This past weekend a friend became a colleague. I had the privilege to stand on stage with Taylor Mertins and lay hands on him as the bishop commissioned him as a provisional minister.
The event put me in a recollecting mood. I’ve changed in many ways since my commissioning and my theology has changed too. The answers I gave back when I was first examined for ordination aren’t necessarily the same answers I would give today.
Taylor’s commissioning has prompted me to think through some of the ways my thinking has changed since I went through that same ritual.
In her book, Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner, a former Jew, distinguishes Judaism and Christianity by saying Judaism is a physical, material, embodied, communal religion whereas Christianity is preoccupied with individual belief, with spiritual dogma and theological doctrine.
Probably, when you hear Christianity defined that way, you’re tempted to agree. To the extent that’s true, however, it’s true because that’s what we’ve done with the faith Jesus gave us.
It’s not that that’s the faith as Jesus gave it to us.
Perhaps nowhere is Winner’s distinction between Judaism and Christianity more starkly apparent than in the Jewish meal Jesus bequeathed to us.
A meal which today, in almost all Christian congregations, bears zero resemblance to the one at which Jesus was host and presumably intended for us to mimic.
Beginning in the Middle Ages, religious bureaucrats like me got a hold of this meal and, in my lofty estimation, messed it all up. They tried to turn over and open it up and explain how it works.
Trucking in Aristotelian philosophic concepts like ‘form’ and ‘substance’ that were foreign to the Hebrew world of scripture, theologians like Thomas Aquinas concocted pained explanations for how the bread and wine of the Eucharist can become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. Such a literal transformation- transubstantiation- of the elements was necessary within a Medieval theological system wherein human sin required the ongoing, repeated sacrifice of Christ in the Mass.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and Jean Calvin departed from the atonement theology that lay behind transubstantiation, stressing that Christ’s sacrifice upon the Cross was a once-for-all, perfect, unrepeatable sacrifice for sin which we access through and by faith.
While Luther left behind the Medieval understanding of the mass as sacrifice, he retained the scholastic inclination to explain how the bread and wine of the meal become the actual body and blood of Jesus.
Luther’s reforms were only crust deep, giving the Protestant tradition ‘consubstantiation’ instead of trans. Christ’s presence, as every Lutheran knows, is ‘in, with and under’ the elements of the Eucharist rather than the elements themselves changing.
Proceeding reformers like Zwingli went further in demystifying the Medieval notion of the sacrament, stressing that the meal is merely a memorial of Christ’s Last Supper- the de facto, implicit position of almost Protestant in America. Meanwhile, my own tradition’s founder, John Wesley, espoused the historic Anglican conviction that Christ is really present in the eucharistic gathering but how that’s so is a mystery.
While I was jumping through the hoops of the United Methodist ordination process, I was prepped to plot the bread and cup along the map of John Wesley’s theology of grace. As John Wesley said- I was expected to say- the Lord’s Supper is one of God’s ‘ordinary’ (meaning primary and scripturally obvious) means of grace. It’s by receiving the elements that we grow in holiness, that we’re sanctified and ultimately perfected in Christ-like love of God and neighbor.
That’s all well and good as a second order explication of the meal Jesus gave us. Jesus might even agree with it, but I wonder if Jesus, as a Jew, would even recognize such an explanation as referring to the Jewish meal he gave us.
No matter how much they differ in theological approach and outcome, Aquinas et al all take as their starting point Jesus’ words ‘This is my body…this is my blood…’ and they all share the premise that Jesus’ words must either be literally true or spiritually true, that is, figurative.
But none of them take note that these words don’t originate with Jesus at all. None of them take note that Jesus wasn’t the only one who spoke those words that night he was betrayed.
In a sense.
None of the historic explanations (and very few of the understandings in the pew or among pastors) take note that Jesus’ words were part of the Passover script.
As the host of the Passover meal, Jesus was expected to speak of the body and the blood.
In the center of Jesus’ Passover table would have been the four ceremonial cups of wine, the brick-shaped concoction of fruits, nuts and vinegar (granola bars) representing the bricks the Hebrews made in Egypt, the bitter herbs (parsley and radishes) representing slavery in Egypt, the unleavened bread, representing their hasty departure, and the roasted lamb itself, whose blood sprinkled on the doorposts delivered the Hebrews from the angel of death.
Traditionally, the host blesses the first cup and all drink. Then come the bitter herbs, which are blessed and eaten. Then the bread, the granola and the lamb are brought in. The second cup is poured, and the story of the Israel’s exodus from Egypt and crossing of the Red Sea is told.
The second cup is drunk and the bread is broken.
The host blesses the bread mixed with herbs and fruit and eats it along with some of the lamb, saying, ‘This is the body of the Passover.’ And all feast. Then they drink the third up and say some psalms before drinking the fourth and last cup which symbolizes the coming Messiah.
At least, this is what is supposed to happen. But on Holy Thursday, the host is Jesus.
After the second cup Jesus takes the bread, offers the thanksgiving, breaks it and distributes it. And instead of saying ‘This is the body of the Passover’ he says ‘This is my body broken for you.’
And then when the time comes to take the third cup Jesus says ‘This is my blood poured out for you.’
Jesus takes the traditional Passover script and he changes it. He inserts himself into it. Jesus is saying: ‘I’m the Passover now.’
The more time I spend in ministry, the more I become convinced that Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley…they’re all examples of Lauren Winner’s demarcation: Judaism is a physical, material, embodied religion whereas Christianity is preoccupied with belief, with spiritual dogma and theological doctrine.
What’s more I’ve become convinced that the distinction Winner hits upon is the result of the Church losing touch with its Jewish roots so early on its development. The nuanced, cerebral, non-Hebraic explanations for the eucharist put forth by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and even Wesley are but evidence that none of them had any Jewish friends.
What’s worse, most Christians today persist in rationalizations of the eucharist as though none of us had any Jewish friends either.
As a result, the eucharist in many congregations is a either joyless, masochistic memorial of someone who died to God’s wrath over your sin, or it’s a private transaction of grace dispensed by a special caste of people who pray the magic words to effect an Aristotelian transformation.
But the meal Jesus gave us was Passover.
The words he spoke were the words of the Passover.
And if you know you’re Old Testament, then you know that the Passover wasn’t about sacrifice for sin. It was about deliverance from captivity. It was about appeasing God’s anger; it was about God hearing the cries of his people in bondage. It wasn’t a somber ritual of atonement; it was a joyous meal of rescue and redemption.
When Jesus casts himself in the middle of the Passover script, he declares:
‘I’m the one who sets you free from bondage and delivers you to a new place in life.’
After a dozen years in ministry, I’m convinced that Christians need to rediscover that Christianity, like Judaism, is a physical, material, embodied, communal religion.
Hell, in a mainline culture in which very few Christians can even speak about Jesus to another human being, I think it would be a positive development just to have Christian parents celebrating the eucharist at dinner tables with their families, accompanied by an actual meal, teaching their children the redemptive story that makes this meal on this day different from all others.
Just like Passover.