Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Eucharist: Christ's Feast with the Church

Laurence Hull Stookey, professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., presents a different view in Eucharist: Christ's Feast with the Church, published in 1993. His book is very accessible, and would be appropriate for a wide variety of readers, from scholars to Sunday School attendees.

Writing from a Methodist perspective, Stookey calls for a restoration of prominence to the Lord's Supper within Protestantism. He asks whether the memorialization of the Last Supper, and therefore the solemnity of the cross, should be the focus of the Supper; or, rather, if it should not be a joyful celebration of Christ feasting with his church, even as the two on the way to Emmaus broke bread with him, and, in doing so, recognized his presence.

S. begins his discussion by calling for a more sacramental understanding of the church's life. He, like Schmemann, sees the renewing of all creation as one of the goals of the church, and, therefore, of its celebration of the eucharist. While protestants often seem frightened by "grace" language when related to sacraments, S. notes that "God's grace can be proclaimed through things such as the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the holy meal" (15, my emphasis. He discusses baptism more fully in his earlier work, Baptism: Christ's Act in the Church). He uses this fact to say that it is through this proclamation of God's grace that creation may be fulfilled, a fulfillment which for Christians began with the resurrection of Christ.

The Supper is seen as a covenant, which, by definition, makes demands upon the covenant makers (although S. does not reference Hebrews 8-9, the overtones are there). This covenant calls us to responsibility for our Christian walk, and from God is a covenant of justice and mercy. Christ is the central focus of the Eucharist, "a feast in which we, with the risen Lord, incarnate the hope we have of a righteous realm in which Christ's sacrificial love destroys barriers among human beings and between humanity and God. To this feast all are invited by God on equal terms" (22). It is, however, the feast of the ekklesia, not of the individual. It is not just that of the current church, but of the entire church, past and present.

S. moves on to discuss the history of eucharistic interpretation, beginning with Paul and moving through church history to the present day, noting that our unfortunate understanding after the Reformation is that the Eucharist is Christ's gift to deserving individuals.

He calls for a renewal of eucharistic theology in six main points (95-108):
  1. The Eucharist is to be seen above all as sacrament—God's gift to us.
  2. A necessary corollary is that the Eucharist is a reliable means of grace, yet is not grace itself.
  3. The Christ who is proclaimed through the Eucharist is the whole Christ, and the proclamation should embody the full saving work of the feast's Host.
  4. Inseparable from all this, and often also obscured, is the work of the Holy Spirit.
  5. Because the Eucharist is a meal of the church,embeddedd in any theology of the sacrament is an ecclesiology—assumptions about the nature of the church.
  6. Just as there is always an ecclesiology, recognized or not, so also always there is an eschatology—some assumptions about the goal and final outcome of things in the providence of God.
Here Stookey's pastoral spirit comes through, because he proceeds to give several suggestions as to the implementation of eucharistic reform. Further, his sixth chapter is a summary of what a eucharistic celebration would look like, and a discussion of its parts. In his final chapter, S. discusses the ways in which the church should seek to bring people to the Lord's Supper, from those members who are absent on the day of celebration, to members of different denominations, to the church's evangelical call of missions in the world. It is here that S. again notes a major purpose of the church—providing community for those who are its members. This purpose is assisted by the Eucharist, in which all who come are gathered as a community to this feast with Christ.

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