The Feast of the World’s Redemption: Eucharistic Origins and Christian Mission

The Feast of the World’s Redemption: Eucharistic Origins and Christian Mission

McGowan, Andrew

The Feast of the World’s Redemption: Eucharistic Origins and Christian Mission. By John Koenig. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2000. xvii + 301 pp. $25.00 (paper).

Historical fact and theological meaning are intertwined in this examination of “eucharistic meals” in the New Testament. John Koenig explores the origin of the distinctive meal of the church and the character of its consequent celebration, and bases suggestions about the meaning of the eucharist, then and now, on his historical conclusions.

The Last Supper of Jesus is central to Koenig’s picture, and he argues that a meal close to the scriptural and traditional picture is well attested, and would have been in keeping with the prophetic dimension of Jesus’ ministry. Yet the real point of Koenig’s solid defense is meaning, more than fact. Koenig sees the Last Supper in strongly messianic terms, arguing that the distinctive language of Jesus’ body and blood points to “a bodily sharing, through Jesus’ messianic presidency, in God’s covenantal redemption of the world” (p. 43).

The life of the earliest Christian communities further defines this expansive vision, as Koenig, in the second chapter, posits a subsequent series of meal gatherings characterized by “amazement, mutual support, and worship” (pp. 49, 56), where a common resurrection experience was formed and communicated. These meals “channel the promise and power of Gods imminent kingdom” (p. 85). The meal as common gathering point and distinctive worship event was the likely point of contact for converts (chapter 3), as well as a place of contention over questions such as Gentile inclusion; the emphasis on thanksgiving (eucharistia) itself suggests “an expansive frame of mind” (p. 102). In fact, Koenig pictures the curious and converts-to-be attending these feasts (pp. 84-58, 105), but not eating (p. 277, n. 8). Stronger perhaps is the case he makes for the paradoxical combination of strong boundaries and expansive worldview, sustained by communal meal practice.

Koenig surveys virtually the whole of the New Testament literature in search of witnesses to this sort of missionary eating in the fourth and fifth chapters, but his treatment of 1 Corinthians and the other letters seems crucial. Having argued that Paul’s discussion on spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14) pertains to meals, Koenig derives three criteria for identifying other references to specifically “eucharistic rituals” (p. 128) in New Testament letters: the presence of praise or thanksgiving; a Christological focus; and charismatic activity. The last of these is the most contestable, since the prominence of such phenomena in Corinth need not mean they were universal, or even distinctive to meal gatherings. The criteria are used somewhat freely in any case, to the extent that there are some “eucharistic” texts discussed where no meal setting is mentioned at all (Rom. 12:1-8, for example). Here and otherwise, it is not always clear whether and why the canonical literature or the perspective of the apostle Paul in particular is an adequate basis for a generalized historical picture of early eucharistic eating.

If the material of this book is the New Testament, its driving concern is mission. In the last chapter, Koenig seeks to connect the “eucharistic mission” he finds enacted throughout the New Testament with contemporary concerns, in terms of five views or “doorways”: promise, presence, practice, abundance, and “co-missioning for redemption” (p. 217). He offers examples or reflections, rather than a program for reform of eucharistic or missionary practice per se.

The Feast of the World’s Redemption is scholarly in foundation, but clearly intended for the general reader rather than any one academic guild, liturgical or historical. Its historical results manage to be both speculative (the text is peppered with rhetorical appeals to what “must have” been or was “surely” the case) and conservative (insofar as they are largely congruent with traditional or even evangelical theology). We might say that Koenig models what he seeks to convey, the transcendence of boundaries or their revitalization for movement outwards. Readers seeking to make connections between liturgy and mission will find the book rewarding.

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Summer 2003

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