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Lecture Notes: Regent College Pastor’s Conference on the Lord’s Supper

May 10, 2013

This week I had the privilege to attend a Pastor’s Conference at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., on “Restoring the Centre: The Place of the Table in the Church.” The conference included theological expositions by Hans Boersma and Alan Torrance, “Praxis” sessions with Andrea Tisher, Joyce Rees and Brian Buhler, and ecumenical engagements with Buhler (evangelical), Fr. Lawrence  Farley (Orthodox) and Tim Horman (Charismatic). The most compelling for me were the Praxis sessions, but I took no notes at these and thus will confine myself to a couple of the theological papers. After that I will raise some of the questions that sprung out of the conference as a whole.

Hans Boersma – “Eucharist and Time: Why Participation Means Sacrifice”

– With recollections from The Martyrdom of Polycarp as well as from John, Colossians, and a smattering of theologians, Boersma reflected on his discovery that “the early church is unanimous about the Eucharist being a sacrifice”–by which we mean not a repeated or “second” sacrifice, but a “participation in the one sacrifice of Christ.”

– With James Dunn he looked at Colossians 1:24–where Paul says his sufferings “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”–and said that our sufferings do not add something to Christ’s suffering, but do play a part in the “bringing to completion” of what is “still outstanding in the sufferings of Christ by which the world was redeemed and transformed.” Boersma made the interesting observation that this perspective (wherein our sufferings find themselves taken up in Christ’s) displaces a shallow “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” approach to life’s difficulties.

– The way Boersma made sense of this rather mysterious account of participatory suffering was to challenge a univocal understanding of time as a succession of chronological but separate points, substituting for it a sacramental understanding of time wherein past, present and future can be simultaneous to one another in the eternal Word. The same way that, for Melito of Sardis, Passover participated proleptically in the sacrifice of Christ, so our Eucharist participates in its prior accomplishment and its forward vocation.

Alan Torrance – “The Continuing Priesthood of Christ” and “The Sacraments and Proclamation”

– Torrance’s lectures were to some degree crib notes on the writings of James Torrance and Karl Barth — which means that they were good but also that I’d pondered their points before. It was fun to hear Barth presented to an evangelical audience boisterously and lucidly–and with a Scotch accent to boot.

– One of the asides that made me wonder was Torrance’s suggestion in the first lecture that prophets only emerged in Israel because of the failures of the priests and kings. “If you have good kings and priests you don’t need prophets,” he said. I’m not sure about this. I think it trades on only the negative aspect of the prophetic office. Surely the munus triplex has more positive meaning (which is something Barth himself has articulated almost better than anybody).

– Having said that, in the second lecture Torrance gave a very cogent presentation of a Barthian view of revelation in a Trinitarian frame, complete with the point that revelation has not fully occurred until it is successful, which means that it must involve the transformation of eyes and ears and lives. Revelation overcomes not only neutral unknowing but also error, and this is not by the awakening of some “innate spirituality” but by the miracle of Christ’s work of reconciliation.

– Turning to the Eucharist, then, Torrance was apt to explain that the Eucharist prioritizes the indicatives of grace from which the imperatives flow (rather than vice versa). I agreed with his correlating suggestion that the Lord’s Supper serves as an invitation and an enablement (rather than a result of) of the work of reconciliation between persons. To invert this would be the same as what we do in our moralistic preaching; turning grace into law.

Brian Buhler – “Recovering the Table for Evangelical Worship”

– This was an excellent presentation. Buhler made a great point about the “altar call” being “real presence” for non-sacramentalists, and called for a return to the Lord’s Supper as the climactic inviting and re-orientating moment in the church’s life and worship. Paul’s statement about eating in an “unworthy manner”  in 1 Corinthians 11 means eating “without recognizing the body of the Lord”, and this meant not the corporeal or sacramental body of Christ, but the gathered body of believers in a social reality continuous with the freedom of the meal itself.

Commentary:

I had two questions arising from Boersma’s session, but re-occurring often.  The first of these related to Boersma’s resistance to my suggestion (in the Q&A) that there might be a positive account of the Lord’s Supper prior to baptism (for those in the believer’s baptist tradition). In reply, Boersma simply recommended infant baptism, but I wonder if his presentation of “sacramental time” might serve as a reason to “loosen up” on a strictly sequential understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

My second of these questions had to do with the fact that Boersma’s illustrations regarding suffering with Christ mostly involved suffering at the hands of others. This prompted reflection about another aspect of the Eucharistic sacrifice: Might the Meal also serve as a call to suffer with one another through conflict and misunderstanding, leaning into Christ’s provision for reconciliation by faith? Whereas some of the later panelists suggested that interpersonal and ecumenical conflicts ought to be resolved before joining in the Holy Meal, it is my feeling that the Lord’s Table might better be seen as an invitation to–and even an enablement of–such paths of resolution. At the Table–where the presence of Christ slips past our tongues without need of our words–we put our trust in the Prince of Peace and suffer with others toward the peace that is in Christ for us by faith.

One last observation: As always, there was much to say about the “real presence” of Christ at the Table. As far as it functions in church life and mission, the “real presence” rescues us from both despondent depravity and triumphalist self-reliance. But it seems to me that there may also be a sense in which the “real absence” of the enfleshed Christ at the Table (cued to us by his Ascension, and also by the fact that the body and blood are indeed bread and wine) prompts us to trust in the Spirit to be made the embodiment of Christ’s presence on earth and to each other.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Ruth Shareski permalink
    May 10, 2013 10:48 pm

    Thanks so much for this…I would have loved to have been there. I also appreciate your comments. I taught on Sunday at a Women’s Retreat on coming to the table and was so moved by the truth that Jesus is Himself both Provider and Provision and so as you say surely the One who enables reconciliation between us, which in turn enables us to discern His Body. I also like your thought about the real absence / presence through the Spirit….so many facets of truth made accessible through the everyday elements.

  2. May 11, 2013 2:18 pm

    Thank you for this post. Nice to read your brief summaries of the lectures. The way Boersma opts for a ‘sacramental understanding of time’ doesn’t quite convince me. It seems to be ‘en vogue’ to call all sorts of things ‘sacramental’. But that kind of speech often seems to conceal more than it reveals. Like in Boersma’s case. How are we to understand a conception of time ‘wherein past, present and future can be simultaneous to one another in the eternal Word’?
    Your remark about the second lecture of Alan Torrance is intriguing. I mean his account of a Barthian view of thinking ‘revelation in a Trinitarian frame, complete with the point that revelation has not fully occurred until it is successful, which means that it must involve the transformation of eyes and ears and lives’. That, I would suggest, parallels Calvin’s understanding of a sacrament. A sacrament can’t be viewed without its effect. Only if the sacrament is received as such we can properly speak of a sacrament.
    Finally, I fully agree with your comment on Christ’s presence and his absence, in a certain way. That is the scope of the extra-calvinisticum. Far from flatly denying Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, it adds a qualification to that presence.
    I wondered if you could say a few words whether the way the Lord’s Supper is experienced these days was discussed during the conference. It seems to me, that the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Supper certainly isn’t shared in the same way by all the participants. To put it blandly: not a few concregation members do long more for a worship or praise event, then to a communion service. At least, that’s my impression in the Netherlands.
    Arjen

  3. May 13, 2013 4:55 pm

    Thanks for your comments.

    AT: I agree that the “sacramental time” stuff seems a bit ambiguous, but I took it to refer to the availability and openness of each “measure” of our chronological time to the pervading presence of the ascended Christ. In which case we can conceive of the meal as a special participation in the past, wherein we “partake” in the sacrifice of Christ, who is actually present to us in the meal as he was present on the cross.

    I share your general observations about common approaches to the Lord’s Supper. It is often perceived as little more than an element in an otherwise more amenably experienced worship service, rather than the central orienting act of the worshipping community. No doubt the community’s convictions about Jesus’ special presence in the meal are a huge factor in the seriousness with which they take the meal. I venture to guess that where the meal is but a symbol—or at least not far removed from any other worship events in terms of the degree or significance of Jesus’ being present to us—then it can tend to take a backseat to whatever symbols happen to be speaking more loudly to our sensibilities at any given time.

    I don’t know if my tradition is ready to speak of it as being that much more than a symbol, and this presents a dilemma for me. I’ve begun to wonder if I can recapture the significance of this meal not by emphasizing real presence, but the specific mode that Jesus’ presence in this event (as opposed to a song or prayer) is meant to have. So instead of bogging down in debate over “presence” or “symbol”, talk instead about the form Jesus’ presence takes with us as we join him at this Table.

  4. May 16, 2013 1:27 am

    Jon,

    Thanks for your reply. Your clarification about ‘sacramental time’ is illuminating. And I do agree with the basic thought by it. But I can’t help doubting whether such a phrase only posits the fact of Christ’s presence, instead of explaining it partially or at least clarifying it.
    I like the way you takes your tradition into account of how Christ’s presence can be emphasized. I’m not sure whether I grasp what you mean by the ‘form’ of Jesus’ presence. Do you think of the Lord’s Supper being a meal?

    Arjen

  5. May 16, 2013 7:43 am

    By “the form Jesus’ presence takes” I’m gesturing at the event of the Lord’s Supper, the actions which it calls for and compels, rather than simply the elements themselves. This brings to mind not only the hospitality and social-leveling of a shared meal but also the rhythms of confession and the ministry of reconciliation that it ought to perpetuate. However, I’m not sure I’ve been to many churches where there is much of any of this.

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