I believe it was an act of humility for Mennonite pastor Brad Roth to write a book about the Lord’s Supper. The humility I perceive is not that he wrote a book, which is an act of vulnerability for any author. It is that he examines how the view of communion he grew up with as a Mennonite kid has left him hungry for more.
He writes: “Somewhere along the way I discovered that what I longed for was the Lord’s Supper. Communion. Eucharist. I wanted to ‘eat this bread and drink the cup,’ share the ‘bread of life’ that leaves no one hungry (1 Corinthians 11:26; John 6:35). I hankered for the ‘living bread that came down from heaven,’ the ‘hidden manna’ that only Jesus gives (John 6:51; Revelation 2:17). But since I had been reared on a diet of just-a-symbol cracker breads and grape juice cuplets, I didn’t know that is what I was looking for.”
He shares his journey toward new perceptions of the bread and cup: “This isn’t a story of critique. It’s a story of discovery. My childhood church taught me to love the Bible and to love Jesus, and it was through studying the Bible that I discovered the profound centrality of the Lord’s table and began to see the bread and cup as a precious doorway to Jesus. For me, the journey has been about meeting Jesus, and I’ve met him again and again in the breaking of the bread.”
Roth invites readers to come to the Lord’s banquet table with unmet desires and humble spirits. For centuries, theologians from all traditions — Catholic, Protestant, Anabaptist, Orthodox — have defended their views of Jesus’ claim to be “the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51). As important as theologizing can be, it is not “right” assertions that satisfy our hunger. Roth reminds us of this in his treatment of the Anabaptist concept of Gelassenheit, a German word rich with meanings linked to humility and submission. The church, he says, takes its proper shape through humility and renunciation: “The rich in Corinth must renounce their privileges of time and wealth by waiting for ‘those who have nothing’ to arrive at the table of the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:17-22). In Jerusalem, breaking bread together translates into renouncing the right to the exclusive use of one’s possessions (Acts 2:42-47).”
Roth calls Gelassenheit “Anabaptism’s little treasure, a stance toward the world that was stewarded through fire and water and war. To practice Gelassenheit is to yield to the will, ways, works and presence of Christ. Gelassenheit is taking up our cross and following Jesus.”
He muses: If the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas had been an Anabaptist, might he have spoken of the Gelassenheit of the bread and wine? “At Christ’s table, the elements are stripped of their breadness and wineness and become completely open to God. Except that ‘stripped’ isn’t quite the right word, because this is my body, this is my blood doesn’t annihilate what God has created. . . . In a kind of material Gelassenheit, the bread and wine are made to yield to God, and in that way represent bits of mended reality, a reality that depends on and finds its fulfillment in the risen Christ, who in his resurrected body is not limited to a local presence in heaven but can be anywhere.”
Yielding to Christ in this way, we lose ourselves and are filled with Christ: “Jesus’ presence becomes not just a sustaining presence, the same presence that upholds all things that exist, but a redeeming and personal presence. . . . A new purpose, a new logic, a new presence pervades all.”
What is that new purpose, logic and presence? Though Roth gives many answers, for me it boils down to linking the bread and wine to Jesus’ very self rather than viewing communion as symbol. In my reading of Roth, he is not wooing Anabaptists to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation — in which the Eucharist becomes the very body, blood and divinity of Christ — but to a deeper and higher view of the Lord’s Supper. It’s a humble meal that unites a community of believers and a holy mystery in which Jesus, through our eating and drinking of him, takes his place in our hearts, and we in his.
Roth reminds us that not only do we hunger for Jesus; he hungers for us. We dine with him and are transformed. The meal metabolizes in us so that we can both eat of him and share him with others who hunger and thirst.
“Christianity is one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread,” is one of my favorite quotes about discipleship. Roth comes to us as a fellow beggar, offering a deeper understanding of the bread that is Christ.
Laurie Oswald Robinson of Newton, Kan., is a longtime writer for Mennonite publications and agencies. She is a freelance writer and founder of Tales of the Times, in which she helps individuals and families to write their memoirs.