Facebook, Eucharist, and Ministry (Part 1)

May 8th, 2011
Photo © Franco Bouly | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

As Ministry Matters gets underway, my initial concern is simple: I don’t blog. Partial disclosure: I have been privy to a string of blogs with each about 3 bold fresh posts then silence. I hope that God and Kierkegaard, both of whom are terrific and prolific authors if I may say so, will help me out.

Neither am I very often “visible” on Facebook. I skulk up and down the News Feed, emerging from the cybershrubs to leave a comment a few times a year, but mostly sojourn chucklingly along the thoroughfares of others’ verbosity.

My hope is that my obligation to write at least monthly for Ministry Matters will help alleviate my chronic blogging hiatus. And that the content of this article might give me the push I need to de-cloak (as in “go visible,” and as in Star Trek, and as in no other sense) on Facebook.

In part 1, we first look at Facebook as an extension of our language-using bodies. In relation to this, we consider how the Jesus in the wafer and wine (or Hawaiian bread and grape juice, but hopefully never hotdog and Coke) lives with us in a more bodily way than do the other, more conventional somebodies with whom we live.

Facebook and Bodily Presence

My initial reaction to Facebook, I now admit, was a constant slipping across the border between indifference and rejection. A seminary friend and I wrote a song for the amusement of our peers in which we cast popular new technologies as docetist or gnostic in tendency, and so leading us toward disembodied living. (Docetism and gnosticism were early Christian heresies that denied the humanity of Jesus Christ in favor of a view of him as a purely immaterial and spiritual savior.) My then-future wife dragged me forcibly onto Facebook in 2007. Facebook is not sitting in a coffee shop with your best friend, nor is it sitting in a pew “live”--hence it is disembodied, gnostic, to be shunned on orthodox principle.

At any rate, I’m now making a measured argument in the opposite direction.

Facebook is an extension of our bodily presence. It is so because it is a habit that stretches our words-- it is a function of our language (and is itself made possible by computer language, also human). In making these assertions I am trying to inhabit and apply the viewpoint of Herbert McCabe, a late Dominican priest who taught theology and philosophy at Oxford. The things I quote from him here all come from chapter 10 of God Matters (Continuum: 2005).

As will be evident, I think Herbert McCabe’s viewpoint offers a lot that is profitable for us to consider in thinking about Facebook in the work of Christian ministry.

With bodies and language, as with Facebook and ministry, it is a matter of communication. McCabe writes:

All life at any level is a matter of communication; what we think of as a low level of life involves a low level of communication but every organism is an organism in virtue of its power of communication. Human life is constituted by an especially high level of communication, the kind we call language. What makes a human body human is that it is involved in linguistic communication.


Human life is remarkably-- fearfully and wonderfully-- constituted by communication with other bodies, often blessedly mediated and established by language. Facebook, as a habit (“Like”) of communication, extends our bodily presence by extending our words to some other bodies so habituated. This is interesting to Christians because our salvation is itself a matter of communication.

To talk about the way we’re saved through communication, we should listen to McCabe’s perspective on the Eucharist. It is a Roman Catholic perspective, but one which I think acceptable and full of promise in the ecumenical field, and quite so in my own United Methodist fold.

The Bodily Presence of Christ and Communication

One of the bad habits we (especially Protestants) have gotten ourselves into is thinking that receiving Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, in Holy Communion, is kind of second-best. Now, it is most certainly second-best when compared to how we will know Christ in the new heaven and earth. But we tend to think that sharing in the Christian ritual meal is inferior to, say, the way Peter and the disciples were able to hang out with Jesus in the first-century. They spent real time with Jesus, and so were brave and sure (well, sometimes)-- but all we have is the words of the gospels and, a bit below that, the way of remembering Jesus that we call Holy Communion. Jesus may be “living” in some divine sense, but that is a good deal shy of the way I live with my roommates.

The problem with this is twofold. It ignores the limits of our bodies. And it ignores Jesus’ resurrection.

Our bodies are terrific, detailed, beautiful, created by God, and... well... small and finite. We share intimate times with friends and loved ones... when we can be in the same room. Our bodies are, in this way, in addition to being our mode of presence, also a mode of absence. They limit where we are. And one of the amazing traits of humans is that we are able to find ways to extend our bodies: languages, governments, cell phones, blog posts, subpoenas, The New York Times (for those kinds of people), and emailing Fox News (them too). Facebook too. Communication is life, and our bodies have limits, so we linguistically (and technologically) extend them. (My iPad felicitously twitters back and forth at the way the last sentence rebukes the romantic contrast between “the natural” and “the mechanical.”) There is a sense in which our life grows larger with more family and friends--and even more Facebook friends.

Absent the ways we extend our bodies to communicate (and even still in degree) our bodies are both the manifestation and the limit of our presence.

And all this relates to the second problematizing point mentioned above: Jesus is risen from the dead, and dwells now with the Father in glory. Thus, as McCabe says:

[T]he effect of the resurrection is that Christ (the bodily Christ) can be present to all men and not just to a few as we can (and as he could be in the days before his death). Just because of his increased or deepened bodiliness he is more available that he was.


That Jesus is at the right hand of the Father makes him not less bodily present to creation but more. That Jesus gives himself to God sacrificially means that his life is offered as pure communication with God, the pure medium of communication between God and humanity. In Holy Communion we hear Jesus tell us, “This is my body,” and these words performed in the theater of Christian worship communicate the incarnation, as exemplified in Jesus’ rampant table fellowship with outcasts, sinners, and even Pharisees (at least those who would come), and consummated on the cross. By the agency of God’s Spirit, our bodies become more present to God than to our family and friends. As Augustine says, God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”: bodily, and so linguistically. In the Eucharist (the Great Thanksgiving in the United Methodist books), we share the special gift by which our words are taken up into God’s incarnation in anticipation of that day when God will be all in all. In McCabe’s enigmatic phrase, “our language has become his body.”

The implication of all of this: Jesus is a good deal more bodily present to us than we are to our roommates. Being with the risen Jesus through the Spirit-work of the Eucharist is even better than hanging around with Jesus in first-century Palestine. Peter and Judas spent time with Jesus like I hang out with my friends-- my knowledge of my friends is always shaped and stopped by the limits of the contours of our bodies, and the things those bodies say. We know even our best friends by external knowledge, the only kind of knowledge (however extensive) we can have of people we are not.

But the body of the risen Jesus does not know us in this way. He knows us as one to whom we are internal: as St. Paul says, we are “in Christ.” And, paradoxically, we know him in the same manner: I am one in whom he is. Jesus is a bodiliness unlimited by the limits of the bodies of this age. The capacity of the risen Jesus to friend others is unbound by the extremities of Facebook.

Read Part 2 of this article.

Clifton Stringer is the pastor of Lakehills United Methodist Church in Lakehills, TX.

Photo Credit: Franco Bouly | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

comments powered by Disqus