Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table
J. Todd Billings
How does your congregation celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Does “celebrate” actually describe your experience of communion? Could you say that your experience of the Supper has significantly shaped your understanding of the gospel? These are some of the questions that J. Todd Billings provokes in his most recent book. In Remembrance, Communion, and Hope Billings argues that the Lord’s Supper is more than simply an addendum to the worship service. The Lord’s Supper is an “icon” of the gospel, “an icon that draws us into a divine drama by the power of the Spirit” (1). By inviting readers to a more robust experience of the Lord’s Supper, Billings is inviting us to a meal that places us in the center of Scripture’s redemptive drama and incorporates us into the life of the Trinity.
It is one of the tragic ironies of church history that the Lord’s Supper – the ritual enactment of the church’s unity as the body of Christ – has been the site of so much division and contention, particularly among Protestants. Billings is attuned to this irony. His perspective on the sacrament is firmly rooted in the Reformed tradition, but it aims at being broadly catholic. In this sense, Remembrance, Communion, and Hope is aimed at retrieving what Billings refers to as a “catholic-Reformed” tradition. He has made the case for the catholicity of the Reformed tradition (and John Calvin’s thought in particular) in several other books and articles, starting with Calvin, Participation, and the Gift (2008). His previous work has touched on sacramental theology and practice, but it has focused more on intellectual issues in doctrinal theology. With this book, Billings has taken a significant step in articulating how catholicity and unity can be expressed through practice.
The book is divided into three sections. The first shows how the church’s explicit theological formulations of the Supper often fail to inform our “functional” theology, neglecting our status as embodied, desiring creatures. The second mines the Reformed tradition for both historical examples and theological expressions of the Supper, seeking to demonstrate how the tradition does justice to the full scope of Scripture (both in theory and in practice). The final section explores how past, present, and future converge in the Supper through the church’s union with Christ. The entirety of the biblical drama, our current communion with Christ, and the hope for a new heavens and new earth are all part of the “sign-act” of the sacrament.
Billings includes what he calls “congregational snapshots” throughout the book to give flesh to the ideas he discusses. These snapshots are composite pictures of eucharistic observances in both contemporary and traditional churches. Through describing the way that the Supper is observed in many churches, Billings is attempting to show how our understanding of the gospel comes through in our observance of the Supper. He concludes that most congregations (at least those within a broadly evangelical tradition) tend to focus on “remembering the cross.” This leads to a one-sided vision of the Supper where mental acts of remembrance are prioritized. This fails to recognize the bodily and affective elements at work in the meal, and Billings emphasizes that “As embodied human beings, we cannot truly and fully know God’s promises without a bodily form for doing so” (78).
It might seem counter-intuitive that Billings turns to the Reformed tradition for an affective and embodied understanding of the Supper. The spiritual descents of John Calvin are often criticized for adhering to an overly-intellectualized version of the faith, an understanding of Christianity that prioritizes doctrine and intellect over experience and the senses. Billings is sensitive to these critiques and realistic about the tradition’s failings. However, he also argues that the neglected example of “holy fairs” counters this critique. An important part of the Reformed tradition in both Scotland and North America, these multi-day festivals included times of communal singing, fasting, hearing of preaching, and culminated in communion. These and similar festivals in the Dutch Reformed tradition “brought together instincts about humans as affectionate, embodied, habituated creatures with a desire to mediate upon God’s word in Scripture, and to be nourished by Christ through the Spirit at the table” (50). Working from this conviction, Billings goes on to defend the “Trinitarian and covenantal ontology” that he sees at work in the Reformed tradition, arguing that it provides a robust and ultimately ecumenical basis for understanding and experiencing union with Christ at the table.
In the final part, Billings moves from an exposition of his own tradition to examine the key biblical passages that deal with the Lord’s Supper as well as offering a broad perspective on how the Supper enacts the redemptive-historical storyline of Scripture. He emphasizes how the Supper should shape our identity as a covenant people. As we feed upon the grace of Christ at the table, we should be encouraged us to seek justice for the poor and the needy. As the church ascends in communion to the presence of Christ, we are taught to hope in the promises of the gospel, which “like the table, lead us to ache and long for the age to come” (199). By drawing out the “already/not yet” dimension of our communion with Christ at the table, Billings encourages us to strive for the full realization of the kingdom that we experience in part at the Lord’s Supper.
The ecumenical thrust of the book is both its point of strength and a possible point of critique. Billings is not a sectarian defender of Reformed theology. He brings Reformed theology into constructive dialogue with other traditions, drawing out parallels between Calvin’s focus on the ascended presence of Christ with the emphasis on ascension in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. Billings advocates an approach to ecumenical dialogue as an “exchange of gifts” rather than “consensus-seeking.” While this approach has its strengths, it can also blunt the edge of urgency that believers should feel in seeking unity around a common table. The spirit of the book certainly encourages such unity, but at points I felt myself questioning how important it was for Billings to move beyond a theoretical unity to an “embodied” and actual unity of all believers at the feast of the new covenant.
Remembrance, Communion, and Hope would certainly make an excellent textbook in a seminary setting (a hope that James K. A. Smith expresses in his blurb for the book). Billings weaves together theological, historical, and experiential components that will serve well those going into ministry. Perhaps most importantly, Billings moves discussion of the Lord’s Supper away from isolated questions about Christ’s presence in the elements or the proper mode of communion. Instead, he recontextualizes these questions within the broader scope of the scriptural drama. The “congregational snapshots” are particularly helpful in showing how the Supper is the culmination of the redemptive drama enacted in the liturgy as a whole. And while he draws heavily on his own tradition, Billings’s vision can be utilized and put into practice by any congregation that desires to move from a conceptual and individualistic observance to an embodied and communal celebration of the sacrament.
Andrew Stout is the Access Services Librarian at Covenant Theological Seminary. His articles and reviews have appeared in Religion and the Arts, Literature and Theology, and Pro Ecclesia.