Saturday, October 27, 2012

On Sacramental Theology

I’ve been reading a book lately  by Allen Hunt called Confessions of a Mega-Church Pastor. In it, Hunt discusses his journey from being a Methodist pastor in mega-church of thousands to being Catholic.  Each chapter is devoted to an particular milestone in his journey, usually focused on an element of worship or other aspect of the faith.  In a chapter on communion, Hunt talks about being invited by a friend of his, a Catholic priest, to speak about Methodism to a group of nuns in a local monastery.  Following his talk, the nuns probe him about his opposition to a literal presence of Christ in the elements, citing the numerous occurrences in John 6 of Jesus referring to himself as the “bread of life” or the “living bread of heaven,” and the places in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians where Christ says, “This is my body.”  The nuns point out that Christ doesn’t say, “This is like my body,” and challenge him to provide an answer as to why the passage should not be interpreted more literally.  Over time, Hunt comes to accept the Roman Catholic perspective on the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine.

My initial reaction to this was one of agreement—scripture says is, so why should we take it on anything other than face value?  But in thinking about it more, I came to the conclusion that Christians and denominations spend a great deal of time and effort trying to correct one another’s theology.  Christ says is; that could just as easily be literal as metaphorical.  If Christ had said, “This is like my body,” we’d call it a simile, not a metaphor!  In the end, none of us can deny that the sacrament came long before the theology. 

Why do we focus on trying to figure out what Christ means instead of focusing on what Christ is telling us to do?  Christ doesn’t say, “Interpret this in remembrance of me,” or “Argue about this in remembrance of me.”  Christ says Take, Eat, Drink, Do. It matters nothing what happens in the consecration of the bread and wine; this is little more than doing exactly what Christ himself actually did: He took the bread, broke it, and gave thanks.  He took the cup and gave thanks.  Why should we bother complicating the ritual with speculative metaphysical interpretations?

Much of what Christ did and said is filled with layers of possible meaning; arriving at one specific interpretive framework at the expense of all others is to miss the point.  Evangelicals could learn something from the Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodist perspectives on “real presence,” that when Christ says is, he does so intentionally, and there is more going on here than mere remembrance.  But Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists could learn something from Evangelicals about not getting caught up in trying to make sense of what’s going on in communion—take the words as they are, do what they say, and don’t worry about getting the theology right.  And all of us—myself included—could stand to learn that there are more riches to be found when holding the diversity of interpretations in tension than in picking one at the expense of all others.

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