Friday, May 18, 2012

Holy Communion of the Saints and the Real Presence of Christ

When the Lord ascended to Heaven, he did not leave orphans. Rather he graced us with many sources of sustenance that we may be comforted. Of these sources of sustenance, He left us his body. Because of our divisions, different Christian denominations are inclined to conceive of the words “the body of Christ” within their particular denominational framework, which tend to emphasize some aspect of truth over another.

For Roman Catholic Christian, the “body of Christ” usually refers to receiving sacrament of the bread and wine—the emphasis of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist frequently overshadows another real presence of Christ, the person sitting next to you during the liturgy. Of course, Protestants often exhibit the opposite problem—a complete neglect of sacramental presence and total emphasis of the body of Christ as equivalent to the people of God.

However, even among such churches, we very rarely grasp the gravity of what these words mean. Christianity is a scandalous religion. First, God scandalized the righteous and religious with the incarnation and if that was not already too grave an infraction for pious eyes ears, He added insult to injury through the scandal of the cross—a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23). Jesus scandalized His disciples when He said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves” (John 6:53).

These acts of divine condescension have garnered enough attention to give rise to heresies—He only appeared to have a body (Gnosticism), He was only a prophet (Islam), the Eucharist is just a symbol (much of Protestantism). And now, as I reflect upon the real presence of Christ, I rejoice in these departures from orthodoxy. It is only because people have considered the gravity of what is being said in these matters that they have bothered to deviate from it. What the Lord has done is just too marvelous in their eyes.

On the other hand, I cannot think of any great disagreement concerning the real presence of Christ in his body, the Church, the people of God, and now, I wonder if it is because we have not fully grasped the scandal of that reality. Do we really believe that where two or more are gathered in His name there he is (Matt 18:20)? Do we believe that we are really, truly the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19)? Do we believe that we are indeed members of His body (1 Cor 12:27)? Does this scandalous mystery not deserve a good heresy?

Well, of course, we ought to be grateful that we have not found one more thing to fight over, but it could just be because we have given it insufficient attention. At the very least, we need to stop and be awed by the holy communion of the saints. There is a first century document called the Didache, subtitled, The Teaching of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles to the nations. This document was important in the early Church and eventually became part of the Apostolic Canons and while it did not make the cut of the New Testament, it was on the shortlist. The Didache says, “You shall seek out daily the faces of the saints that you may find rest (to rest, be comforted) in their words,” Didache 4.2.

Pious Catholics advise daily reception of the sacrament of the Eucharist and pious Protestants religiously attend to their daily readings of the Scriptures. These are laudable practices but how many of us ever think to seek out daily fellowship with a brother or sister in Christ? Do we really take seriously that the one in Christ is a real icon of the Lord communicating the divine presence in to us.
This mystery was beautifully captured in a sermon by Augustine who says:

If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying "Amen" to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear "The body of Christ", you reply "Amen." Be a member of Christ's body, then, so that your "Amen" may ring true! (Sermon 272).

For Augustine, the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is analogous with the mystery of the Church. Through each redeemed member of Christ’s body, he is also made present.

Then Augustine said:

But what role does the bread play? We have no theory of our own to propose here; listen, instead, to what Paul says about this sacrament: "The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body." [1 Cor. 10.17] Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. "One bread," he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the "one body," formed from many? Remember: bread doesn't come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were "ground." When you were baptized, you were "leavened." When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were "baked." Be what you see; receive what you are.

If we take these words seriously, then we must also take seriously the critical role of Christian fellowship in the sanctification of the members of Christ. In fact, the word translated as fellowship in the Bible is kononia is exactly the same word for communion. This word occurs 17 times in the New Testament and depending on the context, it is be translated as fellowship, participation or communion. It is never used to refer to an individual Eucharistic activity but rather a communal activity in which Christ is made present in the bread and wine and/or through the coming together of the members of his body.

Communion with God cannot be separated with communion with the people of God and one of the ways we receive communion to sustain us in our journey of faith is through the fellowship of the saints. Without this communion we will also have no life in us.

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