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Sacraments Paper: Draft

Alright, this paper is the reason why I haven't been posting for so long. So, I thought I would put a draft up on here. I've just copied and pasted it from word, so that means my copious amounts of references (and my oh so tantilising tangents) won't appear since I don't know how to make footnotes show up on LJ. Please realise that I am pulling heavily from several scholars — I don't come up with all of this on my own… or, even if I do, I usually discover a scholar that came up with my “new” idea before I did.I know it's a bit of a long read but any feedback would be much appreciated.
How Open is this Table?
Celebrating the Lord's Supper in light of Jesus' Proclamation of Forgiveness, Warnings of Judgement, and Practice of Table-Fellowship.
This paper evaluates contemporary boundaries around the Lord's Supper in light of Jesus' proclamation of forgiveness, warnings of judgement, and practice of table-fellowship. These three inherently socio-political motifs must be understood in light of the whole biblical story and the leitmotif of the kingdom of God. Due to this examination, I argue that the Lord's Supper be open to the poor and the sinners, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes; I also argue that there must be some boundaries around the table and there comes a time when oppressors must be excommunicated from the table.
In the first section, I examine Jesus. In light of his kingdom message it is important to understand his words of forgiveness as a proclamation that exile, as the corporate experience of the people of God, was over/ending. Yet his was occurring in an unexpected way. Those on the outside — the poor and the sinners — were being welcomed, while those on the inside — the rich and the powerful — were warned that they were in danger of facing a terrible judgement. This two-fold message is made especially clear in Jesus' practice of table-fellowship.
I then examine the implications that this has for how we practice the Lord's Supper today. In the second section I argue that we must open the table to the poor and to the sinners. This is so because, after Pentecost the exile of the nations is over/ending. Thus, those who have borne the brunt of exile, should now be granted the same radical welcome and mercy Jesus showed the poor. And such a proclamation of forgiveness cannot be divorced from table-fellowship. Just as with Jesus, the proclamation (not just the offer) of forgiveness precedes conversion. Indeed, drawing from media studies I argue that the Lord's Supper is a converting sacraments. By inviting the poor to the table we make conversion possible. I then conclude this section with two final thoughts. I argue that our practice of the Lord's supper should be shaped by a hopeful universalism — we eat with the Saints past, present, and still to come. Lastly, I reflect upon how it may be presumptuous of us to discuss whether the poor and the sinners are welcome. Since the kingdom of God is in and with the poor, perhaps they should determine who dines at this table.
In the third section, I argue that there is still a place for boundaries around the table. The Lord's Supper must be a place where Church discipline is practised because the Eucharist is inherently political. Thus, (some or all?) of those who perpetuate contemporary cycles of exile should be excommunicated from the table. The Lord's Supper requires us to re-member, not dismember the global body of Christ. Conversion is, therefore, more costly for the wealthy and the privileged; for one cannot have fellowship with the Crucified One and continue to be a crucifier of others. Excommunication simply recognises those who have already separated themselves from Christ's body. Thus excommunication is done to attain true reconciliation, and it calls the oppressor home to the Church.
In the fourth section I examine the question of where Christians gain the authority to forgive or excommunicate others. Although poignant objections are raised, the Church's authority is firmly rooted in Matthew 18, and John 21.
In the fifth section, I argue that this preceding argument highlights the importance of proclaiming the Word when the Lord's Supper is celebrated. It is the prophetic Word that makes us aware of the socio-political realities in which we live, lest we eat and drink judgement unto ourselves. Coupled with the prophetic Word, this understanding of the Lord's Supper allows the Church to exist as a counter-polis to the State. I conclude by reflecting on whether or not I have just swung to the opposite extreme. Perhaps, due to the relationships I have with the poor, the sinners, and the prostitutes in Vancouver, I have simply gone too far the other way.
1. Jesus and the Kingdom: Forgiveness, Judgement and Table-Fellowship
To begin this paper with an appeal to Jesus' words and deeds requires a brief initial sketch of kingdom theology. This is so because the kingdom of God is the leitmotif of Jesus' mission and ministry. Therfore, everything Jesus says or does must be understood in relation to this theme. However, over the centuries, the “Basileia tou Theou” has prompted many different interpretations, with diverse implications for contemporary readers. This paper, following the thesis of Tom Wright, understands the proclamation of the kingdom come/coming, to be a proclamation that exile is over/ending. Wright is convincing when he argues that the Jews of Jesus' day would have believed that they were still in exile. Despite the fact that they had returned to the Promised Land, they still suffered the consequences of their sins and lived under the rule of pagans and compromised Jews. Thus the motifs of exile and sin and closely related to each other. Corporate exile is the consequence of corporate sin — for even the righteous remnant suffered the consequences of the sins of the nation as a whole. Therefore, the people would return from exile when sin was forgiven. Forgiveness would therefore be the remission of the whole nation's sins, not just the sins of certain individuals. Forgiveness would occur when YHWH returned to Zion, vindicated his people, and vanquished their enemies.
It was into this context that Jesus came proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand — exile was over/ending. Yet Jesus' kingdom message was shocking, for the kingdom was not coming as any had imagined it would. Thus, Jesus' message contained words of both welcome and warning, mercy and judgement. Those who many assumed would be vindicated when YHWH returned were warned that they might face a harsher judgement than they expected. And those who many assumed would be punished when YHWH returned were welcomed with open arms. The proclamation of the end of exile meant the defeat of the former and the elevation of the latter. Jesus scandalously claimed that those who followed him were forgiven — were the out-of-exile people — and now were the true restored Israel of God. Thus, those who rejected Jesus were those who faced warnings of judgement to come.
Jesus' proclamation of radical welcome was especially shocking because he welcomed the sinners and the poor. The sinners could be understood as those with dubious ancestry, those who did not follow Torah rabinically, and especially those who deliberately broke Torah (like the prostitutes), and betrayed Israel (like the tax-collectors, who were “almost moral equivalents of lepers”). To these people Jesus declared that exile was over! Shockingly, Jesus welcomes these people into the restored people of God.
Jesus also welcomes the poor. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that proclaiming good news to the poor ranked at the forefront of Jesus' mission. Here poverty is understood primarily as material poverty (those who had little or no land, no secure economic base, no means of self-protection, and therefore open to economic exploitation), although it can be understood secondarily as others who recognise their vulnerability and look to God for help. The titles of “poor” and “sinner” often go together in the Gospel narratives, because the poor often lacked the means to live a righteous life. It is to these people that Jesus brings a message of forgiveness and of radical welcome. Forgiveness is thus a forgiving of both sins and debts; it spans moral issues and material concerns.
What is extraordinary about Jesus' proclamation of forgiveness is not that he made forgiveness possible — official means already existed by which forgiveness could be granted. Rather, what was shocking was that Jesus made forgiveness possible apart from the official means. Thus, salvation to sinners is the “undeniably distinctive characteristic of Jesus' message.” Ed Sanders reveals just how shocking this would be:
[Jesus offered sinners] inclusion in the kingdom not only while they were still sinners but also without requiring repentance as normally understood, and therefore he could be accused of being a friend of people who indefinitely remained sinners… Jesus offered companionship to the wicked of Israel as a sign that God would save them, and he did not make his association dependent on their conversion to the law… [Jesus] proclaimed the inclusion of the wicked who heeded him.
This is shocking indeed, for Jesus' message transforms the relationship between repentance and forgiveness and gives sequential priority to forgiveness.
However, Jesus' message was not one of universal welcome. Following on the work of his predecessor, John the Baptizer, Jesus warned the self-appointed guardians of Israel that they were actually on the outside. These are the “unforgiven” in Mk 3.28-30 for “denying the Holy Spirit is done by those who maintain exile for they [deny] the eschatological work of the Spirit… declaring themselves to be outside the eschatological Israel.” This too was shocking for it would have been assumed that these people — the religious and social elite — were guaranteed vindication. Yet Jesus' message makes it clear that there is comfort for the oppressed, and judgement for the powerful; mercy for the wronged, and loss for those who have too much. Thus, just like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus is continually warning his audiences of the danger of wealth, while simultaneously holding the poor in high regard. The kingdom of God is at hand and judgement is falling on all people. Yet, as Krister Stendahl says, “when God's judgement falls… it is mercy to those wronged, and it is doom for those who have done wrong or perpetuated and profited from the wrongs of others.”
This scandalous message is embodied in Jesus' practice of table-fellowship. Indeed, it is the practice of table-fellowship that makes Jesus' message of forgiveness comprehensible. Jesus was celebrating the messianic banquet — the celebratory meal of those brought out of exile — but he was doing so with all the wrong people. It was by eating with the poor and the sinners that Jesus revealed, and enacted, their forgiveness. Thus, if the proclamation of salvation to sinners was the distinctive element of Jesus' message, table-fellowship is the pre-Easter scandal of Jesus. Eating with sinners reveals that God's hospitality is more extravagant than it had ever been imagined to be; those who knew themselves to be on the outside, share in the eschatological feast of the kingdom. Thus, eating was an act of acceptance, forgiveness, and mercy.
This is so because, within the culture of Jesus' day, eating with another person revealed that other person to be accepted. As Joachim Jeremias says, “To invite a man to a meal was an honour. It was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness”. Similarly, to refuse table-fellowship to a person denied that person's acceptability. Table fellowship functioned as a social boundary that revealed who was in and who was out. Thus the Pharisees (and Essenes) of Jesus' day understood their practice of table-fellowship as a gathering of the Israel set apart for YHWH. Jesus' practice of an open table radically confronted this notion; “what for many Pharisees and Essenes was a sinful disregard for covenantal ideals was for Jesus an expression of the good news of the kingdom”. By eating with the poor and the sinners, Jesus was not simply committing a breach of etiquette; rather, he was defying both purity regulations and the ordinances that were in place for restoring violators of the law to the covenant community.
Therefore, Jesus' open fellowship caused the Pharisees to criticise and attack Jesus. Especially prominent is the assertion that Jesus associates with “sinners.” In response Jesus protests the usage of this term, as a term of dismissal. He does not deny that his associates were sinners, but he is emphatic that they are still a part of the people of God. Even the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are accepted — even if their means of livelihood are totally unacceptable.
Thus Jesus proclaimed the forgiveness of the poor and the sinners, and accomplished that forgiveness by restoring them to fellowship with the community and with God. Jesus was not just acting as a kingdom-announcer, he was a kingdom-bringer. His feasting with the poor mirrors the great feast at the end of the parable of the prodigal son. And just as in that parable, the righteous brothers — the Pharisees, and Sadducees — object and the reader is left wondering if they will be able to participate in the meal.
All of these points are well illustrated in the call of Levi and the conversion of Zaccheus. In the first story Jesus goes to dine with Levi, he is accused of associating with sinners, he responds by prioritising those who are considered sinners, and Levi becomes a disciple of Jesus. Similarly, in the second story, Jesus goes to eat with Zaccheus, he is accused of eating with sinners, he responds by prioritising the lost, and Zaccheus gives half his possessions to the poor, and repays those he has defrauded (four times over!). Jesus' practice of table-fellowship with the sinners enables them to live different lives, while simultaneously alienating the rich and the powerful, and revealing their hypocrisy.
Of course, the culminating meal of Jesus' ministry is the Last Supper, and it is no surprise to discover that meal linked to the exodus. All along Jesus' meals had been linked to liberation, and the Last Supper, linked to the old exodus meal, symbolises and effects the new exodus. Thus, the last supper must be seen as a continuation of Jesus' other meals. It is not something radically different, but it is the climax of the meals that came before. Therefore, the preceding discussion has serious implications for how the contemporary Church practices table-fellowship (i.e. the Lord's Supper). This paper will first explore the radical welcome of Jesus when applied to our contemporary context, and then examine the implications of Jesus' radical warnings for the Church today.
2. Mercy in Our Day: Opening the Table to the Poor and the Sinners
Those in Exile Today
Oddly enough the Church in our day seems to have reversed Jesus' message. On the one hand, the poor, the sick, and the sinners (for example: the petty thieves, the addicts, and the prostitutes) are brought a message of warning: “Change or be damned”. They are excluded from the Lord's Supper, for they are excluded from the people of God. On the other hand, the rich and the powerful are brought a message of welcome and forgiveness. Social, political and religious elites are assured of salvation and welcomed at the Lord's table. Those who suffer the consequences of exile most deeply are barred while those who continue to perpetuate cycles of exile are welcomed without a second thought. A great reversal has occurred. Unfortunately, those who argue that the Lord's Supper should only be shared by the baptised only further support this reversal. Such voices argue that boundaries must exist around God's hospitality for opening the table to the non-baptised is said to endanger the character of the Church “as the eschatological community of the resurrection”. Other voices argue that the radically open table practised by Jesus is limited to the time of his ministry. Thus the Lord's Supper becomes a liberating meal, only for those who are already believed to be out of exile — it brings liberation to the liberated, and offers nothing to those still trapped in slavery! Whether these objections can be sustained, and where exactly boundaries should be located, shall be revealed in the argument that follows.
Indeed, in order to explore the boundaries of the Lord's Supper in our contemporary context this paper must first return to the theme of exile and place it within the broader biblical context. Exile is a motif that runs through Scripture from the start of Genesis to the end of Revelation. The primeval history begins with Adam and Eve being sent into exile and culminates with the nations being sent from Babel into exile. To solve this universal exile God raises up a people who were to be a blessing to all the nations — yet that people, Israel, also failed and was sent into exile. Thus, Jesus comes in order to proclaim forgiveness and lead the people of God out of exile. This is the climactic moment of history, but it is not the final moment. Israel is brought out of exile so that she can once again be a blessing to the nations. This is made clear at Pentecost when Babel is reversed and the Spirit of the new age causes the disciples to speak in tongues — tongues that do not cause confusion but comprehension and conversion. Thus, the Church is to be a body that goes into the world proclaiming a message like Jesus' — the kingdom of God is at hand and exile is over/ending.
Therefore, following the example of Jesus, this message should be first and foremost directed towards the poor and the sinners — those who suffer the most under the curse of exile. After all, it is the poor, the wretched, the sick and the hopeless that suffer the most from God's remoteness and human hostility. The Gospel must once again be proclaimed as “gospel”, as good news to the poor. The Church cannot restrict her fellowship to the righteous, or some inner circle of Christians, for, as Jurgen Moltmann says, “The friendship of Jesus cannot be lived and its friendliness cannot be disseminated when friendship is limited to people who are like ourselves.” The table-fellowship of Jesus requires the Church to enter into solidarity with the poor of today, and take their existence seriously. Indeed, the Church will never be the true community of faith until the poor and the sinners are welcomed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes this clear when he writes that:
The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his [sic] sin from himself and from the fellowship.
Therefore, the Church must engage in table-fellowship with the poor and the sinners so that they may know that exile is over and so that exile may be brought to an end. The festivals and feasts of the Church must be “of the poor, and with the poor, not for the poor”. Entering into table-fellowship with the poor and the sinners reveals God's justice — the justice of grace. It also causes the Church to move into a religiously determined social conflict. This means that the Church must relinquish the monopoly she seeks to hold on goodness. As Moltmann argues, “Just as 'the possession of wealth' allows the poor to remain poor, so 'the possession of the good' produces the cleft between the good and the bad and lets the bad remain bad”. Relinquishing this monopoly on goodness thus takes into account that many of the poor and the sinners are in a position where they cannot fulfil God's law. This reversal is in keeping with the social laws of Israel. For, while the Church has tended to see the poor and the sinners as a problem, and blame them, ordering them to do certain things to redeem their situation, Israel's law focused on those in power, and how that power should be limited in order to benefit the poor. Thus, the noted “preferential option for the poor” held by the liberation theologians, simply becomes a “preferential option for the truth”. To open the Christian fellowship to the poor is therefore to act honestly, and to decide for “real participation in reality”. As long as the Church overlooks the real poverty and helplessness of the poor, the 'good' will be to blame for the 'bad', the 'righteous' to blame for the 'sinners', and 'decent people' to blame for the 'whores'. Thus, God's judgement of grace requires the Church to move from holding others accountable to taking personal responsibility for the sins of others. In this way the Lord's Supper truly does become “a table for sinners, a table of mercy and forgiveness”. Contemporary celebrations of the Lord's Supper should mirror the meals of Jesus, “those happy and shocking parties which Jesus shared with all and sundry as a sign that they were surprisingly and dramatically forgiven”. Exile has been defeated and all people, especially the poor and the sinners, are summoned home.
Proclaiming Forgiveness
In order to open the table the Church must learn what it means to proclaim forgiveness. Too often the Church has made repentance a precondition for forgiveness. However, this reverses the pattern set by Jesus in the Gospels. Thus, the Church should proclaim to the poor and the sinners, “you already are forgiven, you already are beloved!” Recovering this message is essential for it is the proclamation of forgiveness that makes repentance and conversion possible. Proclaiming forgiveness allows sinners to recognise sin and repent. As Luther emphasised, sinners are forgiven before they repent, and repentance itself is a sin that one's old nature has been destroyed. Likewise embodying forgiveness means restoring communion and reconciling brokenness. Thus, this initial proclamation of forgiveness cannot be divorced from table-fellowship — they are two sides of the same coin. When we understand the corporate nature of the return from exile, that we have been corporately called out of exile, then what matters at the Lord's Supper is not the personal faith of the individual but the corporate faith of the Church. Just as the Church are saved through the faith of Christ (as emphasised by the New Perspectives on Paul), Christians now embody Christ's faith at the Lord's Supper and invite the poor and the sinners to come to the table and be saved.
Symbol and Transformation: Participation in Divine Media
This is a salvific invitation because the Lord's Supper is a converting sacrament. Partaking enables sinners to be transformed from sin to righteousness. This continues the precedent set by Jesus (in the examples of Levi and Zaccheus cited above), and the rest of the New Testament. Proclaiming the end of exile and eating together go hand in hand prior to the conversion of sinners. Those who argue that the Lord's Supper is not a converting sacrament, are mistaken because they misunderstand the fundamental nature of any given medium; for as Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message”. All media function as active metaphors, transforming and transmitting experiences into new forms that create a new equilibrium and new ratios within the self. Thus, all media, by functioning as metaphors, are “working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definition of reality”. Therefore, “the formative power in the media are the media themselves”. Of course, the Old Testament prophets understood this long before any contemporary communication theorists. Realising that new media create drastic changes, the prophets condemn the media of idols, for simply beholding idols changes the viewer. And to continually participate in any medium will lead the participant to serve the medium.
The implications of this for the Lord's Supper are striking. Participating in the medium of the Lord's Supper, causes the participants understanding of reality to be redefined. Participants are shaped by the meal. This is why discussion around transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or how exactly Christ is present in the meal tend to miss the point. Discussion around the content of the medium, tend to blind us to the character of the medium. McLuhan argues that human medium are transformative extensions of the human self, and the Lord's Supper should thus be understood as an extension of Christ that repatterns human affairs. To continually partake of the Lord's Supper leads one to serve Christ. Thus, to eat at the table is to accept Christ. And to continually eat is to realise that one has already accepted Christ.
This view of the Lord's Supper requires the contemporary Church to recover the significance of its symbols. Once again following the lead of Jesus who attacked old symbols and redrew them in provocative ways, the Church must confront the exclusionary practice of the Lord's Supper and rediscover its converting power. Christians must realise that the Lord's Supper — indeed, the entire Christian liturgy — is a necessary condition for the formation of the Christian virtues. It is not surprising to discover that a low view of the sacraments in the North American Church reflects (and reproduces) the superficial Christianity that dominates the West. Thus the significance of Christian symbols must be reaffirmed. The medium is the message, and to participate in the symbol is to participate in that which it symbolises. As Thomas a Kempis says of the Lord's Supper, “this most lofty and glorious Sacrament is salvation of soul and body. The medicine for all sickness of the Spirit, in which my sins are healed, passions bridled, temptations conquered and diminished”. By proclaiming forgiveness and opening the table to the poor and the sinners, the poor and the sinners are enabled to live the new life offered by Christ — the life of those now living out of exile.
Hopeful Eschatology and the Lord's Supper
The final argument in favour of a table open to the poor and the sinners is one that integrates forgiveness (the proclamation of the end of exile) with the theme of eschatological anticipation and the belief that the Lord's Supper is the communion of the Saints. The Lord's Supper is a vision and a foretaste of God's final rule. As such it should reveal the eschatological openness of the Christian mission; thus, eating with sinners anticipates of the final feast when the unrighteous are made righteous through Christ. The Lord's Supper should therefore be a sign of the universal hope of the Church. As Gordon Smith says, “Our hope is for all humanity, for each society and city, and indeed for the entire creation… in the Lord's Supper we declare that no situation is inherently hopeless”. Because of this hopeful eschatological vision the contemporary Church cannot remain comfortable with its present level of hospitality. She must be willing to risk declaring forgiveness. For, as Dan Bell Jr. reminds us, forgiveness is a wager on God; a wager that God is who God says, “the one who defeats sin and wipes away every tear, not with the sword of justice that upholds rights but with the gift of forgiveness in Christ”. Living with the hope that one day all creation will be made new, that one day all people will be Saints, the Church celebrates with a radically open table that truly is the communion of the Saints past, present, and still to come.
The Poor Determine Who Sits?
As a postscript to this section it is worth exploring who exactly has the authority to determine who can partake of the Lord's Supper. It is worth noting that Christ chose to identify himself with the poor when he said that, “whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me”. Thus, as much as the Church is the people of God, the poor are also the crucified and broken body of Christ. Perhaps those of us in positions of power and influence should not be so hasty to assume that we can determine who sits at the Lord's table. Perhaps it is the poor and the sinners that should tell us whether or not we are welcome — not vice versa. After all, any of those who have journeyed with the poor and marginalised of today quickly realise that the kingdom of God is present in and among the poor. Christians of privilege do not only go to the poor to liberate them, the also go to be liberated, healed and evangelised. Therefore, as we journey with the poor let us hope that they will open their table to us so that we too can be transformed into the image of Christ crucified.
3. Judgement in Our Day: Excommunicating Oppressors from the Table
Exile, Oppression, and Eucharistic Politics
In light of the argument developed above (premised upon the radical openness of Jesus' table-fellowship), one wonders if any should be excluded from the Lord's table. Moltmann is correct to argue that it is boundaries, not openness, which must be justified. Indeed, he argues that the Lord's Supper is not the place to exercise any Church discipline, for the Lord's Supper celebrates the liberating presence of the crucified Lord. Similarly, Jean Vanier argues that Christian meals are a place for celebration, not education, or contention. However, this paper will argue that there must be at least some boundaries around the Christian community more broadly, and the Lord's Supper in particular. Gordon Smith argues that the Lord's Supper is not the place for discipline except in “extreme” cases. In what follows, this paper will begin to explore the which cases might be considered “extreme” enough for excommunication — exclusion from the Lord's Supper — to be practised. After all, unless a completely open table is being practised, discipline is exercised at any gathering around the table where any person is not invited to partake. To argue that the Table is not a place for discipline, while excluding some (the unbaptised, for example), is a naïve argument. If there are to be boundaries around the Lord's Supper where should those boundaries be set?
To answer this question it is worthwhile to return to the theme of exile as it relates to Jesus' warnings of judgement. While Jesus demonstrated a radical openness to those who suffered the most under exile, he followed John the Baptizer's lead and spoke harsh words of warning to the socio-religious leaders who perpetuated and benefited from cycles of exile. Thus, contemporary reflection on excommunication should be guided by this example. While the Church has been called to proclaim that the exile of the nations is over/ending, there are still those who seek to perpetuate cycles of exile, violence, oppression, and godforsakenness. Thus, to perpetuate exile is to engage in an explicitly anti-Christian activity. When exile is understood in this way, it is hard to miss the fact that contemporary Western liberal democracies, governed by free-market capitalism are structures that perpetuate exile. These capitalistic States perpetuate cycles of violence, debt, alienation, oppression, and terror. As Dan Bell Jr. cogently argues, capitalism is a counter-liturgy to Christianity, one that captures and distorts human desires. Yet, while capitalism shatters human relationships, forgiveness releases desire from capitalistic discipline, it is a “therapy of desire”, that allows Christians to live markedly different lives. Thus, the Lord's Supper creates a space where desire can escape from distortion through the enactment of God's forgiveness. This means that the Gospel, which enables the poor to live a life that was not previously possible to them, meets the rich with a call to conversion. The rich and privileged in society are called to radical solidarity with the poor if they are to be true members of the people of God. For, as Vanier says, “It is not possible to eat the broken Body of Christ in the Eucharist and drink his blood shed for us through torture, and not open our hearts to the broken and crucified people in our world today”.
This means that the Lord's Supper is an inherently political act. Forgiveness, from the very beginning, was a socio-political act. To attempt to divide forgiveness into a personal sphere only perpetuates the myth that forgiveness is an ethic of personal gratification far removed from day to day political realities. Yet, the political nature of the Lord's Supper is hard to miss on several levels — is political in itself, because it occurs in a political context, because it confronts that context with the faith of the Church, and because the participants are all political participants. This requires Christians to be very intentional about how they practice the politics of the Lord's Supper, for to view the Supper as apolitical simply supports the politics of the status quo.
If it is to be faithful to Jesus, the Lord's Supper should be a cry that awakens us to our socio-political responsibilities. The politics of the Lord's Supper should radically confront the politics of capitalistic States. Unfortunately, this is not clear to many contemporary Westerners because there has been a “social conditioning” of the Lord's Supper. The sacraments have been domesticated and twisted to operate smoothly within imperialism, colonialism, and free-market capitalism. Yet this was not always the case. Up until 1100 CE the practise of the Lord's Supper was linked to a political expression of radical solidarity with the poor. However, after this date the Lord's Supper was increasingly individualised and moved from the objective public sphere into the realm of subjective piety; union of the body with Christ, was changed to union of one's soul with God. Consequently partaking of the Lord's Supper and engaging in exploitation no longer seemed like contradictory actions. The Lord's Supper no longer disturbs the consciences of hardened capitalists, in fact it tends to legitimise their actions. It is no wonder then to discover that the working class in Europe began to move away from the Lord's Supper in the 19th and 20th centuries — its practise had become linked to affluence, and was meaningless to the poor. Thus, “Eucharistic norms are made to fit the needs of an exploiting system,” and, consequently, “The Eucharist is in captivity”. Today we see the worst exploiters, arms producers, profit maximisers, and bread hoarders, sharing the Lord's Supper, and nobody seems to find this odd.
However, this is very odd; indeed, it is tragic. The Lord's Supper should function as a “socio-political reactivator”, as the “most aggressive gesture of nonconformity with the enslavements that oppress human beings”. The Lord's Supper should radicalise and energise, it should promote liberation, and awaken the Christian imagination, sowing seeds of nonconformity. Conformity to capitalism creates anonymous victims, while the Lord's Supper, by remembering the broken body of Christ, creates witnesses — martyrion. The Lord's Supper is a re-membering of Christ's broken body. Thoughtlessly welcoming oppressors at the table highlights the forgetfulness of the Western Church — for the opposite of re-membering is dis-membering. How can those who dismember others participate in a meal where broken people are put back together in anticipation of the new creation? When the bread is broken, Western Christians must examine their identity in light of global economic disparities that cause many to go hungry. The Lord's Supper, when properly celebrated, requires Christians to confront not only structural injustice, and institutional violence, but also “institutionalised concealment, distortion, and lies”. Religious rites may not be manipulated to replace right relationship with neighbour, or to conceal and sanction sinfulness. The Church must celebrate the Lord's Supper as a truth-telling body, for deceit and secrecy perpetuate oppression. Thus, as the World Council of Churches affirmed, the Lord's Supper, rightly celebrated, challenges injustice, oppression, and alienation, and places our actions under the judgement of the reconciling presence of Christ. Therefore, we can conclude with Cavanaugh who says:
A Eucharistic counter-politics is not otherworldly… it cannot help but be deeply involved in the sufferings of this world — but it is in sharp disconuity [sic] with the politics of the world which killed its saviour. The point is not to politicise the Eucharist, but to 'Eucharistise' the world.
Thus, those who argue that the Lord's Supper should not reflect the political discipline of the Church but should rather reflect the Church's desire for peace and unity simply guarantee social conformism and reinforce cycles of exile. The Lord's Supper demands a real unity, not the pretence of unity.
Costly Forgiveness
The radical politics of the Lord's Supper mean that participation is more costly for the wealthy and the privileged than it is for the poor and the sinners. Embodying forgiveness makes a higher demand on the rich than on the poor, and so it is not surprising to discover that many Western Christians have settled for perverted and cheapened forms of forgiveness. Unwilling to shoulder the cost of the forgiveness many Western churches are content to embrace 'therapeutic' forgiveness which provides one with the illusion of caring about the quality of human relationships, while simultaneously hiding the ways in which people continue to perpetuate cycles of exile. Instead of embodying the practice of forgiveness, many Christians simply adopt the rhetoric thereof. It was this “cheap grace” that infuriated Bonhoeffer, for he realised that it “eliminates the antithesis between the Christian life and the life of bourgeois respectability”. The Church had made grace too costly for those who suffered the greatest under exile, while simultaneously making it cost-free for those who perpetuated exile. Thus, like Bonhoeffer, we must fight for costly grace for those who perpetuate exile. Grace that requires the discipleship of the cross. To do otherwise, is to become like false prophets who proclaim, “peace, peace, where there is no peace”. It is no wonder that Jesus proclaimed that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than it is for a rich person to enter heaven. Conversion to Christ requires the destruction of the oppressor as oppressor, and this requires the wealthy and the privileged to enter into solidarity with the crucified people of today.
In light of the preceding argument it seems clear that some oppressors who refuse to engage in costly forgiveness must be excommunicated from the Lord's table. The socio-political grounds for excommunication find their support in the writings of Paul, and the epistle to the Hebrews. This was also the way excommunication was practised up until the mid 2nd century CE. For example, St. Cyprian of Carthage refused the rich at the table without an offering for the poor, and St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Basil of Caeserea refused the offerings of the powerful if they had murdered citizens. Excommunication is not a punishment per se, rather, it reveals those who have already, by their own repeated actions, cut themselves off from the body of Christ. It is therefore done as an act of Eucharistic hospitality, inviting those who have excluded themselves from the body to return home. Thus, even excommunication is driven by the desire to see enemies made into friends. The true telos of excommunication is genuine reconciliation and forgiveness — not to be masked by superficial congeniality.
Those who are unwilling to be exposed to the truth, and persist in perpetuating cycles of exile, will have to be excluded from the table. The Lord's Supper is a gift which re-members and makes visible the body of Christ, and so excommunication is reserved for those oppressors who impugn the identity of the body and threaten its visibility. Gustavo Guitierrez has been one of the most widely known advocates of this approach to excommunication. He argues that a real commitment against exploitation and alienation is required of participants, lest the Lord's Supper become an empty action. He affirms the 1971 declaration of the Bishops of Ecuador which states: “We cannot continue calmly to celebrate the event of the liberation in the Eucharist, in which the oppressors and the oppressed eat the same bread and drink the same wine — without any true reconciliation”. Yet, Gutierrez is not alone making this assertion. Several others affirm that the Lord's Supper can only be received meaningfully by the exploited and their allies. The Lord's Supper is not truly the Lord's Supper unless it binds the community together in mutual responsibility for one another. Simply put (following the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews), one cannot change sides from that of the crucified to that of the crucifiers while still partaking of the broken body of Christ.
It should be noted that excommunication, properly practised, is not only an act of loving invitation, it is also an act that protects oppressors. As Paul makes clear to those in Corinth, those who eat and drink, while oppressing the poor, risk eating and drinking judgement unto themselves. Some in Corinth were actually getting sick (and even dying!) because of this — and everyone is well aware of the fate that befall Judas when he betrayed Christ after partaking at the Lord's Supper. It is an act of cruelty to allow oppressors to partake — not just to the poor, but to the oppressors themselves. Excommunication, rooted in hopeful universalism, is also not an act that calls into question the “eternal salvation” of oppressors. It simply recognises that, for as long as the Church lives within the now-and-not-yet of the kingdom, some relationships are fractured, and may not be healed until the new creation of all things. Excommunicating a person is not damning that person, it is simply a truthful recognition that, for now, that person, has separated himself or herself from the body of Christ.
4. On Whose Authority?
All of the preceding argument assumes that Christians have a shocking amount of authority. To argue that the Church should go to the poor and proclaim that “your sins already are forgiven” offends some just as much as arguing that the Church should go to the rich and powerful and say, “you must change if you are to be a participant at this table.” The question of whether one has the authority to forgive (or not), is poignantly raised by Simon Wiesenthal. Simon was a Jew held at a death camp during WWII. One day, while working at a hospital near to the camp, he was summoned by a young dying SS officer, who told his story to Simon. This officer had participated in a massacre of Jews in Poland and was haunted by it on his deathbed. Before he died he asked Simon to forgive him, saying, “I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you but without your answer I cannot die in peace”. Simon pauses, stands, and finally leaves without saying a word. This moment stayed with him throughout the rest of his time in the camps, and motivated him to write The Sunflower. He ends that narrative by asking whether or not he made the right decision. Many responses are included in the book and one is struck by the number of voices (Christian voices included) that insist Simon did well to stay silent. He had no authority to forgive (and, some would say, condemn) wrongs that were not committed against him personally. It seems audacious to suggest that anybody could forgive somebody for a wrong committed against a third party.
However, the Church is a body that has the audacity to make exactly this claim, based especially upon Mt 18.15-20 and Jn 20.21-23. Jesus makes it clear that his followers, filled with the eschatological Spirit, now share in his authority and possess the power to bind or loose, to forgive or to retain sins. Christians can now deal with sin as God does because they possess the Spirit of God. Jesus claimed this authority, he bound and loosed, proclaimed forgiveness and warned of judgement — and by doing so he provoked charges of blasphemy, and was persecuted by the powers. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Christians who claim this today would also be called arrogant blasphemers. This is a truly awesome authority that has been granted to the Church. Sadly, it has often been used as a means of maintaining oppression — it has been used as a weapon of the powerful to subjugate and disempower the poor, the sick, and the sinners. Indeed, it is not naïve to suspect that the true point of objection raised by religious leaders is not the amount of authority that is claimed; rather, it is that this authority is claimed in a way that elevates the poor and lowers the powerful — thereby calling into question the authority, the actions, and the lifestyles, of those leaders.
5. Conclusion
Word, Sacrament, and Counter-Polis
The preceding argument reveals just how necessary it is to intimately link the speaking of the Word with the performance of the Lord's Supper. Word and deed must go together. Too often communities gathered around the Lord's Supper are not even aware of how they contribute to the perpetuation of exile. Therefore, the Word must be spoken prophetically so that these issues can be brought to the fore. The Word spoken at the Lord's Supper should be the voice of those without a voice, and it should be a global voice. When the Word is spoken in this way, then Leslie Newbigin's objection to exercising political discipline at this table is struck down. Newbigin argues that no oppressor should be excommunicated from the table because many are unaware that they are oppressors, and there are no situations where “oppression is so clear and blatant that this judgement must be made”. Yet when the Word is spoken prophetically, oppressors are made aware of the oppression that they engage in, and situations do gain a God-given clarity. It is wrong to grind the face of the poor, it is wrong to abandon widows, and enslave orphans, and it is wrong to profit from political or economic structures that engage in these activities. Such activities perpetuate exile and violently contradict the identity and calling of the Church. Ignorant participation is no longer an excuse when the prophetic Word is preached.
However, Newbigin goes on to argue that, given the frailty of human political causes, exercising excommunication in this way may pave the way for new political tyrannies, for God's justice does not align one-to-one with any human political cause. By crafting his argument in this way, Newbigin ignores a very real third alternative. The Church on the side of the poor does not need to align itself with any particular political party or ideology. Indeed, by embodying such a socio-political and economic position the Church comes to exist as a counter-polis to the alternatives offered by the State. Thus, while the State divides individuals so that they are only connected to the State as individuals, the Church unites people to God and to one another. While the State creates a system of property defined by “mine” and “thine”, the Church undercuts the primacy of contracts for social interaction. While the State defines one's neighbour as one's fellow citizen, the Church, refuses to recognise national boundaries, and contains a people from all around the world. The liturgy of the Lord's Supper tells a spatial story — a story that operates on time and space, and reconfigures how one imagines them. The Church that exists as a counter-polis does not only tell this story, it performs it in the Lord's Supper. By consuming the elements, the Church is consumed by the body of Christ.
The Opposite Extreme?
This paper has attempted to articulate where contemporary boundaries should be placed around the Lord's Supper. It has been argued that Jesus' proclamation of forgiveness, warnings of judgement, and practice of table-fellowship, when viewed in light of the leitmotif of the coming of the kingdom of God and the ending exile should shape where the boundaries are established. Therefore, this paper has called for a radical openness toward the poor, and the sinners — those who suffer most grievously under exile. However, recognising that some boundaries must exist around the Church for as long as she lives in the now-and-not-yet, this paper has argued that those who perpetuate cycles of exile should be excommunicated from the table. This position is affirmed by the New Testament scriptures that speak on this subject and by the practice of the early Church.
However, this is not a study that I engage in as a detached observer. Having spent several years of my life journeying in intimate relationships with those on the margins of society (street kids, prostitutes, drug addicts, drug dealers, petty criminals, etc.), and having experienced street life as a youth, it is clear that I have some biases. Perhaps all the beautiful children I have seen suffer and die (needlessly, I might add) has caused me to build an unbalanced argument that opens the table to those it should not. Perhaps all the times I have known kids to be beaten by court officials, raped by police officers, and exploited by the upper-middle class, has caused me to build an unsustainable argument in an attempt to close the table to those to whom it should remain open. Must I continue to eat with the wealthy while the poor and the sinners remained trapped in their sin outside the Church? No, I am certain that the table must be opened so that the poor and the sinners can be reconciled, transformed, and empowered by the body of Christ. Yet, must I then continue to eat with those who will go forth to beat, rape, and murder my beloved children? I do not think so… but I may be wrong. In this regard I am willing to submit to the authority of the poor. If they will eat with those who beat and oppress them, then I will too. In this regard Jon Sobrino tells a breathtaking story about a church he visited in Latin America, and it deserves to be quoted at length:
Around the altar on that day there were various cards with names of family members who were dead or murdered… Beside the cards with the names of family members there was another card with no flowers which read: “Our dead enemies. May God forgive them and convert them.” At the end of the Eucharist we asked an old man what was the meaning of the last card and he told us this: “We are Christians you know, we believed that our enemies should be on the altar too. They are our brothers and sisters in spite of the fact that they kill us and murder us. And you know what the Bible says. It is easy to love our own but God asks us to love those who persecute us.
Perhaps this is the costly forgiveness of the poor — is this then the expression of the hopeful refusal to cease suffering that persists for as long as reconciliation is absent? Perhaps the table should be open to all. Perhaps the boundaries of the Christian community should be located elsewhere. Perhaps the oppressed must eat with the oppressor at the start of the week, knowing full well that for the following six days they will be abused and murdered, until they meet again on the seventh day and the cycle repeats itself. Perhaps this is what it means to take up a cross and follow Jesus. If the poor decide that this is so, then I will submit to them. Until then, I affirm that there must be some boundaries around the table, and it is oppressors who must be the first ones confronted with those boundaries — at least until the return of Christ when all of us will be made new, when the lion will lay down with the lamb, when the oppressor will be reconciled with the oppressed, and when the groanings of creation will be transformed into a song of glorious praise to the God who entered into exile in order to set us free. Maranatha. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
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  1. Much food for thought here. My question is: Is not Baptism also an important sign of forgiveness and acceptance in the eschatological community of the New Covenant? Thus, going at least as far back as the testimony of the Didache (which could be as early as 50 CE), the Church has historically restricted the Table to those initiated by Baptism. Should not the invitation to the Water therefore precede the invitation to the Table, at least normatively? This need not preclude the possibility that this order will be reversed in certain cases (but not deliberately or as normative practice).