Do This in Remembrance of Me: A How-To

As churches seek to confront poverty and injustice in their communities one of the most neglected resources is the church’s worship itself. Too often we rush to start something new, forgetting that broken social networks and relational poverty can be healed and transformed through the normal workings of the local church. But the church must be intentional about this. We are naturally prone to ministry silos and racial/socio-economic segregation.

One neglected tool for transformation is the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist (“thanksgiving” in Greek). Although various churches observe the Eucharist with varying degrees of frequency, the Eucharist is a regularly occurring liturgical occasion. It encapsulates, and enacts, a theological vision of reality. As such, it holds tremendous promise for Christian formation and spiritual growth. What implications does this theological vision, and this liturgical practice, have for the realm of economics?

These questions grow out of both my academic background as well as my practical ministry experience. Throughout my doctoral work on the Lord’s Supper, I was involved in ministries to the poor, prisoners, refugees, and in efforts to promote racial reconciliation. In my historical studies, I noticed many connections between how churches have controlled access to the Eucharist in history and how that relates to the church’s wider relationship to the surrounding culture. For instance, in the 16th-century Reformation, Protestant churches challenged the medieval patterns of charitable giving, where poverty was seen as a virtue and giving to the poor a meritorious action that “earned” God’s grace. Protestants, especially in Geneva under John Calvin’s leadership, revitalized the role of the deacon, and gave him the task of caring for the poor. Additionally, Calvin set up structures of church discipline, which endeavored to hold the community to basic standards of morality. The goal was to ensure that people came to the Eucharist only after they had repented of their sin, and were fully prepared to participate.

In addition, efforts throughout church history to address social justice have been anchored in local churches. In the fourth century, John Chrysostom, as the bishop of Constantinople, sharply rebuked the wealthy in his church and challenged them to care for the poor outside the church. He appealed to the unity of all Christians at the table of the Lord as a motivation for sharing resources and wealth within the body of Christ. Later, in the 16th century, the pastor and gifted administrator Johannes Bugenhagen helped various churches in northern Europe to implement the ideals of the Lutheran reformation. Bugenhagen used Paul’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 to motivate communities and churches to create structures for poverty relief, and he argued that coming to the Eucharist as a community should help create genuine care and concern for all in the community. Bugenhagen emphasized, according to scholar Esther Chung-Kim: “In other words, to act thoughtlessly and despicably toward their poor brothers was to dishonor both the sacrament and its purpose to bind the community as a unified body of Christ.”

In conversation with these examples from church history, I believe it is vital to recenter our theology of economics on the central rite of the Eucharist. The gospel, enacted in the Eucharist, proclaims a radically restructured society. How should the Eucharist shape the church’s relationship to the larger socio-economic context, and what vision for society and economics does it give us?

A ritual of ultimate concern

When we participate in the Eucharist, we are, in some sense, enacting the kingdom. Eating with God is a theme throughout the Bible (Gen 18, Ex 24, Lev 7:11–38, Isa 25:6, Rev 19:6–9). So, when Jesus establishes the ritual of the Eucharist, he fulfills this rich typology, and he also creates a ritual that defines the community of Christ-followers as long as this world continues (Matt 26:29, 1 Cor 11:26). Rituals form and shape us — spiritually, psychologically, and even physically.

The ritual of the Eucharist is a central part of the historic Christian liturgy, which is itself what James K.A. Smith calls a “ritual of ultimate concern.” These rituals are “rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations.” Further, “Liturgies are the most loaded forms of ritual practice because they are after nothing less than our hearts. They want to determine what we love ultimately.” As Smith demonstrates throughout his writings, the historic Christian liturgy, with the Lord’s Supper at the center, presents an alternative to the prevailing cultural liturgies of power, wealth, unrestrained sex, and the idolatry of expressive individualism. So can the Eucharist shape and form us in the area of economics?

Foundationally, the Eucharist validates God’s continuing care, and concern for, his creation. The stuff of the world — matter — matters to God. Although sin has disrupted and defaced the goodness of God’s original creation, it has not effaced it. Through the redemptive work of Christ, God is “reconciling all things” (Col 1:19–20). Our economic lives participate in this restoration, as Spirit-filled believers extend Christ’s rule and kingdom into every corner of life. As we interact with the material world (even if we are writing computer code or changing a diaper), we are reflecting God’s characteristics of creator, artist, and craftsman.

This is an important part of what it means to be made in the imago Dei, and this was Martin Luther’s insight into the doctrine of “vocation,” or “calling.” The Eucharist reminds us that God works through ordinary bread and wine — the stuff of this world — in order to transform the world. Accordingly, we can pursue our economic work in a Christo-centric way, serving God and others through our labor, and trusting in his providence and provision. The Eucharist keeps us centered on earth, even as we seek the Kingdom of heaven.

a Better koinonia

And Jesus radically redefines the meaning of table-fellowship on earth. How often did Jesus eat with sinners and those on the margins of society? Jesus’ dining with the margins of society in the New Testament links feasting and economic justice clearly. In doing this, he extended the boundaries of koinonia, or “fellowship.” Koinonia has a broad lexical range of meaning in the Greek New Testament. It can be used in this feasting context, as in 1 Corinthians 10:14–17:

So then, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking to thoughtful people. Consider what I say. Is not the cup of blessing that we bless a sharing [koinonia] in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread that we break a sharing [koinonia] in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread.

Koinonia also carries financial, or economic, layers of meaning. This is especially clear in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5. Here, Paul urges the Corinthians to follow the example of the Macedonians who, although very poor themselves, gave generously to Paul’s efforts to collect and send famine-relief assistance to the Christian communities in Palestine. Paul is clearly focused on using koinonia with an emphasis on “economic fellowship” — the sharing of economic and material burdens within the Christian community. And he grounds this in Christology. Why should the Corinthians be generous? Because Christ was generous, as he states in verses 8–14:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich … For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”

Spiritual koinonia should result in economic koinonia. This is the radical proclamation of the Eucharist. Christ is the ultimate example for creating this koinonia. Everything that Christ has becomes ours, as we are united to him by faith. He gives us his righteousness, holiness, wisdom, and truth. Since we have been blessed so richly by Christ, Paul urges the Corinthians to overflow with generosity in their material giving. Since Christ was rich and became poor for our sake, we should follow his example. This should come to mind when we come to the Lord’s Supper.

Four ways to enact the kingdom

If pursued faithfully, the economics of the Eucharist will surely lead to policy decisions at all levels of society. That, however, is beyond the scope of this article. What needs to happen first is for our theological imaginations to be captured, and changed, by a eucharistic view of the world. We can’t ask the federal government to do something that we’re too stingy to do. We need to remove the economic planks out of our own eyes. We may not be called, or be able, to solve our national budgetary woes, but we can renew our eucharistic practice, and pursue the practical economic implications. Here are four ways that the economics of the Eucharist are not out of reach for everyday life.

We pursue and develop eucharistic renewal and spirituality

This includes making the Lord’s table more central to evangelical worship, more frequent communion, and also requires more teaching and preparation. Rather than tacking on communion occasionally to the end of a worship service, people should be taught, encouraged, and shown how to develop a Reformed, evangelical eucharistic spirituality. Here, Todd Billings’ Remembrance, Communion, and Hope (2018) is essential reading.

We change the way we eat at the table

Prayers during the Lord’s Supper should be eschatological, ecclesiastical, and cosmological, instead of simply focused on individual sins and the memory of Christ’s death. We should pray for the entire world, and should pray for specific examples of economic need and injustice. Even as we are being filled at the table, we should be reminded of the hunger of the world, and be motivated to leave worship, ready to meet needs wherever and whenever we can. Exhortations and prayers at the Eucharist should be as extensive as the redemption accomplished by Christ. And since he is reconciling all things (Col. 1:20) our prayers should reflect the extent of that reconciliation.

We pray when an offering is brought forward

I prefer a box where people can give without pressure, but I think it is appropriate–and even necessary–to bring the plate, or box, forward for a special prayer. This could be done very fittingly before the Eucharist. It connects Christ’s sacrificial self-giving with our responsive sacrificial giving to others. Again, the prayers can be very specific, as the church prays for missionaries, ministries of economic development and transformation, and for the needs of local communities.

We bring back the potluck

I’m indebted to Rhoades and Holt (Practicing the King’s Economy) here, but this is something very practical, and perhaps most subversive of our socio-economic stratification. Host a meal, invite folks from other churches, especially from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and end the meal with the Lord’s Supper. Include prayer for the needs of the different groups represented at the meal. Eating together creates community. Communities work together for flourishing and shalom. Communities share resources. This kind of togetherness might well lead to unexpected and life-giving opportunities for practical economics.

Regular participation in the Eucharist should motivate, encourage, and empower us in the work of seeking the Kingdom here and now, through every available means. Inspired by a eucharistic vision of the world — a community of sharing, generosity, peace, love, joy, of koinonia in the deepest possible sense — we should leave worship on Sunday empowered to extend this koinonia into every corner of our lives, and of our world.

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