Feeding on Flesh

In John 6: 53-54 Jesus causes controversy and confusion by explaining that redemption comes through feeding on him: “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.'”

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising in light of Exodus 29. There we read that Aaron and his sons are “baptized” into the priesthood. When they offer sacrifices, they will be eaten: 31 “You shall take the ram of ordination and boil its flesh in a holy place. 32 And Aaron and his sons shall eat the flesh of the ram and the bread that is in the basket in the entrance of the tent of meeting. 33 They shall eat those things with which atonement was made at their ordination and consecration, but an outsider shall not eat of them, because they are holy.

The priests must eat of the flesh which ordained and consecrated them for their calling, so must the royal priesthood which the victorious Lamb redeems.

Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus


I’ve been thinking alot about hospitality and the practice of Holy Communion after an interesting conversation on Sunday concerning whether or not it’s appopriate to invite the unbaptized to celebrate the Eucharist. I just came across this thoughtful piece by James Farwell entitled Baptism, Eucharist and The Hospitality of Jesus: On the Practice of “Open Communion”, which has been very stimulating.

Farwell opens the essay with some bold theses:

The opening of the eucharistic table to the unbaptized is a practice inspired by the radical hospitality of Jesus. Too often, however, the practice of open communion is adopted casually, without the systematic theological reflection called for by something so central to ecclesial identity and mission. Among the issues the practice raises are (1) its reliance on the claim that Jesus would not have shared a ritual meal with his disciples alone, (2) its departure from the paschal ecclesiology at the heart of contemporary liturgical renewal, which links baptism and eucharist to a post-Constantinian understanding of mission, (3) its failure both to appreciate the pastoral value of longing, and to avoid a modernist commitment to the immediate gratification of individual desire, (4) its naive assumption that boundaries are necessarily inhospitable, and (5) its taking the place of genuine evangelism and public ecclesial witness…[The question at hand is] On any given Sunday, should “seekers,” those “passing through,” unbaptized guests or family members of parishioners, the spiritually curious, or even people of other religions be invited and encouraged to receive the consecrated bread and wine of the eucharist?

The strength of the position Farwell argues against is not lost on him. Far from it:

Any argument that challenges us to be more open and hospitable toward the other deserves attention, both because of the human propensity to fortify our own egos and privileges by excluding others and because, by any reading of the gospels, Jesus’ vision of the kingdom was one which renders problematic any hard boundaries between insiders and outsiders. However, before we rush toward the practice of open communion for all as more reflective of the ministry of Jesus, there are some questions that need further exploration. We have not settled the matter simply because, on the face of it, open communion appears more hospitable than the tradition of inviting the baptized to communion.

Farwell also isn’t saying that there’s no room for pastoral discretion when presented with the immediate issue of the unbaptized coming to receive the Eucharist:

First, by questioning the wisdom of open communion, I am not proposing a rigid exclusivism at the pastoral level. We do not “check ecclesiastical ID cards” at the altar rail, and no pastor in her right mind will deny communion to someone who has, in fact, arrived at the altar rail expecting to receive. It is another matter to extend an unconditional invitation to communion as an official policy, publishing that policy through service bulletins, announcements, websites, and the like. The status of the latter is the question we are addressing here.

Farwell’s summary of the logic for open communion runs something like this:

The contemporary argument for offering communion to the unbaptized, if coherently stated, runs something like this: (1) The church is the sacrament of Jesus Christ, the primordial sacrament of God. The church’s ethics, therefore, should be modeled on, and judged by, the ethics of Jesus Christ. (2) Jesus lived and preached in faithful expectation of the coming of the basileia ton theou, the kingdom of God, in which the boundary lines between the outsider and the insider, the “sinner” and the “saint,” drop away under God’s gracious rule. Jesus perfoniied his vision of the reign of God through a radical ethic of hospitality, eating with sinners and outcasts. he reserved his strictest judgment for those religious leaders who drew sharp legal distinctions between those inside and outside the circle of holiness. (3) If the meal ministry of Jesus incarnated his vision of the kingdom of God, then ours ought to do the same. Making baptism the “door” to the table is an exclusionary rule, suggesting that one must enter the circle oi holiness before one can commune with the faithful. In short: if Jesus was hospitable to all, then we should be hospitable to all. If God is open to all, then our table should be open to all. [Emphasis Mine]

Farwell concedes that the explicit connection between baptism as the final initiatory rite into the Eucharistic community is late and post-apostolic. Hippolytus’s Apostolic Tradition offers details about initiatory practice, but most scholars date it around 215 C.E. Well developed and detailed work like that of John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ambrose, and others for whom eucharist is inextricably connected to baptism as the end of the process of Christian initiation are written in fourth and early fifth century. The earliest documentation supporting the traditional position of restricting communion to the baptized is in the Didache and the First Apology of justin Martyr, dating somewhere between 90 C.E. and 150 C.E.

Most historical critics argue that the stories about the inclusive table fellowship of Jesus that welcomed his society’s outcasts is by and large incontestably a part of the earliest Jesus tradition, suggesting that such traditions reflect actual practices of the historical Jesus. More controversial is the claim that the historical Jesus instituted a unique covenant meal “through which his disciples would ritually remember his vision of the kingdom that animated his wider ministry and continues to animate ours.” Some scholars contend that the institution of such a meal was a tradition invented by the early Christian community and retrospectively projected back to the community’s founder. But the more scholars learn about Second Temple Judaism an increasing alternative view is emerging, which Farwell nicely summarizes:

Granting this privilege of Jesus’ own actions over the practices developed by his disciples, we must declare that it is not clear that the origins of the euchanst cannot reside with Jesus. While some scholars suggest that Jesus would not have practiced a ritual meal with his disciples, not all agree. John Koenig reminds us that Jesus’ Galilean ministry is marked by a prophetic consciousness to which symbolically enacted teaching would not have been unfamiliar. Given his practice of preaching and symbolizing his hope for an inbreaking kingdom of God through meal images and practices, it is not unreasonable to imagine that he might have gathered with his disciples in the last hour, under the shadow of the impending culmination of his conflict with temple leaders, for an intimate meal that focused, in symbolic words and actions, the vision of his hoped-for kingdom. He could well have imagined that this meal would continue to animate his disciples after he was separated from them. A ritual meal of the type recorded in Matthew 26 and Luke 22, and referred to in John 13 as the setting for the prophetic action of foot washing, would not have been a proto-ecclesiastical cultic practice out of character with his ministry, but precisely the focus of the vision of the kingdom that had animated his entire ministry, including his broader meal practices. It is simply not a foregone conclusion that Jesus could not have established or intended a special meal through which his disciples would ritually remember his vision of the kingdom that animated his wider ministry and continues to animate ours.

When one considers “the possibility-even likelihood-of the eucharistie meal as a final gathering with Jesus’ disciples” it is significant because it “challenges the notion that the whole meal ministry of Jesus is unnecessarily narrowed by eucharistie practice restricted to those who have become disciples (the baptized).” The emerging scholarly consensus Farwell summarizes suggests…

that Jesus’ open meal ministry and the more focused supper with the disciples lie alongside one another in a non-dualistic relationship. Not only does the eucharistie meal not limit the wider meal ministry of the church-fellowship meals, public meals, banquets for the homeless and poor-but the eucharist provides the foundation for those wider meals and the reason for their practice among those who have adopted Jesus’ kingdom vision. So, if the last supper with Jesus encoded with the disciples the whole thrust of his mission, setting his own impending sacrifice in the context of a life poured out for the kingdom to which they eventually understood themselves to be committed, then it is reasonable for us today to think about who participates in that meal and whether they have committed themselves to the vision that animated Jesus. Such a practice is not inhospitable, but simply focused for a certain “audience”: the eucharistie meal is the place where the disciples continue to gather in intimate communion with Jesus Christ and from which they are empowered to move out into wider ministries of evangelism and service, including a ministry of eating and drinking in contexts beyond the bounds of this ritual practice.

Farwell goes on to consider the relevant passages in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. Paul’s warning to the Corinthian Christians is rooted in his concern for their failure “to discern the unity of the body of Christ as they come together to consume the body of Christ assumes that this meal has a specific character they are to understand and respect.” The Corinthian community has allowed distinctions between the poor and the rich to shape and thus distort the character of the eucharistic meal. The meal was instituted by the King whose kingdom vision focused on welcome to the strangers, the outsiders and the marginalized. Farwell points out the irony here:

…understanding and practicing this meaning of the meal amounts to a condition for participation, so much so that those who have failed this condition are weak and ill and have even died! The paradoxical dynamic here is delightful: those who participate in this meal ritualize their expectation of the kingdom Jesus embodied and worked for, a rule of gracious and unconditional welcome to all; one should not participate in the meal, then, if one does not embody a commitment to that welcome that marks that coming rule of God! If there is no explicit restriction of communion to the baptized here, there is certainly a complex logic of participation that suggests a certain way in which the meal is best approached.

In 1st Corinthians 10:14-22 Paul explains that participation in eucharistic meal involves a sharing in the very body and blood of Christ, while participation in pagan cultic meals is akin to participation in the fellowship of demons. Again we find here…

a logic of participation…that suggests anything but an indiscriminate or untutored participation in the eucharistie meal. It is, for Paul, a ritual that has the same focus on the future that animated Jesus himself-in which, for Paul, “we proclaim the Lords death until he comes,” and to which we are committed as he was..if the baptismal restriction is not explicitly mentioned, there is a logic of participation consistent with it, involving an adoption of the commitment to the reign of God and the hope for redemption as Jesus preached and embodied it. Ritually celebrating that reign and being nourished to participate in it is that for which the eucharistic meal is intended.

Such exegetical insights make it worth revisiting ancient post-apostolic witnesses that discuss the church’s early eucharstic practice:

“You must not let anyone eat or drink of your eucharist except those baptized in the Lord’s Name.”-Didache 9.5

“This food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ has handed down to us.”-Justin Martyr, First Apology, sect. 66.

Later Patristic thought reflects more explicitly on the relationship of the initiatory rite of baptism and it’s culmination in the eucharistic fellowship:

“So if it’s you that are the Body of Christ and its members, it’s the mystery meaning you that have been placed on the Lord’s table. . . . It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent. . . . be what you can see, and receive what you are.”-Augustine, Sermon 272

As Farwell points out, what we have in these post-apostolic witness is not a deviation from, but an extension and outworking of the practice and intention of Jesus:

If the New Testament accounts present a eucharistie meal as a ritual coding of the commitment to the hospitable kingdom vision of Jesus that was celebrated in the meals involving a wider public, then the later documentary evidence of the eucharist must be revisited. On this reading, the documentaiy evidence of the post-apostolic period is not the accretion of ecclesiastical exclusivity, but the deepening of the participatoiy logic of the New Testament: eucharist completes the initiation and fires the remembrance of the disciple in a pattern of life suitable to the kingdom, to which he or she has joined himself or herself in baptism. In all these cases, the logic of participation of the New Testament material holds in which the eucharistic meal is a ritual that both nourishes and signifies an entrance into the paschal mystery in which, by the pattern of their lives, disciples enter into the embodiment of Jesus’ continuing ministry in the world. To the extent that it is the baptized who enter into that mystery, it is for the baptized that the meal is intended. It is not exclusionary to restrict that meal to those who commit themselves to anticipatory practice of the kingdom: to the contrary, one can argue that it is disingenuous to offer this meal as if it requires nothing but the desire to participate out of curiosity, custom, or an unformed sense of spiritual longing, however sincere. [Emphasis mine]

Farwell goes on at length to discuss the revision of his own Episcopal denomination’s prayer book in 1979. It included

the recovery of baptism and the restoration of regular eucharist…[both] “subsets” of a more fundamental shift: the return of “paschal mystery” as the master-symbol of Christian life and faith. The adaptation of the church’s ancient and early medieval liturgical practices around the paschal triduum-Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Great Vigil of Easter-celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ as the fundamental key to the character of Christian identity. Dying to the old life and rising in Christ to a new life, Christians are set free for a pattern of existence that both completes and transforms the created order into which we are bom. The powerful sense of incorporation into the paschal mystery crowns Holy Week in proper liturgies that are the native home of baptism and communion, at which time penitents were once restored to the fellowship of the church, catechumens were baptized, and the meal was celebrated as remembrance of, and sustenance for, life in the new reality. The paschal liturgies of Holy Week were, by the fourth century, considered by many to be as central to the Christian liturgical year as the Sunday eucharist was to the week.

Farwell notes that in the Episcopal Church the prayer book’s emphasis on weekly eucharistic celebration was taken much more seriously than the emphases on more faithful baptismal practice and on the significance of the liturgy of Holy Week. This has had a peculiar effect:

Within the paschal matrix, the multiple meanings of the eucharist are held in creative and felicitous tension: the table is a place of radical hospitality and celebration but also a share in Christ’s cup of suffering-remembrance of the unconditional grace of the One who feeds us but also a foretaste of a kingdom not ol this world-a feeding on the body of Christ given graciously to us in our need but also the ritual enactment that we ourselves are the very body poured out for the needs of the world. It is the hermeneutical situation of the eucharist (and baptism) within the master-symbol of the Pasch that keeps this creative and dynamic tension in motion. While one or another eucharistie meaning may come to the fore, the eucharist is never reduced simply to one of these meanings…Cut loose from the paschal symbol, however, and with the full impact of the baptismal renewal yet to emerge in our churches, the meal begins to occupy reflection in and of itself. Reflection on its meaning can more easily occur without reference to the demands of the baptismal life or the existential revolution to which the paschal mystery points. When one places this excitement of reflection on the eucharist in a socio-cultural setting where the entire gospel is sometimes reduced to the idea of “inclusivity” and where Christians are (appropriately) concerned with the accusation that Christian life is nothing more than a transcendentally justified moralism or modernism, then one understands the pressure to completely identify the reign of God with hospitality, without remainder. The welcome of non-members to the meal is pursued without reference to the changed pattern of life that is its horizon…

The symbolism of the paschal mystery that shapes the 1979 Prayer Book corresponds to a non-Constantinian missiology. The church’s great gift to the world-the gospel it preaches-is not simply hospitality without referent, as noted, but announcement of a gift of life that demands, invites, woos, and ultimately cannot be received without response. The call without the gift is damaging moralism and law; the gift without the call is “cheap grace” and moral license. The church is that community which paradoxically celebrates the freedom of the gift and lives with seriousness the call, leaving the world and entering provisionally and proleptically into a different order of being. The ecclesiology of differentiation embedded in the Prayer Book practice of baptism and eucharist, and in the catechumenate, reflects this sense of differentiated identity. The corresponding mission of the church is simultaneously to proclaim the gift of God’s love and call for formation in response.

The practice of open communion arguably implies a different identity entirely. At its best, it may involve under the appearance of hospitality a kind of laissez-faire, liberal Constantinianism, a notion that there is no boundary between the church and the world… At its worst, it may fail to respect genuine differences in spirituality and human experience, assuming that all who desire communion are moved by God as Christians understand God, or desire participation in the redeemed world as Christians experience it. [Emphasis mine}

Farwell reflects some of the best prevailing wisdom in contemporary missiology, ethics and especially in the area of theology of religons here. The (primarily) Christian and Western “assumption that all religious practices are different manifestations of a common, universal core” has come under great scrutiny and rightly so. Increasingly religions are understood not as different manifestations of a numinous transcendent reality, but unique culturally-linguistic entities which lead their adherents into distinict religious ends. Given such insights, true hospitality may involve acquainting “oneself with the longing of another and her understanding of God, share with respect ones own, and in the process come to discover together whether the Christian life resonates with the content of her longing.” This seems more genuinely hospital than ‘assuming anyone moved to receive communion is de facto moved by or desires the divine as understood by Christians.”

Farwell concludes his section on mission and evangelism in a post-Constantinian context with a hard question to his fellow Episcopal communicants (one which could be asked of any mainline protestant communion):

Notoriously difficult to define amid the ruins oi Christendom and notoriously discomfiting for Episcopalians to undertake, even as they feel its urgency, one wonders whether the practice of open communion is not an easy substitute for genuine evangelism. Does our announcement that “all are welcome at the table” substitute for compelling witness and the seriousness of formation demanded by the catechumenate? Congratulating ourselves for our eucharistie hospitality to those who manage to find their way through our doors is much easier than being a visible church engaged in public discourse, cogently challenging the prevailing modem assumptions that the world s salvation is found in technical mastery, the worship of “progress,” or the palliatives of generic spirituality. Open communion may offer some “welcome” to those who enter the nave; humble but vigorous public engagement with the world may persuade the unconvinced that God s work in the world is actually worth the commitment that eucharist enacts.

Farwell concludes his essay with insightful pastoral reflections rooted in his experience as a parish priest. Farwell is well aware that in many circles not inviting all to the table regardless of their baptismal status may seem insensitive or even cruel. What if unbaptized, and thus uninvited, worshiper truly longs for spiritual communion? How could it ever be pastoral to exclude such a person by making it known in the liturgy that the communion invitation is extended to all the baptized, but to the baptized alone? How does this embody the Gospel in a modern, post-Constantinian context? Farwell questions the root assumptions of such questions:

…modernity has a complex relationship to longing. At the deepest level, modernity has a love for longing: an infinite deferral of longing is woven into the philosophical fabric of Western societies (and increasingly others) through the various local forms of global capitalism. The infinite deferral of longing is the engine of our economic systems. The vast machinery of the advertising industry itself infinitely deferring the achievements of its goals by their displacement onto new objects of desire-finally supports the displacement of the object of our longing from its satisfaction to the desire itself. Freud recognized this at the psychological level, at which for various reasons we sublimate the true nature of our desire and displace it onto other objects, so that longing never ceases. That displacement of our longing in the interest of its infinite deferral occurs dialectically, however, by a short-term war on longing. Our desires must immediately be satisfied. Our ubiquitous systems of lending and borrowing are designed to satisfy desire immediately while deferring the full impact of the cost of satisfaction. Immediate gratification leads to dissatisfaction and the movement of desire to other objects (also with cost deferred), and the cycle continues. This peculiar pattern of short-term satisfaction of longing for the purpose of longing’s infinite deferral drives the widening system of global capitalism and absorbs all other value systems in its wake…By prophetic contrast, the good pastor understands that human longing, rightly ordered, is neither its own ultimate object, nor the enemy of satisfaction, but is an essential and enriching dimension of an eschatological faith. Longing and fulfillment are mysteriously woven together in Christian faith. The object of our desire is one that transcends our grasp yet gives itseli to us, even as our longing deepens. Participation in God both satisfies our longing and excites it. Liturgy shapes and patterns our desire in this way: we are baptized into a body, made one with God, yet with work yet to accomplish for all to be one. We are fed at the table, yet with a morsel of bread and a sip of wine that blesses our hunger as much as it satisfies it. In this eschatological stretch “between the times,” longing for the basileia tou theou [the reign of God] draws us into action toward justice, forgiveness, and the healing of broken relationships so that we do embody what we long for, but do not yet complete it. Longing, the desire for God, is woven into the very fabric of mature Christian spirituality and practice. [Emphasis mine]

Farwell’s cultural criticism leads him to question the motives behind the increasing sympathy for the open communion movement:

In this light, one is left to wonder about the philosophical underpinnings of the practice of open communion. Are we motivated more by the hospitality of Jesus or the modernist inclination not to stand in the way of what an individual desires, as long as it does no harm? Yet, some harm may well be done in open communion: the harm is to the social body and ultimately to the individual who perhaps approaches a very different meal than the assembly is actually celebrating. This may explain why, in parishes that have been practicing open communion, it is notoriously difficult to move people from the table to the commitment of the font. Perhaps they have been allowed to misconstrue from the beginning the very gift that the church has been given: community in Christ.

Our own modern sensibility often leads tends to viewing boundaries as covert exclusionary power plays. There is some truth to this suspicion. But “clear boundaries do make possible good relations; conversely, it is difficult to enter into a healthy and genuine relationship with other persons or participate in the corporate practice of a group without clarity about their nature and purpose.” When one construes the “differentiation represented by boundaries as an assault on the gospel” it is a category error. Boundaries are not always about “judgment or exclusion, but definition and even invitation.” Indeed, “Jesus’ own challenge to the temple leaders of his time manifested differentiation between those inside and outside the purposes of God; it is possible to read his treatment of boundaries not as their elimination, but their felicitous confounding and reorientation.”

Farwell concludes by challenging the notion that the “expectation of baptism as the condition for participation at the table” is fundamentally inhospitable. Baptism may indeed be boundary, but that doesn’t mean it’s an exclusionary obstacle. His final exhortation is worth considering:

Before we open our eucharistic tables without requiring, in a generous spirit, a baptismal process of formation and entry, we should reconsider whether such an opening signifies our hospitality or simply a retreat from the field of evangelism and formation. People are seeking life: the church has found life in Christ, who nourishes the church with his own body. Better than offering open communion, the church might well consider how to hold out its hands in invitation over the waters. Then others, too, can be so nourished, receiving that extravagant gift that is both utterly free and costs not less than everything.