The Lure of Divine Love: Human Experience and Christian Faith in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger
Chapter 12: The Christian Church and the Sacramental Action of the Church
In the thought of the New Testament the possibility of there being a Christian who is not also a member of the Christian fellowship is entirely absent. To be a Christian means to be a member of the community, for Christianity in the New Testament understanding is by definition a matter of fellowship with others "in Christ." In the first century nobody could be a Christian in isolation from other human beings, although a non-Christian might of course share many of the ideas and engage in something like the practices that marked the Christian community.
It is difficult for us to grasp this fact, especially in the Western world. The increasing emphasis on the welfare state and the socializing of so much of our lives has not yet succeeded in destroying what one of the Presidents of the United States proudly called "rugged individualism." In consequence, the notion that religion is a matter between God and the individual, and that alone, dies hard, if it ever does die. The reason for its persistence is probably that it does contain one element of truth, namely, that religion is indeed concerned with each person’s relationship with God, with what that person does with his or her "solitariness," as Whitehead put it when stressing the necessity for each human being to come to terms with God. But at the same time, as Whitehead also noted, the "topic of religion" is the person in society, and that for an obvious reason. It is fallacious to think that each of us is an entirely separate person; as human beings we are members one of another in the solidarity of our race. Enough may have been said about this earlier. Certainly God is concerned with each of us personally, but yet, precisely because we are persons who are necessarily open to and dependent upon others in the commonality of our human experience, that concern is with us as persons-in-society.
Christianity has always been a social religion, even though it has also been a religion which has stressed the enormous worth to God, and therefore to other human beings, of each person in his or her human integrity. Nor can there be any doubt that part of the basic message of Christianity has been insistence on the reality and necessity of what we have come to call "the church." The empirical church that we see around us, and in which Christians generally have their place, is sometimes depressing and often frustrating. But that empirical, visible church, located where we happen to live and which we can see functioning well or ill, is only the hither side -- the imperfect expression, if you will -- of what the New Testament thinks of as the "Body of Christ" and describes as "without spot or blemish," as "the household of faith," and as "the family of God." To learn to put up with this empirical church is the way both of Christian humility at its best and of Christian growth in God’s grace, not to mention the patent fact that such cooperation may do much to make the empirical institution more conformable to its intention and significance as the Body of Christ. As William Temple said, for members of the Christian church it is essential to strive diligently so that (in his words) "the Church will be the Church."
The church, in its true meaning, is not simply a human invention or a gathering-together of men and women who happen to share many of the same beliefs and wish to express together their agreement in accepting the same ideals. It is a creation of God. By this I do not wish to suggest, of course, that by some fiat from heaven, or even by some explicit command given by Jesus himself, the Christian church was organized and established. That is not the way in which God speaks and acts in human history. The church’s emergence can best be seen as the reflex of the divine Action accomplished in Jesus Christ. It was brought into being out of the older society of the Jewish people ("the old Israel") as the new community ("the new Israel") which was responding in discipleship, in love, in worship, and in service to that which Christians believed God had done in Jesus Christ. It could be described as the corporate response in Holy Spirit to the event of Christ. And into that corporate response those who "join the fellowship" are taken by an appropriate liturgical act -- baptism -- about which we shall have much to say later in this chapter.
In the event of Jesus Christ, with its preparation in Jewish history, with the occurrence itself as it was received or responded to, and with its consequences in Christian history, God has acted -- not by an intrusive measure but by the intensification of the operation of the eternal Word or Self-Expression and with the response made through the Holy Spirit. Out of the situation in which men and women had found Jesus to be their Master and Lord and Savior, God brought into existence the community in which (as John Knox has often said) "Jesus is remembered," and not only remembered as a historical figure but also known through the influence he exerted and continues to exert in a fellowship that looks to him as its head. Thus the Holy Catholic Church is both a society of men and women, hence susceptible to study in a sociological fashion, and also the Body in which Jesus (now taken into God’s everlasting life) is still made available to succeeding generations down to our own day. But the church also is not confined to those who are members of it now, for it has included the great company of those who have "kept the faith" and are part of what traditional theology calls "the church expectant" and "the church triumphant."
We tend so to fix our attention on the church of today, called in traditional theology and in the Book of Common Prayer "the church militant here in earth," that we forget "the glorious company of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the noble army of martyrs," and the other holy and humble men and women who have professed the faith of Christ crucified and who have belonged -- and still do belong -- to the real and essential church much more genuinely and perfectly than any one of us now on pilgrimage in this world. More must be said about this at a later stage.
I have admitted, and all Christians ought readily to admit, the imperfections and blemishes that mar the empirical church in its institutional embodiment; we can see the errors that have marked its history, and we know that not only individual members but the structures of the institution as well are far from being sinless. Honest recognition of this, along with our admission that much pettiness and silliness sadly disfigures the ecclesiastical world, need not rule out loyalty to the mystery of the Body of Christ, although it makes it imperative that such loyalty lead to action that will purify and reform the community as we know it. The sixteenth century heard the cry ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda ("the church reformed and always to be reformed"). In our own time the Roman Catholic Church, in its post-Vatican II life, has echoed that same cry. This is why many of us can gladly and gratefully participate in the life of the institution and at the same time feel horror at and express criticism of its imperfections, its errors, and its sin.
In theological textbooks, the church is said to be marked by certain "notes": it is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. These are useful words, but they have frequently been misunderstood. Rightly speaking, the church is one in that it is united in obedience, worship, and love directed toward God in Jesus Christ. It is holy in that in principle it is different from the world at large, not in order to boast of its glory but in order to be an instrument of God for that world, showing the "fruit of the Spirit" in love, joy, peace, long-suffering, and the rest of the virtues to people who are walking in darkness and doubt. It is catholic in that it is knit together as a social process, with a message that will give life and wholeness to people of every race in every nation and at every time. It is apostolic in that it is based upon the apostolic gospel or good news of God "in Christ . . . reconciling the world to himself" and is truly "sent" (the root meaning of the Greek word behind "apostolic" is "sending"), like its Lord, to bring such reconciliation to the children of God.
Furthermore, the church has certain characteristic ways of expressing its own life in grace, which have developed from inchoate and germinal beginnings and have become the main lines of its continuing historical existence. For example, it affirms in its creeds the faith that is its reason for being. But the creeds themselves are not part of the characteristic structure of the church; they are but ways in which the faith is stated, in language appropriate to the time when they were promulgated, and there is no reason why they may not be revised to state this faith in more understandable terms and with greater factual accuracy -- but it is the faith, not the creeds, which is important. The church possesses the Holy Scriptures, which are the record of the formative (and because they come from that earliest age in one sense also can serve as normative) period of the church’s history. They provide a proving ground or test for the development of belief, life, and worship from generation to generation, in differing cultures and to meet the needs of different people at different times. Nothing ought to be regarded as legitimate development which is not in line with, although it need not be identical with, that record. Again, baptism and the Lord’s Supper or eucharist are celebrated in all the mainline Christian communities; only the Society of Friends and the Salvation Army fail in this respect. Baptism is a rite of initiation for membership in the church and the eucharist is a means of continually nourishing, strengthening, and refreshing those who are seeking to live "in Christ." The church also has a ministry of ordained persons which can trace its historical development back to very early Christian days. It is a ministry adapted to changing situations but still commissioned to serve representatively for the preaching of the gospel, the celebration of the sacraments, the shepherding of the flock of Christ, and the speaking in his name to the world at large. The church possesses, or better is possessed by, the principle of life "in Christ" -- a life of discipleship that is not simply obedience to a set of moral truths supposedly taught by Jesus but a life in which "Christ dwells in our hearts by faith" and enables his people to act, insofar as they are able, in conformity with his pattern of human existence.
The New Testament way of summing up these realities of the Christian church’s life is in the phrase so often used by Paul, "the Body of Christ." This is not the only description of the church in the New Testament, and it must not be taken in isolation from many others: "Family of God," "Bride of Christ," "new Israel," "household of faith," "temple of God," and so on. But "Body" is singularly apt because it helps us to grasp what is fundamental about the church, perhaps the fundamental thing. Let me explain why.
My human body is the way that routing of experiences which constitute what I call my "self" can get itself expressed most obviously in the world and among my neighbors. It is how I get myself across to others. It is through my body that I communicate with them and make myself known to them. Using this analogy, we may say that the deepest meaning of the church is that it is Christ’s chief (but not only) visible instrumentality for expressing himself in the world now that he is no longer here in visible ways but is taken into and is part of the ongoing life of God. I have said that it is not his only means of self-expression, for if Christ be the one in whom God was signally active, that activity, in Christlike working, still goes on, and goes on wherever there is love, goodness, justice, courage, beauty, truth. But it is, I have said, the chief instrumentality since it is the place where he is explicitly acknowledged as Lord, his purpose as sent from God recognized and accepted, even if not always (and this is our human sin) implemented in every respect. Every member of the Body -- that is, you and I -- is to serve as hand or foot or tongue, to push the analogy almost too far, for the expression of Christ bringing God to humankind. This also helps us to see why the church, when it knows its business, is essentially a "missionary society" with a job to do in the world. When the church forgets or neglects its mission, and focuses attention on itself and its domestic housekeeping, it loses its purpose and becomes like salt that has no savor.
In the past half century the several Christian groupings, usually called denominations, have slowly been moving toward restoration of visible unity. There can be no doubt that the day will come when Christians will be visibly one as they are always invisibly united in their faith in God in Christ. In the meantime it is our privilege to serve the particular group to which we happen to belong or to which we feel drawn without ceasing to do all in our power to hasten the time when the several types of Christian emphasis and witness will be brought into a genuine, free, organic unity. Anything that impedes the coming of that unity is a sign of ecclesiastical blindness or churchly arrogance.
We are rightly impatient with the institutionalism of the empirical church when (as is so often the case) it seems to have lost the vision of its purpose. Yet that empirical church can and should welcome into its fellowship those who are seeking life along the Christian way, even when they are impatient. The welcome should not require tests of membership more imposing than those met in infant baptism (about which we shall speak later), where the desire to be a Christian is taken to be present implicitly though not explicitly and where the community welcomes a new member in the confidence that its faith, its worship, and its life are sufficiently strong and sufficiently right to nourish and train the novice. And those who do live the life of the community, seeking to appropriate for themselves its central affirmations, yet unconcerned about the peripheral, secondary, and now and again misleading assertions and practices that have often been associated with those essentials; those who learn gradually to join in its prayers and receive the sacraments, and to read the Bible with open, earnest, yet critical minds; those who endeavor with heart and soul to express in daily life the Christian principle of life "in Christ" -- such men and women will find increasingly that they genuinely belong. They will discover that slowly they are being made into Christian men and women. Or perhaps they will never discover it, being too humble for that -- but their friends and neighbors will notice. Dean Inge of St. Paul’s in London used to remark that Christianity is "an experiment which becomes an experience." So each one of us, even the least important, can add as he or she speaks of the church and its faith, experto crede, "believe one who knows" -- one who may not know much, to be sure, but who at any rate has found that life grows continually more meaningful, richer, more integrated in the things that really matter, more adequately adjusted to the divine reality called God, and more sensitive to others who are met each day.
There is a great variety in the membership of the Christian community. One of the ancient Christian writers spoke of the church as a corpus permixtum, which my old teacher Henry D.A. Major (onetime principal of Ripon Hall in Oxford) used to translate as a "mixed bag." Another early Christian saying was that the church is a "pool in which lambs may wade and elephants may swim." Both these sayings make the point that the Christian community is for anybody who wishes to be part of its ongoing life, ongoing meaning that the Christian fellowship is a social process, as I have already said. The term social process is an adaptation for our purpose here of Prof. Hartshorne’s admirable characterization of how things go, and hence how they are, in the world at large; he entitled one of his books Reality as Social Process. That manner of putting it helps us to see that like any other routing of events in history and the cosmos there is in the church a past which is remembered and which is causally effectual, a present in which choices are made and action undertaken, and a future which beckons toward genuine fulfillment. There is the inherited past, the contemporary existence, and the sovereign rule (the kingdom of God in New Testament idiom), which is nothing other than reception into the everlasting divine life, all known in and deeply experienced within the Christian church when it is true to itself.
Thus with all its imperfections and with its great variety of membership, the empirical church reflects and embodies the Body of Christ. Its remarkable capacity for renewal by return to the wellspring of its life is the sign of a vitality which can assure us that even "the gates of hell cannot prevail against it." In the words of an ancient prayer, it is the visible expression of "that wonderful and sacred mystery" which speaks to us and works on us, through the very imperfection, weakness, error, and even the sin of the empirical institution, to manifest in the world of time and space the abiding reality of God’s operation in the event of Christ for human wholeness.
I have mentioned the variety of membership in the church -- activists and contemplatives, rich and poor, old and young, black and white and yellow, morally concerned and aesthetically sensitive -- all are included.
To make my point clear, I venture now to speak very personally. I am a member of an ancient foundation in the University of Cambridge in England. King’s College was founded in 1441 by King Henry VI. who laid the cornerstone of its glorious chapel, a building known throughout the world as a splendid example of English Gothic architecture. Wordsworth wrote about it in the sonnet that begins with the words "Tax not the royal saint with vain expense," and John Milton spoke of its "storied windows richly dight, / lit with a dim religious light." Every day, during term, I attend in that chapel the service of sung evensong; on Sundays I am present also at the eucharist that is celebrated in the chapel every day of the week. On great festivals, like Christmas, Easter, Whitsunday, and the so-called "saints’" or "holy" days, the eucharist is offered with simplicity but with the beauty of vestments and always -- as at the daily evensongs -- with the singing of great music by a magnificent choir of men and boys.
Very likely, I am one of those whose orientation is much more aesthetic than ethical. Certainly I have found over many years that the glory of our chapel, in architecture and music and ceremonial, has brought about a great deepening of whatever Christian faith and life I possess. Nor am I alone in this. Often visitors, and we have hundreds of thousands, say to one or another of us who carry out the chapel’s worship, that what they have just experienced is "out of this world." They come from many lands; and they do not mean at all by those words that our worship is unrealistic or unconnected with daily living; they mean, rather, that in participation in that worship they have had a glimpse of something transcendent, more than merely human or natural, something able to give them a lifting of spirit and a deepening of their appreciation of life’s significance.
Some might think that this sort of approach and understanding is of little value in the hurly-burly of modern life. I disagree with them. On the contrary, I am sure that it is through just such experience, when Christianity is expressed in just such a way, that many find that "the penny drops, the ice breaks, the light dawns" (to use Ian Ramsey’s words for what he styles "disclosure-situations" that give sense to human existence). Through that sort of daily experience, for me certainly and surely for many others, the profound reality of "Christian appurtenance," as Baron von Hügel put it, comes alive. The church as "the mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people," in prayer-book language, with its living members joined with the "great cloud of witnesses" in the past, is vividly known. And all this speaks directly to our human condition.
But what of those who have not heard the name of Christ? What of the non-Christian religions which for millions of people have been their way of making sense of existence and finding value in life? Now that modern travel and highly developed means of communication have made us conscious as never before of those vast numbers of non-Christians, these questions cannot be avoided.
Unfortunately some Christian people (and their theological spokesmen) have taken an intolerably narrow position here. The Jansenist movement among Roman Catholics and certain sectarian strands in the Reformation churches have been prepared to say that such non-Christians are without God and without hope in this world; they have regarded those countless men and women as only what somebody once called "missionary fodder." They have been guilty of the "Christian imperialism" that so troubled the famous historian Arnold Toynbee. But the "great church" -- the mainline Christian tradition -- has not been so ungenerous. It has been prepared to say, and to find varying kinds of theological support for saying, what their Christian insight should have compelled it to say in any case: that any human being, anywhere, who has shared in love, sought for truth, created or admired beauty, lived bravely, served goodness, stood for justice, and has thus responded, as far as was possible under the circumstances in which he or she lived, to whatever of divine reality has been made known, must somehow be included in the company of the faithful. There has been no doubt that they are numbered among the "saved," even if they have not known about Jesus Christ. Sometimes this conviction has expressed itself in the idea of a confrontation, either in this life or after death, with the person and work of Christ. Sometimes -- and this is more in accord with what has been said in this book -- it has been urged that every access to divine reality (however this may be conceived) which has been opened to men and women is nothing other than the working of the Self-Expressive Activity of God which in Jesus, as we are convinced, is given focal statement in human existence. And to speak in that fashion would be to say, with Dr. Paul Knitter of Xavier University in Cincinnati (one of the brilliant young Roman Catholic process theologians of our time), that we need to "recognize the possibility that other ‘saviours’ have carried out . . . for other people" the redemptive work which as Christians we know in Jesus Christ. Dr. Knitter adds that "this does not imply simplistically to water down the content of the Christ-event and proclaim that all religious leaders are ‘talking about the same thing.’ Differences, and therefore uniqueness, are maintained. And thus the universal significance of Jesus is preserved; the difference he makes is felt by Christians to be vitally important for all religions"; but the Christian can also be "open to recognize the ‘vitally important difference’ of, for instance Buddha" -- and he would add other figures as well. ("World Religions and the Finality of Christ," Horizons 5, no. 2, 1978: 153.)
Thus the non-Christian religions, and even other world views such as Marxism, may be seen to be genuinely workings of God among humanity, since in them enough is granted to provide a sense of significance or value in human life and to learn to live in love, seek justice, do one’s duty, and follow truth and goodness and beauty. But if we say this, what happens to the so-called "finality" of Christianity? The answer here is partly that Christianity does not claim finality for itself. Rather, it stresses the decisiveness of Jesus Christ as the one who is "important" and (in Professor W.E. Hocking’s fine word) "unlosable," because in him there is the "representation," in vivid and compelling fashion, of what God is always up to in the world. Finality is probably an unfortunate word to use, but whatever term is chosen, what has just been said is the only kind of finality or decisiveness or speciality that we are called upon to defend. And it is enough.
Is the entire missionary enterprise of the church a mistake, then, if we grant what was asserted in the last paragraphs? The answer here is a resounding No. But we need an understanding of that enterprise quite different from the one that has often been assumed. The Christian mission is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, not to denounce other religions. The motive for Christian mission is the desire to share with others what we ourselves have known of God in Christ. In the experience of Christian people, response to that action of God in Jesus has brought wholeness and new life, and it is unthinkable that it should not be shared with as many others as possible. Certainly nobody is able to say, with the confidence that has sometimes been felt, who will or will not ultimately be saved. God alone could say this, and God is more generous than many who have called themselves by the Christian name. When somebody falls in love, he or she feels impelled to tell others about the loved one; so also if somebody has found wholeness and new life in Christ, he or she will wish to tell others about this -- but without damning them into the bargain!
As for Christians themselves, living by faith and in love and hope in this earthly place of their pilgrimage, the unknown writer of the second century who penned the so-called Letter to Diognetus gives us the best picture:
Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either by locality, or by speech, or by customs. For they dwell not in cities of their own, neither do they use a different language, nor practice an extraordinary mode of life. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians, as the lot of each is cast, and while they follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their citizenship which they set forth is marvelous and confessedly contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign-land is their fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign-land. They find themselves in the flesh, yet they do not live after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and in their own lives they surpass those laws. In a word, what the soul is to the body, this the Christians are in the world. The soul... dwells in a mortal tabernacle; so Christians sojourn among perishable things, while they look for the imperishability which is in the heavens.
The church of Christ is the fellowship of Christian believers, the "family and household of faith." It is Christ’s body, his continuing instrument whose only reason for existence is the doing of his work and the making available of wholeness of life in him. This community is entered by the sacrament of baptism; its members are nourished in their Christian discipleship through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the holy eucharist, the mass, the Holy Communion.
What is a sacrament? The catechism of the older Book of Common Prayer defines it as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same and a pledge to assure us thereof." In a sacrament, a material and visible -- in brief, a "sensible" -- thing or action is taken and used by God, in accordance with the will of Christ (whether that is by direct institution, as with the eucharist, or through what Christians believe to be by the Spirit in the life of the fellowship, as with baptism), to convey and to effect a spiritual, invisible result. In the most profound sense, Jesus Christ himself is the supreme sacrament because in him a human life in its complete integrity was taken and used by God as an instrument for the accomplishment of God’s purposes. So also the life of each of us is sacramental, for our physical bodies are our instruments for the expression of our purposes, our goals, our aims, and indeed our very selves. The created world as a whole has the same sacramental quality, we may add, since in it the unseen and spiritual is mediated in and through the material. In the final reckoning, God is self-expressed through the whole creation in just such a sacramental or "incarnational" manner, making that creation "God’s body." Hence, as process thought has understood, God and the world are indissolubly related.
Thus sacramentalism in the right sense is both natural to human beings and natural to the world, and it is also the way in which God effectively works in the creation. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that both the Christian rite of initiation into the community of faith and the chief Christian action of worship should have this sacramental nature. Here we shall speak about those two sacraments, "sacraments of the gospel," as they have been called. But this does not mean that we need not recognize a sacramental quality in other rites and ceremonies of the Christian tradition -- and value them as such. Such include, for much of historical Christianity, what have been known as confirmation, absolution of sin, marriage, ordination to the representative ministry of the church, and anointing of the sick -- all these have the sacramental character in which some material agency effects spiritual ends. Hence they are rightly esteemed and used in many parts of the church.
1. Baptism into Christ. The Christian fellowship throughout its history has initiated new members by baptism, in which with the use of water and with prayer there is symbolized "the mystical washing away of sin" and entrance is effected into the community in which Christ is known. loved, adored, and followed.
Baptism is not magic. It does not of itself produce a result, for that would reduce it to the level of a sub-Christian ceremony which has a mechanical or automatic effect. It is a sacrament, and as such it presupposes faith as well as human cooperation. Its origins are in the baptism practiced by John the Baptizer and accepted by Christ, and in the proselyte baptism that the Jews themselves employed as a means of entrance, by non-Jews. into their religious-national life. In specifically Christian practice it is instinct with the presence and action of Christ who in it accepts as his own, whether they are old or young, those who would be his. Its liturgical expression is a development from the primitive Christian conviction that every believer must share in Christ’s death and resurrection, of which baptism is a figure.
An analogy to baptism would be the removal (either literally or figuratively) of a child from the slums of a great city, where the child has been surrounded by influences that might cause him or her to grow up as a young delinquent, into a healthy and wholesome atmosphere where in loving acceptance there will be provided a healthy and glad acceptance, with deep friendships, happy environment, and enriching circumstances. Such a situation is the Christian fellowship, which even at its apparently least promising represents (however imperfectly) something of the goodness and grace of its Lord. To belong to that fellowship is to be put on the path to fullness and wholeness of life. Thus to be made "a very member incorporate in the mystical Body of Christ" is to have the root of the matter in one. But as we have said, this is not magic. That is why there are parents or other sponsors in baptism. It is also why the Christian initiate must do his or her part to see that the possibilities there offered may through response of the recipient of baptism be brought to fruition.
But there may be more. We cannot tell in what mysterious ways, hidden from us but nonetheless effectual, the act of baptism can produce a difference in personal response to the responsibilities and privileges of life in the world. Nowadays we are so well informed about our "subconscious" experience that we may very well think such influences can be at work. In any event, we have no right to refuse this opportunity to any who, either by their own adult act of commitment or through the earnest decision of their parents, can be brought within the ambit of the Christian community where God’s care, as made available through Christ’s deed in the world, may have its effect. This is both the rationale for and the justification of the age-long practice of baptizing infants.
Much that has been said traditionally about "washing away sin" is hardly applicable to infant baptism, to be sure. But the main stress in the sacrament is found not so much in that kind of talk (which may be appropriate enough for an adult) but in the simple words with which the minister of baptism signs the baptized person with the sign of the cross as he or she is "received into the congregation of Christ’s flock": that "hereafter he [or she] shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his [her] life’s end." There is indeed in baptism the assurance of forgiveness of sins to those who repent; but above all, and chiefly, there is the guarantee of spiritual strength to live as Christ’s man or woman and the grafting of the new believer into the body of Christ’s church, which is "the blessed company of all faithful people."
2. Eucharist. Throughout the history of the Christian community there has been one action in which those who call themselves after the name of Christ have found the meaning of their faith most fully expressed. This is the eucharist, by whatever name it may be called in the several parts or groups of the church. It is the specifically Christian way of worship. In it, as an ancient prayer from the age of the church fathers puts it, "the mystery of Christ’s dispensation is accomplished so far as in us lies." The same prayer goes on to say that in it "we make the memorial of Christ’s death, we see the type of his resurrection, and we are made partakers of his heavenly table." The life we live, wherever it may be, is intended to be a continual preparation for and reflection of that eucharistic feast, "of which" says the prayer as it addresses God, in Christ, "do thou make us ever more worthy, through thy holy, good, and life-giving Spirit."
The eucharist is the visible placarding of the faith of the fellowship whose commitment is to God disclosed in Jesus Christ. Since in him there has been established a relationship of obedience between God and humankind, others are taken to share in that newness of life. The eucharist is the chief way in which this is imparted to them. In itself it is a simple affair: the taking, blessing, and sharing of common bread and wine. But it has been adorned with all manner of beauty in music and action and color. How could it be otherwise, when people for centuries have found so much good in it and when it has come to mean so much to them? This development of ritual and ceremonial around the eucharistic action is a token and manifestation of the heart’s devotion. Yet at the same time the stark simplicity of the essential action itself can never be obscured, and when it becomes over-laden with detail and hence an occasion for liturgical fussiness, as has happened from time to time, it is blasphemed. The traditional interpretation of the eucharist may be summarized under several heads. First of all, it is an action -- something is done. The early Christian community did not believe that Jesus had told them to say something, think something, or aspire after something, as his "memorial"; they believed that he had told them to do something. They were convinced that he had told them to repeat the actions in which he himself had engaged at the Last Supper, on the night in which he was betrayed. He had taken bread, blessed it, broken it, and distributed it to his companions; he had taken the cup, blessed the wine, and given it to those present. What he did there was rooted in the Jewish custom of meals of table-fellowship. But to the usage at such meals there was now added a new significance: in the table-fellowship of Jesus’ people, acting after his example, he would be present with them; his "body" and the "new covenant in his blood" would be there. In some real way, whatever our theory about how it is accomplished, there is a "presentness" of Jesus as the memorial of his life, death, and resurrection is celebrated.
Second, the eucharist has a sacrificial quality. Indeed it may be called the Christian sacrifice, for it is the offering of thanks, praise, and prayers, along with bread and wine, to God known through Christ. All that older Jewish and pagan rites of sacrificial worship, sometimes accompanied by what are to us barbaric practices, were seeking to achieve finds its fulfillment in this sacrament. "The blood of goats and bulls" and "the ashes of a heifer" sprinkling the unclean, in words from the book of Hebrews in the New Testament, could not reconcile human existence to God; yet such reconciliation was being sought in those Jewish rites and their pagan parallels. Whatever needed to be done to make men and women at one with God was accomplished through Jesus, supremely through his willingness to die. Sacrificium est tota vita Christi ("the sacrifice is the whole life of Christ") wrote a medieval saint -- and of that sacrifice of himself Calvary was the crowning moment. The eucharist placards Christ before the world, as we have said. Hence, in the "continual remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ," those who assist and partake are again and again incorporated afresh into the relationship between God and humankind made plain in Christ’s own deed. The cross is commemorated not in separation from the rest of Christ’s life and work but as the final symbolic expression of a total self-giving to God, in which through prayer and thanksgiving Christians are enabled to share.
Third, the eucharist also cements fellowship between Christians and their Lord through his presentness with them in this sacrifice. As we have hinted, theories about the mode of that presentness reflect an almost presumptuous human attempt to define and describe what can be apprehended only by faith. The reality of that presentness -- a word I prefer to the more usual "presence" since it is less likely to suggest a local or located presence, which great theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Newman have rejected as mistaken -- is the fact Christians know. It is associated in an intimate and direct way with the eucharistic elements of bread and wine and their reception, but primarily it is in the action itself that the presentness is discovered to those who attend and receive the sacrament by faith and with thanksgiving. Why need we seek to go beyond this? This is enough. Fortunately more and more thoughtful Christian theologians are prepared to leave it at that and refuse to engage in too much speculation about the how.
In the fourth place, the eucharist makes the communicants one with each other, quite as much as one with God. In this "sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving," singing together the Christian songs of joy and kneeling together to receive the gifts, they find not only Christ’s presence made real but also that since "he is in us, and we in him" they may themselves "be perfected in one."
In these ways, among others, the eucharist is an expression of the main emphases of Christian faith. It is an action in which Christ is remembered; a participation in his self-offering to God, with thanksgiving and praise as the human response; a feeding of the believer with the life of God made available in Christ; fellowship with God and with neighbors, and, as a consequence of all these things, the imperative and the power to live a life of love in the world. In the last words of the old Latin mass, Ite, missa est. The action is done; go out now into the world to love and serve the Lord in the men and women who are our neighbors, friends, and acquaintances, wherever we live and work.
Associated with this sacrament are the other rites and ceremonies, the public worship and occasional services, of the church. The daily offices of morning and evening prayer, the litany, the penitential offices, the provisions made for the care of the sick, the marriage of Christian people, the burial of the dead -- these are all part of the great traditional experience of public or "common" prayer and praise, and they further establish us in relationship with God in Christ. For each of us personally there is also the practice of so-called private prayer, in which through daily devotion life in Christ is nourished and strengthened. I shall not speak here about this, my own views on the matter may be found in a little book written some years ago, Praying Today (Eerdmans, 1974), in which an effort was made to meet some of the problems and answer some of the questions that personal devotion may suggest.
Finally, one other Christian practice should be noted. This is the possibility of personal and private confession of sin, in the presence of an ordained minister of Christ’s church, as a way in which the forgiving and healing charity of God is brought home to those who are troubled in conscience and need reassurance and assistance. For many years the several churches of the Reformation tended to look with suspicion on this practice; more recently, some of them have recognized its value and have urged their ordained clergy to commend it to their people in whatever form may seem suitable. To many who are deeply troubled, public statements of absolution are not quite adequate. In a person-to-person relationship such as the private confession of sins there is possible a strengthening and refreshing of confidence in the loving-kindness of God shown toward humankind. It should not be forgotten in this connection that the ordained minister is not the one who forgives the sin. God alone can do that. But the minister can declare and pronounce to God’s people God’s absolution and forgiveness of their sins.
It remains only to say that alteration of the wording of much of Christian worship, with the eradication of sub-Christian ideas that have been allowed over the centuries to creep in and still remain to deform worship, and with the necessary implementation of the traditional rites by new vistas of divine truth that have been vouchsafed to later ages, not least our own, is an urgent task for today’s Christian fellowship. No one of us can know and see the depths of God’s self-revelation. It is by common participation in the common life of a great tradition that each of us can find a deepening and enriching of faith. We do not need to be uncritical, but we must be humble. The task of each succeeding generation is to add its own insight, its own distinctive apprehension, to the growing body of corporate experience. Each new generation, as one of my friends liked to say, is "the spearhead of the Christian tradition." Thus it is for each generation to allow that tradition to come alive in its own time and place, to see that it is purified and given contemporary significance, with such modifications as may be required; and then to hand it on to the next age, for the enrichment of the Christian faith, worship, and life of those who follow.