Scripture? Might the infant/toddler Mary have satisfied those requirements?

Discernment is the tricky word--but if you place the bar too high, you end with absurdity. It is better to place it (safely) low; keep discernment light on cognitive content and high on personal involvement. It might be that what is essential to proper discernment is "seeing" the love of God in the congregation, an effect of Charity that shows union with the Father in the Spirit through Christ--even to a toddler. And it may be that worthiness counts as "seeing" that love selflessly as good in itself, and desiring it selflessly--something only possible for us in this state via the indwelling of the Spirit. But then I see no reason why a toddler cannot be inspired to selflessy desire the love it discerns in the Spirit moving the congregation to union with the Father.

But if it--even unbaptized--sees and desires in this way, communion is a natural concomitant. In fact, witholding would seem a perversion, something against nature.

10 Comments:

At 2:45 PM, Blogger *Christopher said...

Your exegesis of 1 Cor. 11 is being read through a particular lens from the Medieval period that inverted the Mystical (Eschatological) and Real Body that does not do justice to the text, nor to the full weigh of discernment here.

The discernment of the Body in the text has to do with the wealthy failing to discern Christ in the working who showed up to find only scraps (or were eaten in front of depending on one's reading). There is a communal dimension here of how this community is to be (which is not of this world) that is rooted in the service shown us by God in Baptism--which we get a foretaste of in the footwashing in John... In other words, the discernment is not so much cognitive as ethical in some sense. Examination has to do with how we have failed to serve one another as the Body before coming forward to receive that Whom the Body is, as Augustine says in Sermon 272: "Be what you see, and receive what you are."

1 Cor. 11 is intimately connected in this sense with 1 Cor. 12 and 13 in talk of the Body and virtues. A long tradition in the Roman world was to think of society as a body and the mouth and stomach as the powerful whom the rest of the body served. Paul inverts this image, and it is related to those who feasted before others could arrive, returning to worldly ways of being together at odds with the Eschatological Reality made present in Christians gathering together.

Personally, until we can be honest and fair to say, this is the Cup you take--to live out life together this way even unto death in all that that encompasses, when you come forward to Eucharist, I think our hospitality rings shallow. As Annie Dillard says, worship of God should require crash helmets.

 
At 3:55 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Christopher,

First, you seem to be identifying the conscious intent or the situational context of Paul with sense of the text. So you go on to try to explain what theh text means by referring to the situation of the congregation Paul addresses and various contingencies about philosophies roughly contemporary with Paul.

But the identification you wish to make requires an argument, or at least a textual basis--and I wager you will find neither the sound argument you need nor a sufficient basis in Scripture.

For instance, it may be that Paul's intent and situational context only establish part of what the text means--there may be other parts of what the text means that Paul did not intend to emphasize but of which he may have been consciously aware, parts of which he might not have been consciously aware, and parts actually opposed to what he consciously meant or to some non-conscious meaning the text carries.

For instance, to take an example you advance, the church as Body of Christ. What that means for Paul shifts demonstrably over the course of his early and (perhaps his school's) late writing, so that taken strictly, contrariety develops in his talk of the Body of Christ. If one will not allow the meaning of what he later wrote about the Body to adjust what he earlier wrote, it may be that no coherent doctrine of the church as the Body emerges from his letters. The same could be said of his eschatology and conception of the Parousia.

 
At 4:14 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Second, the example of discernment Paul addresses--having to do with the failure of the wealthy--is an instance of what Paul seems to describe as a general principle.

You seem to acknowledge this when you say "There is a communal dimansion here of how this community is to be...." And of course, the example does not exhaust the meaning of the general principle.

Thus, even the service shown us by God in foot-washing or baptism need not exhaust the meaning of the general principle--nor could they on pain of inconsistency (e.g. Paul could not then have consistently applied the principle to the congregation). Baptism can ever only be an instance of service--nor does Paul ever imply otherwise.

Third, when you say "the discernment required is not so much cognitive as ethical" I wish you wuold say more about what non-cognitive ethical discerment might be.

I do think there is such a thing as non-cognitive ethical discernment, but I think such a thing may be exemplified in unbaptized toddlers infused with the Spirit. You do not. What then do you mean?

As an aside, I am not sure what point you are making by referring to Paul's critical recycling of Rome's critical recycling of Plato et alia. Oh, yes--the tradition of seeing a social group as a body is very long, and it goes back before anything you will find "in the Roman world".

It is disheartening to hear you call for non-cognitive discernment and then tie distributing the Cup to understanding and assenting to cognitive content--especially something as patently insufficient as what you offer: "to live out our life together in this way even unto death in all that that encompasses." Pray tell, if one disagrees with this "content" would you have that poor soul turned away from the Cup? If not, what is the point in the context of our disagreement of trying to reduce the irrudicible to a propositional confession?

 
At 5:07 PM, Blogger bls said...

Thanks for writing this out, Scotist; good one. I'm still thinking about it, and will post more later, but notice one thing right away.

You say that "the bread and wine are distributed with a particular intent: that the recipients be saved." But the person is also asked to do take the elements "in remembrance" of something: that Christ died for them. Can a person who has not been catechized fulfill this part of the statement? How can a person remember that which he or she has no knowledge of?

This is a problem for that set of words, don't you think? So they really can't be used; that leaves the other sets. First, "The Body (Blood) of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life." But what does "everlasting life" actually mean? Does the recipient know? Is that "everlasting life" in perfect health - or in perpetual pain? Shouldn't they be informed before they agree to this?

And exactly how is the Body of Christ equal to the bread of heaven? What is the bread of heaven, exactly? What's "salvation"? Don't people deserve to understand exactly what they are participating in?

I do have more questions, believe it or not! Will write again later....

 
At 5:26 PM, Blogger *Christopher said...

I think this highlights what I was saying. I used a specific word, exegesis, purposely. That in nowise prevents you from going to the text and expanding to principle, but that is not the purpose of exegesis.

I have some thoughts on other questions you ask, but before replying, I must ask why baptism at all then? There seems to be no reason to really have baptism in your exposition.

 
At 5:59 PM, Blogger bls said...

Actually, Scotist, I think that's enough, isn't it?

Isn't the real reason for Baptism-before-Communion a simple one? Isn't it because Baptism is the culmination of Catechesis?

We can't ask people who come to the altar rail to agree to a contract if they are totally unfamiliar with the terms, can we? Baptism-before-Communion seems to me to be the only ethical way to deal with this situation. It's not meant to keep the riff-raff out; it's meant to be sure people understand what they are participating in.

Right?

 
At 6:51 AM, Blogger Jon said...

If baptism is the culmination of catechesis, what are we to say about infant baptism and giving communion to young children?

Jon

 
At 7:50 AM, Blogger bls said...

The difference there is that they have adult sponsors - usually their parents - people who speak for them and promise to teach them the faith. No such promises are made for people who might receive communion on their own.

This is really a matter of good ethics; if we're going to say those things to people, we really have to make sure we define them ahead of time so that we're sure people know what they are getting involved in. Here's another example: suppose you went to, say, a Hindu or Buddhist religious ceremony, and you were invited to take part as if you were a member of that faith. Suppose you made certain statements during the ceremony, or received certain pledges from the group, exactly as if you were a member of that faith. Does this strike you as a good thing? Wouldn't you want to know exactly what you were participating in, and what actual meaning was involved?

Now, I happen to believe that Baptism is also initiation, and a symbol of commitment, and much more. But it is also an ethical practice, I'm realizing.

 
At 4:29 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

bls and Christopher and Jon,

OK--let's agree that CWOB is never simply desirable in itself, as if it were the best option available. That is, it should not ever be a congregation's first option when confronted with those approaching Christ anew.

It folows that a congregation falling back on CWOB as a mainstay and offering nothing else by way of catechesis is in the wrong.

CWOB would then only have a place as a fall back measure, a means of beginning a process of conversion which would be formally initiated at baptism, as perhaps a type of betrothal.

Or: think of the hymn Amazing Grace, with the line about grace that teaches one how to fear. There could be a catechesis bringing one who started with CWOB into Baptism and Communion--to a point where she could look back at her CWOB with fear, seeing with eyes of grace how she was then as it were on the edge of a vast Abyss, shielded from the tenuousness of her genuine condition by the unreasonable mercy of God.

Even pointing out the possibility of universalism, we may too point out the possibility of it not coming to pass. To presume the mercy of God was something even Christ would not do--it would be--perhaps--to hurl oneself off the temple and into that Abyss.

 
At 4:40 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Christopher,

Baptism might be a way of entering the family intentionally, the way a young girl in days past was bethrothed, from that point on falling under the authority of another Father.

Intention and permission from the one given away are not necessary--hence the validity of infant baptism or emergency baptism. In that sense, baptism is part of another, older world displaced by the modern one, with modern emphasis on autonomy.

One might ask: why work all day in the field when the owner will pay the same wage to those who come at the end of the day?

Maybe simply because one has fallen in love with God, and cannot help oneself. To wait around would just be intolerable when there are means now available with which you might join your beloved.

Loving God just because of who God is, not just because he can do this or that in exchange for deeds or consents on our part.

The congregation restoring the ancient rite of Baptism to its proper place might do well to give God every available opportunity to seduce and carry away its members. That need not take the form of evangelical or charismatic ecstasy--though it might.

What would seduce a non-charismatic/evangelical congregation on God's behalf?

 

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