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.


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!


Neighborhood Sacramentology: Liturgy and the Table

27 March 2013

In the previous ‘Neighborhood Sacramentology’ post, we looked at the question of who may administer the Eucharist, and we addressed the question in terms of validity, and in terms of priesthood. Working with only those two criteria, I concluded that any baptized believer is a priest, and a priest may validly administer the Eucharist.

Those are not, however, the only criteria. When we gather together for worship, we always have convictions about what our worship is, what it means. We embody those convictions in a set of expectations about what we will actually do, an order of service — or to use the historical term, a liturgy. The liturgy and the beliefs about worship reflect one another. (I am speaking ideally here. In reality, our liturgies often embody beliefs and expectations we do not hold, either because we were taught the liturgy but not the underlying foundation of beliefs, or because we simply weren’t reflective about the liturgy.)

By being a reflection of our beliefs and inner life, liturgy is drama, an acting-out of our understanding of worship. Only it is performative drama, like a wedding ceremony. The smallest details of the wedding ceremony may be carefully planned to adequately represent what is happening on the wedding day, but on the wedding day, the ceremony does not just represent the beginning of a marriage. It also accomplishes what it represents.

Likewise, our liturgy does not simply represent worship; it is worship. As custodians of the liturgy, we have a duty to attend to the details so that the real worship of the church is adequately represented in the liturgy.

This means that when we turn to the question of who blesses and distributes the bread and wine, we are not simply dealing with matters of priesthood and validity. We are also casting for a role in a drama, and the role for which we are casting is Jesus Himself.

We need to recognize at this point that we have departed from “right and wrong” territory and embarked into “wisdom” territory. We already understand that any baptized believer can validly step up and represent Christ; in fact, that is exactly what we are all called to do in daily life. The question now is, “Given that anyone could, who is the best choice for the role in the liturgical drama we are carrying out?”

The answer, of course, is Jim Caviezel.

I kid, but to make a point: obviously, you have to choose from the talent you have available. You may feel strongly that it should be an ordained priest, but if you haven’t got one about, what will you do? You may personally feel it should be a man, but if you’re at a women’s retreat with five other churches and they plan to observe communion, you will be offered the elements by a woman. At that moment, the relevant question is not “Shouldn’t this be a man?” but “Shall I break table fellowship with five churches’ worth of my sisters in Christ over it?” No, you shouldn’t.

Now, for what my $0.02 is worth, I do think that a man should represent Christ in the liturgical drama, just as I believe the Prayers of the People should be led by a woman, representing the Bride. I also don’t really want to see a production of Romeo and Juliet where Romeo is played by a woman, or Juliet by a man (even if that’s how they really did it in Shakespeare’s day). Gender matters, and God was pleased to present Christ His Son not just as a man, but as the man, the new Adam, and to cast His Church as the Bride of Christ, the new Eve, the mother of all living on the New Earth. I believe this imagery ought to be honored and reinforced, especially in our worship.

That said, there remains the Jim Caviezel problem. This post is called Neighborhood Sacramentology for a reason, and we have to work with what we have. I once heard a story of a group of Russian Orthodox clerics who wanted to observe the Eucharist in the gulag. In their tradition, the Eucharist is served from an altar that contains the relics of the martyrs, and of course, they had neither altar nor relics in the gulag. These men, each one imprisoned for his faith, looked at one another and thought, “We’re all martyrs here!” So they laid one of their number on a bench and served the Eucharist off his chest.

While I don’t feel a need for the relics of the martyrs, that’s the spirit. Given that we’re doing our liturgical casting from the people we have handy, let’s be as clear as possible about what we’re seeking to represent, and then make the wisest decision we can with the resources at hand.

I ended the last Neighborhood Sacramentology post with a question: When should we observe the Eucharist? The observations above don’t answer that question, but they give us some better questions.

1. What are we doing (and representing) at the Lord’s Table?
2. How do we embody that in a given context?
3. In what contexts is the Table appropriate? Are there some contexts where it is required or prohibited? If so, what are they?


Neighborhood Sacramentology: The Table

17 February 2013

Throughout church history, Our People have discussed the Eucharist. It is one of the central, defining rituals of the Christian faith. In a modern seminary education — at least in my tribe — the conversation ranged around the exact relationship of Christ to the elements (trans- or consubstantiation, memorial, something else). In other tribes, the important question is who may validly administer the rite. Usually, which topics come up for discussion is a function of historical situation.

In my previous teaching on this subject, there were some important issues that never came up for consideration. At that time, I was pastoring a small church plant in Hemet, California. The rite would be administered by me, at the church service, which took place at 10:00 Sunday morning in the Abbott family living room — all that was a given.

Our questions had to do with how often we should observe it and (to a lesser extent) on what was going on in the Eucharist. We settled on weekly, and on an understanding that could fairly be described as some species of real presence.

I now find myself revisiting the topic, not to re-examine those conclusions, but to raise another set of questions that did not arise back then.

Who may validly administer the Eucharist?

Historically, the church has seen administering the Table as an exercise of spiritual authority. Historically, it has been an exercise of spiritual authority, because the Church has almost always fenced the Table. If the Church is responsible for deciding who may or may not eat at Christ’s Table, then administering the Eucharist obviously has to be an act of authority, and that means training, selection, some sort of vetting process, and public recognition of passing that process — in other words, some form of ordination. Suddenly we have to rely on the elders or the clergy or someone like that to administer the Table.

But what if that’s not the case? What if it’s not the Church’s job to control access to Christ’s Table, lest some unworthy varlet get away with a wafer? I am not advocating a radically open Table in the Anabaptist sense, but rather a Table at which Christians simply invite fellow believers to partake and warn all comers that because Christ is really present, He will be present for blessing or for cursing according to the faith of the receiver. In other words, what if our basic orientation — obviously scandalous cases aside — is that we don’t decide for people, we call on them to decide for themselves?

In that case, the question is no longer “Who has the authority to permit or deny access to the Table?” The question is, “Who may stand in the place of Christ and issue His invitation to the Table?”

Well, Christian baptism is priestly ordination — a point we have discussed elsewhere — so on the face of it, any baptized believer is an ordained priest. Therefore, any baptized believer may stand in the place of Christ to invite God’s people to His table. That puts a whole different complexion on the subject, doesn’t it?

If any baptized believer can validly administer the Table, then that raises another question. When should we observe the Eucharist? We are no longer limited to times and places where priests/pastors are summoning up their clerical mojo in a formal church meeting. If any believer can do it, we have to address whether someone ought to be breaking out the bread and wine at Friday night Psalm sings, at hospital beds, at baby showers…What are the criteria?

To be honest, I’m still working on that one. By next time, I hope to have something productive to say about it.


Neighborhood Sacramentology: Baptism

18 November 2012

In a previous post, I began discussing the gap between the western institutional structure we think of as “the church” and the activity of the Body of Christ as the Church in the world. Given that “church” as the New Testament uses the term is hardly coextensive with the 501(c)(3) corporate model that we use today in the US, what does that mean for sacramental observance?

For baptism, it’s a no-brainer. The New Testament shows us nary a single example of baptism in any other pattern than this: the new believer is baptized immediately upon profession of faith, by whoever is handy, with the nearest available water. There’s just no NT concept of getting interviewed by the elders or the priest first, waiting three weeks until the next time the baptistry will be filled up, none of that. Maybe there was an occasion with somebody, sometime, where wisdom dictated that one or more of those extrabiblical constraints was a good idea in some particular case, but there’s no call to be accepting that as the normal pattern.

So that one’s pretty obvious: if we follow the NT pattern, when someone professes faith, we baptize ’em right then. If they happen to be in a church building at the time, well, so be it. If not…the bathtub, pool, pond, or river will do just fine. If Baby Jesus could be laid in a manger, His disciples can be baptized in a horse trough.


The (Western) Institutional Church…and everything else

28 October 2012

[In a number of ways this is a follow-up to the River Ecclesiology series.]

Suppose you want to know what God is up to, what is going on with the church and the growth of His Kingdom. Where do you look?

You could talk about this on a national or international scale, but let’s think locally for a moment. One place to start is with the telephone directory. Go that route, and you find, say, a couple dozen churches. Some of them are totally independent nondenominational entities. Others are affiliated with a denomination — some national, some international in scope. Some churches will have a meaningful denomination-type affiliation beyond the denominational level as well, as with NAPARC, the Eastern Orthodox communion, or the Anglican communion. There may also be churches with an affiliation that functions (in some ways) in place of, or parallel to, denominational ties, as with Acts 29, the National Association of Evangelicals, or the Grace Evangelical Society. All this you could establish with a phone directory, a few telephone calls, and perhaps a glance at the church org charts.

But is that it? There was a time, perhaps, when it would have been. Personal ministry has always happened mostly outside the walls of the church, but there was a time when most of the people doing personal ministry were church members, overseen (at least loosely) by their institutional church community. But no more. Today, there are countless communities and networks outside the church that exist for Kingdom purposes.

To continue your survey of what God is doing in your locale, you would now have to leave off a study of church institutions and begin to go out into restaurants and cafes, pubs and parks. There, you might find remarkable things.

You might find that the pastors of these various churches gather and pray for one another. Not one of those gatherings where you brag on how well things are going for 45 minutes and then shoot up a quick prayer for God’s blessing on all the pastors at the end. No. A serious gathering where the shepherds of the city armor up and go to war on each other’s behalf, and for their city. A quick, 15-minute sketch of where everyone’s at, then 45 minutes of laying siege to heaven. Or more. (Sounds like pure fantasy to some of you, I know, but I’ve seen it happen.) Quiet as it’s kept, you might even find the occasional Roman Catholic priest or Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor participating in these gatherings.

Given that kind of unity, informal leadership would likely emerge. In order to make things work at all with pastors from so many different denominations and backgrounds, they would have to take a great deal of care not to step on each other’s toes. But inevitably, as they cared for one another, a pattern would begin to emerge. Some few men would clearly be more capable of shepherding the others and tending their wounds, and so, as time passed, there would be a few who came to be first among equals — the pastors of the pastors, as it were.

By the way, that’s the ancient function of a bishop — pastor of pastors. So from the phone-directory-and-org-chart perspective, your town might have no bishop of its own, while at the same time having a number of denominational churches in subjection to their several bishops elsewhere, and others in subjection to no bishop at all. Meanwhile, functionally speaking, that same town might have two or three devoted local bishops deeply invested in caring for its pastors. If these men are wise, they might also be identifying the young pastors that have the potential to take on the same responsibilities in another decade or two — taking those young pastors under their wings and carefully, informally, without stepping on toes, mentoring them.

If you have that much going on among the pastors, you might also have a great deal more going on among the people: prayer gatherings; ministries to the aged, infirm, and poor; informal networks of neighbors that gather for a party at someone’s house now and then, the network of relationships among the ‘regulars’ of a particular cafe or pub that some local Christian has adopted as a Kingdom hub. These extended families of people might cross all the denominational lines, and draw in a number of people who will never darken the door of an institutional church. But they come to meet God and His people in a backyard, a park, a pub — to care and be cared for, to serve and be served.

How are we to think about these things? The host of a regular backyard gathering of neighbors would never think of his home as a chapel, nor himself as a parish priest. The Christian who adopts a pub and its regulars would not call himself a chaplain. The pastor who shepherds the other local pastors would never call himself a bishop. And yet, in a certain fairly obvious sense, aren’t they?

How do these unofficial efforts relate to the official, institutional ones? At what point are they churches? How would we know? How do they relate to sacramental observance? In abstaining from serving communion, is that regular neighborhood gathering maintaining proper boundaries and respect for the church, or is it a de facto church depriving its members of the Lord’s body and blood, to their detriment?

At a historical level, the old Reformation discussion of ‘marks of a true church’ would seem to be relevant to this discussion. However, it was born out of a very different historical situation. How can we translate that conversation into something helpful for this one?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I would very much like to. Those of you who are willing, let’s start a conversation about it.