Saturday, April 27, 2013

Discerning the Lord's Body

This essay comes with a text, I Corinthians 11:17-34 (for clarity I will use the RSV).

“But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you meet together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.] Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world. 
So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another --if any one is hungry, let him eat at home -- lest you come together to be condemned. About the other things I will give directions when I come.”

Earlier this week I pointed out that our Book of Common Prayer tradition does not require intellectual assent to a specific theory about how Christ is present in the Sacrament, but instead lays out specific requirements in the Invitation to the General Confession. The General Absolution, spoken only by a priest, lays out conditions, most notably “hearty (sincere) repentance and true faith.” Among the requirements in the Invitation we see that the communicant must be “in love and charity” with his neighbors (Matthew 5:23, 24).

As I look out at the general mindset of our own people, I wonder if we have the right priorities about how we are to receive this sacrament. I even fear that some novice priest somewhere is adding conditions from his own mistaken notion about the “teaching of the Church” from an imagined Canon of something he calls the Tradition. Perhaps he embraces a theory, like Roman Transubstantiation, or Lutheran Consubstantiation, or something less defined except in his own understanding. Perhaps he thinks that he should not communicate any person who fails to share his own understanding of the Sacrament.

I would challenge such a novice priest (perhaps such a perpetually novice priest) to show me in Scripture a clear definition of his theory set forth as revelation, or to demonstrate that any of the Ecumenical Councils ever laid down any definition. Sacraments are Mysteries (from the word Mysterion), and no one actually knows how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. Whatever devotions you direct to the Sacrament, remember that it is a mystery beyond your comprehension. But, never forget that it is no “bare sign,” and therefore is not effectual, in terms of grace, until you eat and drink it with faith (John 6:54).

Nonetheless, I must challenge the whole idea that St. Paul’s concern in the above text is about any theory of Real Presence. It is obvious that St. Paul regards the elements to be both bread and wine, and Christ’s Body and Blood at the same time. But, when he speaks of discerning the Lord’s Body, or rather of failure to do so, look at the context. The context is more about being “in love and charity” with your neighbors than it is about your theological understanding of the Sacrament. A person may have the best humanly possible understanding of the Sacrament, but fail to discern the Lord’s Body by harboring resentment or by mistreating members of the Body of Christ. Another may have no proper understanding of Christ’s Real Presence in the Sacrament, may even confuse it with a “bare sign” through honest ignorance, and yet receive it with “hearty repentance and true faith” walking in love and charity. It is that ignorant man who better discerns the Lord’s Body than the other.

Look at the context. What immediately follows this text about unworthy reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood? What immediately follows it is the twelfth chapter, about the Church as the Body of Christ, and gifts of the Spirit in the various members of Christ’s Body. And, the context of that must include the famous chapter thirteen that follows. The great chapter on Charity (the love of God) was a stinging prophetic style rebuke to selfish Corinthian Christians, however much we may try to make sweet, sweet music of its words.

I do not fear that our people are receiving the Sacrament without some appreciation for Christ’s Real Presence at the altar. I do fear that some of our people do, even with that appreciation, fail to discern the Lord’s Body. If you cannot love Christ in your brothers and sisters, if you do not see Him in His Body the Church, it doesn’t matter at all if you appreciate His presence in the Sacramental elements.

Why did St. Paul begin by reminding them of the Lord’s betrayal? We even use those words in our service straight from this very text: “The night in which He was betrayed…” What is it, but betrayal of Christ Himself, to mistreat the members of His Body the Church? Be it by selfishness, by gossip, by sinful and willful alienation, the lack of charity makes one unworthy to receive. Such a person may have the soundest and best understanding, but it profits him nothing. He is not in love and charity with his neighbors, and therefore not ready to receive the Sacrament he may so deeply understand – he may even understand all mysteries; it profits him nothing.


RC Cola said...

Point of clarification: The doctrine of transubstantiation does not try to explain how the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, only that they do become the body and blood of Christ. It is an existential doctrine, not an explanatory one, just as the doctrine of the Trinity does not deign to explain how there are three persons of one God, only that it is.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I believe the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, and I don't believe in transubstantiation. So, that doesn't work.

But really, that whole topic of discussion is a distraction from the Biblical teaching. That is, at least, the point I am trying to make in the essay. The Biblical emphasis is a moral one, and it is covenantal. While "theologians" have been arguing about Trans. and the other theories, they have taken us away from the real subjects that actually do matter.

Anonymous said...

Excellent essay, and I could not agree with you more.


Indifferently said...

Thank you for this. Very helpful piece indeed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you!

Would you be willing to write something, sometime, about the distinctions between "sinful and willful alienation" and what Hooker seems to be attending to, when he writes (Laws I.iii.10), "as far as lawfully we may, we have held and do hold fellowship with them. For even as the Apostle doth say of Israel that they are in one respect enemies but in another beloved of God; in like sort with Rome we dare not communicate [...], yet [...] we gladly acknowledge[...]"?

In a comment, you add, "While 'theologians' have been arguing about Trans. and the other theories, they have taken us away from the real subjects that actually do matter."

This could sound more abrupt than it is.

I am struck by Luther's reassuring addressing (in his 'Babylonian Captivity' of 1520) of 'Roman' concern for the dangers of artolatry [!] (which one indeed finds addressed, for a notable example, in Aquinas).

In how far is this (or is this not) a proper concern, inviting clear attention, even when (as you say) "no one actually knows how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ"?


RC Cola said...

I believe the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, and I don't believe in transubstantiation.
Which is a very fine Anglican answer, and one that I'd expect from an Anglo-Catholic. No argument here. I'm happy to call "banana" "curved yellow fruit" if the 39 Articles have precluded us from using the term banana, while at the same time accepting that curved yellow fruit is in fact curved yellow fruit.

What bothers me are the Anglicans who deny that the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of
Christ as a reaction against the term transubstantiation, as if because a term they disagree exists, then the reality of the Body and Blood does not exist.

This leads to some connection with your essay. There is more to communion than the theology. It is not only supposed to be a sacrament of individual reception, but of corporate unity. We all receive not only the Body and Blood of Christ, but we are in the same act incorporated more fully into the Body of Christ, the Church. You cannot do this with whom you disagree. Hence, I'm driven batty by TEC who says that any Christian in good standing with his or her church may receive communion. Why would they have such a non-standard? So some recipients believe in the reality of the Body and Blood, some believe it is entirely symbolic or metaphorical, and the rest are somewhere on the spectrum, likely unaware of what they actually believe. I can't put up with that. I cannot see how a Church can maintain its unity and truly be the Body of Christ if their unifying sacrament of communion is merely symbolic. Symbols cannot unite the body of Christ, only reality can.

So, to some point I agree with you. Transubstantiation, metousiosis, metaelementation, consubstantiation, Real Presence, etc, do cloud the water. What is important to me is "Do you believe that what you receive really/truly/actually is the Body and Blood of Christ, or do you believe it is some kind of metaphor or symbol.
In the former case, I don't care what you want to call it, we are united in faith; that is the catholic (small c-universal and historical) doctrine regardless of the label one assigns it. In the latter case, I will not communicate or keep company with them because making communion a mere symbol or metaphor is anti-scriptural, anti-traditional, and anti-right reason.
It seems to me that the real target of criticism shouldn't be those who like to put a term or name to the Body and Blood of Christ, but rather those who claim it is only symbolic.

Fr. Robert Hart said...


This might do for an answer.

RC Cola:

The Anglican fathers all rejected Zwingli's "bare sign." But, they seemed to focus more on the sacrament as effectual than they did on how Christ is present in it.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

S.H I meant to leave this link.

Anonymous said...

The bread and wine do not "become" the Body and Blood of Christ. They "are" His Body and Blood. To speculate on how, when, where, what, or why they "are" what He told us they are is, in my opinion, an exercise in futility which can only breed pride, dissent, and dis-union.

Extra-Biblical ya-da-yadas. Take the mystery for what it IS.


Bruce said...

The 39 articles don’t just preclude the use of the term. They say it is repugnant.
Transubstantiation is, if I understand the idea, the belief that the bread and wine has a nature/essence that is distinct from their observable properties and that this essence is transformed into the body and blood by the priest’s consecration while the observable properties remain. I don’t see how this is objectionable. Unless the bread and wine were always the body and blood in substance it would have to change at some point. At the same time, I taste bread and wine.
The idea that things have an underlying nature that is distinct from their measurable properties seems to me to be the perfect antidote to modern, materialist thinking.

Fr. Robert Hart said...


To "Do this..." requires at least a minimum amount of ceremony before giving and receiving the sacrament. The Church calls this Consecration. We do not treat the elements as a sacrament before the Consecration. No one in the entire history of the Church ever has. So, I've never been able to understand your point, and I remember you making it before. We live in time, and sacraments spring from the Incarnation, which means they come to us in the universe of space and time as well as matter.

Fr. Robert Hart said...


Modern RC theologians (such as the former Pope) don't really mean the same thing by the word "Transubstantiation" as people did in the 16th century. It's all more acceptable now.

But I fear the main point of my essay has failed to come across. What changes do we need to make in our attitude, or our relations in the Church, or severed relationships that need to be healed? What is the New Covenant? Are we betraying the Lord in how we treat each other, all the while taking the sacrament? These things were the concern raised by St. Paul.

Anonymous said...

Fr Hart,

From New Advent: Consecration, in general, is an act by which a thing is separated from a common and profane to a sacred use, or by which a person or thing is dedicated to the service and worship of God by prayers, rites, and ceremonies.

The hosts to be consecrated are set apart by the Priest. This is well and good, for Christ Himself broke the bread, declared it was His Body, and distributed it. I do not have any issue with Consecration; it was instituted by our Lord! But please do not tell me that a "change" occurs in the host at that specific moment, for Christ never said there was a change. The only change is in the perception of His Body and Blood by the recipient, for God never changes. He simply IS.


Anonymous said...


When Christ said the bread was His Body, do you think it tasted any different to His Disciples? He spoke the words only... This is my Body... and so it IS.

The Sacrament was established by Christ so that His Body and Blood would be re-presented by His Disciples (Do this in remembrance of me). Does that mean that the Priests change the bread into Christ's Body? No, I do not think so. Do their words change the bread into Christ's Body? I do not think so. They consecrate the bread... they set it apart as Christ commanded... and they distribute it. Their hands have been consecrated... set apart by God to fulfill His Work on earth via priestly ordination.

What is transformed is our bodies, which become temples of a type inasmuch as He dwells in us, and we in Him.


Matthew M said...

Fr. Hart-
I agree. What? Oh my!
Totally off subject but not really ~ the term Catholic/catholic as opposed to the term Calvinist/evangelical. I read on one of the blogs that the APA and the ACA were "Anglo-Catholic" Anglicans which I found odd as I always saw them as more Calvinist Anglicans. Also the UEC based on statements I've read by Bishop Robinson as also Calvinist Anglican yet they have inter-communion with both the ACC and the APCK which I always thought were strongly Anglo-Catholic esp. the APCK. If all of you are (Anglo-)Catholic Anglicans
why aren't you on church?

Indifferently said...

Would Fr Hart be in favour of the Exhortation being reinserted into the Communion liturgy? I think it has a very strong focus on what he has talked about.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Matthew M:

Your perspective is utterly unique, and inexplicable.


Ah, but it is read on the Sundays specified in the rubrics.

RC Cola said...

Sorry for getting the discussion off on precisely the issue you pointed out that St. Paul was specifically not discussing. I tried to steer myself back to your topic with the latter part of the second post.
Not sure if I succeeded.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the Hooker & Rome post link, which I would generally commend to (re)reading! (I have not, however, read all the comments there with equal care.)

You wrote that,"unique to Anglicanism [when compared with the "other churches of the Reformation"] was the notion that these ['Roman' errors] were errors within the Church" and further that the "Anglican position as stated by Hooker was unique in that it held forth the hope of reunion."

In II.2 of his Preface to the Laws, Hooker exhibits a similar approach in his analysis of "every particular church" with its distinct (efforts at) reformation producing its own 'order', which "orders allowed, but yet established in more wary and suspense manner, as being to stand in force till God should give the opportunity of some general conference what might be best for every of them afterwards to do".

He sees, in fact, a manner too "wary and suspense", lacking in glad acknowledgement of each other's "constantly still persist[ing]" in "those main parts of Christian truth" which make them together "of the family of Jesus Christ" (to apply the language of III.i.10, which reference I mistyped before!).

I take what he puts the finger on, as going beyond a manner properly "wary and suspense" (which can include daring "not to communicate") in the direction of what you call "sinful and willful alienation" - if not indeed all the way there!

I wonder if what (since Hooker) has uniquely, or at least peculiarly, characterized 'Anglicanism' is not in fact properly an ancient, indeed, basic, characteristic of ecclesiology.

I think, for instance, of the 'de-fusing' of the 'quartodecemian' controversy at the time of Victor of Rome and Irenaeus of Lyons as recounted by Eusebius.

Something similar seems to function among 'Eastern Orthodox' Churches, yet only among them, not fully extending further.

Something similar seems to inform Lumen gentium 15, again without 'full extension'.

But, how to move beyond those things which Hooker already said "greatly trouble these later times", the refusal to admit error, and the having got into the position of claiming one "cannot [...] erre"?