Sharp About Your Prayers

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You Are What You Eat

May 30th, 2013 · No Comments · Faith and the City

What is the “nature” of the host?

eucharistWhen one of my theology professors scribbled this question on the chalkboard, the entire classroom winced.  After all, the desks at the Divinity School were filled with Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists and even a few Presbyterians.  We knew we did not see eye to eye on this issue.  Each of our traditions had a distinctly different take on the holy moment when a celebrant lifts the bread and declares, “This is the body of Christ broken for you.”

Theology geeks to the core, we had been “discussing” the subject in the dormitories at night.  Is the bread we eat at the Lord’s Table really Jesus?  Has it been changed at a sub-atomic level?  Or, is the bread a potent symbol, and nothing more?  How exactly was Jesus present in the feast?

We frothed and fumed and made our cases.  This was important stuff.  We were defending our traditions with vigor; after all, everyone couldn’t be right.

My roommate was Lutheran and an assistant chaplain.  He kept the elements for our Friday communion services in our small fridge.  Occasionally, a Methodist looking for a late night snack would open the fridge, see the elements, and mischievously inquire, “So, is this Jesus yet?”  The Episcopalian from next door could not resist the bait.  And off we’d go!

AugustineAfter scrawling his question on the board, the professor, wisely, refused to settle our debates by providing “the right answer.”  Instead, he outlined the historical roots for the various perspectives represented in the room.  Then, he told us a story—a story about a sermon preached by St. Augustine, the thoughtful bishop who served in North Africa during the early 400s.

Augustine had a traditional Roman Catholic take on the elements.  In the Eucharistic feast, the substance of the bread and the wine literally become the body and blood of Christ.  However, Augustine’s main focus was not on the change that occurred in the elements, but on the transformation of those who would consume them.

Here’s how he put it, “If you receive worthily, you are what you have received.”

On listening to this, members of the class looked around a bit sheepishly.  Basically, Augustine made the case—long before American nutritionists got the idea—that: You are what you eat.  If you receive the Bread of Life with a heart open to the gracious embrace of Christ, you will become a vessel for that same forgiving spirit in the world.

This Sunday, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper together.  Maybe the most important thing we should keep in mind as we approach Christ’s table is not the mystery of the elements, or the awkwardness we sometimes feel around this sacrament, but the holy possibility that we actually are what we eat.

See you in worship,

SBJ

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