By Brad Roth
Many of us receive the Lord’s Supper every week. Most of us struggle to talk about why and how it’s so important to us. It is important, though. How many other things do we do with such regularity, year-round, for a lifetime?
So it’s refreshing to meet someone who can talk about Holy Communion in plain language while also leaving us wanting to learn more about the extensive conversations Christians have had for millennia about the Eucharist.
That’s the third different term we’ve used for this meal thing Jesus tells us to do. What’s up with that? In The Hunger Inside: How the Meal Jesus Gave Transforms Lives, Brad Roth reminds us that the Lord’s Supper changes us. It transforms our lives and expands our communities. Pastor Roth knows we’re all hungry, and he knows who can feed us.
Thanks to Lee Ann Pomrenke for introducing us to Brad. And thanks to Brad for agreeing to talk awesome communion, cranky church life, and joyous-in-a-minor-key hymnody with us.
What first got you interested in theology and pastoring as professional pursuits?
I grew up on a farm in small-town central Illinois. We were in church every Sunday, and I believed what I was taught. Jesus used my childhood church to get a hold of me at a young age. I studied religion in college and New Testament/early Christianity in graduate school. I had some idea of becoming an academic, but more than anything I just wanted to study and know the Bible and history and theology.
My vocation to ministry dawned on me slowly. It was kind of a migratory instinct, and it took me across the territory of my abiding love for Jesus, a fascination with the Scriptures, and a commitment to living out my faith in the community of the church. After a few years of living in big city Boston and serving in different lay capacities in our little congregation, I headed off to the Mennonite seminary in Indiana. I’ve since served rural congregations in Washington State, the mountains of Peru, and now Kansas. It’s been a sixteen-year run so far. I keep relearning that though I chose my pastoral vocation, Jesus chose it for me first.
What was your experience of the Lord’s Supper as a child and adolescent, and how formative was that for you?
I grew up in the Evangelical Mennonite Church, one flavor of Mennonite that had been on a long arc out of the Mennonite world. I treasure that church. They taught me to love Jesus and love the Bible. But communion just didn’t factor very highly in the faith we practiced. At sparse intervals, we partook of little grains of sacred hardtack and a thimble full of red juice, and it was all “just a symbol.” Jesus said “do this,” and we did. ‘Nuff said.
In graduate school, reading folks like Ignatius of Antioch and other church fathers, I realized just how central the Eucharist was to most Christians through the ages. I was peering in at a kind of alien culture, and it fascinated me. To adapt John Henry Newman’s quip: “to be deep in history is to cease to be” Evangelical Mennonite. That proved true for me, at least on communion, though I would later go on to join and become a minister in the mainstream Mennonite church where I still am today.
I began reading the New Testament with new eyes and seeing communion all over the place in ways that are no doubt pedestrian to folks raised in more liturgically-minded traditions—stories like the Emmaus road in Luke 24 or Jesus feeding the 5,000. Without having the language to describe it, I developed a sense of the real presence of Christ. Once the possibility of really encountering Christ in the bread and cup took hold of me, all sorts of things opened up in my heart and got called into question. I’ve been on a journey ever since, trying to figure out what all of that means.
The Hunger Inside is my communion memoir. I draw on powerful deep sources from across the history of both the Eastern and Western churches but as someone who has had to find his way without a prescribed path. I’ve got a kind of kid-in-a-bread-shop eye that lets me draw generously on diverse Really Big Thinkers and Saints.
We take Jesus at his word, especially when he says “given for you.” Yet none of us are invited to the table in all worship settings. Do you have hope for a more ecumenical communion across traditions?
My ambitions are small: I just want to spark the next Reformation. If the first Reformation was about reclaiming the centrality of the word, then maybe now it’s time to put the table back where it belongs.
The beautiful thing is that there are signs of this happening in some quarters. Professor Winfield Bevins has talked about “neo-liturgical churches” cropping up. It’s the ancient-future “convergence” Robert Webber predicted. I can’t say if any of this will lead to changes to official policy about who’s admitted to the Eurcharist in some churches, but it seems to me that this shared love for the table that’s developing will take us to places of unity where our doctrine will have to catch up.
Already one hears of Catholic priests exercising pastoral sensitivity to allow non-Catholic Christians to receive the Eucharist. This a possibility permitted in canon law under circumstances of “grave and pressing need.” There are leaders recognizing just how grave and pressing our common hunger for Christ is.
Some claims you make in the book will please folks from certain traditions while provoking others. Do you say anything that might impassion all of us?
Can’t we just all get along? I’m a Mennonite, ya know!
My fear is that because of the way “communion-speak” is so denominationally siloed, everyone will find something in the book to dislike. I’m especially biting my nails about how the pros will treat it—historians might pick at my inattention to their special niche, theologians might object to me working synthetically across traditions.
If I had to point to something that can get a bunch of folks riled up, I would say it’s my deep dive into the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist. That discussion is certain to get under the skin of dyed-in-the-wool Protestants. Sacrifice is one of those live-wire topics. The Reformers reserved their pointiest diatribes for it. And free-church types who don’t see much of anything of substance taking place in the Eucharist balk most at sacrifice.
Without trying to make the case here, I’ll just say that I think sacrifice is a gap in a lot of our theologies. I can’t grasp how the Lord’s Supper would work if not by re-presenting the timeless power of Jesus’ blood poured out for us on the cross. The meal mediates what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed. Biblical worship was sacrificial worship. Jesus didn’t change that when he gave us the Eucharist.
The book description says you take a narrative-driven approach to understanding communion?
Yes. I live and breathe Scripture, so the Bible’s on every page of this book. And I’ve used stories—my own and those of others—as doorways into understanding communion. I’m a preacher after all. I’ve always got my ear to the ground for a good story! Partly, this is a strategic choice: I want the book to be engaging. Just like most others, stacks of theology footnotes make my eyes glaze. More importantly, I’m convinced that shared stories can take us places doctrinal subtleties can’t. What Jesus nurtures at his table is a relationship, and stories are relational in ways that doctrine is not necessarily.
It’s not only ancient Romans who find it odd that Christians eat and drink the body and blood of their God. What does it mean that we masticate and consume Jesus?
It wasn’t just backbench disciples in Capernaum who have gotten thrown off by Jesus’ words in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6. Take 6:53: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Jesus even shifts in that chapter from the usual word for “eat” to the more evocative Greek word trogo, which means “chew.” What’s Jesus getting at?
There’s long been a vein in Christian thought that has taken Jesus’ statement in a crudely realistic way. Thomas Aquinas sometimes gets painted by Protestants as the literalist poster boy, but in developing the doctrine of transubstantiation, Aquinas was actually seeking to square the literal-symbolical circle. He wrote that we do not receive Christ’s body and blood as meat “torn from a carcass or sold in a butcher’s stall.” At its best, the church has not understood Jesus to be saying that the bread and wine turn into flesh and blood in the sense that you could spot the cells under a microscope. Something more subtle is afoot.
In Jesus’ words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, I think he’s making a gloss on the Passover (John 6:4). In a symbolic sense, Jesus has become the sacrificial lamb that takes away the sin of the world, and this reality is signed through the bread and cup. But it’s more than just a symbol. Jesus truly communicates his total and personal self—his flesh and blood—to his people at the table. But it’s his self as the wondrously real bedrock of creation. Christ ascended to “fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). “In him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). “Flesh” and “blood” are the best words for describing the symbolic, real, personal, and total encounter with Jesus we are offered at the table, and “chew” points to the ordinary, earthy, and desperately human way we meet him. It’s the mystery of the Incarnation in three words.
We’ve been talking about the hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, which has eucharistic overtones but also discusses Christ’s descent to “demand homage” as well as two verses filled with heavenly visions. How do you describe the connection between our regular receiving of communion and the eternal life that awaits us?
Pondering this hymn gives us a clue into the power of the Lord’s table to hold together Incarnation and Consummation and bring us into Christ’s presence here and now. The word I go to is “foretaste.” The Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of eternity. In the Supper, we experience in an immediate and refractive way what we will know wholly and clearly in eternity. The movement in the Bible also runs the other way—God has reached definitively toward us in Christ. “Look, God’s home is now among his people!” (Revelation 21:3 NLT).
The Lord’s table shows us that God is with us here. But it also summons us on toward a further horizon. Heaven and earth kiss at the Lord’s table.
About the Author
Brad Roth lives in rural Moundridge, Kansas, with his wife and three sons, where he serves as pastor of the West Zion Mennonite Church. Brad is a graduate of Augustana College, Harvard Divinity School, and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He blogs on seeing God in the everyday at DoxologyProject.com.