Evangelicals will be incapable of responding to the specific challenges of our time with any steadiness or effect until the Eucharist becomes the criterion of all Christian cultural thinking and the source from which all genuinely Christian cultural engagement springs.
These words were penned by Peter Leithart in FIRST THINGS
. He is Pastor of Trinity Reformed Church, Moscow, Idaho. My heart first warmed to his words challenging evangelicals to refocus their attention on the Eucharist. Who would not warm up to words like these:
The church is called to keep our Lord Jesus, his death and resurrection, as the focal point of worship, witness, service, and mission. How do we protect ourselves from darting off after each fresh fad? Jesus didn’t think Christ-centered preaching would be enough. He left his church not only a gospel to preach, but rites of water, bread, and wine to practice. It’s difficult to forget Christ and his cross when we proclaim his death in the breaking of bread at the climax of every week’s worship. When the Sign seals the Word, the church becomes a communion of martyrs ready to bear the cross because they have consumed the cross.
After all, I regularly ruminate upon the same themes right here in this blog. So why wouldn't I be encouraged with a Reformed Pastor with some clout echoes a similar thrust in the influential First Things blog? But the more I read the less encouraged I was. It was great what was written -- don't get me wrong -- but after thinking about what was written and what is there in the Eucharist, these evangelicals are focusing upon a sign without the power to deliver its promise and that is so very sad and disappointing. It is like setting the table to eat with your spouse and sitting down with food only on one plate because the husband or wife is absent from the meal. The remembrance is part of the supper, to be true, but it is no substitute nor is it with much importance or meaning apart from the Real Presence of Christ in that bread and in that cup.
Lacking a rightly ordered Supper, modern Christians wrap nationalism in a veil of sanctity, with sometimes-horrific results.
Well, yes, Pastor Leithart is correct. But what is missing in evangelicalism is not a rightly ordered Supper but the very Supper of the Lord itself. The theology of this movement, as diverse as it is, is united in precluding the possibility that this bread may hide Christ's body or that in this cup of wine is His very crucified and risen blood. Lutheran dispute with Rome had only to do with the manner of explaining the presence of Christ (transubstantiation) and not with the reality of that concrete and full presence in the great mystery of the Eucharist. This same theological affliction affects baptism and leaves it a shell of the promised means of union with Christ of Romans 6. It also prevents confession and absolution from being the regular means through which lifelong repentance is lived out in the life of the believer.
As the Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann pointed out long ago, the Supper discloses the purpose and destiny of all creation. Not only this bread, but all bread, all products of human work, can be means of fellowship with God and one another. Further, we receive these products of human labor, with thanks; as a gift of God. Thus the table discloses the mystery of the creature’s participation in the Creator’s creativity, and this participation produces goods that are ours only as gifts received, goods to be shared and enjoyed in communion.
Either Pastor Leithart has not read or understood Schmemann or else he is blind to what it is in that Supper that discloses the purpose and destiny of all creation. The Supper is not Christ focused but the vehicle of Christ's presence, with His gifts and grace, accessible to the believer and the power to effect the communion of the Church that she may be the Sacrament of Christ to the world.
Evangelicals move away to Constantinople or Rome at an alarming rate, often because they lose hope of finding even a glimmer of liturgical piety in Evangelical churches. They’re hungry, and they believe they have found where the banquet is happening. Luther and Calvin would be aghast, for in their eyes the Reformation was an effort to restore priestly food to all of God’s priests as well as an effort to recover the gospel of grace.
I laud the intent and I rejoice at the recognition of this emptiness within the heart of evangelicalism and yet, at the same time, I lament that these theologies are not yet ready to meet Christ on HIS terms in the real food and real drink of His flesh and blood given and shed for the life of the world. It is not priestly food that the people need or the Church is called before and gathered by the Spirit to receive. It is the Priest who is the food and therefore this food has the life that it promises and delivers the gracious gift that Leithart's good words speak about but never fully address. Until evangelicalism can sing these words and believe them and see in the Eucharist the means of grace, it can recover only an empty form without the promise to deliver upon its hope.
At the Lamb’s high feast we sing
Praise to our victorious king,
Who has washed us in the tide
Flowing from his pierced side.
Praise we him, whose love divine
Gives his sacred blood for wine,
Gives his body for the feast
Christ the victim, Christ the priest.
Where the paschal blood is poured,
Death’s dread angel sheathes the sword;
Israel’s hosts triumphant go
Through the wave that drowns the foe.
Praise we Christ, whose blood was shed,
Paschal victim, paschal bread;
With sincerity and love
Eat we manna from above.
Mighty Victim from the sky,
Hell’s fierce powers beneath you lie;
You have conquered in the fight
You have brought us life and light.
Now no more can death appall,
Now no more the grave enthrall;
You have opened paradise,
And your saints in you shall rise.
Easter triumph, Easter joy!
This alone can sin destroy;
From sin’s power, Lord, set us free,
Newborn souls in you to be.
Father, who the crown shall give,
Savior, by whose death we live,
Spirit, guide through all our days;
Three in One, Your name we praise.