I had occasion to finally summarize my research and teaching on baptism over the past decade or so. Here it is.
Zaccheus walks into the temple. Since Jesus visited his home a few weeks ago, he’s a changed man. He has restored everything that he cheated anyone of, like he promised–and that took a while–and word has spread far and wide of the tax collector who has repented. As he passes through the temple gate, whispers spread through the crowd like a wind through dry leaves. He stops inside the gate and looks up at the inner temple. It’s been so long since he was welcome here. So long since he came here to worship.
A wizened priest approaches him, suspicion etched deep in his wrinkled face. “What brings you here, tax collector?”
Not long ago, the man’s tone alone would have been enough to drive Zaccheus out of the temple. But he’s a different man now. Zaccheus bows his head. “I need to be circumcised again.”
Does that sound odd to you?
As circumcision was the rite of entry under the Old Covenant, baptism is the rite of entry in the New. Some folks have taken that to mean that we should baptize babies born into Christian families, but that’s only because they haven’t thought it all the way through. You circumcise an Old Covenant baby after he’s born into the Old Covenant, which was simple enough. Under the New Covenant, though, people are born twice. Which birth do we baptize them after? If baptism is the new circumcision, what is the new birth?
Well…the new birth. So once the person is born again, we baptize them. If the man wanders away, becomes a gambler and a drunkard, joins the Hell’s Angels, sells automatic weapons to third-world dictators, the whole works, and then comes back, does he need to be baptized again?
No. The original baptism counted, and it still counts. His many sins are an insult to his baptism, but they don’t undo it, anymore than cheating on your spouse undoes your wedding. You can’t commit adultery enough times to make your wedding didn’t happen. (You might induce your spouse to divorce you, but that’s a different thing.)
Now, if this man comes to me, repentant of his life and seeking to return to the Lord, will I receive him? Of course! If he wants to be rebaptized as a symbol of his repentance and return, will I refuse him? Of course not!
A couple whose marriage was dead and has come alive again may renew their wedding vows. I see nothing wrong with renewing the man’s baptism. But that is what we’re doing — renewing it.
When I proposed giving up church for Lent, I had no idea that it would end up happening so literally, but here we are. In a world of virtual church services, the question of the Lord’s Table comes up. When we’re gathered around a laptop live-streaming a service in the living room, do we take communion, or don’t we?
In the Eastern and Roman communions, of course, the answer is an unequivocal “No!” The Table has to be administered by a priest, and that’s that. In Anglican praxis, the elements have to be consecrated by a priest, but can be delivered by someone else, which presents interesting logistical challenges.
But since that kind of priesthood doesn’t actually exist in the New Covenant anyway, I’m mostly interested in what everybody else should do. For many groups, it’s a tricky question. We’ve worked hard to preserve the specialness of the Table. We don’t want people to treat it casually. And so for many churches, the answer will be no. The Lord’s Table is for when we gather together, they will say; let’s wait until we can gather again.
I propose a different take. I think this is the litmus test for what we really believe constitutes the church. When we’re telling people that they will have to live-stream the service because we’re not allowed to gather in groups of more than 10, we have been very quick to tell them that the church building is just the building; the people are the church. We have been quick to say that we are just as much the church when we are assembled in praise in our respective living rooms. So my question is: do we really believe that, or don’t we? If we withhold communion, we don’t. We’re saying, “You’re the church…but not really.” We’re affirming the the whole property-owning, weekly production-manufacturing, corporate structure as the real church — and you gathered in your living room with a few friends and neighbors as something less than that.
If it’s a few believers gathered in the spare room of a private house, is it still the church? Yes! Should the church come to the Table? Well…duh. Is it okay that it’s not in a church building on a Sunday? Well…WWJD? He celebrated the Lord’s Table with a few friends in a private home, on a Thursday! Oh, the scandal!
So yes, we should do this. And also yes, we ought to train people not to take it lightly. This is serious business. We could do worse than simply follow Paul’s directions, thus:
Leader: On the night He was betrayed, Jesus took the bread after supper, and when He had given thanks, broke it, saying, “This is My body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. [prays] Lord God, thank you for the broken body of Your Son our Savior, who was crucified for us.
Leader breaks the bread, distributes it. All eat.
Leader: In the same way He took the cup after supper, saying “This is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” [prays] Father, thank You for the shed blood of Jesus Christ, who raises us into new life.
Leader distributes the cup (however you’re doing it)*, and all drink.
Leader: As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
*There are many details that this order of service does not address. Wine or grape juice? What if you can’t get either? What if you’re out of bread? Do you use a common cup? Do you pass hand to hand around the Table, or does everyone receive directly from the leader?
You know what? We can have many lively debates about what would be best. I’ve hosted some such debates right here (and here) on this blog. But the bottom line is that it is better to obey imperfectly than to disobey because we’re paralyzed by perfectionism.
We’ve all done this before; let’s approximate the communion service we’re familiar with as best we can with the materials we have available. We can fill out the details later; today, let’s just obey, confident that our Father, while perfect, is not a perfectionist. We are already fully accepted in Christ; let’s be confident of that acceptance and draw near to God by the means that He has ordained for us.
When talking about the Lord’s Table, the first observation to make is that the command is “Take and eat,” not “Take and explain.” A life of obedient Table observance is necessary; the explanation, while theologically important, is really just something to argue about over a cold beer—very secondary by comparison.
The second observation is that it can’t possibly be wrong to simply observe the Table as we’re taught in the New Testament. When I serve someone the bread, I tell them “This is the body of Christ, broken for you.” I say this because Jesus said this. I do not explain further, because Jesus didn’t. It can’t be wrong to just do what Jesus did. (Or what Paul laid down, following Christ’s example.) Now, it’s possible that various alterations and elaborations are also ok (and note that Paul doesn’t quite do exactly what Jesus did either). But it can’t be wrong to just stick very closely to the biblical examples we’re given. (And as a practical matter when you’re celebrating the Table with people from multiple churches, sticking very closely to the biblical text avoids a lot of sticky difficulties.)
The third observation is that it’s possible to waaaaay overdo the search for an explanation. Aquinas tried to explain the realities of the Table in Aristotelian terms, which sounds a bit precious to modern ears. The contemporary equivalent would be someone setting out to explain the Table through a clever application of quantum mechanics. (“See, in the first three dimensions, it’s bread, but in the 17th dimension, it’s the body…”) Um, no. Let’s not.
So a minister is well within his rights to say what the New Testament says, stop there, and decline to comment further. In sensitive company, that’s often exactly what I do.
But since we’re all friends here, let’s crack a cold one and chat a little. I’d say we’re pretty well stuck with some kind of real presence. The alternative to believing in Christ’s real presence at the Table is believing in His real absence, and that won’t do. A Corinthian abusing the Table can’t be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord if the body and blood of the Lord are not present.
Of course the bread and wine remain bread and wine, symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but let us not forget that there is a class of symbols that accomplish what they signify. When I gave my wife a ring, in the presence of witnesses, with the words, “With this ring I thee wed…” — the ring is a symbol, all right. But it is a symbol that accomplishes what it signifies.
Likewise, in a way that I flatly decline to speculate about, I maintain that the bread and wine are symbols of the presence of Christ that accomplish what they signify. In them, Christ is truly present, and through eating and drinking, He is present in you. You are the body of Christ, because you are what you eat. You want to know how that works in detail? Way above my pay grade, man. I’m just the server, not the chef.
I’d recommend John Williamson Nevin’s work for further reading on this.
Reading assignment: Numbers 10, Psalm 68, Ephesians 4. Then let’s discuss. I don’t have time right now to draw this out in detail, so I’m going to sketch some suggestive high points, and see where that takes us.
In Numbers 10, Moses’ liturgy for the movement of the camp tells Israel what it means that the pillar of cloud/fire is moving: Yahweh is invading the world, scattering His enemies before Him.
David begins Psalm 68 with that same liturgy. The psalm is an extended meditation on its meaning.
Ephesians 4:7-10 shows us how Jesus fulfills a portion of that meditation in His incarnation, resurrection, and ascension, rising to victory at the Father’s right hand, receiving as His due the spoils of victory, and distributing the gifts He’s received to His people. A Christian functioning in the gifts Christ gave is what the Tabernacle/pillar was: Yahweh invading the world. There is no longer one pillar of fire lighting the darkness: there are tongues of fire above every Spirit-baptized person’s head — and like Samson’s foxes running two by two through the Gentile fields, we set everything ablaze as we go.
The invasion continues….
In the church we have the tendency to take certain truths about the sacraments and make applications in directions that we shouldn’t, but God has a much different view of the sacraments than we do. We’ve made the Lord’s Table something to be protected, lest some heathen get away with a wafer. No; it is the body of Jesus, and Jesus gave His body to and for the world. Of course it’s blasphemy, but it’s God’s blasphemy. Our job is to submit to what God is doing.
Likewise, we recognize the importance of baptism, and therefore delay it in order to get all the logistical ducks in a row to make a big to-do. We want to do it in church on a Sunday morning. We want the person to invite all his unbelieving friends and relatives to the baptism so we don’t miss a recruiting opportunity. It somehow escapes our notice that there is no biblical example of delaying baptism for these reasons. A new convert is baptized in the first available body of water by whatever Christian is on hand to do it.
If it is the church’s responsibility to fence the Table, to keep people away from it who aren’t going to partake in a worthy manner, then that implies a whole authority structure to make that happen. Only certain authorized people can serve communion, only at appointed places and times, and so on. The Roman and Eastern churches certainly took that position, and speaking broadly, so did the fathers of the Reformation. The marks of a true church, our Reformed fathers said, were word, sacrament, and discipline, and part of the function of discipline was to fence the Table. It was therefore possible in a Reformation church for a member of the church to be encouraged to come to church, but suspended from the Table as a disciplinary measure. At a commonsense level, it’s not hard to see how they got there — it’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of sending a child to bed without his supper.
The New Testament knows nothing of such a practice. There are no appointed places and times. When did the NT church gather that was *not* church? They didn’t have a church building; it was all houses. They didn’t have Sunday mornings off from work. They gathered where and when they could, and when they gathered, the church was gathering. There are no authorized servers, no one appointed to fence the table. Is it ok to serve the Lord’s Table in a private residence to a bunch of your close friends on a Thursday night? Well, WWJD? That’s how the first one happened…. The church’s role is to celebrate early and often, and invite the world to come.
There is, of course, a warning that the one who partakes in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself. (In the immediate context, the unworthy partaking is a matter of the rich shaming the poor.) But there is no suggestion that the elders should stop someone from partaking because he might be doing it unworthily. The only examination Paul commands is self-examination. Nobody else is responsible to do it for you, and God has not delegated that authority to anyone.
An egregiously sinning, unrepentant believer may be expelled from the community entirely until he repents, but there’s no concept of allowing him to remain in the community without coming to the Table. If he is spiritually weak, then he needs strength; why would you withhold spiritual food from him?
The Table is pure grace. You want Jesus? Then come to the Table. Is it blasphemy for some spiritual tourist to come and partake of the body and blood of Christ as an act of curiosity, with no regard for what he’s really doing? Yes, of course.
But it’s not my blasphemy; it’s God’s. Jesus incarnated in the world and gave His body to and for the world; He gave His body to be abused and crucified by sinners. Some heathen getting away with a wafer is the very least of the blasphemy going on here; why would that be where we draw the line? You don’t have the right to fence the Lord’s Table because it’s not your table; it’s His.
Is it appropriate for a minister [in our tradition] to wear green in the pulpit on St. Patrick’s Day?
The question came up in a theology discussion group I happen to be part of, and quickly became a fairly sharp discussion. Of course there were cranky fundamentalists denouncing the whole affair as nothing more than an excuse to get drunk and start fights. (Presumably a minister should either preach against that, or just move on with whatever series he’s preaching at the moment.)
Other, more historically informed, folks made the usual observations about green being the Roman Catholic color, and orange being the Protestant color (which is historically true). Then the usual counter-observations were made that the orange-wearing (English invader) principals to the conflict in Ireland aren’t the sort of people we’d want to identify with, so we oughtn’t to wear orange, either.
It sounds like there’s a pretty good case for abstaining, if you’re in Northern Ireland. Wearing one color or the other might be a bit like choosing to wear red (or blue) in Compton. Maybe. I’ve never been to Northern Ireland; couldn’t say for sure.
But perhaps we’re missing the point. We’re not in Northern Ireland, and whatever the historical links between that culture and ours, the question that confronts us is not what either color meant there, then.
The question is what the culture means in our context, now.
Here and now, St. Patrick’s at its best is a celebration of a Christian missionary notable for both his effectiveness and his (deeply Pauline) methodology. A man who had been kidnapped and enslaved, escaped, and freely chose to obey God’s call to return as a missionary to the people that enslaved him. He obeyed God’s call at tremendous personal cost; a thoroughly admirable man.
At its worst–as already noted by the cranky fundies– St. Patrick’s is an excuse for amateurs to drink too much as a prelude to bad decisions about fighting, fornication, and karaoke.
But we are Christians. So as a pastor, I celebrate the best—whatsoever things are pure, true, noble, and all that. Of course I wear green and talk about the life of St. Patrick. (And not just on St. Paddy’s, actually. Good history never goes out of season.)
I’d encourage the crankypants among us to actually read the extant writings of St. Patrick. He was quite a follower of Jesus, and I look forward to meeting him one day.
God of all comfort, who sent Your Son to be for us a man of sorrows and to bear our grief even to death: Grant that we may keep our eyes fixed on You in hope, and hoping in You, that we may live as agents of Your blessing in the world, through Jesus our Lord and brother, who having passed before us through shame, despair and death and triumphed over them now lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
The below is an excerpt from my (God willing) forthcoming book, Prayers from the Pilgrimage. May it be a blessing to you.
Like Moses and Aaron Your priests, and like Samuel who called upon Your name, so we have called upon You, and You have answered us. You have been to us God-Who-Forgives, and we have kept the ordinances which You delivered to us. Having obediently joined in the good works which You prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them, we who believe now enter into Your rest with thanksgiving.
On the sixth day You made man and brought his bride to him, thus completing all Your work which You had made, and on the seventh You rested. In so doing, You made the Sabbath for man, that Your image might enter into Your rest, and thus refreshed, might labor as You also labor in the world. And so the Sabbath became chief among the holy convocations of Israel, a day of celebration, rest and worship according to Your command.
On the sixth day the Last Adam completed His work, and on the seventh He rested in the tomb. On the first day of the week, the New Man walked in the garden, but His Bride could not cleave to Him, because His victory was not yet complete, and she was not yet prepared for Him. He ascended and sat at Your right hand, exalted above every name and given all authority in heaven and on earth. On the Lord’s Day, the Bride enters Your throne room, there to be prepared by Him for the day when He returns.
May our worship on this Lord’s Day be a pleasing offering to You, and may Your will, done in heaven through our worship, flow out from the sanctuary and be done on earth, that we may disciple the nations and the kings of the earth may kiss the Son.
Blessed are You, O Lord, who gives bread to strengthen our hearts. As we have eaten at Your Table in heaven, so we will eat on earth, that we might soon eat with Your Son in Your Kingdom.
Blessed are You, O Lord, who gives wine to gladden our hearts. As we have drunk at Your table in heaven, so we will drink on earth, that we might soon drink with Your Son in Your Kingdom.