Saturday, July 4, 2009

For the Life of the World 2.1

“Lift up Your Hearts": Eastern Orthodoxy, Reformed Protestantism, and the Eucharist (Part 1)

Before we progress forward with our study, I think we need to backtrack a little bit to last time. What, according to Schmemann, is the purpose for the world that God has created? Blessing, communion with God, food that fulfills the hunger of our bodies and inclines our hearts to the One all of our hunger is pointing to.

What does our author believe to be our purpose as human beings? We are to bless God for His gifts. Schmemann even calls us priests. What he's trying to get across in that description is that we are to thankfully receive God's gifts and, as a response, give ourselves and those gifts right back to God. It's in this that we find our purpose and that the world finds its purpose.

But something went wrong. What does our author see as the thing that went wrong? Sin entered the picture. What is the original sin? It was failing to give God praise and thanks for His gifts. Basically, we tried to steal the world from God and we found that without God, the world had no life in it. That's how death entered the picture.

So, what is Jesus's mission? What did the Incarnation, the cross, the grave, and the Resurrection accomplish? He gave all of life back to us; He gave us what we were hungry for all along but didn't realize it. Jesus uses the language of food to tell us this; that's what he means when he calls Himself the Bread of Life. Our hunger for food is a reflection of our hunger for God. Jesus is the Bread that fulfills this hunger.

We are talking today about what the Eastern Orthodox understand to happen when they gather together to receive Communion. We will also be talking about what we as Reformed Christians believe regarding the sacrament, and we are going to compare and contrast that to what Schmemann has to say about the Orthodox view. We can't really say that Presbyterians have just one opinion about what happens when we take Communion, so that part, at least, should give us opportunity for a lively discussion.

Last time, we spoke at length about secularism and dualism. I got myself into some trouble when we started talking about "traditional" American Christianity. I guess we disagreed a little bit about "traditional" American Christianity or whether it even exists, but I referred to what I see as the unbalanced otherworldliness of our brand of Christian faith. Well, of course, the hope of heaven is absolutely a valid aspect of our faith; in fact, it is the hope that all other hopes rest on, and that is exactly where we are headed today as we ascend into heaven with the Orthodox in their celebration of the Eucharist.

Before we do that, though, we need to keep our eyes focused on earth for just a moment. As Chris (a fellow seminarian in the congregation) reminded us last time, not everyone in our world experiences the world as a blessing from God. For some people, the world is an awful place filled with hunger, violence, suffering, and death. For people who don't have enough to eat, they do not experience their food or their lack of it as communion with God.

These kinds of things remind us that all is not right just yet in the world. In spite of what Schmemann said in chapter 1 about Jesus returning the world to us as communion with God, as sacrament, as Eucharist, we recognize that everything isn't fixed just yet back here on earth. That is why the Eastern Orthodox believe they must ascend into heaven where Christ is, because it is only there that Christ's reign is already fully realized and everything is set to rights.

I want to point us to this; when the Eastern Orthodox celebrate the Eucharist and go into heaven, where they are going is the "world to come," and, by "world to come," they do not mean some other world someplace else. What they mean is this world that we live in right now, but in the future after Jesus has returned and set everything to rights. It's not so much that the Orthodox are going somewhere "up there" but that they are moving forward in time to that point in history when heaven comes to earth. That's the heaven to which the Orthodox ascend in the Eucharist.

I might add that this is my own personal understanding of heaven. The New Heaven and New Earth, symbolized in the city of New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation, is the Father's house that Jesus told His disciples that He was going away to so that He could prepare it for us. When we die in the Lord, we are ultimately coming back here to reign with Jesus from the New Jerusalem.

Now we get to talk about mission. The reason the Orthodox ascend into heaven to eat the Body and Blood of the Lord is so that they can see, reflected in the light of the Savior's face, that God's good world is filled with His glory and that it is the means of communion with God.

Perhaps for the Orthodox the appropriate way to sing that classic hymn we all know would be:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus.
Look full in His wonderful face.
And the things of earth will shine clear and true
in the light of his glory and grace.

It would be more accurate to sing this instead of the traditional "the things of earth will grow strangely dim" because in Christ's presence, the things of earth will not "grow strangely dim" but will shine ever brighter, reflecting His glory all the more!

And not only do they see the heaven and earth are filled with God's glory during their ascension but they also touch it and eat it. The idea that the world is given as communion with God is so strong for the Orthodox here that they say that their offering of bread and wine becomes Christ's literal Body and Blood. We'll return to this question of Christ's presence in the bread and wine at some point.

Mission. That's where I was going. The Orthodox ascend into heaven so that they can experience the world as it is meant to be and as it will be when Christ returns and so that they can then come back into the world in their time and place and tell about what they "have heard and seen with their own eyes and handled with their own hands concerning the Word of Life" (1 John 1:1). And this is that Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth and that the world is filled with His glory and is thus a means of communion with Him. I think Schmemann describes this beautifully on 28. This is an important passage. It brings up a couple of important ideas:

The early Christians realized that in order to become the temple of the Holy Spirit they must ascend to heaven where Christ has ascended. They realized also that this ascension was a very condition of their mission in the world, of their ministry to the world. For there—in heaven—they were immersed in the new life of the Kingdom; and when after this "liturgy of ascension," they returned into the world, their faces reflected the light, the "joy and peace" of that Kingdom and they were truly its witnesses. They brought no programs or theories; but wherever they went, the seeds of the Kingdom sprouted, faith was kindled, life was transfigured, things impossible were made possible.

The first thing we see, and this is mentioned several other places in this chapter, is that the liturgy of ascension is required so that the Church can become the Church. In the Eucharist, then not only is the bread believed to become the Body of Christ but the group of people who share in the sacrament is believed to become the Body of Christ also.

This points to an important term from chapter 1:

leitourgia- n.: 1) an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals—a whole greater than the sum of its parts; 2) function or ministry of a person or of a group on behalf of or in the interest of the whole community.

Okay. For the Orthodox, the Eucharist is the leitourgia of the Church—it is the set of actions by which individuals who believe in Jesus become the Church.

The second part of the definition for leitourgia brings up the other point that I wanted to lift out of the passage on page 28.

The Church does not exist for our benefit but for the benefit of the world. The Church is Christ's own presence in the world. We act in the world in Christ's stead, bearing witness to His Kingdom and preparing the way for His Second Coming. That's what I've got to say to briefly sum up the distinctively Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist.

Now for a general discussion about the sacrament from our perspective, both what each of us understands personally and the Reformed view that is reflected in the Communion liturgy we use in the Presbyterian Church USA. In the process, let's compare and contrast this with what Schmemann has told us about the Orthodox perspective in chapter 2 of For the Life of the World.

First off, I think it would be instructive for us to define just what we mean by the term sacrament. We know that baptism and the Lord's Supper are sacraments, and, from what Schmemann says, the Church is in some sense, a sacrament also. What is a sacrament?

Westminster Shorter Catechism Q 92: A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.

Sacraments are also elsewhere described in the Reformed tradition as "visible words." This raises the question: What is required for a sacrament? The Word and something that is a sign of Christ. Is that all? Are not the people, the officiant(s), ritual actions also required? A sacrament is a ritual. The ritual, not just the signs given but the whole action is sacramental; it is liturgy, leitourgia.

Are sacraments just signs? In other words, are sacraments purely human efforts? Is God active in the sacraments? Does God do something to us corporately and individually in the sacraments?

Westminster Shorter Catechism says that Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers. We have this idea of a sacramental union between the sign and the reality it points to. For believers, both the sign and the reality are presented to them in the sacrament. Yet, even though sign and reality are both present, we still maintain that they are somehow distinct.

We will continue our discussion of the Eucharist next time.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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