Monday, August 15, 2005

Eucharistic Sharing

As last week's events unfolded in Orlando, a challenge was frequently raised, and not so frequently answered, for someone to discuss the other decisions being made by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly. One of these other decisions that was approved will little fanfare or controversy was the Interim Eucharistic Sharing agreement with the United Methodist Church. I'd like explore that a little here.

First a couple of pieces of trivia about me:

  1. I was born on Reformation Day 1969 and baptized in the Lutheran Church in America the following February. My mother was reading Robert Fischer's biography of Luther in a Sunday school class in the weeks leading up to my birth.

  2. My middle name is Wesley. I am at least the fourth male child in my family line to bear this middle name, dating back at least to my great-great-great grandfather Josiah Wesley and interrupted only by a pair of Wilson's, the first of whom was born in the early '20s. My grandfather tells me we left the Methodist church because his mother was beaten out for control of the local congregation.

So this is a happy union for me.

I know a lot of people frown on the ELCA's ecumenical activities. It's easy to be cynical. We engage in years of dialogue with another church body, discussing our differences, and then eventually announce that we are more or less in agreement on the relevant issues. To the extent that this is a fair charge, it is a lamentable exercise.

But that's not generally the way I look at it. I tend to take a broad view of the satis est clause in the Augsburg Confession and the corresponding definition that "the Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered."

There is of course a lot to be discussed in asking whether the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered, and Luther himself didn't exactly set a generous table in this regard. But I for one don't think a theology exam needs to be involved. Is Jesus Christ proclaimed? Are Baptism and the Lord's Supper offered? That's good enough for me. I am a big fan of the slogan that Christ said "Take and eat" not "Take and understand."

All these words, and I still haven't said anything about the recent agreement....

The background material for the recommendation that was appoved in Orlando mentions that last year's UMC convention introduced "an amendment to clarify reference to a common misunderstanding among United Methodists that Lutherans believe in consubstantiation." This is an interesting tidbit. I find that a lot of Lutheran's don't quite understand this either. It's not at all unusual to hear a Lutheran talking enthusiastically about consubstantiation. Oops.

The actual text of the approved recommendation included a call "to now recognize the United Methodist Church as a church in which the Gospel is preached and taught." OK, so we've got half of the requirements for the Church there (assuming we wink at their semi-Pelagianism). I was surprised it didn't go ahead and add "and the Sacraments are administered."

If nothing else came of the dialogue between Lutherans and Methodists, it may have been worth it just to have the UMC produce the document, This Holy Mystery. I haven't had time to consider it in detail, but on the whole it looks like a pretty interesting document.

The introduction begins by explaining what Methodists will get from a deeper consideration of the Lord's Supper. It says:
According to the results of a survey conducted by the General Board of Discipleship prior to the 2000 General Conference, there is a strong sense of the importance of Holy Communion in the life of individual Christians and of the church. Unfortunately, there is at least an equally strong sense of the absence of any meaningful understanding of Eucharistic theology and practice.
That they want to do something about this is something I rejoice to hear. What wonderful things can come of a longing for a deeper encounter with the Eucharist!

My own limited experiences with the United Methodist Church have left me with the impression that their worship is dry. Maybe it's just the congregations I've visited. Maybe it's just my own dependence on smells and bells. Either way, it's not a setting I would want to call home.

One of the things all too often lacking in ecumenical dialogue is any kind of substantial change in either dialogue partner. It would be nothing short of miraculous if Lutheranism could impart a deeper appreciation for the Lord's Supper as a spiritual gift to Methodists. (A serious call to discipleship and spiritual formation would most likely be what they would offer us in return, but I've seen few indications that the ELCA is experimenting with that.)

Later, the UMC document says, "Prevenient grace is that which 'comes before' anything we can do to help ourselves." And suddenly I am sharply awakened from the slumber I was slipping into reading the document. Who let the scholastics in here? Why are we talking to these heretics? I'm out of here!

But they quickly add, "In truth, all grace is prevenient—we cannot move toward God unless God has first moved toward us." The first part of the sentence is encouraging; the second part sounds like semi-Pelagian hedging. Overall, I'll lean toward charity and take it as just a foreign way of talking.

Further along, the document declares, "Holy Communion is eschatological." This is fantastic! I read an essay a while ago by Joachim Jermias where he made the claim that the petition for daily bread in the Lord's Prayer is essentially eschatological and connected with the Lord's Supper. This kind of reflection can really enrich our appreciation of the Sacrament.

But the real queston every Lutheran is asking is, "Do they believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament?" (Not that that has kept us out of communion with other denominations.) On this question, This Holy Mystery proclaims, "Jesus Christ, who 'is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being' (Hebrews 1:3), is truly present in Holy Communion." Not quite an affirmation of Christ's words "This is my body" but on the whole a good start.

Later the document states, "The consecrated elements are to be treated with reverent respect and appreciation as gifts of God’s creation that have, in the words of the Great Thanksgiving, become 'for us the body and blood of Christ.'" That's much better, but I'm suppose anyone who wanted to could wiggle out of it.

The real talking point for me is what we are really going to require. Are we going to insist on a strict agreement that "the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present, and are truly distributed and received with the bread and wine."? Are we going to split hairs over what we mean by that?

I'm not suggesting that we relax our own Lutheran teaching on this (although it may be questioned how much it is relaxed or even dropped in local congregations). But to me, the essence of the Lutheran teaching on the Lord's Supper is that Jesus Christ truly comes to me in the Sacrament. Beyond this, I believe in respecting the mystery. I need not know how Christ comes to me, only that he does. I understand the historic controversies in this regard as centering around what seemed to be denials of this basic fact (for instance, if Christ does not come to me in body and blood, he has not truly come). If we get legalistic about our manner of Christ's presence, we are in danger of slipping into a Lutheran scholasticism.

But now I feel like I've gone down a rabbit trail. My consideration of the agreement between the United Methodist Church and the ELCA has gotten all tangled up in Lutheranism. To extricate myself summarily, let me just say, I'm pleased with the Interim Eucharistic Sharing agreement with the UMC. If only we took our theology as seriously in daily practice as we do when in dialogue over ecumenical agreements!


Christopher Gillespie said...

Try this one on for size:

The church is to consciously identify and seek out those who feel unwelcome,
even excluded, from its congregations, and to invite them to become part of the
body of Christ and join in its celebrations of Holy Communion.

Ouch, now that's not a Lutheran understand. Never fear, you can't receive the sacrament unworthily! Maybe they got confused and cut and paste from the baptism document?


Andy said...

The question is, do we need to be in agreement in order to be in communion? Does this statement constitute improperly administering the sacrament? I suppose a case could be made, but if we applied it at that level the ELCA wouldn't be able to be in communion with itself.

There is a real danger that we (i.e. American mainline Christianity) is on a trajectory to treat baptism and communion interchangably, both as unqualified affirmations of God's goodness. But how do we resist that without seeming to deny the very great promises that are given in these Sacraments?