Anabaptist Approaches to Church: A Eucharistic Community

Joris Wippe, 1558

Following on the theme of Anabaptist approaches to church, the second key aspect of the Anabaptist perspective on community is that symbolised in the Eucharist.

Christians of all traditions practice regularly something variously referred to as the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, Communion, the Meal, the Mass, and so on. As most people who have some experience of Christianity will know, it consists of wine and bread, which are meant to represent the body and blood of Jesus and remember his death by crucifixion. Christians eat and drink these elements together, and all of the Christian traditions have different shades of meaning for the Eucharist.

Significantly, for Anabaptists the Lord's Supper returned to being a meal: in particular, a memorial meal for believers remembering the sacrifice of Jesus in which the bread is just bread and the wine, just wine, and not a re-creation of Jesus's death done by priests on behalf of sinners. It is a remebrance and a 'showing forth' of his death until his return.

To the Anabaptists, the LordÕs Supper was a highly significant feast. They were persecuted by both the Catholics and Protestants for the challenges they levelled at them both. In the context of persecution, celebrating the Lord's Supper together was a powerful symbol of common commitment. By sharing the bread and the cup, members were signifying their willingness to give their lives for one another. In the sixteenth century this was not taken lightly. Anabaptist prisoners were almost always tortured and asked to give the names of their fellow church members. In our post-modern world, this is a counter-cultural challenge of selflessness that subverts the pervasive power of individualism. The symbolism of the eucharistic ritual unlocks the beauty of community.

Balthasar Hubmaier, a theologian and martyr from the Anabaptist radical reformation, was instrumental in reinvigorating the LordÕs Supper.

"The Lord's Supper is a sign of the obligation to brotherly love just as water baptism is a symbol of the vow of faith. The water concerns God, the Supper our neighbour... [The Supper is] a public sign... of the love in which one brother obligates himself to another... that just as they now break and eat the bread with each other and share and drink the cup, likewise they wish now to sacrifice and shed their body and blood for one another."
Balthasar Hubmaier, 1480/81-1528

Hubmaier formed a wonderful eucharistic service which is notable for three features.

  1. The order of service implies two services, one of preparation and one of communion, which may have well have followed on from each other. The preparation service includes a corporate prayer of confession, into which words of forgiveness and release are shaped. From the very beginning of the celebration, the emphasis is on the community together.
  2. There is an emphasis on the consequences of the supper. In eating and drinking, a commitment is made to living in a particular way, that of service and self-sacrifice.
  3. The Pledge of Love, a communal liturgical statement of devotion, was a key element in which each of those participating were asked to make their commitment explicit before they receive the elements.

THE PLEDGE OF LOVE

Brothers and sisters, will you love God in the power of his holy and living word, before, in and above all things, serve honour and pray to him alone and henceforth follow his name; will you also subject your sinful will to his divine will which he has worked in you through his living word, for life and death?

Let each one separately say I WILL.

Will you love your neighbour and fulfil on him the works of brotherly love, offer your flesh and pour out your blood for him? Will you be obedient to father, mother, and all magistracy according to the will of God, and this in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ who also offered his flesh and poured out his blood for us?

Let us each say separately I WILL.

Will you use brotherly chastisement towards your brothers and sisters, make peace and harmony between them, also reconcile yourself with all those who have offended you, drop envy, hate and all evil will toward any; willingly desist from all actions and dealings which injure, damage or vex your neighbour, also love your enemies and do good to them? Will you exclude from the church all those who are not willing so to do according to the order of Christ?

Let each one say separately I WILL.

Do you desire, here in the Supper of Christ, by the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine, to confirm publicly before the church this covenant which you have just now made and to testify to the power of the living memorial of the suffering and death of the Jesus Christ our Lord?

Let each one say separately I DESIRE IT IN THE POWER OF GOD.

Therefore eat and drink with one another in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. May he give us all power and strength that we spend the time according to his holy will, worthy of salvation. The Lord communicate to us his grace. Amen

Balthasar Hubmaier

The local church was the worshipping community in its entirety. The Supper could not start until all were there because all together enabled the event to happen. Prayers are not said on behalf of but by the gathered people. Church was not an event within the rest of life but what was lived as the whole of life; hence there was an emphasis on the importance of a proper life-style. And the communal commitment of the Pledge makes it clear that the Supper functioned significantly as a community building exercise; this was not something which was done to and for these people, but which they did together.

It was not easily possible to have bystanders in this. As with any community life, there is a demand on participation and an expectation of Christ-like servanthood. Just as Jesus took the basin and the towel to become the humblest of all in the first communion supper (John 13: 1-17), showing true meekness, so we must serve each other. There is little hierarchy in the Body of Christ, each caring for each other as servant-enablers. In doing so, every individual is encouraged and aided in their unique journey towards Christ-likeness; the consequence is a beautiful richness and diversity in a body of believers with common commitment, pledged in love to each other.

But maybe most significantly, by pledging our lives to each other, we make a commitment that none amongst us shall be in need. Frequently Anabaptist communites, but historic and contemporary, participate(d) in economic sharing: they were and are always generous, sharing resoureces and talents to ensure no-one went without; many of the historical congregations renounced personal possession and everythign was owned by the community. The modern Amish tradition of barn raising is a contemporary descendent of this approach.

In a eucharistic community, lives are shared and no person is in need. As we explore alternative approaches to church in the post-modern world, in emerging church settings, we must remember, as the Anabaptists have always known, those on the margins are those at the centre.