The Politics of the Cup

COMMUNION_OF_THE_APOSTLESFlyer small“I don’t know about the Church thing.”

This is a quote from a recent conversation – wonderfully post-modern and summing up the tragedy of modern Christianity. The great failure of Protestant theology (in all forms), despite its wide-ranging thought on the nature of God and human salvation, has been “the Church thing.” The careful parsing of every verse of Scripture pertaining to justification is met with generalities and vagaries when the Scripture speaks of the Church – and particularly when the Scripture speaks of the “One Church.” Modern extremes have sought to push a version of churchless Christianity into the earliest century (cf. Bart Ehrman), only the latest attempt to re-write Christian history in a manner that justifies modern Christian dissonance.

Orthodox Christianity (and Roman Catholicism to a large extent) has resisted this jettisoning or reconfiguring of Church. The result is an abiding scandal within the Christian world – the Orthodox act and speak as though there were no other Church.

I have written on this topic from time to time – and the discussion that follows is always fraught with the tension it creates. Perhaps no topic within Christianity generates more difficulty than the Church. I take this difficulty to be a hallmark of the accuracy of Orthodox thought in the matter. It is salt in a theological wound. The following thoughts will doubtless offer more salt – but the wound is real and cannot be imagined (re-imagined) away.

The early Church struggled for several centuries to rightly confess the God/Manhood of Christ. Expressing the reality of the Incarnation pushed the boundaries of language and gave to the world such words and concepts as “Person.” The failures of the same period also gave the world the most long-lasting schism in Christian history: the division between Oriental and Eastern Orthodoxy. In the modern period, the doctrine of the Church, or rather its absence and distortion, has given rise to a landscape populated with “churches” whose very multiplicity is an icon of human brokenness.

In the Nicene Creed we confess “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” It is an article of faith no less important than any other phrase within the Creed. That the modern, visible expression of the Church so utterly contradicts this article of the Creed should be a matter of collective shame for Christians. However, the modern solution has been to hide from the shame by changing the meaning of the Creed or simply ignoring it.

A profound example of modern shamelessness is the assault on Eucharistic integrity. St. Irenaeus said, “Our teaching agrees with the Eucharist and the Eucharist confirms our teaching.” From the earliest days, the Church and the Eucharist have been seen as one and the same. We do not think the Church – we eat and drink the Church. This is often described as a eucharistic ecclesiology. In Orthodoxy, this is a redundant phrase, for the Eucharist is the Church and the Church is the Eucharist.

But just as modern Christians “do not get the Church,” so they “do not get the Eucharist.” An individualized, democratic culture sees the Eucharist as an entitlement and the refusal of eucharistic “hospitality” to be an insult to Christian unity. The refusal of eucharistic “hospitality” is not an insult to unity – it is rather the careful and accurate expression the boundary of the Church. The scandal lies within the modern refusal to embrace the unity of the faith. The heedless “eucharistic hospitality” practiced by the denominations is simply an extension of their refusal to take the Church as a serious matter of the faith. Eucharistic hospitality is easy (and cheap) when unity itself has been emptied of meaning. The critique of Orthodox integrity with regard to the Eucharist is nothing less than an assault on the Eucharist itself.

Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University is often described as a “political theologian.” This does not mean that his thought serves the civil definition of politics. Rather, his thought insists that what we do and how we visibly express our lives, the “politics” of our existence, is the most essential expression of theology. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “You are my epistle, written on the fleshy tables of the heart.” The Church is what theology looks like. I studied with Hauerwas in the late 80’s and early 90’s. When I left the doctoral program to return to parish ministry, I told him that I was leaving the program “in order to do theology.” He understood and had no argument.

Many Christians fail to see the “politics” of their faith. They think one thing and do another (it is another aspect of the “two-storey universe”). Almost nothing is as eloquent an expression of the Church’s life than the “politics of the Cup.” What we do with the Eucharist and how that action displays the inner reality of our life is a deeply “political” expression (in the sense that Hauerwas uses the word).

The one common thread throughout the Protestant Reformation was its opposition to the Church of Rome. Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican Reforms were all embraced by various rising nation states, not so much for the appeal of the particularities of their teaching, but for their willingness to provide cover for the subjugation of the Church to the political demands of secular rulers.

Those demands are far less transparent in the modern period. The legitimacy of the state is today rooted in democratic theories. Those same theories are legitimized by the individualism of popular theology. Eucharistic hospitality is the sacramental expression of individualism. The Open Cup represents the individual’s relationship with Christ without regard for the Church. It is the unwitting sacrament of the anti-Church.

In the last few decades, the same individualism has taken on great immediacy within a consumerist economy. At the same time, we have seen the rise of arguments for a radically individualized reception of communion, one that no longer insists on Baptism. Only the secret intention of the recipient is required. The Eucharist becomes inert – reduced to the status of an object to be chosen or rejected according to the desire of the individual. It is a consumer’s communion with himself.

Those who separate the Eucharist from the Church also separate themselves from the Church – they seek to eat while “not discerning the body.” The treatment of the Eucharist clearly reflects the treatment of the Church.

The scandal of Orthodox Communion in the modern world is its identification with the Church itself. The Church as Eucharist cannot be consumed as just one more option in an individual’s privileged life. The refusal of eucharistic “hospitality” is, in fact, an act of true hospitality. It is an act that says:

You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.

Having come to such a place we “remove our shoes.” Every consumerist demand must fall silent. The individual must yield to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the “assembly of the firstborn who are registered in heaven.” It rightly shatters the imaginings of modern man and his constant attempt to reinvent what he himself could never make. For the Eucharist is the Church.

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