Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Lengthening Our Memory 3

Pantocrator.jpgChris Hall, in Worshiping With the Church Fathers
, examines in his second chp the central focus of the early Christian’s sense of worship: eucharist. (I didn’t say the “central focus of the NT’s sense of worship” though some will say I quibble.)

Eucharist … a story. Not all that long ago, I was sitting around a late night fire with some friends (it was a male bonding time too) and we were sipping a glass of wine and not a few were smoking cigars and the question was raised:


“Do you think we should celebrate the eucharist every week?”

(I’d be interested in how you’d answer that question.) The question, so it seems to me, is being asked by many low church types today (while many high church types are thinking of moving over to low churches to get more sermon!).

Chris Hall begins by observing that among many evangelicals today the question is “Why even celebrate communion? What’s it for?” (Our high church friends are now rolling their eyes.) The suggestion is that this question emerges from a gnostic perception of the faith — the material and the spiritual are not intimately connected. What matters is the spiritual; the material doesn’t matter. Hall shows how the early fathers reacted strongly against the gnostic ideas, including docetism. Hall examines what he calls sacramental realism.

“God loves matter — stuff — and the potential that matter possesses for divine creativity” (54). Incarnation says it all. So as God was present in the flesh/body of Christ, so God is present in the bread and wine — so Gregory of Nyssa. Note this: “… also the bread which is consecrated by the Word of God is transmuted into the body of God the Word” (55; from Gregory of Nyssa). Eating the bread and drinking the wine joins our bodies with Christ’s. So there is here a pattern of two-in-oneness of word and matter (56).

But there’s more there; the fathers had a sacramental worldview, beginning with the eucharist. There is a real presence taught in the fathers (Irenaeus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose). John 6:51-54 then was important to the fathers’ perception of a sacramental worldview.
Hall knows evangelicals worry that “ritual can replace relationship” (59). He knows many from the sacramental tradition become evangelicals because of the lack of the personal in the sacramental traditions. But he asks if participation isn’t supposed to be by faith (the personal) in the God who communicates with us in the matter. Augustine affirmed this: the rite doesn’t do the job; faith is required. Chris Hall says there’s a false either-or with many today: it’s not faith vs. sacramental view of Lord’s supper. It’s a both-and.
Hall discusses that the fathers saw the meal as thanksgiving (eucharistic) and a gift and a memorial (anamnesis). One element not known to most low churchers is that the eucharist was accompanied by the famous “epiklesis”: the invocation of the Spirit to descend upon the elements.
Eucharist creates unity — or should. As the Father and Son and Spirit are one, so those who commune with the Son through the Spirit and at the gift of the Father can become one with God and with one another (Cyprian, Hilary of Poitiers).
The eucharist creates a fruitful union with Christ that transforms ethically (so John Chrysostom). So, too, Augustine’s warnings about living hellishly while thinking such persons can feast on the Body of Christ.
Some interpret the eucharist more spiritually — Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Athanasius.
How often? Hall cites evidence to show that they took of the eucharist often, some daily (Jerome) and some several times a week (Basil) and others weekly. They cupped their left hand in the right, received the bread, touched their eyes and then ingested. When their lips were still moist with the wine, they touched their lips and applied the wine to other parts of their body (Hall: “organs of sense”) to sanctify those parts.
He closes with a beautiful story about his Uncle Bob.
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posted January 27, 2010 at 7:40 am

I would like to see the eucharist or Lord’s Supper celebrated every week rather than the once a month common in my tradition. But it is not a key issue for me.
I would object to a suggestion to drop the frequency below once a month. This simply isn’t an optional part of Christian worship and is part of the embodied nature of our faith. I don’t think that we need “real presence” in the elements for it to be embodied – rather we need our physical act of obedience to “do this in remembrance of me”.

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posted January 27, 2010 at 8:04 am

It is a good thing to look back to the early church and more evangelicals are doing that. But I don’t think gnostic ideas are behind the move away from frequent communion in free church circles. As much as many today want to reconnect to the early church, we can’t bypass the medieval developments in the process. The Reformers universally rejected the idea that started in the 9th century and got fleshed out in the 12th that the bread and wine are transformed into the physical body and blood of Christ. More to the point, they strongly rejected the accompanying development that the Eucharist is a sacrifice “for the remission of sins”, because it called into question the “once-for-all” efficacy of the cross.
Any discussion of restoring an emphasis on communion that doesn’t address that controversy is incomplete at best, and misleading when left out intentionally. I would welcome a greater emphasis on communion provided it is defined as a “sacrifice of thanksgiving” and not a sacrifice “for the remission of sins.”

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Scot McKnight

posted January 27, 2010 at 8:09 am

Dan, good comment. Not sure Chris Hall brings up some of this, though it is related.
First, he doesn’t connect frequency with gnosticism; instead, he connects a lack of interest in or valuing of the Lord’s Supper to gnosticism. When “matter” doesn’t matter, Lord’s supper value drops. That’s his point.
Second, as this chp shows, the idea of real presence and even transformation of the bread and wine was a part of the fathers’ discussions though they did not articulate the means as specifically as it later was.
I agree on the sacrifice observation.

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posted January 27, 2010 at 8:11 am

Scot wrote, “One element not known to most low churchers is that the eucharist was accompanied by the famous “epiklesis”: the invocation of the Spirit to descend upon the element.”
Yes, Scot, I am a Catholic and at every mass the priest has said, “Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” But the wording will soon be changing a little so that the priest will say, “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” That bit about “dewfall” is kind of poetic, huh.
Anyone not familiar with the Roman Catholic Mass can read about here at: and from there, you can go to a page to see the changes coming soon at a Mass near you at It lists every action and word that the priest and the people will say and do in the Mass. There are a number of minor changes from what is currently being said and done.
It is amazing to me in reading Augustine’s Confessions to see how much was firmly in place in the late 300s and early 400s regarding Mass, Eucharist, sermons, teachings. It’s inspiring, really.
In regard to your question as to whether there should be a weekly celebration of the Eucharist, I say yes! I have been to some wonderful non-Catholic services without Communion, but it always felt like something important was missing without the Eucharist. In the Mass, everything is building to that celebration.
And yes, it can seem like an “empty ritual” to people who believe that nothing is happening in the Eucharist. And it is surely best that you spend a lot of time in private prayer at your home so that you can be “attuned” to the grace, movement, work of God in the Eucharist and elsewhere. The Eucharist is not the only place to find God, of course, but it is a very special place and way to do so. We see God’s artistry in the world. We understand (a bit) God’s intentions through the Bible. We are embraced by God during prayer. We become familiar with Jesus’ family through our fellow Christians. And we unite with God as a bride with her groom in the Eucharist. (This is my take on it and I am not a teacher, author or well-educated in all the early Fathers’ writings, so take it from whence it comes!)

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Jeff Doles

posted January 27, 2010 at 9:22 am

Weekly, even daily. When I’m full of faith. When I have doubts. When I’m feeling close. When I’m feeling far away.

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posted January 27, 2010 at 9:46 am

Let me begin by saying I like communion, I think it’s a reasonable way to commune with God, I “get” it about ancient meeting future, timelessness ,sacred space, etc. However, as some of you know, I am not a fan, per se, of communion.
First, there’s an implication–not an implication, a statement–that if you don’t embrace communion somehow you are over-spiritualizing Christianity, which clearly is both spirit and flesh. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that rejecting communion (as the ritual is practiced in most churches) means rejecting the corporeal aspects of the faith. Au contraire, I would argue exactly the opposite–that communion spiritualizes the incarnate aspects of Christianity. Things like calling it a “meal,” (this always bothers me) point a finger at the duplicity of what the church has done to communion. Yes, it should be a meal; if we are remembering Jesus and the last supper, we are remembering a MEAL. We should be breaking bread in memory of this actual meal that fed people actual nourishing calores … and celebrating Jesus in this … Jesus in the world … But we turn it into some ritual that doesn’t feed the sheep. A tiny bit of bread and sip of wine is not a meal. It’s not a meal. So we say, oh, well, here we go, you FOOL, meal is a METAPHOR here. So, OK, now we’ve spiritualized the incarnate … because, in the incarnate people need to eat–I mean more than 30 calories at a “meal.” Jesus said feed my sheep. Jesus fed the 5000. I don’t think he meant that to turn into a self-congratulatory celebration of sucking down a crumb with a sip of wine in a ritualized way. If people are starving, why are we celebrating communion the way we are? Why aren’t we inviting people to a real, incarnate communion table with real amounts food on it? Why aren’t we celebrating the body of Christ that way? Does Communion lead to that kind of real, tangible feeding? Or does it block that? I don’t know if blocks it, but the example of history seems to me to say that it hasn’t led to that often enough. I think we get all hung up on the spiritual/incarnate and trying to beat people up with the whip of gnosticism .. but is communion really living up to the expectation of building the body of Christ into servants? Reading this blog over the years, I would say, the people who really “get” and benefit from Communion are the people who already “get” it, are already deeply in the spirit of Christ and the living Light of Christ. The comment about needing lots of prayer before heading for the so-called table says it all. If you benefit from communion, you probably are of the group of people who least need what it purports to deliver. So, yes COmmunion is nice, but is role is far too exalted in my opinion–and so no, I don’t vote for more communion rituals.

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posted January 27, 2010 at 10:31 am

Celebrating the Lord’s Supper every week–and more often if possible–has become a great blessing in my life. It is not just a ritual in the faith community that I belong to. We remember, we celebrate, and we connect with each other around the table. The presence of the Lord and the Spirit are real in it. It renews our spirits and reminds us of both that original meal and the feast that is to come.

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David B. Johnson

posted January 27, 2010 at 10:32 am

“John 6:51-54 then was important to the fathers’ perception of a sacramental worldview.” Why is John 6 not important to most evangelicals’ perception of a sacramental worldview? I simply cannot understand why the typical evangelical reading of John 6.41-65 does not include a strong reference to eucharist. I hear things like, “Jesus isn’t talking here about the Lord’s Supper,” and then no further explanation is offered. Why should I not think that John included these words from Jesus, to offer the community, specific and important instruction about the centrality of the eucharist? Please tell me low church protestants (which I happen to be, by the way)!!!
It seems to me that by faith being regularly joined to the Body of Christ in heaven by receiving the bread and wine on earth, helps strengthen my faith “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, I may have life (cf. John 6.51, 58) in his name.” John 6 and especially how the fathers read that text, was integral in “raising” my opinions about holy communion.
Scot, I’d be interested in knowing how much of the eucharist you see in John 6.

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posted January 27, 2010 at 11:20 am

Yes. I think the loss of a meaningful theology and practice of the Eucharist is in some ways a cause, as well as symptom, of the problems with individualism and shallowness in the evangelical movement.

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posted January 27, 2010 at 11:35 am

In my tradition (Church of Christ, out of the Restoration Movement), we partake of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist/Communion every Sunday. Indeed, one of the founders of the movement, Alexander Campbell, wrote that his ideal worship service was one that was based around the table, where Christians gathered to worship God together and share their insights from Scripture while taking the supper together.
This practice flows from our understanding of Scripture: “Do this in remembrance of me…” and “We met together on the first day of the week to break bread…” (Acts 20:7). It can be argued that communion can be taken more often (i.e. Acts 2:46-47), but hard to argue biblically for doing it less.
As for me, the Lord’s Supper is my chance to stop and spend time in fellowship with God. I remember Christ’s sacrifice and my atonement. Sometimes I pray, sometimes I read Scripture, sometimes I sing… but each time I try to draw closer to the presence of God. And admittedly, sometimes it does get a little stale. But I think our focus should be on Christ’s sacrifice and our restored relationship with God.

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posted January 27, 2010 at 11:41 am

I’ve been in churches that did communion:
* once a year where the entire service was devoted to it
* once every 3-4 months at a separate, non-weekend service devoted to it
* once a month as a part of the regular service
I have to say as a “low churcher” I guess, the idea of communion even every week sounds a bit weird. I can’t fathom doing it every day (though we pray over meal so go figure).
The problem I have with doing it so frequently is that I do value communion and the most impactful times for me is when I can devote some serious time to it. That’s why I do actually like doing it as a completely separate service.
How do you high churchers do Eucharist so often and still have it be serious, meaningful, and impactful (in the sense of that it makes a deep impact on your thinking and life)?

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posted January 27, 2010 at 11:42 am

for all the criticisms I can level against the tradition in which I grew up, that we practiced weekly communion is not a target. THAT was one of the good and right things we did. It’s a practice I have sustained for 53 years and one that I cherish.
whether weekly or not, I would contend that it is a practice that should be carried out regularly, consistently and often. I’ll leave it to others to work out the application of that.
I think the fear of ritual replacing relationship is a red herring. I kiss my wife everyday and often. While that could be construed as a ritual (I probably even follow an unconscious schedule), I see it as part of the fabric of relationship.
Communion, like prayer, constitutes the fabric of our relationship with God. I cannot imagine why anyone would think ingesting the body and blood of Christ is something we can take or leave or reserve as a quarterly or even monthly event. ( I guess I’m showing my hand on the “often” criteria above)
Some say to me: well won’t it become mundane if you practice it that often. I say, “Yeah, like prayer and reading scripture.”

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posted January 27, 2010 at 11:48 am

interesting topic, last night at our Session meeting (Presbyterian local ruling body) it was brought up that this year Easter falls on the first Sunday of the month (our normal day for communion). the question was should we move communion that month to another day. We did not decide–but I think a clearer theology would benefit us all. Some argued that because communion was important it should not be celebrated when “everyone and their uncle” might be dropping in for their yearly fix of church. Others, argued that because communion was important it should be served to those who may only come once a year. Interesting.–I truly don’t know where I fall. I do value the communion traditions of our denomination and I would not ever choose going to a less frequent observance.

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Wayne Cox

posted January 27, 2010 at 11:51 am

If not communion, then what? In modern “worship planning,” where we are bound by the 60 minute, 75 minute, 90 minute (whatever) block of time “allotted” to worship, this is one of the key questions, isn’t it? A programming question …
And the answer to, “then what?” has generally in the circles I’m familiar with been: more sermon. My observation is that many churches in the low-church/protestant/evangelical strand of the faith have made a pragmatic decision as much as anything else in relegating Eucharist to an occasional ceremony. Finding some theology to back up the decision has followed.
Thanks for pointing to this resource by Chris Hall. Look forward to the conversation.

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Bob Cornwall

posted January 27, 2010 at 11:53 am

Being that I grew up Episcopalian, which is eucharistic centered, and have been for the last 25 years ordained Disciple (Stone-Campbell Movement/Restoration Movement), it probably isn’t surprising that I would come down on weekly communion. I think you can make a case that the early church — at least as described in Acts — celebrated frequently, perhaps daily, if not weekly.
The Protestant move away from frequent communion was in large part an unnecessary reaction to what they perceived were theological errors/superstitions present in the Mass. It is worth noting that Calvin pushed for frequent communion, but Zwingli won out in this matter.
On a practical level, if communion is practiced infrequently, and you happen to miss the Sunday it’s celebrated, then it may be a long time before it comes around again. If the Eucharist is a sacrament, and thus a means of grace, by offering it infrequently, have we cut ourselves off from a place of contact with God (my thoughts from a while back –
So, what is the issue here? Is it the way in which it is observed? Is it a theological issue? And if, as I believe, it is a means of grace, how is it connected to the Word? That is, should we be forced to choose, or should it both be present to nourish our spiritual journey?
Enough for now!

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Jeff Doles

posted January 27, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Taking the Table of the Lord daily does not have to take a lot of time. It is not about what we do, or feel, there but about what He does.

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posted January 27, 2010 at 12:47 pm

weekly eucharist enacts a powerful reminder/encounter with the God who is my source, my food and drink, my only true sustenance.
weekly eucharist demonstrates to me the powerful mystery of my daily participation in the God who pours out all for others, calling me to do the same.
weekly eucharist transmits to me the Truth that is Jesus who binds himself to me and me to Him.
weekly eucharist places me in the company of others who receive, rather than take, the elements–expressing the mutual submission and egalitarian reality of our communal identity founded in the work of Christ.
to make it have to be “powerful” on a personal level each time rises only from the assumed primacy of the individual.
Biblically, the Church is primary. It is not an aggregate of individuals that God has put into a pragmatic support group called the Church.
We individually cross the line of faith into the people of God.
Weekly eucharist signs this communal primacy and the simple, but powerful fact, the Christ died for his Church that is a “we”, not a “me”.

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Michelle Van Loon

posted January 27, 2010 at 1:11 pm

My dream would be to share communion in the context of a meal every time I’m gathered with other believers. The fragment of cracker and Barbie-sized cup of juice barely resembles the Passover Seder from which communion originated. That meal is comprised of formal ritual and informal dining/fellowship.
In our many years of non-denom membership, communion was a “P.S.” tacked onto the end of the first service of each month. The combination of the strictly memorial view and the programming challenges diminished it into a postage stamp-sized nod to an ancient ritual. My own melt-down moment with this reductionism came when I heard a child ask his mom if today was the day we were going to get a little snack in church.
Communion is so much more than this. The church we attend views communion as a sacrament – as do I – and we take it each week. I’m grateful for the shift away from once-a-month little snack, and would love to continue to move toward more and more frequency and context in the midst of fellowship meals.

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Chad Holtz

posted January 27, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Answer: Constantly (as Wesley would say) which for me is weekly.
Nathan, great response above.
Eucharist is a wonderful opportunity to do many things, one of which (and not least of which) is to recognize that God is with the mundane (bread and wine) which gives me hope that God is with me.

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posted January 27, 2010 at 2:35 pm

To Diane in #6: I understand your concerns. I think maybe the reason you see Communion received as a bit of bread and maybe a sip of wine instead of a full meal is…practicality. As the church grew so large, it may have become inpractical for there to be a full meal every day. (Many Catholic parishes have daily Mass.) But, that doesn’t mean that there can never be free community fellowship meals. Many churches in my area (Catholic and non-Catholic churches) offer free meals to the community. They don’t consider this to be “Communion” though, in the theological way we talk about Communion or the Eucharist.
And although I was the one who said it was good to have private prayer in addition to taking part in celebrating the Eucharist, I know that people have benefitted from taking part in the Eucharist who knew nothing about what they were doing. The person who comes first to my mind was Sara Miles who walked into an Episcopalian church and received Communion and she was not Christian and basically knew next to nothing about Christianity! But, from that moment on, her life was changed in a major way and she was responsible for getting food on a regular basis to needy folks. They would come to the church and pick out the groceries that they needed that had been placed around the altar. She felt that Jesus’ command to feed his sheep was not just meant to feed them spiritually but to feed them actual food.
The Catholic Church practices a “closed” Communion, though, in the sense that if you are not Catholic (or closely related) you are not supposed to participate. If I was a Catholic priest, I would not like to have that responsibility laid on me. How would I KNOW who was Catholic if they were in the line with their hands cupped, saying “Amen” after the priest said, “Body of Christ” to them? I can understand both the negative and positive aspects of a closed Communion. You want those receiving to understand what is happening and why they are doing what they are doing. Yet, it seems so…inhospitable?…to refuse to give Communion to someone who may not have jumped through all the hoops yet, but someone who perhaps actually believes maybe even more than some of the actual Catholics in the room. Or, maybe it is someone like Sara Miles who just showed up, but who could have an “experience” of God’s love through receiving the Eucharist that helps them.

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Travis Greene

posted January 27, 2010 at 9:10 pm

After attending a church that celebrates the Eucharist every week, I can’t see myself going back to a church that didn’t. It absolutely is an afterthought in low/free church traditions. While there may be a danger of magicalizing it as some of the medievals did, I think that danger is overblown.
Dan @ 2,
I’m not sure we do need to deal with the controversies of 4 centuries ago, at least not explicitly. Particularly since they’re tied to an outdated metaphysics. Some education for those raised to fear Catholicism, maybe, but I think for most folks it’s irrelevant and we can safely sidestep it.

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John Sobert Sylvest

posted January 28, 2010 at 1:53 am

What I recall from my Roman Catholic formation was that Eucharist expressed meal, memorial, covenant, thanksgiving and presence. Presence was the experience of Christ present in the presider, in the word presented, in the people gathered and in the sacred sacramental species. What made any given sign a sacrament was its efficacy in effecting precisely what it brings to mind. To wit, the sacrament brings to mind reconciliation and healing and unity and, in so doing, effects their realization.
So, this is all very incarnational, very unitive, wedding many different aspects of our reality together. At times, there have been liturgical changes that were prescribed to keep any of these aspects from getting over- and/or under-emphasized. What takes primacy, as I recall, is the People Gathered. And it is presumed that our daily and or weekly Eucharistic worship will only be as good as our individual lives of prayer. The main idea being that, if we invoke God as individuals, it is only because we have first been convoked as a People.
Another emphasis is on the participatory nature, where all are actively involved in different ways. It most enjoy homilies that are dialogical and participatory to a degree.
My biggest disappointment is the way metaphysics gets drug into everything. We still seem to be stuck in a rather unnuanced aristotelian substance metaphysics and it effects sacramental theology (transubstantiation & women priests), moral theology (birth control, etc), church disciplines (celibacy) and church polity (paternalism, hierarchicalism). Since metaphysics is speculative and fallible and not inextricably linked to theology, it seems like a great deal good be accomplished toward the end of ecumenism and Christian unity if we could prescind from robustly metaphysical accounts to more vague phenomenological approaches like a semiotic realism, which would ask: What does this sign or symbol or sacrament bring to mind and how does that change the way we now interact with God, each other, our world and even our self? Instead of transubstantiation, we’re then talking transignification.
Finally, while our dialectical imaginations and apophasis enjoy a certain primacy in our God-encounter, our analogical imaginations and kataphasis place it in a helpful creative tension. We recognize and affirm that our signs and symbols and metaphors, as far as analogies go, are very weak and their dissimilarities to God’s essential nature outnumber their similarities to an infinite degree. On the other hand, however meager these kataphatic experiences of God may be, because they speak to a very BIG reality, and because of our radical finitude, they have profound existential import for us, providing great consolation, leading us to very real value-realizations: unity, reconciliation, charity, agape.
It is only when we facilely engage the HUGE reality we call Eucharist in caricature that we devalue it and place it in false dichotomies.
In closing, I badly wish we had open communion because, in my view, it is a vehicle that can effect the unity we desire, which is more important than somehow demonstrating the unity we already enjoy.

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posted January 28, 2010 at 6:40 am

to John in #22: “transignification”…wow, that’s a great word.
And: “In closing, I badly wish we had open communion because, in my view, it is a vehicle that can effect the unity we desire, which is more important than somehow demonstrating the unity we already enjoy.”
I like that very much, John.

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posted January 28, 2010 at 3:48 pm

A request to the JesusCreed community…
I go to a very large church that has communion stations available every week. But I can see a large benefit in teaching our 12-person small group how to celebrate communion together. But we need a little guidance.
I’ve never seen communion presented as anything beyond a “remembrance” that the pastor leads. But I want to go beyond this – to explore #22 John’s “meal, memorial, covenant, thanksgiving and presence.”
My request is this – does anyone know of a good book that would give a clearer understanding of the depth of communion and would still be readable by an evangelical? It would also be awesome to have a type of devotional reading option in the book that we can use in our group.

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John Sobert Sylvest

posted January 29, 2010 at 9:20 am

Adrienne, this article from the World Council of Churches is accessible: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry – Faith and Order Paper No. 111.
There are ongoing dialogues (Google-able) between Roman Catholics and Anglican and Reformed churches on the Eucharist. Tony Jones treats the Eucharist in “The Teaching of the 12″ vis a vis the Didache (DID-ah-kay) and I found that very interesting.

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