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N. T. Wright on the Gospel and Meal Jesus Gave Us

What can people inside and outside your church learn about the gospel from the way you preach and practice the Lord's Supper? A feature story exploring the Gospel and Christian Celebration of the Lord's Supper.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Chances are you’ve heard, sung, or recited those ancient words in worship, most likely during a communion service.

But in what way do you understand this mystery of faith? Do those words signify an inspirational example…a formula worth repeating at a quarterly or monthly Lord’s Supper…your assurance of going to heaven when you die…a challenge to the powers that be…good news for the whole cosmos?

The way your congregation understands those words will shape how you proclaim the gospel, relate to all creation, and celebrate the Eucharist.

Two books by prolific theologian N. T. Wright—Simply Christian and The Meal Jesus Gave Us—are especially relevant for people who feel puzzled about the place of Jesus and the sacraments in worship and life.

The stream Christians drink from

More often known as “Tom Wright” or “N. T. Wright,” Nicholas Thomas Wright grew up in an Anglican family in Northumberland (northeast England). Already as a boy, he wanted to become a pastor. But he changed course while at Oxford, when John Wenham, his Greek grammar prof, said that the stream from which Christians drink is polluted by bad theology.

“From that day on I knew God was calling me to an academic, though still very much church-related, vocation,” Wright wrote in an article explaining his pilgrimage in theology.

His advisors suggested he choose either pastoral or academic work. But Wright resists either/or polarities. So he’s found ways to connect history and theology with congregational life and the wider world of public culture.

He has worked as a theology professor and college chaplain in the U.K. and Canada, served as Canon Theologian at London’s Westminster Abbey, and is now Bishop of the Diocese of Durham for the Church of England.

Meanwhile he has written more than 40 books. Some are huge footnoted scholarly works about the historical Jesus. (Wright says Jesus bodily rose from the dead but didn’t preach about justification or being the second person of the Trinity.) Others are about the Apostle Paul. (Wright disagrees with academics who say Paul founded the Christian religion.)

Peppering his talks and books with references to Tiger Woods, 9/11, the G8 goals, and The DaVinci Code, Wright also loves helping ordinary people engage with the biblical text. That’s why he cites William Tyndaleas a hero, why he’s written The New Testament for Everyone commentary series, and why he wrote Simply Christian and The Meal That Jesus Gave Us.

The voice behind the echoes

“I had a dream the other night, a powerful and interesting dream. And the really frustrating thing about it is that I can’t remember what it was about.” That’s how Wright begins Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense.

He describes longings common in every culture and era, voices that echo in our imagination yet elude us in reality. We dream of justice, a world put to rights so that all enjoy hope and prosperity. We hunger for spirituality and deep relationships. We delight in beauty. Yet in trying to find these things that we know must exist, “we’re like moths trying to fly to the moon.”

Too often, instead of living a “full, rich, glad human existence,” we give up on the echoes. “Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamour for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment,” Wright says.

It’s only in the story of Jesus that we “recognize the voice whose echoes we have heard.” Wright’s big picture view of Christianity, as revealed in the Old and New Testaments, shows how God acts in human history to make all things new. The Incarnation is a divine rescue mission from evil, death, and the powers and principalities that corrupt God’s good creation.

“The gospel message is precisely that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead,” Wright says. When Jesus died on the cross and rose from the tomb, he launched God’s new world.

And it’s precisely at the resurrection where “recent generations of Western Christians have taken a drastic wrong turn,” Wright charges. Like trying to pour God’s vast ocean of love into a tiny bottle, the church has spiritualized and privatized the gospel. It has unhinged Jesus from history.

Reducing salvation to “going to heaven” and “having a personal relationship with Jesus” distorts truth. It lets “true for you, not for me” skeptics interpret truth as “something happening inside you” instead of “God’s powerful, loving revelation of the way things are in the world.”

Worse, Wright explains, this escapist Gnostic misreading of the gospel lets the church conveniently ignore “the pressures of contemporary empire…. Saying Jesus is Lord means Caesar isn’t…. Genuine Christianity, which names Jesus as Lord of earth as well as heaven, is and has always been a threat to empire.”

Where heaven and earth overlap

Christian Century interviewer once asked Wright, “How do you make the figure of Jesus come alive for people these days?”

Wright replied, “One way is to urge people to become a character in the story. You are on the edge of a crowd listening to Jesus. And the sacraments are important. When scripture and sacrament meet, people are driven to the intimacy of prayer and the life of discipleship.”

His slim, easy-to-read The Meal Jesus Gave Us puts readers in the story. First he compares communion to a birthday party attended by Martians. The aliens are puzzled by the rituals. The earthlings celebrate according to habit but can’t explain why they do what they do.

Helping readers imagine themselves at a freedom party (Passover) and Last Supper (along with scared, confused disciples), Wright leads readers through the concepts of new meal, new story, new family, and new life.

One partygoer tells another, “Part of the story is that God is taking the world somewhere. He’s got plans. Apparently he’s promised to do for all of us what he did for Jesus after he died. And for the whole world too…. This God really does love the whole world and wants to make it all alive in a new way, like he did with Jesus on that first day of the week.”

The Meal is simple enough for young teens to understand. Yet it builds on a theme Wright uses in Simply Christian and other works. Heaven and earth, God’s future and our present, come together in Jesus—especially in communion, “the richest of all Christian symbols.”

In joining the drama in which Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and feeds us, we do something that sinks the meaning of communion into us more deeply than mere words can.

How Three Congregations Are Enriching Communion

The early church celebrated communion weekly. Catholic churches offer it weekly or even daily. Though Eucharist frequency varies widely among Protestants, denominations and congregations are re-visiting the sacrament.

United Church of Christ congregations are moving toward monthly or weekly communion. The percent of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (PDF) congregations celebrating weekly communion increased from 16% in 1989 to 42% in 2004. The United Methodists published This Holy Mystery to help worshipers reclaim the richness of the Lord’s Supper.

An embodied way to receive the gospel

Ethan Magness was in seminary when he first read N.T. Wright’s The Meal That Jesus Gave Us. It struck him as an excellent clergy resource, a good Holy Communion overview for youth in confirmation classes, recent converts, and adults who wanted to do more than go through the motions.

Now Magness is a vicar at Grace Anglican Fellowship, north of Pittsburgh. The church attracts worshipers from nearby Slippery Rock University and Grove City College.

Unlike many church plants reaching out to 20-somethings, Grace Anglican doesn’t offer trendy multimedia services. Instead, worshipers say they like how traditional liturgy gives worship a corporate feel. And the congregation celebrates Holy Communion every Sunday.

“Having a more sacramental focus in worship is new for these folks. Most seem to really appreciate frequent reception of Holy Communion. They also appreciate the traditional Anglican connection of the preached gospel and the gospel as it is received in Holy Communion,” Magness says.

His parish sees the “Eucharist as sealing the promise of the gospel in the preached word,” so uses the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Magness describes it as “far more atonement centered” than the 1979 edition.

Exploring, not killing, the mystery

Wanting to make worship more relational inspired worship leader Andy Keck to begin a Lord’s Supper project at Orange United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

“The Lord’s Supper, through its language, movement, and action, provides us with a rich model. Putting it at the center of worship renewal can help a person’s relationship with Christ and with other members of the body of Christ,” he explains.

Orange United Methodist consulted with Gayle Carlton Felton, author of This Holy Mystery, to design a project keyed to several ways of learning. Certainly the most visible result was a stained glass window that the church commissioned.

Its hymn competition yielded two songs now sometimes sung at communion by the congregation or choir. “ ’Now We Come,’ by Brad McIntyre, is almost Taize in its singable quality. ‘Come and Feast, for All Are Welcomed,’ by Larry E. Schultz, combines a communion message with our church mission statement,” Keck says.

Schultz is music minister of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in nearby Raleigh. He set “Come and Feast” toRegent Square, the same tune as “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” “Come and Feast” and other Schultz compositions are in the new hymnal Inclusive Hymns for Liberating Christians, compiled by Jann Alredge-Clanton.

Orange adults studied William Willimon’s Sunday Dinner: The Lord’s Supper and Christian Life. Keck says that getting “a real grounding in the sacrament” frees worship leaders to be more creative with liturgies, such as varying the words to confession or invitation to communion.

“After the project, I did an 18-month series in the church newsletter, going line by line through the liturgy. We’re trying to walk the line between exploring the mystery and killing the mystery,” he adds.

For all ages

Whenever congregations propose having communion more often, members ask whether the sacrament will lose meaning. That very question came up at Sandersville United Methodist Church in Sandersville, Georgia. But Joy Pendry was glad someone asked.

“We have communion the first Sunday morning of each month. Our evening contemporary service celebrates it every third Sunday night. It’s fairly unusual for individuals in the congregation to refrain from taking the sacrament during worship. But we’d noticed an unfortunate trend of lower attendance on first Sunday mornings,” she says.

That trend prompted her to head up a project to help all ages more deeply understand communion in their daily lives. Pendry, a retired teacher, serves on the church council, plays in the handbell choir, and chairs the records and history committee.

The project began with an all day This Holy Mystery study, led by Gayle Carlton Felton and attended by leaders from several congregations. “We wanted parents to learn first, so they can answer questions as children begin their own Holy Communion study in January,” Pendry says.

Already members are raising issues common to many churches:

  • “We go forward in small groups to kneel at the altar rail, be served, hear a prayer, and get dismissed. How can we make it feel less regimented and more joyful?”
  • “Communion services last so long. Can we be more efficient?”
  • “What if I don’t feel worthy enough to receive the sacrament? Should I still partake?”
  • “How do these ideas on Holy Communion relate to the sacrament of baptism and other Methodist beliefs?”

Pendry says Sandersville has a built-in reason to help all ages experience the “Christian unity that comes from the oneness of the shared loaf and cup.

“Our Book of Resolutions says, ‘Because the table at which we gather belongs to the Lord, it should be open to all who respond to Christ’s love, regardless of age or church membership. The Wesleyan tradition has always recognized that Holy Communion may be an occasion for the reception of converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace,’ ” she explains.

Lay servers change monthly and already include children and youth on the teams. In the next phase, Sandersville will bring the elements to homebound and nursing home members. “We’ll offer a light lunch after morning worship, provide brief training, assign visits, and prayerfully send forth each team,” Pendry says.

The congregation also plans to study Charles Wesley’s Eucharistic hymns, ask its liturgical dance team to interpret communion music, and get congregational input on communion banners and bulletin covers.

Start a Discussion

Talk about the place of Jesus and communion in your church.

  • What is the same and different between how Wright defines the gospel message and how you (personally or as a church) define the gospel? How do these differences shape your worship?
  • What do you think of Wright’s charge that many churches are not proclaiming the full story of God’s good news for whole people, the whole world, and the whole cosmos?
  • Compared to the examples given in these stories, does your church give more emphasis or less emphasis to the Eucharist? In what ways do your communion practices support or detract from your theological values?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to deepen congregational understanding of the gospel message or experience of the Lord’s Supper?

  • If you started accenting table fellowship as a joyous confirmation of scripture…or channel of God's healing and comfort…or inspiration to seek justice for others in Christ's body—what happened? Which results or best practices would you recommend that other churches try?
  • Did you create a drama, visual arts resource, song, litany, or Communion-related offering that worked especially well?
  • Did you research how other churches in your area or theological tradition do communion? If so, how did you share this research? Did you use the research to make changes in your Eucharist practice?