: : Feast of Love table

: : Feast of Love table (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Communion is one of the most celebrated and controversial forms of worship in the church historically. It possesses a plethora of symbolic value for believers and has been the focus of much research and discussion. So why is another voice needed in this conversation? What possible new thing can be added to the already comprehensive conversation? And what more can we learn from this ordinance?[1] Recently, I began pondering communion from a different perspective. I have come to sense that there is another dimension to this practice that may offer further insight to the role it plays for the community of believers.

First I must state that the focus of my reflection is the narrative nature of the ordinance and how through participation in it we consequently share in the communion of identity both with Jesus Christ and the body of believers. I am convinced that valuable theological insight can be gleaned from the narrative nature of this ordinance. After reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s work After Virtue, I began wondering about the narrative nature of this profound gift and its dynamic relationship to the identity of believers. How does re-enactment of this narrative affect believers? Or more specifically, “what occurs, from the perspective of narrative, when believers participate in communion?” It is my premise that our understanding of this ordinance can be expanded by looking at its narrative qualities as rooted in the gospels and reenacted in the Christian community.

However, before going further it is necessary to offer some explanation as to what I mean by the “narrative nature” of these ordinances. A simplistic definition of narrative is story. Using Aristotle’s model let us say that a story (narrative) consists of a beginning, middle, and ending. Thus “narrative nature” as used in this reflection consists of the story-like quality of the ordinance.

Still this may leave some wondering why this is important. Imagine each individual on this planet as being a story (narrative). Each story tells of the events of that particular life with a beginning (birth), a middle (childhood-adulthood), and an ending (death). Not only are the stories made up of events but also settings and most importantly characters (in relationship). In essence each of the characters within the individual narrative is an additional narrative in itself. Its presence within the particular narrative as “character” signifies a relationship to the subject. The type of relationship existing between the character and subject does not matter. Its very presence indicates an identity shaping effect upon the subject narrative, whether positive or negative. This illustrates MacIntyre’s statement that says, “I am part of their story, as they are part of mine.”[2]  While it demonstrates the interconnection between people, it also shows the contribution that external narratives make to the identity of the individual. Each individual brings with her a unique perspective made up of various life experiences. This perspective consists of every event experienced in life, every conclusion drawn, every relationship held, everything that makes her who she is. When two or more perspectives intersect, change takes place. The simple encounter that occurs alters each perspective as they become part of each other’s story. In fact, it can be argued that the more times these same narratives intersect the more they begin sharing common experience and perspective. Admittedly this building commonality between the narratives can become threatened when conflict occurs. However, as the narratives dialectically negotiate through the conflict, resolution and growth may also occur. Therefore, in as much as believers share in communion, so also the “congregant narratives” encounter the Jesus narrative communing in each other’s story both binding together in commitment and community.

In the practice of communion not only do believers form narrative commonality through shared experience but a more profound merging of story occurs as the gathered community enters the story of Jesus. In the Church of the Brethren we practice feetwashing, agape meal and the Eucharist as a threefold communion. The Early Brethren went to extraordinary lengths to form this practice as the first disciples practiced it. For some this may be a trivial point but in terms of narrative and in light of affective practice on identity, it is significant as the gathered believers enter into the Jesus story through the mimetic telling and acting out of the narrative. This practice transcends the simple remembrance of cognitive knowledge to holistic body knowledge (as the very muscles and sinew of the participants takes on the memory as part of the story) as the believers enter the drama with explanatory narration and physical engagement in the movements of the Lord’s Supper.[3] Thus the community of believers not only enters this story but becomes part of the story as it is physically lived out in the moment.

In a world that continues to elevate information, the individual and politicize community creating an overwhelming chasm of division which is destructive to identity at worst and distorts identity at best. It seems that the answer to the present community conundrums lies not only in the story we tell but the story we live. The narrative nature of human existence is significant, but more significant is the story to which all people are invited to enter. It’s not enough to simply tell yet another story to a world filled with stories regardless of the hope it may promise. Stories become real when they are lived and entered into. And the gathered disciples embody the risen Messiah in as much as they live the Messiah’s story.

[1]In the book John Christopher Thomas poses a final question regarding “the theological relevance of the Johannine community’s view of footwashing for contemporary Christian worship.” Perhaps this may contribute in some small way to an understanding of its relevance. Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community. (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 189.

[2]Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition.  (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

[3]See James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom for the significance of formative practices.

  1. […] Communion and Identity Formation(hermestable.wordpress.com) […]

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