Neighborhood Sacramentology: Fencing the Table?

25 June 2019

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.

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Riffing on Romans 10

23 November 2018

Christians have always been called to engage in the healing and growth of the world in a holistic, spiritually aware way — not that we’ve always been good at doing it. Today in spiritual-but-not-religious circles, a quasi-secularized version of the same kind of person is often referred to as a lightworker.  

My heart’s desire and prayer to God for the lightworkers is that they would experience overflowing life. For I bear witness that they have zeal for love and peace, but their zeal is not according to knowledge.

For being ignorant of God’s ferocious personal love for them, and seeking to establish connection to divine love by their own wisdom, they have not submitted themselves to the love of God, although they often benefit from it. For Christ is the convergence of all wisdom that produces love, for everyone who simply entrusts themselves to Him.

Solomon writes in a certain way, “By wisdom God founded the world” and “those who hate wisdom love death.” But love through faith speaks in this way: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you,” which is the word we preach: that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you, too, will be filled with life,

Because with the heart one believes, resulting in reconciliation to divine love, and with the mouth you make your confession, resulting in overflowing life.

As the Scriptures also say: “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”

Because with God there is no distinction between those who are religious and those who are not. The same God over all hears their requests and is rich to all who call on Him, as the Scriptures say: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered.”

But how can they call on God for deliverance, if they have not trusted themselves to Him? And how could they trust themselves to Him, if they’ve never heard the truth of who He is? And how will they hear the truth, unless someone tells them? And who will tell them, unless someone is sent to do the job?

As Isaiah says, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace.” But having heard that good news, they have not all obeyed, as Isaiah also says: “Who has believed our report?”

So then they trust God because they hear the truth about Him, and they hear the truth when we proclaim the word of God. Can we say that they have not heard? No! “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies declare His handiwork” and “There is no speech or language; their voice is not heard, but their sound has gone out to the end of the earth, their words to the end of the world.” And again, “What may be known of God is revealed in them, because God has shown it to them.”

Paul explains: “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became empty in their minds and dark in their hearts.” In that they have addressed their prayers and credited their results to the created universe, they have evaded the need to thank the God who made it, so that “professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the creator God into an image made like the creation” and “worshiped and served the created thing rather than the Creator.”

So these lightworkers, seeking healing, yet having fled from the one from whom all healing comes — has God cast them away forever?

No! I am one of them! God has not abandoned His creation, but “we also are His offspring.” Jesus said, “If I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to Me.” And with this Paul agrees, saying, “when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.” As also Isaiah said so many years ago: “I was found by those who did not seek Me, and was revealed to those who did not ask for Me.”

Remember that when Elijah pitied himself and said, “I alone am left,” God said, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal,” and on the last day, John shows us the saints before the throne of God, “people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.” Therefore among the lightworkers, God has reserved for Himself a people, for He “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

And knowing that “the kindness of God leads us to repentance,” He bestows rain on the just and the unjust alike, and also healing grace and love on those who seek Him and on those who do not. His love flows through lightworkers who know His name, and through those who erect altars “to the unknown God,” not recognizing the source of the grace that is given to them.

And yet the altar bears witness that they are grateful, and that they know this power does not come from within them. And so, God has overlooked this ignorance, but now calls all people everywhere to repent.

And from that call, we in the churches are not excluded. We have neglected the healing grace of God. Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted, but we have said that healing of emotions and memories is not God’s work. Jesus came to make the blind see and the lame walk, but we have been too timid to ask that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. If these lightworkers have found no place among us, is it because they have rebelled against God? Or is it because we have?

But thanks be to God, He calls all people everywhere to repent—even us.

 


An Introduction to Spiritual Disciplines

17 September 2015

I had occasion to address Mosaic Church on the subject of spiritual disciplines. In this sermon, I don’t present a bunch of options so much as I aim for the heart of what makes a life of spiritual discipline that moves us closer to God instead of just building a better Pharisee. I hope you find it helpful.


Present for Blessing

3 September 2015

I preached last weekend at Mosaic Church in Englewood on how God is present with, in, and through us for the blessing of the world. Here it is:


Healing

12 April 2015

I had opportunity to speak recently on healing. You’ll find my notes below.

Our focus this month is on the resurrection.
Chesterton: “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”
Isaiah 53:4-5
Romans 6:3-4
1 Peter 2:24-25
Our job is to live out the resurrection.
Gal. 2:20
We can’t do it alone — it’s supernatural.
How the Western Church lost healing
How I came to understand healing
How God Heals — The Story of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-17)
Things to take away:
1. Naaman was a Syrian soldier in a time when Israel and Syria were at odds with each other. He was an enemy, and yet God healed him.
2. Sometimes God simply heals, but often He asks us to invest in our healing. This isn’t “God helps those who help themselves;” that’s garbage. How much help do you think Naaman washing himself could be? Think he’d never taken a bath before?
3. Healing is not usually a solo activity.
Luke 4:16-21
Jesus commissions us to follow Him. That means that He is sending you to do these same things.
Heal. Jesus bought it. Ask God for it, and see what He will give you.

The Story of John Mark

16 March 2015

I had occasion to tell the story of John Mark in a church service recently. Here it is.


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.