A Third Choice: Covenant as a Better Ethos for Immigration

The Eucharist and a Covenantal Ethics of Immigration

The Gospel narratives ultimately tell the story of how Christ sought to organize the new community of God’s people, the Church, based on a new covenant. When we look at the New Testament, there is perhaps no bigger picture of this covenantal guideline than the practice of the Eucharist instituted by Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ Last Supper (labeled “last” because there were similar suppers with his disciples that preceded it), Jesus presents the Eucharist as the inauguration of a new covenant (Lk 20:22).  In it, he teaches the disciples to value each other above themselves. As Jesus washed their feet, he calls them to become servants of all, through grace, love and humble service. It was through the Eucharist that followers of Christ were to celebrate their covenant with God and each other.

The Last Supper was the culmination of Jesus’ life teaching. Throughout his ministry, Christ modeled this type of inclusive covenantal relationship to his disciples through the practice of what I call “table fellowship” (common meals). In the Gospels, we find that Christ ate with tax collectors (Lk 5:29), included the outcast into the feast (Lk 14:13), and taught his own disciples to do the same (Mat 14:16-19). In the practice of discipleship and forming the Church, table fellowship became the overarching representation of a diverse community made up of individuals from different social strata who served each other and became united through the new covenant based on the blood of Christ.

As the Church expanded, the Eucharist spread throughout the ancient world as a common practice in Christian communities. It ultimately became known by the early disciples as Agape, or Love Feasts. Commenting on this ancient practice, William Barclay echoes, “The early Church had a feast called the Agape or Love Feast. To it all the Christians came, bringing what they could, the resources were pooled and they sat down to a common meal. It was a lovely custom; it was a way for producing and nourishing real Christian fellowship.”1 It was in this setting of reciprocal covenant that sociological differences which existed among individuals in God’s community were torn down. Barclay adds,

“The early Church was the only place in the entire ancient world where the (sociological) barriers were down. The church was the only place were all men could and did come together. They had lifted woman to her rightful place, restored the dignity of labour, abolished beggary, and drawn the sting of slavery. The secret of the revolution is that the selfishness of race and class was forgotten in the Supper of the Lord, and a new basis for society found in love of the visible image of God in men for whom Christ died.”

Empowered by grace and gratitude, the Eucharist acted as an authoritative source for the church in building up a new social ethic. This new way of living was inherently different from the socio-cultural norms of the time.

The Eucharist and Covenantal Ethics in 1Corinthians 11:17-34

As with Jesus and the disciples, nurturing grace and gratitude through the Eucharist served to restore human worth within the confines of God’s covenant. We find this to be particularly significant in the practice of the Eucharist by the Corinthian church in 1Corinthians 11:17-34. The Gospel preached by Paul had been widely received in ancient Corinth. However, as the Corinthian church grew and became more diverse, they lost sight of meaning surrounding the Love Feast.

In the days of Paul, Corinth was a vibrant and diverse city. Its inhabitants consisted of Romans, Greeks, barbarians and Jews among other many other cultural backgrounds. Among its social ranks were free men and slaves, merchants, artists, politicians and all kinds of flourishing businesses due to its important seaport. The cultural diversity and economic segregation was apparent to all who walked the Corinthian streets. In the same manner, the church planted by Paul reflected the diversity of the city around it. However, the socio-economic segregation found in the Corinthian society had made its way into the church. Consequently, instead of celebrating the Love Feast that promoted gratitude, grace and mutual covenant, the church became divided among its many social ranks.

In 1Corinthians 11:17-34 we find the Apostle Paul admonishing the church in Corinth for having violated the Lord’s Table. Paul immediately identifies the problem by pointing out to “divisions among them” (v.18 NIV). These division were the product of (economic/cultural) pride that served to show which of them had “God’s approval” (v.19 NIV). The Greek word for “divisions” applied by Paul is σχίσμα (schisms), which particularly alludes to a social divide. Eventually, these divisions began to highlight the socio-economic differences among them (v.21), “humiliating those who had nothing” (v.22 NIV). The practices of the Corinthian church were the very antithesis of the communion table modeled by Christ. In order to restore its rightful practice, Paul instantly refers back to Christ’s covenantal model (v.23) of table fellowship as the authoritative source for the Eucharist as the picture of justice and peace between God and humanity.

As with the Early Church, the practice of Eucharist speak significantly to God’s intent for covenantal relationships among diverse people groups today, thus informing our own view of immigration. First, the Eucharist celebrates humanity’s reconciliation with God. Through Paul’s admonition of the Corinthians, we find that the focus of the feast is not to be on what was on the table (food and drink), but rather on the grace and forgiveness of Christ offered to each individual. By communicating grace and forgiveness universally, the Eucharist speaks of human worth and promotes equality among all. Inclusion of others into the covenant becomes normative, offering a place at the supper table for everyone. We find this to be true in 1Cor 11:23, when Paul switches from the “problem” to the “solution”. Paul’s intention was to restore the authority of the Eucharist as a Christocentric practice. Christ is the common factor in the equation of diversity. His covenantal work is therefore central to every Christian’s understanding of self and community. The Eucharist then becomes the continuation of the work of Christ in reconciling men firstly to God.

Additionally, the Eucharist represents the reconciliation of humanity to each other. Its practice through the Church becomes a counter-cultural movement. Covenant welcomes and includes the stranger, tearing down the sociological divides within a society promoting equal justice to all. The justice imputed by God on the individual/community becomes the justice granted by the individual/community to others and the world. The Eucharist then represents the inclusion of the poor and the outcast, thus promoting equality through grace and gratitude. As with the reconciliation with God, the Christo-centrality of the Eucharist is evidenced through the mediation of the reconciliation of different people groups into the same community. It is equality and inclusion undergirded with grace and forgiveness. In the next page, I draw comparisons and consequences of the covenantal ethics for the church today.

Footnotes

  1. Barclay, William. 1975. The Letters to the Corinthians. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
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