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Stewardship Reflections on Luther's Small Catechism Part 4: Death by Consumption, The 21st Century Tuberculosis and the Holy Communion

Stewardship Reflections from Luther's Catechism

This article takes a look at the way that we live in the world as consumers, but are radically transformed by the power of God through the sacrament of communion.

Death by Consumption; The 21st Century Tuberculosis and the Holy Communion

What is Holy Communion?
Holy Communion is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, given with bread and wine for us to eat and drink.

Words, like birds, migrate. Take the word consumption, for example. For us twentieth and twenty-first century people, consumption refers, well, to consuming things, like meals and new shoes. Precisely here we run into one of those hidden metaphors of language. Consuming a meal is certainly not the same thing as consuming a new pair of shoes! In the meal, we physically take a food into our bodies, where our bodies change it through digesting it, using some of it in its changed form and expelling the rest of it (no details needed) in ways that can fertilize other life. In the case of shoes or cars, we purchase something not to digest, but to use until they are used up or useless.    

Whether what we purchase is a pair of shoes or a hammer, a new car or a cell phone, we call ourselves consumers and this transaction consumption. The word consume has migrated from a physical sense of taking in food and drink to an economic sense of making a purchase. According to this migration, buying stuff is a kind of nourishment, like eating and drinking, a taking into our selves of what has been purchased as if the purchase will become part of us, as if it will give us energy and strength. This migratory bird of a word has just made a metaphysical claim: that life is nourished through purchasing things, most of which do not physically provide nourishment, things to which we attribute, therefore, the capacity to provide non-physical, spiritual nourishment.

Word migration (what scholars call etymology) takes place over centuries and millennia, not decades. According to word historians, (1) the word consume or consumption in English comes from Latin and French, meaning "using up" or "wasting". It first appears in English in the 14th century as another name for what had been called the evil disease, or the wasting disease. By the 1530's consumption could also refer to the using up of material, but even in the 19th and early 20th centuries, consumption still named an ancient disease with no known cure, a disease that seemed to devour the body, and in its later stages exhibited a kind of reverse consuming of liquid, as in coughing up blood. As recently as the lifetimes of some of our grandparents, the word carried the same force that the word cancer carried just a few decades ago. Until we developed the right antibiotic, consumption, known to us as tuberculosis, was usually fatal.

In only about a century the word consume has migrated from referring to a deadly wasting away of the body to a universal term for what we purchase. So we study levels of consumption, patterns of consumption, and consumer confidence. We are trained to be consumers with expanding wants for expendable products, because our economy depends on it. The oceans of the earth, hosting roughly 120,000 pieces of floating plastic for every square kilometer (2), testify to the success of this training.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Could it be that consumption as the wasting disease has migrated into an economic form? Could it be that the things we consume and their toxic byproducts in earth, air, and water are literally making us sick? Could the staggering waste produced by our consumption be a real disease, the new tuberculosis? Could it be that what we are consuming is consuming us?  

If so, where is the antibiotic to cure this consumption? How can we reverse the waste that is wasting us, the consumption that is consuming us?  

As the church of Jesus Christ, we can participate in the search for answers, but we have no corner on a solution. Nevertheless, we do have an alternative way. This is the way which takes place around altars each Sunday where we eat and drink. What we eat and drink is so small as to be nothing, yet by faith it nourishes us with the life of God's Son. We are nourished there, not by some thing that we consume, but by some One with whom we commune.  

Jesus Christ gives us himself as food and drink, and the whole migratory pattern of our lives alters. Consumption kills, but Communion nourishes. We go from communion with Christ as food and drink back to our world of consumption, but we are changed. We who have tasted the real food and sipped the clear drink of a nourishing relationship want a life of communion more than consumption.  

Communion keeps working at us, changing us from reflexive consumers into reflective communers. What does this look like? It looks like people who use their time and their money in the service of community -- faith community, local community, and indeed the community of the whole creation. It looks like people whose confidence is not measured by a consumer index, but by the communion they live, the communities they serve, the time and money they give.    

In a world gripped by the ancient wasting disease in its most deadly form yet, it looks like a morsel and sip of hope.  

Pastor Kristin M. Foster

(1) word study available through the Online Etymology Dictionary
(2) statistic provided by the and United Nations

The Series - Stewardship Reflections on Luther's Small Catechism

A Steward's Confession; God's  Absolution by Cathy Malotky

Living in the Tension of a Stewards Baptism by Kevin Bergeson

Stewardship of the Lord's Prayer y Tom Struck


Rev. Kristin Foster is pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church, Mountain Iron, MN.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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