catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 3 :: 2010.02.05 — 2010.02.18


The Eucharist is an economic act

What did Jesus mean when he instructed his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me?”  The late theologian John Howard Yoder has argued persuasively that the “this” that Jesus spoke of was neither celebrating the Jewish Passover meal (because records of the Early Church show they did not interpret it in this way) nor simply a religious sacrament (a much later development in the history of the Church).  Instead, Yoder argues that Jesus was referring to any common meal of the church.  In Body Politics, he says:

Bread eaten together is daily sustenance.  Bread eaten together is economic sharing. Not merely symbolically, but also in fact, eating together extends to a wider circle the economic solidarity normally obtained in the family….  In short, the Eucharist is an economic act.  To do rightly the practice of breaking bread together is a matter of economic sharing.

For us here at Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, this understanding of the Eucharist has been essential to our identity and to our (ongoing) transformation from understanding ourselves primarily as a religious community to becoming a real, holistic community, the life of which sweeps through every moment of every day.  As a result of the individualism of our age, it is a great temptation to see our churches as religious communities, whose work is primarily concerned with spiritual matters, and is in contrast to the physical world in which we work and feed and cover ourselves.  This dualistic temptation is one that we must resist with every fiber of our being!  Part of our growing deeper together as church communities is the task of finding ways to embody the wisdom of God as the church in all facets of life.  Thus, a church should care about how its members and neighbors are fed and housed and employed.  These economic realities of our life together in Christ are extensions of our partaking together in the bread and the cup (as we at Englewood do in our weekly gathering on Sunday mornings).  Just as a family discerns together how its needs are going to be met — a dinner-table-type conversation — so our church communities must discern the exact shape of how we are going to embody the sharing of Eucharist in our daily life together.  There have been three crucial practices that have been formative in the shape of our church as a Eucharistic community: making sure our members have adequate, affordable housing; finding opportunities to work together; and eating together.

Being in an economically-depressed urban area, we came to realize that housing was a significant challenge of our place and we began to explore the housing needs of our members, helping church members who were in bad housing situations (rental or ownership) get into better and more stable housing. This often took some creativity. For instance, in some cases we arranged short- or long-term co-housing solutions, where one person or family shared a home with another.  We have a real estate agent in our church who is an invaluable resource in this endeavor of making sure our members have good housing. We found that if people needed to move to new homes, it was best to consider possibilities that put them in closer proximity with other brothers and sisters from the church community.  We moved several of our older members into houses close to the church building.  Other times, we had a single person or a couple without children move in with an elderly member (or vice versa). We found that many elderly people who are unable to live by themselves do not have constant medical needs that would mandate that they live in a nursing home. Such people often just needed someone to keep tabs on them and occasionally offer assistance.

Secondly, we found opportunities to work together (for fun, profit or both). This is one of the biggest shifts we made away from being merely a religious community that assembles once or twice a week to a real, holistic community, whose life flows throughout the whole week. For us, we started small businesses as people with gifts came forward wanting to work with the church. First, given the abundance of abandoned housing in our neighborhood and our efforts to care for the housing needs of our members (as described above), we had, and still have, plenty of work to do in home renovation.  Some of this contracting work was done by volunteer groups from the church, other parts were done by skilled employees of our church’s Community Development Association, which was started as a response to the opportunities we found in housing.  We also had a CPA who wanted out of the business world, and we were able to find sufficient work for her doing bookkeeping for churches and other non-profits, which eventually led to job opportunities for others in bookkeeping. I have long had side jobs doing publishing and bookselling, and eventually an opportunity opened up for me to do this work for the church, first in a part-time role and then in a full-time one. Opportunities opened up for good work that needed to be done and for which people would pay; we matched that work with people from our congregation who were gifted accordingly.

Finally, we began to share meals together more frequently.  We had Bible study groups that would share a meal together as part of their gathering, and several years ago, we started a Wednesday night hospitality dinner for our church community as well as our neighbors.  We had to discuss how the work needed for that meal was to be taken care of (preparing food, serving it, cleaning up). We ended up deciding to charge a nominal fee ($2/adult, $1/young child) to cover the cost of the food and we have rotations of teams that do the work of cooking and cleaning up. Often, families who have children in our daycare will stay for dinner after picking up their kids.  There have been multitudes of ways over the years in which needs of our members or neighbors have been taken care of, simply by gathering people around dinner tables and talking together.  We also have been challenged to reflect on where the food that we eat together is coming from and at what cost — human and ecological — it is coming to our table.  Thus, we have been trying to grow at least some of the food that we serve during the summer months (particularly salads, and we had a bumper crop of green beans!).

I love the Greek word “koinonia,” which often has the misfortune of getting translated into the timeworn, religious word “fellowship.”  Perhaps a better translation — albeit somewhat awkward — for at least some of its New Testament usages might be “having-in-common-ness.”  It is the Eucharist that guides us into this sort of sharing life of koinonia.  I have described here some of the ways in which the Holy Spirit has begun to bless us with koinonia, a blessing whose end is not us but to be poured forth from us into a broken world that cries out for healing.  The question remains, however, how are we — here at Englewood and you in your particular place — being called to grow even deeper together into the sharing, Eucharistic life of Christ’s death and resurrection?

Parts of this essay have been adapted from the author’s recent book Growing Deeper in Our Church Communities, available as a free eBook.

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