Eucharistic Theology and Ecclesiology

A few weeks ago Fuller seminary’s book store was shutting down and having a 90% off sale. Yes 90% off. I had mixed feelings; I was ecstatic that I could buy books for 90% but I was also sad because another local bookstore was shutting down. There really is somethings special about picking up a book reading a few pages and buying it, as compared to going on a shopping spree on Amazon. Anyway…. One of the dirt cheap books I bought was Eucharist: A Guide for the Perplexed by Ralph McMichael. I looked at it saw the price tag (Originally $25 but now $2.50), thought about the fact that I am utterly confused by Eucharistic theology and decided to splurge and purchase this book.

All the churches that I grew up in were not sacramental (in any sense of the word). The Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist) was simply a memorial. Christ was not present in, on, over, around, under, anywhere near the bread.

Jokingly we might say that in the Lord’s supper we celebrated the Lord’s absence not presence.

Since then I have formed a more robust Zwinglian theology of the Lord’s Supper but admittedly I still don’t have a sacramental mindset. In fact the more I read about the Eucharist the more I realize that Eucharistic or sacramental theology really is another worldview. Its metaphysics are completely different than what most of us are used to….

So I picked up this book to help me understand that foreign worldview. McMichael is the director for the Center for the Eucharist, so its fitting that he would write an introduction on it. Today I want to share with you a section of this book. Although he is referring to the Eucharist I believe that its equally applicable to any form of worship.

“Gathering is the dynamic of the church because it is the dynamic of salvation. Being saved is being gathered in God’s presence and life, participating in God’s life of communion. The church gathers because the church is gathering, and the essential act of this gathering is worship of the gathering God: Father, son, and Holy Spirit. As such, we can speak of four dimension of this gathering as church for the Eucharist: gathering into, gathering with, gathering for, and gathered by. (113)”

McMichael is thinking about gathering to celebrate the Eucharist, but since I don’t have a Eucharistic theology I can’t buy into that claim. Neverthless, I completely agree with him if we simply replace “Eucharist” with “Christ’s Presence through the Holy Spirit.” Let me flesh out what this means for you.

  1. Gathering Into: The fundamental reality of our faith as Christians is that we are united to Christ by the power of the Spirit because of the atoning work of Christ on the Cross. As those who are united to Christ we are brought into the very life of the Trinity. We participate in God’s life. Now when we gather together as a church we gather as a community that is in Christ. We encounter Christ’s presence in worship, in the Word preached, and even in the Lord’s Supper. When we gather as Church we gather together into Christ.
  2. Gathering With: As the assembly we do not gather with Christ alone. We gather together with our brothers and sisters who are also united to Christ. You cannot have church by yourself. A church made up of you and Jesus is not a church. When we gather as the local church we gather with others who also share in the life of the Trinity. But “gathering with” the saints goes beyond the local church. In Christ the invisible church is always gathered because all Christians across time and space are gathered together in Christ. When we gather as Church we gather with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
  3. Gathered For: We do not gather for the sake of ourselves. We gather for the sake of Christ. Christ meets us when we gather. We gather to worship. We worship through music, through the faithful and attentive listening to Christ’s word, and through the grateful partaking of the Lord’s Supper. We gather for worship; but we also gather to encounter Christ. We gather to meet him. The point is we never gather for our own sake. Even when gathering is considered from an anthropocentric lens, we should say that we gather to encounter Christ so that we might be sent out on mission for Christ. We gather for the praise and glory of Jesus.
  4. Gathered by: The Ecclesia is the called out assembly. We are called out by Christ. The lost sheep of Israel were gathered together by the good shepherded. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. You get the point. The church is composed of those who have been called out by God from before the foundations of the earth (yes I am a Reformed). The Church does not create itself. Jesus creates the church by the power of the Spirit. The Spirit takes the gospel, applies it to people’s hearts, regenerates them, and brings them to saving faith. The Church is made up of people who have been called out by God and joined to Christ by God’s own hands. This is how the church comes to be; but at an even more basic level, God also gathers the local church. God calls his people together to meet, he gathers them up into a local body so that they might encounter his presence together, so that they might encourage one another, and so that they might be on mission together. The Church is gathered by God’s power, not by human power.

Jesus: The Church gathers into, with, for, and by Jesus.

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