Nobody Will Notice: A Love Letter

29 June 2017

“Pastor” means “shepherd,” but most of the people who have the word “pastor” on their business cards are not, in fact, shepherds. (This is okay; you can be a legit church leader without a shepherding gift. The Bible has other words for that — but that’s another post.)

Churches mostly don’t seek, interview for, or pay for shepherding. When it comes to the position we call “pastor,” churches mostly pay for the same things that any other corporation might pay for in a leader: visionaries, fundraisers, orators, administrators, technocrats — things that are visible or sexy (or preferably both), and relatively easy to track and measure.

Shepherds are hard to track.

The nature of effective shepherding is that if you don’t do it, nobody will notice. Injured sheep tend to hobble along with the rest of the flock as best they can, trying to look normal. They don’t want anyone to see. The whole group will join them in the pretense and be willfully blind to their wounds, because wounds make everyone uncomfortable. Lost sheep do not report themselves missing, and they don’t send up signal flares so you can find them. Nobody — not the missing or injured sheep, not the church leadership, and certainly not the rest of the flock — nobody actually wants a shepherd to do his or her job. Nobody wants the wound treated like it’s really there. Nobody wants to know why the lost sheep left.

You will be rewarded for following the crowd in their pretense that everything is fine. No one will complain. For the most part, even the lost and the wounded don’t expect you to help them. (In fact, “Why are you doing this?” is one of the most frequent questions I encounter. The answer is always the same: “Because you’re worth it. Because Jesus would.” They don’t believe me at first, but that’s okay.)

If you resist the temptation to ignore the lost and wounded, if you roll up your sleeves and do the hard work of fostering real healing, for the most part, no one will know except the people you help. You won’t announce to the world that you’re going to call Jack, who seems to be isolating himself, or that you think Madeline is not dealing with her mother’s death as well as she’s pretending. You will just call Jack and Madeline.

In most organizations, even those ostensibly devoted to healing, no one will assign you this job. If you resist the temptation to ignore the lost and wounded, about the best you can hope for is that nobody will notice. But honestly that’s not likely.

More likely, people will resent your shepherding without ever knowing what you are doing. Shepherding takes time, and you will always have other responsibilities. You will be encouraged to spend your time on visible, trackable things — managing programs, initiating a new social media marketing campaign, updating the website, promoting the building program, speaking, whatever. If you actually go and spend significant time with Jack and Madeline, your superiors are going to wonder why you’re not at your desk where you belong. What could you be doing, anyway, and why aren’t the TPS reports done?

(This is like wondering why a shepherd is out looking for a lost sheep instead of hanging around the sheepfold all day — but  good luck getting the board of your 501(c)(3) corporation to understand that.)

So you will initiate this work on your own, and in the teeth of your other responsibilities. You will just call a wounded sheep and say, “Hey, let’s get a cup of coffee.” Or you will swing by their house with a six-pack after work, sit on the patio, and drink and talk. You won’t just keep their secrets; you’ll keep it confidential that you even met, unless you want it blabbed all over church, or showing up as a sermon illustration. (Yeah, sorry, but that actually happens. Regularly.) It’s no one else’s business but theirs.

Maybe it’s one meeting. Maybe it’s two hours a week for a year. It doesn’t matter, because when you made that first phone call, you were signing up — to the best of your capacity — for whatever it takes. If you can’t help, you connect them with someone who can, but you usually don’t just get to drop it at that point. You check back in. You walk with them through it. Whatever it is — and it might be minor, or it might be literally the worst thing you’ve ever encountered in your life.

That’s the discipline.

That’s what good shepherds do.

If there’s a way of making a decent living at this, I certainly haven’t figured it out. But if Jesus called you to it…do it.

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Reflections on Catalyst One-Day Conference

10 May 2015

I had the opportunity a few months ago to attend the Catalyst one-day conference here in Denver with Andy Stanley and Craig Groeschel. A lot of good things were said, especially Andy Stanley’s ruminations on autonomy and why it’s a bad idea. I can think of a couple  whole movements of pastors and activists who need to hear that talk, and will refuse to listen to it. There were also some deeply stupid things said — CEO-think getting the better of following Jesus. I don’t intend to write a review of the whole thing, but here are some thoughts I wrote down just after the event.

By any biblically recognizable definition, these guys are not pastors. The organizations they lead are not churches — again, by any biblically recognizable standard. In some circles, that would be the whole critique. There was a time when that would have been my whole critique.

But these guys and their organizations are doing significant work for the Kingdom of God. They’re not pastors and not churches, but they’re not nothing either–so what are they? They are parachurch organizations that provide a variety of religious goods and services. For the purposes of the Internal Revenue Code, they happen to be organized as an entity called “church,” but let’s face it, the IRS doesn’t have the best possible grasp on spiritual reality.

Church happens within these organizations — in small groups, student ministries, other smaller cadres where there is real accountability, shared mission, and life together. And it doesn’t just happen by accident — quite often, those things are what they’re aiming for.

The organization itself, however, is not a church. It is a monastic order. Craig Groeschel is not a pastor, he’s the next Ignatius of Loyola, leading a militant, dedicated cadre of broadly Protestant monks and nuns in a rigorous program of spiritual discipline and leadership development to serve the Church and the world. It is impressive, admirable work.

There is an argument to be made, perhaps, that doing the work of a monastic order under the guise of being a local church muddies the water and causes trouble. I’ll let someone else make that argument if they can. For me, the issue is simpler than that: this is good work that ought to be done, and someone is doing it. The Lord of the Harvest has heard our prayer and sent laborers into His harvest, and we should thank Him and ask for more.


Swimming in Cap and Gown

13 January 2014

There’s a lot of talk lately about pastoral plagiarism. It even got a mention in the NAE’s code of ethics a year and a half ago. Doug Wilson has weighed in, in his own inimitable way, and Christianity Today’s Andy Crouch has a different, and extremely helpful, perspective on the real problems involved. I won’t try to repeat what they have said so well. But as a working pastor (albeit in a nonstandard venue), I have my $0.02 to add to the conversation, for whatever it’s worth, and here it is.

In a nutshell, we’ve lost all sense of proportion, in two ways. We’re acting as though the citation standards for a college research paper apply to everything, which is nuts.  Even more importantly, we’re getting distracted from what pastoral work is supposed to be, about which more in a moment.  But let’s talk about citation standards first.

It doesn’t help that the citation “requirements” being advanced come from the academic world and have little relevance to other venues. (We’re now hearing about Twitter plagiarism, for heaven’s sake.) I’ve encountered the problem of academic customs being misapplied in pastoral settings in a number of places, but D. A. Carson’s article on the subject is a representative example.

Carson’s very restrictive stance is not surprising; he is an academic. In the academy, plagiarism is a major issue, because academics are being paid to come up with ideas and propagate them. An academic who is merely curating the ideas of others is not doing the job for which he is being paid, and he ought to be fired — especially if he’s trying to pass those ideas off as his own. A student in that arena is in the process of paying his dues to the academic guild, and has to learn to stick to the guild standards. This is not just a matter of “do it ’cause we said so” either. When I assign an essay in the classroom, I am finding out what (and how) my students think. I can’t learn what I need to know if the student appropriates someone else’s words or thoughts and doesn’t tell me that he’s done it.  Academic citation standards are right and good, and glory to God for them; Carson’s article is wise counsel for the academic workplace. Unfortunately, Carson for some reason thinks that the standards of his workplace also apply to the pastoral workplace. They don’t.

A pastor is a shepherd and a physician of the soul. He is responsible for feeding the sheep, for facilitating their healing and growth, for delivering food and medicine. He is not responsible for documenting the provenance of every last bit of food and medicine any more than your waitress is responsible for documenting what farm the lettuce in your salad was grown on, or your surgeon is responsible for documenting which Chinese factory worker sharpened his scalpel.  Now, should the lettuce or the scalpel blade turn out to have been contaminated with E. coli, we shall want to know exactly where they came from. Under the pressure of that sort of necessity, we will undoubtedly be able to find out. But under normal circumstances, no one cares, and no one should.

Now, a pastor may also be an author, an academic, a conference speaker, etc., and the overlapping roles can make things complicated. A popular book, a sermon, a master’s thesis, and a session at a marriage seminar all have their own standards and expectations. My Master’s thesis was expected to be my original work, and it was. Anything that wasn’t mine was supposed to be footnoted, and again, it was. If I one day publish a book, a similar set of expectations will apply, although exactly how it works will depend on the sort of book. An academic treatise will of course have many footnotes. In a different kind of work, credit may be given via a bibliography, a line in the acknowledgements, or a comment in the text itself. The genre sets the expectations.

When I preach a sermon on Romans 8, nobody expects the sermon to be made up entirely out of my own head. After all, I am preaching a passage that thousands have taught before me, and a truly original take on it is likely to be neither true nor helpful to the flock. Originality in this context is hardly a virtue, and adorning the simple truth of the passage by name-dropping famous commentators is just a waste of breath. My goal is to tell the truth about the passage, and to tell it in such a way that my people will live the truths of the passage, and be fed and healed as a result. If they are fed and healed, I have done my work well. End of story.

Moreover, when I construct a sermon, it is a collage of my own exegesis and experience, the insights of friends and mentors, things I’ve read and heard over the years, and more. Some of the influences I’m aware of, such as the commentaries sitting on my desk as I work. Others are half-remembered — analogies, exegetical insights or turns of phrase that I know I heard somewhere, but I can’t remember where. There are also influences that I’m wholly unaware of, things I ran across years ago that I have long since forgotten about, but that pop out in response to the need of the moment. I might very well believe that some of these are original with me — and I might very well be wrong. I am blessed to be well-read, well-traveled, and widely experienced, and there’s a lot of other people’s wonderful stuff lying about in “the leaf-mould of my mind,” as C. S. Lewis once put it. Any researcher with Google and a grudge might very well catch me out at any time, proving that someone else said thus-and-such long before I came along. In the event that happens, I’ll be happy to acknowledge that whether I came up with it independently or just read it and forgot about it, somebody else clearly said it first, and deserves credit for same. But the real problem there will be with the guy who spent 16 hours in front of a computer in a vengeful effort to convict me of “plagiarism,” not with me.

I have never tried to conceal my sources, and I have always been open with anyone who asked where I learned something. I appreciate it when people give me credit for stuff they learned from me, and I try to do the same for others as best I can. But I don’t pretend that academic practices of citation are appropriate for every venue for the same reason that I don’t wear my graduation regalia everywhere I go — because academic trappings are fine for the hothouse environment of academia, but woefully out of place elsewhere. Apparently some academics would have me wear my cap, gown and hood when I go swimming, but I ain’t gonna do it, and I don’t see any reason to pretend like I’m the crazy one here.

Of course, taking a whole sermon script from somewhere else — whether it’s a history book or one of those download services you can subscribe to — is another matter. I haven’t ever done that, and I don’t imagine I ever will, unless it’s a historical re-enactment of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” or some such thing, and presented that way. A pastor who thinks he can download a sermon once a week and in that way effectively feed the people God has given him doesn’t know his people very well, or doesn’t understand his task very well. But the problem here is much more serious than plagiarism or the ethics of ghostwriting; it’s poor shepherding. He isn’t tailoring the food and medicine to the needs of the unique sheep God has committed to his care — and that is his task.

That is a serious problem, and it is by no means limited to people who are willing to crib whole sermons from somewhere else.  We are up to our necks in pastors who don’t know how to make disciples, which is the thing Jesus gave us to do.  The people are wounded and starving, and all too often their pastors don’t know how to help them.  It’s not entirely the pastors’ fault; little in their training prepared them to minister nourishment and healing in a timely fashion to actual people, so that they really heal and grow.  And we’re worried about pastors that don’t footnote properly? Jeepers.

There is such a thing as a real case of appropriating someone else’s work and pretending it’s your own, and that’s a violation of the eighth and ninth commandments. There is such a thing as inadvertently failing to give credit for something that’s clearly someone else’s work — which seems to be what happened in the recent Driscoll situation — and that’s an honest mistake, to be confessed and rectified when it’s discovered. But this obsession with the bugbear of pastoral plagiarism is a waste of time, and distracts attention from a much more serious problem. “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.”

Perhaps we’ll be better off if we worry less about how pastors footnote, and more about how seminarians don’t learn to make disciples.


Grassroots Christendom

29 September 2013

“We’re not really Christians or anything, but will you do our wedding?”

A lot of pastors would say no. “If you just want to get married, the county courthouse is right over there. What would you want a Christian wedding for, if you don’t follow Christ?”

I had always thought I would be one of those pastors. When I was in Bible college and seminary, the arguments always seemed compelling to me. Christian weddings are for Christians. Help them build a strong foundation with some good premarital counseling, and then do the wedding. Kimberly and I did this when we got married, and it really helped — seemed like a great idea to pass it on to others. In fact, a couple of my mentors would refuse to do a wedding if the couple wouldn’t submit to fairly extensive premarital counseling first. I had another mentor that wouldn’t marry a couple that was already living together, because he felt it made a mockery of the marriage ceremony. He would have them live apart for six months before he would do the wedding. I planned to emulate these guys.

Man plans, as the wise man said, and God laughs.

I was a few years out of seminary and working in a church plant when a couple approached me and asked if I would marry them. They were already living together, and they had three kids: one his by a previous relationship, one hers by a previous relationship, and the youngest (a six-year-old) theirs.

Premarital counseling? What for — to prepare them for the hard realities of shared life together? These weren’t starry-eyed kids; they’d been together longer than Kimberly and I had. (I would have more to offer them now, but I had to make a decision based on what I had to offer them then.) Have them live apart for six months? They had a kid.

For me, it came down to something very simple. I had a six-year-old in my church whose mommy and daddy should have gotten married long since. They were willing to rectify the situation. Was I?

In that situation, all my earlier aspirations stood revealed for what they were — a kind of perfectionism. Yes, I will marry you if you’re doing everything right. Yes, I will marry you if you’re not carrying too much baggage. Yes, I will marry you if you conform closely enough to the ideal situation in my head. Yes, I will marry you if you’re good enough.

Jesus doesn’t treat people that way. Why should I?

*****

Back in the day, the 14th-century English village church was the center of the town’s social life — and usually, the literal center of the town. Everybody was a baptized Christian. Of course, some folks in town would be more devout than others, but however impious you might be, when the time came to get married, you marched down to the village church and tied the knot. Did the village priest deny you because you didn’t live up to his standards? Of course not. The priest recognized his role in maintaing a healthy society. Marriages are good for society. Blessed marriages are even better.

Are we willing to take a place at the center of the society and bless that which is good?

Sadly, too often, we are not. What we have today is boutique Christianity, with hundreds of different designer labels. Skinny jeans and obcure musical tastes? Welcome to hipster church. Upper middle class, golf and sailing? Welcome to the country-club church. Intellectual and sharp-tongued? Meet the young, restless and Reformed. Want to indulge your taste for politics? We got everything from Jesus-was-a-Republican-hawk to Jesus-was-a-hippie-before-it-was-cool. This is an infinitely customizable Christianity, a hobby religion. A Christianity that has been relegated to the sidelines of culture, and likes it that way. This is a Christianity that has forgotten how to face the issues that come with standing in the center of the town square, and is afraid to remember. A Peter Pan Christianity that doesn’t want to grow up.
This is a Christianity that believes in marriage but won’t perform a wedding unless both parties are presentable enough to join the club. A Christianity that will condemn a couple for shacking up, but refuse to marry them; condemn them for their wounds, but refuse to heal them; condemn them for staying away from church while making them absolutely unwelcome. A Christianity that blesses God, and curses men, who were made in the image of God. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.

*****

The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. What if following Jesus meant serving my community rather than demanding that they live up to my expectations? What if I chose to be a servant rather than a master? What if I chose to bless rather than curse?

Well, then I’d be an outpost of the Kingdom of God, a place where His blessing was being expressed on earth as it is in heaven. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

In my experience, the simple decision to be a blessing, and to openly and unashamedly speak God’s blessing over people — that simple thing made me a friend of people who had nothing in common with me, a leader of people I don’t have the charisma to lead. I obeyed what God said to do, and He gave me favor far beyond what I could ever have gained for myself.

In short, I found myself standing in the town square, wondering how in the world I got there. Not in any official way — I’m not running for mayor or anything — but simply as a matter of grassroots, relational reality. The influence and favor God gave me raise all kinds of issues I don’t have a clue how to handle.

But God has not given us a spirit of fear.

*****

“We’re not really Christians, but will you marry us?”

Do you know what I hear now, when someone asks that? I hear longing for the Kingdom of God. I hear people who don’t really believe that God is there for them — but they kinda hope maybe He will be. They want God’s blessing, although they don’t really know why. I hear a couple asking me if I will put just a tiny bit of leaven in the loaf that is their life together. They don’t want a lot; it’s not like they’re religious or anything. Just a little bit, right over here in the corner.

Will I do it? Sure I will. I know how leaven works.


That Darned Piggy

26 May 2013

Last Sunday was our joint Pentecost service here in Englewood.  Seven or eight sponsoring churches cancelled their Sunday morning service and met together on a baseball field to share in a joint service of prayer and worship followed by a meal.  As Billy Waters pointed out in his brief sermon, Paul’s letters to the churches are addressed to the “church of God which is at Corinth” or “to the saints who are in Philippi,” not to First Baptist or Third Anglican or even to the church that meets at so-and-so’s house as over against the others.  We believe in One Church in Englewood, and it was as the One Church of Englewood that we gathered.  Of course, there are other churches that weren’t involved in sponsoring the event, and they went on with their regularly scheduled services, which is fine.  All were invited, and all are welcome — they are part of the One Church in Englewood whether they jump in on this particular event or not.  Because I come from a much more sectarian tradition, this kind of occurrence always prompts me to meditate on why I do this, and why I no longer believe that I’m transgressing some boundary of doctrinal faithfulness when I do it.

Biblical truth and Christian love are two virtues which we must cultivate; two doctrines to which we must be faithful, and they cannot be separated such that it’s possible to prioritize one over the other.  The two are not in competition; “I am the…Truth” and “God is love” show us that truth and love are a perfect unity within the Triune Godhead, and they ought to be in God’s creaturely images too.  It is neither wise nor virtuous to set our virtues at one another’s throats.  When we have “love” lacking truth, the prime critique is not the lack of truth.  Love without truth isn’t true, fair enough — but more importantly it’s not really loving.  Likewise, “truth” lacking love is a sounding brass and a clanging cymbal, and of course unloving by definition, but more importantly, it fails on its own criterion — it falls short of genuine truth.  The One who is the Truth is loving, and real love rejoices in the truth.

It is precisely because I care that truth be lived as well as honored on paper that my fellowship and working relationships are as wide as they are.  Once upon a time, Paul came to Antioch and discovered Peter, his breath still reeking of pulled pork, suddenly refusing to sit and eat with the Gentile believers.  Paul could have upbraided him for being unloving.  Paul could have simply criticized his legalism.  But what Paul did, in fact, was rebuke him for not being straightforward about the gospel — and Paul’s subsequent tirade is one of the clearest expositions of justification by faith in all of Scripture.  Christ had spoken; the Gentile brothers were as clean as it gets.  By breaking table fellowship with them, Peter was implicitly succumbing to a “Christ-plus” gospel — of course the Gentile brothers belonged to Christ, but something was still missing because they ate that darned piggy.

Except for the occasional sectarian Messianic Jewish group, we seem to do okay these days on the piggy question, as long as we’re talking about literal piggy.  But we seem to have more than our fair share of metaphorical piggies coming out of the woodwork.  Whether it’s pre-, mid- or post-somethingism, hand-wringing over whether those guys are “radical” enough in the pursuit of Jesus, or whatever — anything that makes you look at someone Jesus called clean and think, “But is he really clean enough?” — lay down your idols and repent.

Christ is among us.  We are His people.  That is enough.


Neighborhood Sacramentology: Imaging the Reality of the Table

7 April 2013

We are considering the Lord’s Table in the context of neighborhood church and ministry. In the preceding post, we looked at the reality of what is happening at the Table. In this one, we want to consider how to incarnate that reality in a way that is fitting, both to the reality that is occurring and to the context into which we are bringing it. Along the way, we’ll hit the question of appropriate contexts as well.

In a wedding ceremony, as long as certain essentials are covered, the bride and the groom will be married at the end of the day, no matter what else goes wrong. This leaves a lot of room for things to go wrong without having to call a do-over, an emergency “get it right this time” wedding ceremony — for which all thanksgiving. But it also means that there is a lot of room for honoring or dishonoring the occasion. The groom can answer the request for an “I do” with “Why not?” The bride’s dress can be immodest to the point of whorish. The best man can make a pass at the groom. The maid of honor can get drunk and fall into the cake. A wedding ceremony is meant to both accomplish and signify the beginning of a marriage. These things signify something else, something antithetical to what the ceremony is accomplishing. None of them make the wedding invalid, but that doesn’t make them okay. That said, one of the sage pieces of wedding advice is that something will indeed go wrong, and you had best make up your mind ahead of time to laugh about it and roll with the punches.

In these occasions, the attitude we seek is attention to detail and appropriateness tempered by a sense of proportion. If somebody falls into the cake, the happy couple is still married, and it’s a day for celebration. Scrape the icing off the dance floor and carry on.

We want this same attitude in our Lord’s Table celebration.

This has been a challenge for me because I come from an ecclesiastical tradition that rarely even asked the question of how to best represent what was really happening. How to think about it correctly, sure. How to teach it well, of course. How to represent it? Not so much. We figured if we were talking about it right, the job was done.

So how do we? Well, we could do worse than do what Jesus did, I suppose. He passed one loaf and one cup from hand to hand around the table. We are one Body, partaking of one Lord — so one loaf, one cup. We are eating a meal with Jesus, so we pass the elements around the table. Makes sense.

That’s great, if you happen to be observing the Passover feast in an upper room already. But suppose you’re with 150 people in an auditorium? Do you have one loaf and one cup, and invite everybody forward to tear off a piece of bread and sip from the cup? Do you pass around one of those big offering-plate-looking things with a bunch of plastic cups, each containing a thimbleful of juice, and a tray of tasteless little wafers? Do you give everybody one of these?

I have celebrated communion in all these ways. As horrifying as I find that last option, in the service where I encountered it, it was by far the most reasonable choice. It was that or no Lord’s Table at all. The pastors who organized the service made the right call, and may God bless them for it.

When we begin to talk about how to do this in a typical “traditional” church service like this, we enter into a discussion that’s been going for a while. There are some good things to talk about there, but I’d like to talk about something else. Our subject, remember, is neighborhood sacramentology. The first question we encounter is one of simple appropriateness: may we take the Lord’s Table out of the church building and into, say, someone’s dining room on a Thursday night?

I know a good many people who would say no, or at least feel uneasy about it. I used to be among them. But then I noticed something. The original Lord’s Table was in someone’s dining room on a Thursday night! How could it not be permissible? The question is not whether it’s okay to take take communion out of the church building and into the home, but whether it’s okay to take communion out of the home and into the church building. For the first 300 years of the church’s history, we met in nothing but homes…when we were particularly blessed. Too often, we only had forests and prisons, catacombs and caves and dens in the earth for meeting places.

Though there be only two of three of us huddled together in a hole in the side of a hill, Christ is there in our midst. Wherever and whenever we gather, we are the church. And where the church is gathered, what could be more natural than to eat at Christ’s Table?

The objection that always stopped me was 1 Corinthians 11. By observing the Table in an exclusive manner that reinforced division rather than honoring the unity Christ created in His Body, the Corinthian believers heaped up judgment for themselves. For some reason, it seemed to me that the best way to avoid all this would be to reserve the Lord’s Table for an official, called meeting of the church on the Lord’s Day. In that way, there could be no exclusivity — everyone would be welcome, and everyone would know when and where to show up if they wanted to come.

I have come to understand that while that certainly is a way to obey, it is not the way to obey…and it is not, in fact, the way that Paul instructed the Corinthians to proceed. The thing that changed my mind was this: I was talking with a pastor who had originally held my position: save Communion for the church service on Sunday morning only. He spent several years working with an aging congregation, and the experience changed his mind forever. As an increasing number of his congregants were unable to make it to church regularly because of health concerns, inability to drive, or for other age-related reasons, he realized that limiting Communion to the church service did not ensure that everyone could be included — far from it! In fact, his policy effectively excluded the weakest and most helpless members of his congregation from the Table. Convicted, he began to serve the Table in houses, nursing homes, wherever he had to in order to take the Table to everyone in his congregation.

Now, the understanding this man arrived at is actually fairly common in Christendom, which is why you can find a couple of portable communion sets in the back of just about any decent-sized Christian bookstore. But that started me thinking — what better way to avoid reinforcing exclusivity and division within the Body than to observe the Table everywhere, with everyone in the Body? Nothing wrong with doing it in the Sunday service, too — we certainly should — but why only there?

Perhaps there’s a simple set of qualifying questions we could ask. Is the Father with us? He is. Is Christ among us? He is. Is the Spirit here? He is. Well then, if this is our God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and we are His people, the redeemed, then what could be more appropriate than to lift up our hearts to Him, and to partake of His gifts for His people?

I can hear my high-church friends growling — but what for? When God’s people ascend in worship before Him, we ascend to the Holy of Holies in the heavenly tabernacle, the very throne room of Yahweh — it doesn’t get any higher than that, now does it? And that glorious fact is not in any way dependent on where or when we meet. Heaven is as near to the dankest catacomb as it is to the stateliest cathedral, and glory to God for that.


Neighborhood Sacramentology: What the Table Does

31 March 2013

The first Neighborhood Sacramentology post on the Table considered the priesthood and the validity of the Eucharist, which raised the question of when we ought to observe the Table. The second post enriched the question by recasting it in liturgical terms, and that left us with three questions.
1. What are we doing/representing at the Lord’s Table?
2. How can we do that effectively in a given context?
3. Are there contexts where the Table should or should not be observed?

This post will tackle that first question.

Whether in a high-church Anglican service in Canterbury Cathedral or a secret meeting of a Chinese house church in a nondescript apartment in Beijing, the Lord’s Table will be the highlight of Christian worship around the world today, and rightly so.

On this day, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

A human being died, was buried, and on the third day, and was raised to new and incorruptible life.

But so what? It was 2000 years ago, in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, and nobody’s successfully done it since. Other than being a candidate for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, what does it have to do with me?

Nothing at all…unless somehow, I could participate in it. If the same thing could happen to me, then the resurrection of Christ is not just a historical oddity. It’s proof that new life and immortality await whoever follows in His footsteps, whoever partakes of Christ.

This is Paul’s point in Romans 6. We who believe in Christ participate with Him in His death and resurrection, and because He is raised, we also are raised to new life. Hebrews shows us Christ as our forerunner, the High Priest who leads us into the Presence behind the veil of the heavenly Tabernacle, going before us, whose ministry never fades because He always lives to intercede for us.

When we come into the Presence in worship, we find Him there ahead of us, blessing and breaking the bread and pouring the wine. “This is My body,” He says, and “This is My blood.” There in the throne room of His Father, He invites us to His victory feast: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has everlasting life, and I will raise him up on the last day, for My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him.”

You are what you eat. We who eat and drink Christ are Christ’s Body, His hands and feet released into the world to do the works that He did, and greater works still. As the bread and wine are broken down and incorporated into our bodies, so He is incorporated into our hearts, as the Eucharistic exhortation also says: “Feed on Him in your hearts by faith, and with thanksgiving.”

This is what the Table does, and what the Table represents.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!