Bearing the Chalice – Personal Encounters with Eucharistic Theology

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This entry will be posted at my personal blog, Cognitive Dissonance, as well, because it is there that I have been archiving a chronicle of sorts for both my journey into Anglicanism and my subsequent discernment into the clergy.  It will also constitute a heretofore personally despised mish-mashy style of personal reflection, theological inquiry, and sardonic social commentary that is commonly known by its official nom de plume, Practical Theology.

To begin, I probably ought to offer a little background.  As a Pentecostal, the Eucharist (communion) had always been a point of tension for me.  First, doctrinally speaking, I was always puzzled by the Evangelical proclivity for the term “ordinance” – especially in light of the strong sacramental disposition of their favorite reformers like Martin Luther.  Clearly, I appreciate the distinction much of the Protestant church makes in identifying Baptism and the Eucharist as the principle sacraments.  It is a distinction the Anglicans make as well.  However, its hard to deny that the term “ordinance” is designed to differentiate between a simple act of obedience to a command instituted by Christ and the sacramental assertion that the same were instituted as a means for receiving grace.  In a doctrinal sense, the disconnect is simple.  If we practice these “ordinances,” but they have no efficacy (i.e. baptism is just a post-salvation act of obedience, and communion is just commemorative; neither has the power to change you), then why bother with them at all?  Indeed, that was the tone that nearly every Evangelical church I attended took – some churches couldn’t be bothered to have communion more than four times a year.  It was as if they were compelled by a tradition to which they felt no connection, many times falling into that dead, religious repetition of meaningless ceremonies.  The irony being, of course, that this is the same accusation I heard leveled against the high church liturgy and sacramentalism my entire life.

Second, the doctrinal position of most Evangelical churches (let’s not forget that there are very strong and respectable Evangelical movements within sacramentalism) creates an anemic theology.  The Sacraments provide an indelible theological connection to the ontological reality of Christ among His people.  The Eucharist, especially, provides the framework for understanding how the Church functions as Christ (‘s body) in the world, and how Christ can yet be distinct within the Church as Lord.  The sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist also provide a point of contact for modern believers with the death and resurrection of Jesus – it is our participation also in the kerygma of the Church.  Through the practice and proclamation of such we not only participate in Christ, becoming Christ to the world and experiencing Christ’s presence in our own lives, but we engage for the briefest of moments in the glory of Christ’s coming kingdom.  I don’t know perhaps this isn’t Pentecostalism’s fault.  In fact, I rather feel like the focus on the Baptism in the Holy Spirit with evidence of tongues placed the apparatus of faith within me to receive the sacraments so readily.  It was like Pentecostalism programmed me to be in a sacramental church.  Maybe I was just a piss poor Pentecostal?  Nonetheless, my experience with Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism drove me to ask (sometimes divisive) questions about the purpose and nature of the Church.  Questions, incidentally, that I have come to believe are answered primarily (perhaps exclusively) in the work of the Holy Spirit through the Sacraments.  In fact, this is a link to a page where you can hear a sermon to this effect by the Very Reverend F. Michael Perko, PhD.  Hit the drop down menu and listen to the June 6, 2010 sermon – it’s only 11 minutes long (honestly, the 11 minute sermon is better than this entire post – you’re welcome).

Third, by way of personal experience, I always felt that communion was lacking in the Evangelical churches that I visited.  It would certainly be nice if I could drum up the corroboration of friends that remember these conversations, but many times I would leave a communion service complaining there just had to be more to it than juice, crackers, and a few verses from 1 Corinthians.  Many times, I found myself excited for communion, and those rare moments that God would “speak to me” invariably came during communion services.  So, I went looking for more explanation than was handed down by the likes of Grudem, Horton, and Fee.  That was when some of the trouble started.  In short, and hopefully without sounding bitter, allow me simply to say that my questions (in Bible College) were ignored, side-stepped, dismissed, or received with general irritation.  This, of course, only led me to believe I was on to something – and I was.

This was necessary information, I think, in order for you to understand my account of last Sunday.  Last Sunday I was blessed with my first opportunity to serve as a chalice bearer during one of our services.  I’ll spare you the dramatic retelling of the events of the morning (though, in an inter-personal setting I believe them to be quite powerful) in favor of listing the things about the experience that have impacted me.

First, I was really anxious for weeks leading up to the date I was to serve.  I spent a lot of time reflecting on this anxiety, and realized that the Lord was using it to tease out some issue in my heart.  Most people who know me personally, would describe me in one fashion or another (some of them in colorful turns of phrase) to be a perfectionist.  My origins are less than illustrious, and I had really developed a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of demeanor.  In short, my anxiety over serving was really anxiety over appearances.  I want desperately to do things right, and often this desire stems from a need to impress people.  So, half an hour before service, I sat in the vesting room admiring a beautiful stained glass memorial and wrestling with my personal desire to be thought well of and the Church’s need for me to be a humble, unassuming servant for the morning.  Of course, I did things wrong – and, of course, nobody thought less of me for them.  Chalice bearing was a milestone in helping me let go of my pride, though.  Indeed, I feel my lay ministry (and hopefully, in the future, my sacerdotal ministry) during the liturgy promises to be the most grounding experience of my Christian walk.

Second, I experienced a general elation about my participation in everything the Eucharist means.  My heart was full, and I was on the verge of tears many times as I went through the service and contemplated how blessed (and proud in the good way) I was to be able to participate in God’s ministry of grace to his people.  In fact, my heart was full of these emotions when the procession passed my family and my children jumped up and down smiling, saying “that’s my daddy.”  The joy of being able to share in their experience was nearly too much to take – God was allowing me to be a vessel of service in their personal experiences with him.  Perhaps most importantly, that moment has brought much clarification to my role as spiritual leader in the home (something in which, I must tell you, I have never felt lacking).

Feel free to comment, to share your experiences, or to ask questions.  I am blessed by all the ways the community of Christ comes together in my life, not least of which are the people who invest in this blogging community.

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15 Comments

  1. I feel like I have a lot to say but that it will hurt to say it. It can be difficult for me to talk about the Eucharist because of my lack of ecstatic experience in worship (generally) in the last five years.

    I’ll think on it and decide whether I’ll respond with a full post or fill up the comment thread.

    Reply

  2. Tony,

    I presume you mean that it will be painful for you, because I’m relatively sure that you are incapable of saying anything to hurt my feelings (because you speak truth in love). Though, I must confess that if this is the case, I can certainly sympathize with your feelings and I am sorry.

    Reply

  3. I am touched to read that you were so powerfully touched by the Holy Spirit. I am sorry that you needed to leave the Pentecostal church to have that true communion with God. The Pentecostal church did fail to meet your need.

    The Pentecostal church has let down so many young people. The American Pentecostal church has lost much of its fire. Until the Pentecostal church again flows in the Holy Spirit and accompanying charismata, we will lose talented, spiritually sensitive, and spiritually hungry young people like you.

    As a Pentecostal, one of my favorite verses is 1st Corinthians 6:17, “But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” This verse is in the midst of verses describing how a man and woman can come together and be one flesh. By binding ourselves to Jesus, somehow our human spirit is blended into the Holy Spirit and becomes one with the Holy Spirit. Like you, I do not often experience this in the typical Pentecostal communion service. But I do experience it nearly daily during my “quiet time” with God. I am blessed that the priesthood of all believers concept does this for me.

    You are so right in expressing a need for a “framework for understanding how the Church functions as Christ (‘s body) in the world, and how Christ can yet be distinct within the Church as Lord.” In each of Paul’s major discussions of gifts (Romans 12, 1st Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4), he describes the function of the body of Christ.

    The depths of Pentecostalism is found in the continuing Holy Spirit experience. Without the continuing Holy Spirit experience which is accompanied by manifestations of gifts, the Pentecostal church is simply another Evangelical church.

    Reply

  4. Steve,

    I think the larger problem with the American Pentecostal movement is that it has become concerned with having a broader conservative/Evangelical identity. I think this dynamic comes out best in the writing of scholars like James K.A. Smith. The movement began as a counter-cultural critique. There has been some significant ideological “drift” in the movement, in my opinion.

    I very much appreciate your commenting, and I think you have helped me to articulate better what I mean by Pentecostalism predisposing the heart to sacramentalism. The willingness that Pentecostals have to live in and through the gifts of the Spirit are perfect training for being open to the substantive, real ways that Christ makes himself available through the Spirit. I have merely had to adjust the subject of that openness from the GOS to the Eucharist (though, that should not preclude that I do not still see the GOS in a sacramental way).

    Peace

    Reply

    1. I think I’ll save the entire story for another day. I’ll just say that I am so happy that you’ve been so enriched by the practice of the Eucharist. I find the theology of the Eucharist and Christ’s broken Body to be immensely powerful to be sure; and it lies at the heart of what it means to worship God.

      All through my youth and ’till I was about 19, I very regularly had ecstatic and intense experiences with God. But that regularity of experience has dropped off quite drastically over the last five years. No doubt I am learning to trust and know God for who he is and not how he makes me feel; and it should be noted that this kind of thing is writ large over Christian spirituality through the ages; nevertheless it can be very difficult for me because I feel that it is something God is doing to me rather than something I necessarily sought, and I can only hope that one day I will ‘experience’ him at the Altar the way I used to over my guitar.

      Reply

  5. Shawn – Right you are when you wrote, “the larger problem with the American Pentecostal movement is that it has become concerned with having a broader conservative/Evangelical identity.” The absence of the charismata in the American Pentecostal church is the direct effect of trying to fit into the broader Evangelical culture and also the respectable American culture.

    The current national leadership in the Assemblies of God is struggling with this crisis of identity and praxis.

    To believe in the charismata was counter cultural in the modern world that the Pentecostal church started. There is great hope for the Pentecostal church in the evolving post-modern time.

    There is something fantastic and supernatural when there is an utterance that fits beautifully into the speaker’s message, or a true healing takes place, or a captive is set free of demonic powers, or other unmistakable manifestation of God occurs. It is the real and unmistakable experience of God that makes a true Pentecostal. The concept of walking in Spirit and regularly experiencing the Holy Spirit has been lost in the generational transitions of the Pentecostal church.

    Reply

  6. @ Tony,

    Have you and Reed discussed that trip to Denver any further? We really ought to get some face to face time this year.

    @ Steve,

    Where do you live, and what, if any, contact do you have with the leadership of the A/G? Curious to know, because you have expressed your concerns fairly, and I am interested in hearing your story.

    Reply

  7. Shawn,

    It would be a blessing to meet you. When you get back to the Twin Cities, please email me.

    I have heard George O. Wood speak about charismata during church services. He has also addressed the matter on the AGTV website. Springfield has sent out two books to all AG credential holders that address spiritual gifts with an emphasis on order. They are: Divine Order, edited by Randy Hurst; and When the Spirit Speaks, authored by Warren Bullock.

    Recently I have felt a leading to take a sabbatical from heavier duty, theological reading. This past week I reread A Man Called Mr. Pentecost (David du Plessis). It was a light read and a great blessing to me. Du Plessis knew how to walk in the spirit and was involved in the charismata spreading to the mainline churches. Because of his contact with the mainlines, his AG credentials were rescinded, but 18 years later, when the AG leadership saw the fruit of his work, he was reinstated.

    Reply

  8. Shawn talking about that reunion of friends in Colorado reminds me that I would love to meet you guys sometime. If I find that a single Theophiliac was within 80 miles of Southern California without hanging out with me my wrath will rise like a mighty storm.

    @Shawn – What you describe about your feelings about the eucharist is something I can really relate to (as a participant, but not bearing the chalice). I would love to share my own experience as a lector sometime, how amazing that whole experience is whether I’m reading or hearing the lesson. Something I would never have imagined in my independent evangelical days.

    @Tony – your experience is very similar to mine in regards to ecstatic experiences of God. I would love to chat about it. Thing is…the strange ‘spiritual’ experiences that I’ve had (things that people would normally associate with the ‘supernatural’) are something that I don’t open up about except with those with whom I know it is safe to do so. I have a unique habit of both telling it the way I think it was, and yet being open to the idea that it is an experience too subjective to tell everyone. In the right company, these things are great to recall.

    Reply

  9. I am also a pentecostal, although not attending church. My theology would be a charismatic Moravian, but we don’t have a Moravian church here.

    St Paul said to the Corinthians that they were stewards of the mysteries of God. The pagans called us Christian, but technically we are stewards of the mysteries of God. One of those mysteries is the eucharist. We do not re-sacrifice the death of Jesus on the cross, but I believe the elements are consecrated as a channel of Christ’s spirit (or the Holy Spirit) to come within us just as God’s Holy Spirit entered Mary and she gave birth to Jesus.

    If communion is just a commemorative or memorial part of the service, then it is not one of those ‘mysteries’ of God, which St Paul exhorted us to be stewards of.

    I am thinking the early church was so powerful in miracles because they practised the sacrament. The indeed became channels of God’s power through this mystical union of Christ with his Church.

    Also St Paul gives reference to “For he that easts and rinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” Paul said it was the Lord’s body. And the mystical union was affected which is why Paul goes on to say “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.” (i.e. die). This is physical, not spiritual.

    In my heart I believe the sacramental union is one of the mysteries of God which we have somehow in the pentecostal movement failed to be a steward of.

    The supernatural experiences may manifest themselves more with us if we see it as a sacramental union (not quite the Roman Catholic’s theology).

    Your thoughts?

    Reply

  10. I really enjoyed that post, we have Communion once a month at my Church (which week depends on which Service one attends) but I often feel that it is appended at the end of the Service like some sort of chore. I’ve also wondered why, as my Church believes, if the Sacraments have no power we insist on doing them. Though to be fair our Senor Minister (well ok my Dad) is insistent that Communion is done with reverence, though the same cannot be said for other Ministers we’ve had at my Church (once the Minister wore jeans and a dirty t-shirt). I recently have started to help set up and lay out the Elements in our evening Service and I remember when the Youth Pastor found out I was doing it he said “Well at least you still respect the Sacraments” which I found sad that he felt justified in saying it.

    By the way the link to the Sermon doesn’t work anymore as the Sermon can no longer be accessed from that Church’s website.

    Reply

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