A month or so ago, I asked my Twitter followers whether they thought the Eucharist was the centerpiece of Christian worship and, if so, why. The responses were varied. Some insisted only Jesus is the center; others touted the Gospel as the center. I then clarified by saying that unquestionably, Jesus and the Gospel announcement of Him is the center; but what symbol, what act in corporate worship reinforces that center? Here again the responses varied. Some affirmed the Eucharist as a special act; others refused any ritual or ceremony and spoke of only what the “Spirit leads us to do.” I promised to explore the question of the Eucharist and its place in our worship in a blog series, so here it is.
I simply want to examine the question of the Eucharist—or “Communion.” Is it special, or is it interchangeable? Is it a central act or a peripheral one? Let’s look at three broad ways the Church has viewed the Eucharist, drawing—admittedly, selectively—from Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant streams.
1. The Eucharist as SYMBOL.
The word “sacrament” comes from the Latin word sacramentum. Theologian Stanley Grenz wrote that in the early centuries, a sacramentum was “the oath of fidelity and obedience to one’s commander sworn by a Roman soldier upon enlistment in the army.”
Augustine expounded on this idea of the sacrament as a sign by describing it as an “outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible grace.” Centuries later, combating the Medieval belief that communion was the very thing that saved you, Protestant Reformer Martin Luther described the Eucharist as a sign of “God’s promise given to faith”—language that is unmistakably Augustinian. The Eucharist as a “sacrament,” then, is an act of faith, in which we receive and experience God’s promised grace.
2. The Eucharist as MYSTERY.
Because of the dominance of Greek in the early centuries, the Greek fathers appealed to certain New Testament texts that contain the word mysterion—like Ephesians 3:2-3—as the basis for calling these symbolic acts “mysteries” and not “sacraments.” While a sacrament may be a sign, a mystery involves room for something beyond what we can know. The Eastern Orthodox Church, as I understand it, speak of the “mysteries” and not of “sacraments.”
Thomas Cranmer, the English Reformer, refused to explain how Christ is present with the church gathered to worship at the Table. He used the words “mysteries” and “mystical” to describe the communion elements in general and the Body of Christ in particular. This may have been a reference to the Greek mysterion. The Eucharist as a mystery is a place where we tremble in worship, for something too great for words or understanding is taking place.