The Church, The Table, and Role-Play

Editors Note: The following block-quotes are from Peter Leithart’s Westminster Theological Journal article: The Way Things Really Ought to Be: Eucharist, Eschatology, and Culture

“Despite well-founded objections, ritual theory can serve as a useful corrective to the myopia of some sacramental theology. Evangelical Protestants frequently treat sacraments, despite their location in the textbooks, exclusively in the context of individual soteriology. The central question has been, How is grace conveyed through my participation in the elements of the sacrament? What can the sacraments do for me?”

Typically, this art of remembering is pressed on the individual, in that “preparing for the Lord’s Supper” we make sure that there is no unconfessed sin between us and God. We don’t do much to help the church in the matter by playing quiet, reflective music and modeling participation with our heads bowed and eyes closed. Quite clearly in that we are looking for that quiet moment between us and God.

Communion service in the Three-kings Church, F...

Image via Wikipedia

“Ritual theory, by contrast, explores rites in relation to the faith and practices of the communities that celebrate and enact them; in theological terms, ritual theory situates sacramental and liturgical theology firmly within ecclesiological and thus forces upon us such questions as, What do the rites of the church express about the church’s understanding of herself, her place in the world, and of the human vocation? How are her rites not only means of grace to the individual participant but also formative of the church’s communal ethos and interpersonal relations? Ritual theory thus helps sacramental theology break the frame of the zoom lens.”

When the table is viewed only as sentimental memorial looking backwards, it becomes an introverted time of fellowship between a memory and a person. When the table is viewed through the lens of individual communion with Christ (through the Spirit) today, it is another way of getting our personal Jesus fix.

However, if memory and personal presence are combined with a third aspect, we begin to see through a much broader vantage point the full and vast implications of table worship. If we see the meal that we share as a rehearsal of eschatological kingdom virtues being lived out and embodied here and now, we can being to remind ourselves by practice and repetition the formative practice of what it means to celebrate the finished work of Christ on the cross on our behalf, enjoy communion with those whose rest is won, and find ourselves satisfied from the only food that can quench our longings.

How does the church have her communal ethos shaped by the Table?

“With the current situation of the American church in mind, we can say the following: frequent eating and drinking at the Lord’s table will inoculate the church against the Gnosticism of modern Christianity (not to mention trendy spiritualisms) that would reduce religion to a private, inner, purely “spiritual” experience; a church whose central religious rite includes baked goods is being trained in proper dominion over creation and will refuse resurgent nature worship in both its religious and political guises; a church that celebrates a feast of wine is being formed into a joyful community that contests the equation of Christian seriousness with prudish-ness; a church that celebrates the communal meal is bound into one body and will resist the corrosive individualism of modern culture that has too often invaded the church; a church that shares bread at the Lord’s table is learning the virtues of generosity and humility; a church that proclaims the Lord’s sacrificial death in the Supper is exercising itself in self-sacrifice and becoming immune to the lure of self-fulfillment. Not automatically, but in the context of biblical teaching and a robust community life, the skills and virtues practiced at the Lord’s table will spill over to fill the whole church with a eucharistic ethos. In short, the Supper exercises the church in the protocols of life in the presence of God. The Supper, then, is not “God’s flannel graph” so much as “the church’s role-play.”

I am a pastor, a husband, a father, and a lover of Jesus. I am also an unpredictable blogger, who can go for several years without blogging a thing, and then inexplicably write a book. Perhaps this is one of those times.

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Posted in Culture, Theology, Worship Matters

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