Beneath the Words, A Deeper Communion

June 28, 2012

 Christians everywhere celebrate communion.  Christians do it because of quite specific guidance given by Jesus in the Bible: “this do in remembrance of me.”

That instruction appears in all four gospels (Matthew 26: 26-28; Mark 14: 22-24; Luke 22: 17-20), and it is emphasized by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26:  “23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (NIV).

What could be clearer than this explicit, detailed instruction?

And yet Quakers do not celebrate communion.  Virtually alone among Christians, and to the dismay of most Christians, we refrain from a scheduled performance of this ritual sacrament.  What does this say about how we read the Bible — and about how we might read the Bible about homosexuality?

The Roman Catholic Church came to identify seven sacraments:  Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist (Communion), Penance (Confession), Extreme Unction, Holy Orders, and Matrimony (Marriage).  The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us these are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”  The Orthodox Church observes the same seven, but uses somewhat different terminology.

Anglicans teach that the sacraments are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.”  They hold up Communion and Baptism as the only two ordained by Christ in the gospels, but celebrate the others, a bit divided about whether they should be called “sacraments.

Other Protestants also pared down the number of sacraments, but most recognize Baptism and Communion as practices established by Jesus.

The outliers are we Quakers.  Right from the beginnings, Quakers went farther than other reformers.  The first Friends didn’t simply pare down the number of sacraments from seven to two.  Instead, they ceased all observance of such rituals.

Eden Grace, now an FUM missionary serving in Kenya, states well the Quaker case: “We do not reject the spiritual realities toward which sacraments point. We recognize baptism as the transformation of life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We recognize communion as the presence of Jesus Christ in our corporate worship. We recognize ordination as the diverse giftedness for ministry of all people. We recognize these things, and rejoice in them, but we do not believe that the church should seek to initiate them through ritual means.”  (http://www.edengrace.org/sacraments.htm.)

It is the outward ritual to which we object, seeking instead a deeper inward experience.  We look beyond the surface of the actual words to try to grasp the holy experience.

In a November 1998 Quaker Life article, Bruce Bishop, former superintendent of Northwest Yearly Meeting, reminds us that we should try to bring “the Holy into every moment.”  He adds, “Rather than reserving our attempts at integration to just two or seven events, we are to live sacramentally.” (https://www.fum.org/QL/issues/9811/bishop.htm.)

“Live sacramentally:” that’s a phrase that Friends have often used.  Live with the understanding that we should strive to consider all moments, all doings, all attitudes as holy, as imbued with God’s love. We believe it is distracting and potentially shallow to imbue some periodic ritual with special significance.

Eden Grace quotes British Quaker Janet Scott as saying “we are talking about Christianity as a way of life which puts God at the center and sees dependence on the Holy Spirit as a daily gift. Thus, baptism with water is unnecessary because the Spirit baptizes all those who respond to the Light; outward ritual in worship is unnecessary because true worship waits on God to receive the power and inspiration of the Spirit; the Spirit ordains those who are to speak and this ordination lasts for as long as the message is being delivered. There is no creed because the Spirit cannot be fettered by words; whether someone is a Christian is shown by the quality of a faithful life rather than by what is said or believed.” (Janet Scott, “Silent or Silenced? The Religious Society of Friends and Ecumenical Dialogue,” unpublished essay, 2001).

Fox and Fell and the other valiant founders of Friends knew and revered the Bible.  They came to our understanding of communion in the face of clear textual direction in the gospels to perform a particular ritual.  Following them, we seek, and we believe we find, a deeper communion by looking beneath the words and committing ourselves to a fuller spiritual life.

In reading the Bible, we have consistently shown we can go deeper than the words, seeking the leadings of the Holy Spirit.  So on the occasion of five far-from-clear Bible snippets that may or may not be about same-sex-relations, why do we insist on getting stuck on the text itself?  Why can we not more deeply affirm love between two human beings?  The centrality of love is what Jesus taught.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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