Theology and Peace: Part 5, Wasting the Body and Blood of Jesus

At the end of the Theology and Peace conference the Plenary speakers (btw, what does "plenary" mean anyway?) offered some reflections on the conference.

Chris Haw, co-author of Jesus for President and a recent convert to Catholicism, raised some points about closed versus open communion. (I had a blast talking with Chris about Catholicism. He made some very powerful arguments that I'm still chewing on.)

As I've written about before, I'm a proponent of open communion. Chris, coming from his Catholic perspective, is a proponent of closed communion. In the closing session Chris made the comment that if we offered the Eucharist to everyone we'd be implicitly sacralizing and endorsing violence as the body and blood of Jesus would be being given to murderers, rapists, domestic abusers, etc. Chris said, citing William Cavanaugh, that the Eucharist must be used to draw a boundary.

I definitely see Chris's point. My response, however, is this:

The body and blood of Jesus has already been given to murderers, rapists, and domestic abusers.

It's no good trying to protect the body and blood of Jesus from being wasted in this way. Jesus has already wasted it. Jesus offered up his body and blood for the whole world while we were yet sinners. That ship has already sailed. Thus, it makes no sense, in my mind, for the church to protect behind a wall something that Jesus has already given away in a crazy, irrational and wasteful act of self-giving.

And nothing changes if you think, like Catholics do, that in the Eucharist the actual (if mystical) blood and body of Christ are present. Because the actual body and blood of Jesus was given away on Golgotha, with no church drawing a boundary and monitoring access. The actual body and blood of Jesus--then and now--will always be wasted.

This is why closed communion makes no sense to me. What are we protecting? What fantasy has gripped the church to make her think that she could prevent the blood and body of Jesus from being wasted on sinners?

Well folks, I'm sorry, it's too late for those illusions. Jesus pulled the trigger on that a long time ago, foolishly wasting himself on the world.

And the church, try as she might, can't stop that from happening.

I wrote this post two weeks ago. Waking up this morning and reading it I'm feeling uncomfortable with it. Particularly given the conversation in the comment thread from yesterday about domestic abuse.

To clarify some, I hope no one would think I'm arguing that because Jesus died for sinners like "murderers, rapists, and domestic abusers" that those actions can be passed over lightly. And there is a powerful criticism, the one Chris made, that says if you are welcoming such people to the table you are tacitly endorsing their sin and violence, giving them a free pass. And I definitely see that point.

My argument here is less about welcoming perpetrators to the table than dwelling on this notion of waste, the feeling I often get from some that the church's duty in the Eucharist is to prevent the body and blood of Jesus from being wasted on the undeserving. But as I argue above, if Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners the body and blood of Jesus has already been wasted in the most extreme way imaginable. True, we might do different things in closed and open communion to address the violence and evil in our midst, but I don't think an argument about waste can be the leading edge of those discussions as God has already, in Jesus, been wasted upon us.

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37 thoughts on “Theology and Peace: Part 5, Wasting the Body and Blood of Jesus”

  1. I wrote this post two weeks ago. Waking up this morning and reading it I'm feeling uncomfortable with it. Particularly given the conversation in the comment thread from yesterday about domestic abuse.

    To clarify some, I hope no one would think I'm arguing that because Jesus died for sinners like "murderers, rapists, and domestic abusers" that those actions can be passed over lightly. And there is a powerful criticism, the one Chris made, that says if you are welcoming such people to the table you are tacitly endorsing their sin and violence, giving them a free pass. And I definitely see that point.

    My argument here is less about welcoming perpetrators to the table than dwelling on this notion of waste, the feeling I often get from some that the church's duty in the Eucharist is to prevent the body and blood of Jesus from being wasted on the undeserving. But as I argue above, if Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners the body and blood of Jesus has already been wasted in the most extreme way imaginable. True, we might do different things in closed and open communion to address the violence and evil in our midst, but I don't think an argument about waste can be the leading edge of those discussions as God has already, in Jesus, been wasted upon us.

  2. I could not agree more.  Open communion is one of the practices of the UMC that I highly value.  The invitation -- and unconditional welcome -- of ALL to the Lord's Table, particularly at the church where we have made our home, is so genuine and heartfelt that I am deeply moved each and every time I witness and experience it.  When we came to this church, I was skeptical and reserved in my approach to church, having spent more than a year as churchless nomads.  I felt something real and true, as I participated in communion for the first time at our church.  I can't explain it well, except to chalk it up to mystery...felt somewhat out-of-body, "kairos" moment-like to me.  I tend to believe that it was the perfect alignment of a right heart in me, and being in the right place, at the right time.  I wish for everyone to experience Christ in that way; to feel loved and accepted in their church body/community in that way; and finally, to feel a solidarity with the whole world in that way.  The liturgy of "The Great Thanksgiving" articulates this beautifully, imho.

    Many years ago, I often attended Catholic mass with another person.  I enjoyed the homilies (Franciscan order of priests -- way cool!), but of course, as a non-Catholic, I was not permitted to take communion.  I didn't resent the church for excluding me, but it was always kind of a lonely feeling to sit it out while everyone else participated and received a blessing.  I don't think that God needs to be protected from the "unclean."  It seems to me that these rules really only protect the church, its dogmas and traditions.  The curious thing about that, to my mind, is Jesus' willingness to break rules (even Sabbath law) anytime, if it meant speaking or working merciful healing into someone who needed it.  Mercy, not sacrifice...  ~Peace~

  3. Dr. Beck, I appreciate your careful sensitivity toward victims of abuse and violence.  But, I come back to the question, what good does it serve to exclude the likes of murderers, rapists, and domestic abusers from the Lord's Table?  Are they going to get any better by being kept away from Christ?  I don't think we need to say that violence is O:K or sugar-coat over its existence.  Certainly, the church can be a sanctuary of peace for victims of abuse, where they can feel safe from harm.  But how is it helpful to shun and deny "sinners" a place at the Lord's Table?  I don't know...just thinking out loud here...  ~Peace~

  4. If the body of Christ is really the body of Christ, then it SHOULD be given to sinners. If the body of Christ doesn't change someone, then what exactly is it?

  5. Thanks Susan. The trouble with blogs is that, as I write, you want a post to get one idea across with some punch. The trouble with that is that nuance can be lost. In acadmeic writing you take 200 pages to add nuance to a 2 page idea, working through all sorts of possible objections and counter-arguments. In a blog you just put out the 2 page idea. Raw. You then spend your time in the comments doing the 200-page stuff.

  6. The notion of waste - at least to me - is one of those red herring beliefs that open communion folks throw at closed communion folks - because it is ridiculous and easy to dispatch.  If you are going to really refute a closed communion practice, I think you have to explain why communion is not for those who share a common union or in other words a confession.  Or even calling it a Eucharist, can someone who does not know Christ really recognize Christ in the bread and wine and give thanks?  I think those are more serious and biblical arguments.

  7. I'd not want to equate open communion with not telling or hiding the story. That'd be weird. The story must be told. And in light of this story the welcome of Christ is offered to all, sinner and saint alike. Jesus calls the unrighteous as well as the righteous. And a person can respond to that welcome or not.

  8. Richard, I can't wait to hold a sturdy argument about all this. I think--judging from our conversations at the conference--that we should write a short book-debate titled Exclusion and Eucharist: An Extensive Elaboration on Why Beck is Wrong and Haw is Right. Kidding on the subtitle. Serious on the title. 

    As a bone of thought to chew on, I think the problem with eucharistic practice in 1 Cor 11--about some people using the eucharist as mere sacralizing event, covering over the sin of the neglect of the poor in their midst--is one great starting point. Paul considers it an unworthy practice of the Body. 

    A second tidbit: we might consider the extreme of closed communion not the Catholic model but the hyper-anabaptist model, wherein months and months of repentance and examination is endured as a eucharistic-prerequisite (I've seen this in the Bruderhof). And then, and only then, can one take the bread and wine. The dominating center here is the self's spiritual essence and its worthiness. Anyway...too much to write about in a comment.

    Let's talk over phone some time soon about said book. Peace, Chris

  9. That is the flip side - closed communion folks throw at open communion the charge of hiding the truth or being vague or not serious about the gospel.  Just not true.  If the reformation was about prioritizing Augustine on grace over Augustine on the Church; open/closed is about the ordering of the solas - grace, faith, word.  Grace alone = open, faith alone = closed.  Each using word alone to beat each other up.  I'm not sure its a tension we get to collapse.

  10. Hi Chris,
    We never did get to get deeper into this. I have Torture & Eucharist on order (should be here in a day or so). I plan to read it over the family vacation. When I'm done I'll holler at you. What I'd love to do is figure out a time for me to visit you in Camden. I think a great book could come out of those conversations.

  11. Reading this I gave me a picture in my mind of a male domestic abuser kneeling at the front of the church receiving communion as his act of repentance.  He has recognized the ugliness of his actions.  Off to the side the church stands between him and his wife.  She is protected, so she is loved.  But they face the man with expressions of compassion.  Some reach down, lift him up and carry him away for healing.  While others tend to the woman.  Because the best thing is to turn him into a different man, not just condemn him and kick him out.  Restore, renew, and redeem the abused and the abuser.  That is what ushers in the kingdom.  Both.

    So what if communion was open to all who are looking to be renewed.  To those wishing for redemption.  Wanting to be made new.  We offer communion to all who are longing to take on the character of Jesus and leave behind their own.  
    Communion can then be closed to all who are set in their ways.  Those who do not see need for change, or renewal or growth.  I wish churches were more clear that for some redemption means being lifted up and made whole after being abused.   For the abusers and oppressors, this looks like being broken down and utterly altered.  Unfortunately many of us have entered the cycle of violence and we are both abuser and abused.  It is true that Jesus offers Life even to me, yes?

  12. Isn't there another aspect to the closed/open communion debate; confession?  

    I grew up coC where formal confession wasn't any sort of  practice. Sure, there was always a call at the end of a sermon to come forward and confess your sins, and during communion thoughts someone would often read from 1 Corinthians about taking communion in an unworthy manner, but there was usually little or no discussion about what this meant.  As a teenager, this would usually just act as a reminder for me to stop thinking about girls and focus on the church service.  I rarely felt any need to inventory the ways I had actually hurt other people.I heard an interesting interview on NPR a few months ago with Paul Wilkes, a Catholic who wrote a book, "The Art of Confession".  He talks about how confession can be understood as an "emptying to make room for something better".Should the church celebrate open communion? I think so;  the blood was already poured out over sinners. But, I believe we should also place a greater emphasis on confession.

  13. Thanks, Lara, for this. I think you are pointing to the big problem with this whole framing, a narrow focus on "open versus closed." Because at the end of the day this isn't a disembodied practice. It's embedded in a host of other critical commitments: truth-telling, confession, repentance, baptism, prayer, rebuke, reconciliation, etc. Open communion doesn't work on its own all by itself. It has to be supported by other practices, like the ones you describe above. And by the same token, I think closed communion can work if there are other robust rituals of embrace within the community. 

  14. Richard, et al,
    Absent some visible mark on the forehead, how does the closed-communion group identify those who are worthy?  I've never been in an assembly in which murders, rapists, abusers identified themselves.

  15. Unsystematically, via triage, is how the humorlessly closed-minded do it. For references, see "The History of Christianity." 

    On a less uproariously hilarious note, the Catholic model, as I see it, is a combination of the visible and invisible. It is liberal with entering its communion through baptism--for it sees Christ's death and resurrection as a public fact--that's why it baptizes infants and liberally throws baptismal water around at its processions. 

    But it is conservative with its communion, its Eucharist, asking first if one has entered via baptism (a visible fact apart from a person's spiritual essence at the time), and then whether one is in a "state of grace." Jesus suggested something similar, in different words, regarding going to "offer sacrifice" (Mt. 5:24).

    For a dull summary of the Catholic facts:

  16. Chris, you may remember how we contrasted our traditions along these lines. The low view of baptism in the Catholic church combined with her high view of Eucharist. Where in my tradition it's a high view of baptism combined with a low view of Eucharist (we call it Communion).

    I wonder if there's something in all this. Crudely, we "waste" Eucharist and you "waste" baptism.

    I was also talking with an Episcopal priest this week about their imposing ashes on the street this last Lent. While they practice a form closed communion they were "giving away" or "wasting" the imposition of ashes. It makes me wonder about when, where, and why we might do such things in our various traditions.

  17. The possibility of distributing largesse to the undeserving is apparently a general problem in the context of providing social welfare programs such as unemployment benefits, universal medical care, aid to dependent children. Example, the county health department here (rural) is desparately underfunded, which means that I and my children are no doubt confronted with untreated serious illnesses ... tuberculosis, hepatitis, MERSA ... at school, at the movies, in the produce department, at the park. But the benefit that would accrue to society as a whole is trumped by fear of waste and "perverse incentives". 

    On the other hand, when we are playing at cops & robbers (or drones & insurgents) we don't worry nearly so much about distributing retribution to the undeserving innocent.

  18. Its all about what the symbol actually means, it's semiotics--the form and structure of a symbol. How do certain symbols derive their form and how does the traditional meanings and boundaries of symbols relate to the meanings we create in the moment? Is a shower a baptism? Is a baptism a baptism if one does not say, for example, the trinitarian declaration which Christ commanded (Mt 28:19); or if it is only self-done? Is every dinner table the eucharist? Or is eucharist only when we particularly remember Christ and his words of institution? Or is it eucharist if we simply remember a pagan Aztec human sacrifice?

    The symbol must have meaning, form.As art gets its beauty from drawing the line, the same goes for public art and enactments. The act is special when it has form. The question is not whether or not to draw the line, but where and how. For even the "open communionists" are still closed--for they too want the ritual to have shape, to be something at some moments, to be considered special, mindful, and sacred. Most Christians, even the one's pretending to inclusivity, still say, "take this if you are baptized"--for even this restriction is a positive aid in giving shape and form to the eucharistic act. They are in turn saying, "don't take (yet) this if you are not (yet) baptized."

  19. I think this point actually plays back quite nicely into yesterday's post, too. Even if I'm nervous about refusing the narrative of victimhood to everyone within the Church, for the reasons I mentioned yesterday, I think there are certainly plenty of times, especially in the privileged West, where the challenge is not to align ourselves with the victims but to acknowledge our complicity in violence. And it seems to me that the Catholic practice of closed communion belongs to a bigger narrative within the Catholic church about purity and about being in the right that's one of the things that often troubles me about Catholic magisterial theology. I recently read a document about the role of theologians in the Church by the Catholic International Theological Commission: what struck me about it was the refusal to admit that the Catholic church ever made mistakes, that there would ever be a need for theologians to tell the hierarchy that they were *wrong* about things. The Church (Catholic an Protestant) has done terrible things in the past; it continues to do terrible things today; it seems to me that closed communion is a practice which makes it very difficult to acknowledge that reality.

  20. Out here at our little Bible church in the sticks we don't say that when we do our juice and crackers once a month. We had a going-to-the-water at Easter and a surprising number of the regulars received baptism (which Pastor does believe is important). My encounter was via a high-church eucharist; my baptism was later and by comparison a very tame experience. Which is all to say that yes, the symbol is fungible; the reality is being born again, which I do believe transends the semiotics. And being born again is offered to all at every moment.

    For some the sacred, "set apart" is important. For me the kingdom inbreaking means it is breaking out from the sacred space into the everyday world. So yes, every meal becomes a eucharist, which is why we like to say grace.

  21. Richard, I find myself in my "heart" agreeing with you, but I also find a lot missing in your exposition of the rationale for an open communion.  I was a "closed communion church of Christ" person for decades, then open communion Episcopalian and now a closed communion Eastern Orthodox.  It has little to do with "protecting the Eucharist" nor limiting access to God.  It stems from a high view of the nature of the Church, baptism, eucharist and a sacramental world view.  We close communion for the same reason "the Church" in Ephesians is not defined as anyone and everyone.  It is "the body of Christ" and in the world but not of it.  The Eucharist is the bread of life for the community of faith (I Cor. 11 reinforces this as Chris points out).  There is a table (altar) of the Lord and one of demons and one cannot partake of both.  The Church does not exclude sinners but is the place of refuge, solace, health, healing and love for them.  When one comes to Christ, one comes to His Body: the Church and His Altar whereupon He offers the "food of immortality" (John 6).  To offer the Eucharist to sinners without offering the Body of Christ and the fellowship in and through His blood (ie, the Cross) is doing it backwards.  The Eucharist is not about hospitality and making people FEEL included (or NOT feel rejected) as in the "common shared meal" (which is also sacramental in its own way), it is properly one of the two sacraments of the Church, the body of Christ: baptism and eucharist.  In this regard I would say the church of Christ touched the hem of the garment but once I got past my knee jerk reaction against closed communion I found a fullness of a sacramental world view to be compelling within the Christian East's practice and teaching.  God bless you for this discussion. I'd be interested in being a fly on the wall between you and Chris.  :)

  22. Speaking of the "Catholic" church and its history of participating in violence, especially in the 20th Century, I have just finished reading the book by David Yallop titled The Power and the Glory : Inside the Dark Heart of John Paul II's Vatican.

    Read and weep. It is a perfect example how power always corrupts, and absolute (self-appointed) power corrupts absoluttely. ABSOLUTE because the benighted denizens that infest the vatican have always, and still do, pretend that they are doing "god's work" in the world
    Anything, even the most monstrous of crimes can thus be justified

    And then ask how any so called "Catholic" can keep a straight face and pretend that the "Catholic" church is anything but evil. Of course what is described in the book has always been the norm.
    Google The Criminal History of the Papacy by Tony Bushby for instance.
    Or ask how/why the "Catholic" church is collectively the worlds third biggest land owner.
    Jesus of course owned precisely nothing and spoke out against all worldly powers, including ecclesiastical worldly power.

  23. I go to a church that celebrates open communion and when the pastor gives the invitation it goes something like this:
    "Metropolitan Community Churches everywhere shamelessly and joyfully celebrate an open communion. Everyone is welcome at this table, no matter who you are or where you've been, no matter what language you use to describe yourself or your god. we do this because we believe the gifts of god are for all the people. Please, the table is set; come and be fed." God may also do something with the Eucharist/communion in believers and non-believers alike through open communion.  I'm thinking of Sara Miles in her book "Take This Bread."
    She was an atheist who wandered into an Episcopal church with open
    communion, felt compelled to take communion for some reason and had a
    conversion experience. Who are we to stand in the way of what God may want to do in the life of someone who "shouldn't" take communion?

  24. Chris, I hope you'll forgive my intrusion in your dialogue with Dr. Beck...  The interaction between you two here has been fascinating to me, particularly the reference to symbolism of the sacred (i.e., Eucharist).

    A few nights ago, as I was browsing in Barnes & Noble, the book 'I Am a Strange Loop' popped out at me from the shelf.  I thought to myself, I have seen that title somewhere before...  Didn't take me long to trace it back to this blog!  (How serendipitous for me to happen upon this book at precisely the time that I needed to read that series here!  Go figure?)

    I just finished (re)reading the 5-part series -- accessible a ways down on the sidebar.  Dr. Beck makes a good case for *both* the Catholic and the Protestant view of Eucharist/Communion:  supernatural, miraculous presence of Christ in the bread and wine + corporate *re-membering* of the saints.

    The notion of "soul shards" resonated with me, in the context of Communion, as I reflected on one of the most meaningful Communion experiences of my life.  On All Saint's Day at our church, the pastor's introductory suggestion was that at the Lord's Table, we would be "re-membering" all those in the body of Christ -- past, present, AND future.  The universal, inclusive, eternal aspect of that idea (all ONE in Christ, who lives on in and through us...eventually, at least) was *so* beautiful to me.  Imagine...

    For what it's worth, I appreciate and admire the beauty of Catholic ritual and mysticism.  I think I'm just greedy; I want it all -- both the Catholic form (mystical) and Protestant function (practical openness).

    Peace, Susan

  25. Hi! I studied for my MA in Theology at a Catholic University and I recall learning that the Eucharist is one of the seven official sacraments. Those actively participating in that sacrament are undergoing a process of self-identity and saying to each other what it is that they believe the Eucharist is all about. The Catholic Church has a rather particular belief around the Eucharist where it would not be appropriate for a person to partake if he or she does not believe in the transubstantiation or other elements of Catholic doctine that revolve around Eucharist. It would be unnececessary and somewhat disrespectful to partake without a respect for those elements. That said, God is most likely pleased with anyone received Holy Communion with a genuine heart. But, I do understand that the Catholic Church has a particular belief around Eucharist and it runs deep into the sacramental experience. I'm happy to respect that and let all of the Catholics self-identify together and eat their bread, saying "we believe this is actually the body of Jesus," among other things.

  26. The "old catholics" (non-Roman Catholic) have a similar theology and do practice open communion. While I respect that the RC can and should set its own standards for the eucharist, I don't think it's inherently in the eucharist theology that one can't have an open communion. The Old Catholic priest who did our wedding had an antiduron (sp?) (a separate unblessed loaf) for people who didn't want to participate in the sacramental bread but not because they weren't welcome at the sacrament. It was because he had a Jewish rabbi once who felt he couldn't participate in the sacrament but wanted to participate in the fellowship of the table.

  27. Doesn't it all depend on what the Eucharist is for? Is the Eucharist a salvific means to the grace of God or is it a meal reserved for the fellowship of Christians? Has Jesus' blood been shed once and for all or is it parcelled out through the Church to those deserving and held back from those undeserving? Steps into the ancient church used to require years of preparation before admittance to the Eucharist. However, Paul seems to offer a theology of fellowship meals that invited all to the supper. I tend to agree that Communion should be open but to what purpose and what effect?

  28. Thanks. Great points. I hadn't run into this notion of "waste," and I don't think it is helpful, for precisely the reasons you give. Great points.

    I do hear other arguments for closed communion that might be more helpful, but those aren't the point of this post of yours.

    By the way, thanks for taking the opening of communion so seriously. My greatest complaint about open communion, in my limited experience, is that it explicitly individualizes communion. Instead of arguing that the church should explicitly welcome all people to the table (on Christological grounds), I hear it argued that the church should not welcome anyone--or debar anyone--or do anything other than let everybody decide for themselves. This makes the church little more than a vending machine--put in your quarter, get out your bread and juice.

    Of course, if the church is not a vending machine but a welcomer of sinners into the embrace of Jesus, we need to think harder about how to make that welcome MORE transformative and life-giving. How to do this well seems to me to be a worthy discussion to have.

  29. Amen! this is the most helpful. Closed communion historically was combined with "robust rituals of embrace"--when someone is barred from communion, taken through a process of healing, and then re-admitted. Open communion can accomplish the same thing, I hope. Individualistic take-it-anonymously-without-the-church-prying-into-your-private-affairs--that's fake welcome, fake reconciliation, fake acceptance, fake grace.

  30. Thanks for mentioning the tension.

    Having been in a "closed communion" fellowship, I want to mention that we would never have described it that way. We would have said, "Of course the communion table is open to all. Follow us through the baptistry to the table, and let's have a meal together."That may sound insufficiently welcoming to some. But to us it was just common sense--like inviting someone to come through the front door to the dining table to eat a meal together, rather than "welcoming" them to reach through the kitchen to grab a piece of the food.

  31.  As George MacDonald wrote, "There is no saving of the masses." There's no way to take the individual out of the equation unless the org acts as a control-base power, because only a person has a heart, mind, soul, and strength with which to love God and others.

  32. MacDonald's quote was "If a thousand be converted at once, it is still every single lonely man who is saved." Each man or woman deciding for Christ him/herself. It is only between autonomous individuals that there can be any real relationship, whether in a church or in a family. Otherwise, it's just one side telling the other what he/she can or cannot do.

  33. What about closed communion as an effort to protect those that would partake unworthily, eating and drinking judgement upon themselves? 

  34. In case this hasn't been said yet (I've skimmed the comments, but I can't read them carefully enough to see if it's been said already), why is anyone assuming that only non-baptised people (or non-Christians) are murderers, rapists, and domestic abusers? In the most closed communion practised, the Eucharist is almost certainly already being given to murderers, rapists, and domestic abusers, either known or unknown. Sinlessness has never been what prevented access; being out-group is.

  35. A lot of time has passed and I want to add one more thing. I think the only thing a clergy person needs to say before giving communion is what communion is for. I don't think that person need so mention anything at all about who is NOT supposed to take communion. If it is clear what communion is for then people who want that will take it and those who don't will not. If someone takes communion just because everyone else is doing it...maybe they will be changed anyway, maybe a tiny piece of Jesus has made there way into that person. Why would we limit that? Like you said, Jesus already wasted his life anyway. I am very much in favor of open communion now.

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