No month-long focus on the Work of Mercy of sharing your bread (such as we’re undertaking here on the blog this month) would be complete without some reflection on the Lord’s Supper, from which all bread sharing flows and to which all bread sharing points.
As if on cue, Fare Foreword just posted an insightful piece by Charles Clark, What I’ve Learned From Communion. I like that title because it’s worth asking yourself: What have you learned from communion? I mean, really?
It’s also worth asking where you learned that, and how. Clark notes that not a lot of insight about communion came to him in the church of his youth where communion was held quarterly, via “trays bearing a species of super-dense oyster crackers and tiny plastic cups of grape juice…passed along the pews.” This is not to stump for real wine or larger cups or better bread but rather just to note that when I think of my most insightful communion experiences, the elements of which I partook did matter. If I share that my most memorable communion experience occurred with grapefruit juice and a hot dog bun, however, then you will quickly intuit that my goal is not elemental purity but rather thoughtfulness and intentionality in the selection and the serving of elements and a recognition that, yes, symbolism matters, and it did to Jesus as well.
The grapefruit and hot dog story will need to hold for another day, however; Clark offers something far more nutritive in his recounting of how the Lord’s Supper imparted to him a much deeper (and more theologically accurate and comprehensive) understanding of grace:
Before engaging with the sacraments, I thought about grace almost exclusively in terms of the forgiveness of sins. The accompanying images were of removal: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Sin was an accumulation of spiritual tarnish that grace polished away. Certainly, this picture of grace as a subtractive process is both Scriptural and valuable. But I have come to believe that it is incomplete. For one thing, an exclusive focus on grace as forgiveness implies that except for our assorted wrongdoings, we are basically whole and healthy. On the one hand, I understood that was inaccurate: the phrase “spiritual growth” was in my religious vocabulary. But I lacked a vision for how grace operated not merely to cleanse but also to edify.
Grace does more than “bring you back to zero.” Grace is a reminder that the issue with God is not simply one of debits and credits but one of being raised up from a fall–a fall so comprehensive and catastrophic that it redounds millenia later, in every corner of every life, and always has, and always will. It makes us, not just our actions, less than we were created to be. Clark quotes Lewis in noting that this is why we eat the Lord’s Supper rather than just reflect on it:
The act of eating, as appropriated by the Communion rite, makes this other aspect of grace unmistakeable. As C.S. Lewis puts it, God “uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us.” This correctly pictures our incompleteness, our brokenness and hunger, our need for God that exists apart from our need for forgiveness. Grace builds us up in addition to washing us off. In receiving grace as sustenance, we are called into a more substantial life; like the narrator in The Great Divorce, we are becoming more solid as we draw near to God. On the macro-level, the additive view of grace prepares the mind for the restorative view of God’s work in history, that he not only defeats death but fosters abundant life.
Saying that the Lord’s Supper goes deeper than words does not mean that it plunges us into experientialism or emotion. It does mean that words and discipleship are not synonymous. We partake of the Lord’s Supper regularly not because we need to understand it better, but because we need to practice eating consciously in the presence of God, with the family of God.
The more we learn to do it well, the more we realize the Lord’s Supper is more pragmatic than mystical–more like teaching one’s children table manners than lingering in the corner table over candlelight in a French restaurant with a sexy dinner date. Authentic means of grace are always that way. They make us more substantial Christians here, not more mystical spiritual beings swept up ecstatically into the seventh heaven or the chords of the worship band.
So the issue is not grape juice versus wine, bread versus oyster crackers. The issue is learning the Lord’s manner (and manners) at table, as he shares his bread with us, shows us how it’s done, and dispatches us into the world to always eat like that, no matter what food and drink we find in our hand.