© Rex A E Hunt
28 August 2014
A ‘Quick Fire’ presentation at the launch of Progressive Spirituality New Zealand.
GIVE HOLY COMMUNION THE FLICK. CELEBRATE THE JESUS BANQUET
“The mouth is the place of eating long before it is the place of speaking”
The homeless, homeland Palestinian Jew called Yeshua, was a storyteller with bread. And immediately we have a problem: how to invite this ‘historical’ Jesus to church when the ‘fictional’ Christ is enthroned in our creeds, hymns, and liturgies!
This ‘quickfire’ presentation is based on a chapter in one of three recent books, all featuring Australian and New Zealand religious progressives:
Wisdom & Imagination: Religious Progressives and the Search for Meaning.
The other two books are:
New Life: Rediscovering Faith. Stories from Progressive Christians; and
Why Weren’t We Told? A Handbook on ‘progressive’ Christianity.
While the relationship between us both – Aussie and Kiwi - is most clearly expressed in the shared Common Dreams Conference of Religious Progressives, and is much valued.
I also wish to pay my respects to the tangata whenua of this area, Ngati Whatua O Orakei.
There is general agreement in modern biblical scholarship that meals played an important role in the Jesus tradition. Indeed, Jesus seems so closely associated with meals that some of his critics labeled him a “glutton and drunkard” (Matt 11:19). But, while it can be said he did not institute the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, it is a little more difficult to trace the origins of the Christian supper liturgy. The NT evidence is complex and inconsistent.
There are at least four NT traditions relating to the institution of the Lord’s Supper: Paul (1 Cor 11:23-26 — earliest witness; Mark (Mark 14:22-25) closely followed by Matthew (Matt 26:26-29); Luke (Luke 22:15-20 — with a distinctive textual history that continues to puzzle experts; and John (John 13:1–15 — which doesn’t mention any special words or actions involving bread or wine.
These various traditions do “not support the view that the Last Supper tradition derives from any hypothetical single original tradition” But they do indicate there was multiplicity rather than singularity of tradition.
The Jesus followers regularly ate together, even before they began to conduct worship services. They wanted to celebrate the meal of Jesus—“even if the meal itself and the original understanding of it had already changed greatly”. The complete meal tradition they followed—primarily the Greco-Roman banquet—was one they inherited and which brought “a wide variety of both Christian and non-Christian concerns to expression”.
So, what might a progressive Jesus Banquet liturgy that takes the ‘historical’ Jesus seriously, look like? Here is an edited extract from Canadian David Galston and the Quest Community in Hamilton, Ontario. (http://www.questcentre.ca/).
Welcome to this banqueting table.
Enjoy the hospitality.
All All human beings are equal.
All life forms are to be respected.
We give thanks for the gifts of the earth,
for its love, and its creativity.
All The earth and all that is in it
gives witness to the spirit of life.
We give thanks for the life of Jesus, our sage,
and the memory of his loving kindness.
He taught that compassion is the heart of God.
He practiced equality in the simple act of table fellowship.
When he blessed bread, he used his traditional Jewish prayers, saying:
All Blessed is the Holy One of Israel,
sovereign of all that is who brings forth
the bread from the ground.
And when he blessed wine, he said:
All Blessed is the Holy One of Israel,
sovereign of all that is who brings forth
grape from the vine.
We share in this act of friendship with millions of people
around the world
and with all faithful people of the past.
With them and in celebration of our community we say/sing:
All Gifts to share and sustaining memory
Bring people in hope together.
The banquet's joy and celebration
Mark the presence of light.
To gather around this table,
to break bread freely and to share wine openly,
is to bring justice to life.
True acts of sharing help us
to be like the human Jesus, who taught:
All Be compassionate as God is compassionate.
And who said:
All Give and there will be gifts given to you.
May the bread we break speak of love.
May the wine we pour speak of compassion.
May our commitment to peace bear witness
to the heart of this community.
As a community we share bread and wine
to acknowledge the bond of our common humanity.
This is bread for our journey and wine for our life.
May we be a people who unite our words
with our deeds.
In this Banquet liturgy there is no mention of Jesus’ death or hint of a future heavenly feast. “Jesus is not the body that is broken or the blood shed”, says Galston. “He is and need only be the teacher who initiated this tradition of table fellowship…”. That is, the liturgical movement centres on celebration, presence, and joy. This stands in sharp contrast to traditional liturgy where the movement is from confession to pardon – or the act of paying off one’s debt to God - reflecting a presupposition of human guilt.
So arising out of the Jesus Banquet, a couple of suggestions would seem to warrant consideration:
(i) Soft progressive – where the bread and wine is recognised as ‘the occasion’ and not as the ‘embodiment’ of the historical Jesus. Take. Bless. Break. Give. The fourfold pattern of the meal’s action is celebrated, rather than embodied in so-called substances ‘for the forgiveness of sins’;
(ii) Radical progressive - we cease to celebrate the Eucharist and replace it with a Celebration of the Jesus Banquet, so the historical Jesus can come to church!
Yet, maybe none of this is very radical at all. While none of the New Testament texts provide a liturgical ‘script’, there are explicit instructions regarding the celebration of the ‘Eucharist’ in the Didache. It is worth noting these guidelines have no references to a Last Supper tradition, no mention of the death of Jesus, and no words of Jesus interpreting the bread and cup in terms of his own death. The meal is more about community formation and community solidarity. An occasion of companionship.
For the record, the Didache is entirely silent about Jesus dying for our sins, much like the early layers of the Q Gospel and the Gospel of Thomas, and its focus fits comfortably only in the early stage of the Jesus movement when the faith of Jesus, rather than faith in Jesus, was still at the centre of things.
So what may be said about the Lord’s Supper from a progressive perspective?
(i) Current church statements that want to claim the words said and gestures done around a holy table, were determined by an original Lord’s Supper by Jesus, are neither helpful nor accurate. Indeed, suspect.
(ii) The historic Jesus had no idea his open banquets would become the Christian Eucharist.
(iii) A banquet is not about believing something but about doing something. And the ‘doing’ of the banquet is generosity, not debt satisfaction.
As others have pointed out, liturgical renewal is not just a ‘progressive’ thing. It is central to traditional expressions of Christianity, as well as many renewal movements across denominational boundaries. Sadly, too many past efforts have been either confined to the examination and interpretation of specific historic liturgical texts, or defined in terms of global ‘ecumenical convergence’, resulting in a bureaucratisation of the liturgy. Revitalisation per se does not seem to have been the primary focus.
For the sake of such ‘convergence’, multiple liturgical practices have been suppressed—even labeled by some traditional ‘prayer book’ Christians as the “idolatry of creativity”. We have been left with an over-concern for the orthodox line of tradition that just cannot stand up to any rigorous NT scholarship by ‘truth-telling’ scholars and clergy.
When liturgy is circumscribed by the issue of orthodoxy, three things happen.
(i) It loses contact with the life and common experience of the people and becomes responsive only to doctrinal concerns.
(ii) It becomes more and more estranged from the creative minds of contemporary culture.
(iii) It presumes orthodox doctrines are true statements.
There is no denying there is a gap between the ‘historical’ Jesus and the ‘Christ of orthodox faith’. For 2,000+ years, Jesus has been represented to the world “in terms of later inferences drawn from his sayings and deeds, rather than in terms of what he himself did and said”.
In our traditional Sunday Morning liturgy we have “let our emphasis on preserving traditional forms and expression overrule attempts to give vital expression to the life and faith of contemporary participants”. As a result the dominant traditional ‘liturgical’ language sounds foreign. Well, as others have argued and I agree, it is foreign because it is imperial. What we have ended up with is the language of Caesar Augustus: Almighty Lord, Saviour of the World, Son of God, Emperor.
David Galston is particularly direct: "Gathering in the name of Jesus and gathering in the name of Christ are two different acts set on different foundations with different suppositions and necessarily different liturgies. One cannot be a Jesus follower and a Christ confessor at the same time, at least not with integrity. It even seems incredible that one should try".
We need a different option. Jesus Seminar founder Bob Funk issued a challenge nine years ago: “throw the old forms out and start over again” by designing “a new Sunday Morning Experience from the ground up”. For me, meeting such a challenge keeps alive the spirit of progressive liturgy: spiritual vitality and expressiveness, combined with an insistence on Christianity with intellectual integrity.
Alves, R. A. The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. The Edward Cadbury Lectures, London: SCM Press/Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.
Cobb, Jr. J. B. “The Presence of the Past and the Eucharist” in Process Studies 13, 3, Fall, 1983, 218-231.
Funk, R. (ed). The Acts of Jesus. The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus. NY: Harper SanFrancisco/Polebridge Press, 1998.
————,"Editorial" in The Fourth R 18, 1, January-February 2005, 2, 20.
Galston, D. “Postmodernism, the Historical Jesus, and the Church” in The Fourth R 18, 3, May-June 2002, 5, 11, 14-18.
————, “Liturgy in the Key of Q”. Westar Institute/Jesus Seminar. 2007. Direct from the author.
————, Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2012.
————, (2) “Why I wrote Embracing the Human Jesus” in The Fourth R 25, 6, November-December 2012, 19-20, 24.
Hedrick, C. “The ‘Good News’ about the historical Jesus” in Jesus Seminar (ed). The Historical Jesus goes to Church. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2004.
Marxsen, W. Jesus and the Church. The Beginnings of Christianity. Translated by Philip E. Devenish. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.
Milavec, A. “The Didache: A Window on Gentile Christianity before the written Gospels” in The Fourth R 18, 3, May-June 2005, 7-11, 15-16.
Peters, B. FaceBook entry under ‘Liturgy’. 26 June 2014. “Leaving the Prayer Book”.
Smith, D. E. & Taussig, H. E. Many Tables. The Eucharist in the New Testament and Liturgy Today. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1990.
What follows is based on my chapter, “Spiritual Vitality and Intellectual Integrity: Shaping Progressive/Evolving Liturgy” in R. A. E. Hunt & G. C. Jenks. (ed). Wisdom and Imagination: Religious Progressives and the Search for the Meaning. (Forthcoming).
Smith & Taussig, Many Tables, 41.
Marxsen, Jesus and the Church, 163.
Smith & Taussig, Many Tables, 103.
Galston, “Liturgy in the Key of Q”, 14-15; Embracing the Human Jesus, 249-250.
Galston, “Postmodernism, the Historical Jesus, and the Church”, 17.
Cobb, J. “The Presence of the Past…”, 229
This is an early Christian pastoral manual discovered in 1873, and now believed by some scholars to have been composed independently of any known later gospel around the middle of the first century. Milavec, A. “The Didache”.
Smith & Taussig, Many Tables, 66.
Smith & Taussig, Many Tables, 83-84.
Galston, Embracing…, 249.
Galston, “Liturgy in th Key of Q”,18.
Peters, “Liturgy”. FaceBook. 26 June 2014.
Hedrick, “The ‘Good News…”, 98.
Smith & Taussig. Many Tables, 12.
Galston, “Liturgy in the Key of Q”, 13.
Funk, “Editorial”, 2