Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Communion and a Call for Social Justice

I have, for most of my life, gone to a church that practices weekly Communion (what you may also know as the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, depending on your background).  Unlike Catholic traditions, my evangelical church would pass out tiny little cups containing grape juice, and would have tiny little portions of unleavened bread.  We would, as a body, take these little tokens/symbols (for us, not Sacraments) and ‘partake’ of them.  That was always the phrase.  ‘Partake’.  It was never ‘eat’ or ‘digest’ or, heaven forbid, ‘masticate’.  We were much more respectful than that.

There was often a moment of silence as the trays were passed around (once an usher knocked an entire tray of communion juice on my lap.  In 27 years, that is the only experience I have had of a disrupted Communion).  In that silence we would reflect on what the symbols of the grape juice and flat bread represented, namely, the body and blood of Christ, and would remember what Jesus had ‘done for us’.

For evangelicals, that is the primary meaning of Communion: to remember ( ‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ Jesus said as he passed out the bread and wine at the Last Supper), and to remember collectively.  It is a time in which we, as a Body, boldly proclaim that we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection, we believe in his status as God-in-the-flesh, and we are everlastingly grateful for his amazing love for us in that, ‘while we were yet sinners’ he would die for us. 

Paul tells us that Communion is also a time in which we boldly anticipate the return of Christ.  By doing so, then, we also boldly anticipate the full embodiment of the Jewish concept of Shalom – the peace-in-relationship that marks the end of war, poverty, degradation, and pain.  It is a celebration of hope for a fixing of this broken world.  It is a longing for the day when implements of war will be hammered into instruments of peace, when ‘the lion will lie down with the lamb’, when the Sabbath rest of Genesis 1’s seventh day will be fully realized.

But this means that Communion has consequences.  It carries with it a mandate for social justice.  If Communion is a corporate proclamation of Christ’s return, then it must also be a proclamation of our willingness, as a Church, to bring Christ to the world.  If the Church is the body of Christ, then Christ, in a sense, returns with every act of the Church.  Communion links us together in this mandate.

Where was the grape juice that represents Christ’s blood made?  What are the ingredients in that juice, and where were they processed?  What country’s fields harvested those grapes, and how much were the workers paid?  Who made the unleavened bread?  How much gas was used to transport the bread from the fields to the factory to your church?  Were forests cleared, workers underpaid, and lives destroyed, so that we could celebrate Life?  How could we even find out?  And how could we ‘partake’ of such an important item, without asking these questions?

What are the cups that hold the blood of Christ made from?  Glass?  If so, are they washed with chemicals that will harm freshwater fish?  Are they plastic?  What resources were used to produce that plastic, how were they removed from the ground, and what will their environmental impact be when they are dumped into the garbage?  What nations were polluted so that those cups could be made?  What poverty was increased, for the sake of Communion?

Is every act of Communion a mockery of Shalom?

The book Natural Saints discusses an Episcopalian church that decided to use locally grown organic products for its Communion.  Writes the author, Mallory McDuff,

As an adult, I have watched churches transform the body [of Christ] from those thin processed wafers to the home-baked  whole wheat bread that I now eat each week at my own church.  I know the women who bake that bread.  I’ve eaten meals in their kitchen.  And, somehow, it’s easier for me to believe that God’s love is embodied in that bread. 

If we, as the Body of Christ, are meant to proclaim Shalom, then we need to begin with the symbol we use to declare that mandate.  When the Church purifies one of its most important symbols, it will be a true declaration to the world that suffering, in all its forms, matters to the people of God, and that the Church will no longer be a perpetrator of that suffering.  Instead, it will seek to heal and restore.

I cannot help but feel that on such a Communion, God will smile. 


Brenton said...

Thanks for sharing Matthew. The implications of "communion," sharing a cup, one-fleshness, are big.

W. Bruce STEWART said...

Hey Matthew - interesting commentary. Social justice - even in the small elements of something so intimate and personal.

dhmackinnon said...

Have you talked to John about this? How can we change communion at RCC? What do you think we should do?

Keith Shields said...

Good thoughts Matthew. The early church seems to have shared whole meals together. LifeHouse Christian Church and Connections Christian Church have moved to celebrating the Lord's Supper as a meal that we each prepare in our homes and share as an offering to the Body of Christ and as thanksgiving to Jesus.

The other implication of what you are saying is that our meals, our concern, our social justice and care must also be shared beyond the confines of our local group. The Empire Remixed blog has some good thoughts on this especially as we consider the recent riots in London. http://empireremixed.com/2011/08/09/jesus-the-riot-squad/

Jordan said...

Check out this from a Christian Century blogger: