More Q & R About "Church"

In my ongoing conversation about church, a friend asked:

In my Bible, (Ignatius, RSV, 2nd Catholic Ed.) John 6:41 says: “The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, ‘I am the bread which came down from heaven.’” Would you please explain why this led you in the direction it has? When I read this verse, and continued on, it is clear to me that Christ is framing himself as the Bread of Life prior to introducing the Eucharist to his followers and others. Definitely, a difficult concept – one must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life? It’s difficult for a lot of people to grasp today – 2,000 years after it was introduced! But, I do not see where it leads us from Church to the The Way.

As I re-read this, I think I’ve found where the misunderstanding is coming in. It actually goes back to my second post (which you can find here). In that post, I referred to the difference between what the biblical writers meant by the word “church” and what that word means in most contexts today. To quote from that post:

The word translated “church” is the Greek word ἐκκλησίᾳ (ekklēsia - ek-klay-see'-ah) and it simply means, “called out.” Properly understood it’s a word used for a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place; an assembly (see Acts 19.32). In the Septuagint, the Greek text of the Jewish Scriptures, it is often used when referring to the assembly of the Jewish people (see Judges 21.8; 1Chronicles 29.1; etc.). While ἐκκλησίᾳ doesn’t necessarily have any religious connotations in and of itself, the writers of the New Testament often used it when referring to the people who follow The Way (see the passages you suggested and scores more). In that context, ἐκκλησίᾳ is applied in a couple of different ways. First, it’s used when referring to local assemblies in different places - Galatia (Galatians 1.2; notices that there are many local ἐκκλησίᾳ there), Corinth (1Corinthians 1.2), and the group that met in the home of Prisca and Aquila (Romans 16.3-5).

Second, ἐκκλησίᾳ also refers all the people throughout all time and space who make up the mystical “body of Christ” and follow The Way. These are the people through whom god implements the Realm of god and uses them to expose the reconciliation of the world (see 2Corinthians 5.16-19).

By way of contrast, the word “church” is now understood to mean both the religious institution known as “Christianity,” in general, and of a specific tradition (in your case, Catholic), in particular.

Perhaps I need to rephrase this a little bit.

When the biblical writers wrote the word translated as “church” they were not using it the same way we use it today. They meant either the universal group of people who follow Jesus or the small local gatherings of those people. Neither meaning should be understood as the Institution we have today.

Before we get to the question about the Eucharist, there are a couple of different views regarding when the Gospel according to John was written that have direct bearing on the inquiry. One view is that John (like the other Gospels) was written before the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This would mean that Jesus’ intention may have already been to reconstruct the Passover meal, i.e., see it in a different way.

The other view is that John’s Gospel was written later (between 85 and 100 CE). Some scholars believe this section of John 6 refers to a practice already going on in some churches and not necessarily what Jesus said. That is, the idea of Eucharist may have been written back into the story to support already established practices.

Personally, I hold that John was written early. In fact, I think that all of the New Testament was written before Jerusalem fell. But that’s for another conversation!

The reason I bring this up is that some people discount out of hand some of these texts (and to be fair, I tend to do this, too, although it’s extremely rare). That is, some people think some passages seem to be less “authentic” because they’re older or edited documents. That’s really not my point. Not here, anyway.

Now, regarding the Eucharist. Since I hold that John was written early, Jesus could very well have meant to have his followers understand the Passover in a different way. Does that mean that this can only be observed in the Institutional Church as we know it today?

Heaven’s no!

The early followers of Jesus didn’t have an institutionalized religion called “Christianity.” This is my main point! They were following a Way of Living that superseded religion. They met in each other’s homes for their common practices. And like the other common practices, the Eucharist started out in homes, around a shared meal. The liturgical “stuff” we have today was not even on the minds of those early followers. The closest thing we have to an early Eucharistic liturgy is found in 1Corinthians 11. There Paul wrote,

I received a tradition from the Lord, which I also handed on to you: on the night on which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread. After giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.” He did the same thing with the cup, after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me.” Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes (verses 23-26; CEB).

To me, I can see this unfolding with a somber feeling. A small group of people sitting around a table, perhaps just finishing off their common meal. Then, someone takes a cup of wine (perhaps it’s been on the table the whole time, similar to the way a Seder leaves a cup of wine for Elijah), and recites the words expressed above. The bread and the cup are then passed to each person; all sharing one bread and one cup, symbolizing their connectedness; their Oneness.

The contrast to that scene and the one that happens in our churches today is quite different. We have rules and gestures and words and responses, ad nauseam. According to Paul, however, when the early followers of Jesus got together, “each one [had] a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation. [So that] all things [could] be done for edification.” (1Corinthians 14.26; MOUNCE; adapted). The picture painted by this, for me, is about all of us working together when we gather. This really can’t be done because of the size and scale of a lot of our churches today. Again, this leads me to see that what we have today is not what was intended.

What I believe was intended, and what we see unfolding in the New Testament, is small groups of people meeting mostly in each other’s homes, having a common meal, with a common practice of worship, teaching, prayer, and Eucharist. Most of the people would take turns offering “a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation.” This, to me, is what’s supposed to be happening when the followers of Jesus gather together. It is in these small, intimate settings that people can actually grow together and help each other as we walk along The Way.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br Jack+, LC


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