I had occasion to tell the story of John Mark in a church service recently. Here it is.
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.
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!
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.
This evening I had the honor of presenting the Lord’s Table as part of the Advent service at my church, The Dwelling Place. I had been praying and thinking for a week about what to say, and the biggest problem I had was resisting the temptation to try jamming six sermons’ worth of material into a few minutes’ meditation. But although I had all the pieces of the puzzle, try as I might, I just couldn’t get it to go together. The problem persisted right into this evening; I was wandering around the piazza in front of the church just minutes before the service, praying because I still didn’t know what I was going to say. About five minutes before I actually had to get up and start talking, God made it all click together, and here it is.
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death til He comes.”
Paul’s meditation on the Lord’s Table includes past, present, and future. In the past, Jesus died and rose. In the present, we proclaim that truth by celebrating the Lord’s Table, and we will continue doing that until, at some point in the future, He comes again.
Nor is this some sort of late development brought into the church by Paul. At the very first celebration of the Lord’s Table, Jesus passed the cup and said, “Drink from it, all of you, for I tell you that I will not taste of the fruit of the vine again until I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” From the beginning, the Lord’s Table looked forward to the day that we eat and drink with Jesus in the Kingdom.
Each season of the church year has its own lessons to teach, and all of these lessons apply all the time in our lives. For example, Lent is about repentance, but of course if we wait for Lent to come around before repenting, we’re going to lead miserable lives; we need repentance every day. But we set aside the seasons to focus on particular lessons and particular skills in the Christian life. This season is Advent, and it is about waiting. Advent anticipates Christmas. Jesus is coming, but He has not yet come, and so we wait.
It was a long wait. God placed Adam in the world to be His image, and Adam blew it. Eve had a son and said “I have gotten a man from the Lord” — hoping that this would be the Seed of the Woman who would crush the serpent and put the world to rights. Instead, he was Cain, the bad priest who slew his brother Abel, the good priest. They began a long succession of flawed images: Aaron, the High Priest who made an idol, David, the great King who committed murder and adultery, Balaam, the prophet of God who gave in to greed. There was a long succession of prophets, priests and kings who failed — a long succession. But not, God be praised, an endless succession.
Jesus came, and God’s people recognized Him for who He was: the Messiah, the priest, prophet, and king who fulfilled all their hopes. Then he was crucified — which is what happens to failed messiahs. All was lost…and then He rose from the dead, and victory was assured.
So what remains to us? We’ve won, haven’t we?
Jesus died, rose, and ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. Once again, God’s people are waiting for Messiah to come, and we can’t even imagine what we will be on that day. As John put it in his first epistle, “It has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”
While we wait for that day, God has given us the task to be His image in the world, the very Body of Christ. And this is a job that, by His supernatural grace, we can do, because we are what we eat.
So come now to the Table: This is the body of Christ, broken for you. This is the blood of Christ, shed for you. As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death, til He comes.
God speaks, and it is. When He said, “Let there be light,” there was light — end of story.
David depended on this for his spiritual well-being: “Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity.” David sinned; no doubt about it. While he harbored his sin, it ruined him, but when he confessed it he was forgiven and the Lord did not count it against him. If the Lord said David was righteous, then who could argue? And so David was free from his burden: “Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous; and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!”
Let’s think through the implications of that. If God declares us righteous not because we have earned the declaration, but simply because we trust him, casting ourselves on His mercy, then it follows that we have peace with God. Think about it — what disrupts our peace with God? Sin, right? But what sin could we commit that we cannot confess, and be forgiven?
And if we have peace with God, then we have access to His presence. What could keep us away?
And if we have access to God’s presence, then this is worth rejoicing about, is it not? Moreover, if we know that we have access to His presence at any time, then it follows that His glory shines on (and therefore through) us, and even when we die we will have access to His glory. This gives us hope; we know how the story ends.
But not only that, we also know that the end of the Story will be reflected in the little stories of our life, now. So when a difficulty arises today, we know that the hard times teach us to persist, and by persisting we become different — better — people. The sort of people who see hope not just in the far future, but in the present, who benefit from difficulty rather than being defeated by it.
How can we be like this? Because the Holy Spirit is in us, and He pours out God’s love in our hearts. We are able to love the people who create difficulties for us, not because we are so wonderful but because the love of God flows through us.
Just how far will God’s love carry us? We would think twice about giving up a kidney for someone we love. There’s no way we’d give up a kidney for a stranger, let alone a convicted murderer on death row. And that’s just a kidney; we could live without a kidney. God’s love is demonstrated in Jesus giving His life for us, and He did it when we were His enemies.
If God gave us His Son to bring us to Him when we were His enemies, what will He do for us, now that we are His friends?
We still sin, and in this life there are consequences for sin, but considering all He’s done for us, will God not certainly save us from His present wrath against sin?
So here are our reasons to rejoice: We will enter into God’s glory when we die, we can reflect that glory even in our current difficulties, and what’s more, He loves us more deeply than we can imagine.
Below is the text of a sermon I preached on April 11, 2010. I posted the charge here that week, but I never put the whole thing up. Since it touches on some of the ecclesiological concerns I’ve been talking about here recently, I thought I’d revisit it. The sermon was delivered in a formal liturgical setting, so you’ll see a note where we stopped to observe communion, followed by the closing charge.
Pr. 1:8-9, 19:26-27, 20:20, 23:22-26, 30:11-17
I got an email a few weeks ago which informed me in panicky tones that Janet Reno was going to use the FCC to shut down all religious broadcasting. This seemed suspicious to me for a number of reasons, not least that Janet Reno doesn’t seem to be in a position to use the FCC to do anything. With a few minutes of research, I found that this particular rumor has been circulating in one form or another since the seventies. There is actually a kernel of truth to it: in 1974 someone did actually petition the FCC to prevent religious organizations from gaining licenses to broadcast on channels reserved for education. Despite the fact that the petition would never have affected commercial radio stations, and that the petition was denied in 1975 in any case, the rumor has persisted for three and a half decades, and an alarming number of Christians, hearing it for the first time, believe it. It continues to circulate through email to this day.
Now, there are a number of points I could make here, having to do with gossip, lack of discernment, loving your neighbor enough to check your facts before passing on the story, and so forth, and I did send an email making those very points to the credulous Christian brother who had originally sent me this panicky message. But you’re all good Christians, and since I’ve said this much, you know what I’m going to say about those things, and hopefully you’ll take them to heart. Today, though, I’d like to make a much more interesting, and hopefully much more helpful, point.
I got another email around the same time as the Janet Reno rumor, this one promising me a free laptop if I answered a brief online survey. This message was not forwarded to me by a credulous Christian brother, and you all know why: very few of us believe that message; we just assume it’s a scam and delete it.
Which raises a question: why are we so ready to believe the one message and not the other?
We believe that our faith is under siege, and many of our fellow conservatives also believe that the Democrats are the party of all evil. So a tale of a prominent Democrat trying to suppress our faith fits in with that story very nicely…maybe even a little too nicely. On the other hand, we do not believe that people just go around giving away valuable goods in exchange for a few minutes of unskilled labor, and so we just ignore the offer of a free laptop. In other words, we believe one message and not the other because one message fits with the way we think the world works, and the other one flies in the face of our picture of the world.
Last week we went over two competing stories of Western history. In one, Christianity is a force for good, and it continues to shape the world. Christianity conquered Rome, Europe was Christian for a thousand years, and became the missionary base from which God launched the presently ongoing conversions of South America, China, and Africa. In the other story, Christianity was a corrosive influence. The glories of classical Rome fell into the Dark Ages when the Christians took over, Europe only began to recover in the Renaissance (literally, “Rebirth”), when artists, philosophers and architects looked again to pagan Greece and Rome for inspiration, and recovery only really took hold in the “Enlightenment,” when the intelligentsia threw off Christianity entirely.
The question is, why did we, as Bible-believing Protestants, believe the second story automatically, without ever thinking that something might be wrong with it? Why didn’t it sound like “Free laptop if you just answer this online survey”? The gospels and Acts certainly didn’t set us up to believe it—so what did? I would suggest two reasons.
The first is pessimistic eschatology, the idea that the world will get irretrievably worse and worse until Jesus finally shows up and rescues us from the madness. I don’t have time to go into all this today, but that’s a highly suspect reading of Scripture. Let me touch one passage: 2 Timothy 3. Notice that Paul instructs Timothy in what to do with these people in the last days. That’s because from the NT writers’ perspective, the Last Days were the days after Christ’s resurrection. The Resurrection of the dead happens in the last days, Christ is the firstfruits – the harvest has begun to come in. It’s the last days. So our reading of 2 Timothy 3 as a justification of unmitigated pessimism is just not exegetically responsible.
Nor is it historically sensible. The things Paul talked about were, in some ways, more true of the Roman world than they are of our world today. For example, Tiberias Caesar used to have prisoners tortured for his amusement while he ate dinner. This was not an aberration in his society — the Coliseum provided similar spectacles for the masses to enjoy. Compare this to the recent controversy over waterboarding. Yes, the practice had its advocates, and there were some stupid, wicked things said and done in defense of what was clearly a method of torture — but even in defending it, no one said “We do it because it’s fun,” and nobody suggested that Saturday Night Live do a Waterboarding Marathon for everyone’s entertainment. You know why? Because as a society, we wouldn’t have found it entertaining, that’s why. Which is to say that the gospel has changed our culture for the better since the days of Tiberias, and we are characterized by 2 Timothy 3 a little less than they were.
The second reason we bought the “Christianity as a corrosive influence” story is that we want to tell a similar story. In this version, real Christianity was wonderful, but everything went to pot after the death of the apostles, darkness descended, and the Roman church reigned until the Reformers recovered the gospel. At long last, after a millennium and a half of night, we again believe in the simple gospel and worship in spirit and in truth. We locate the ‘good times’ in the first-century church instead of the glories of Greece and Rome, and instead of the Renaissance and Enlightenment being the new good times, it’s the Reformation and the modern evangelical church. Or in other circles, the new good times don’t start until the Anabaptists. Or Amy Semple MacPherson. Or Chuck Smith. Or…pick your poison.
This second issue is the one I want to go after today. It is the manifestation of an ugly, wicked turn of mind that is at once as old as Lucifer and peculiarly modern. For lack of better terms, I will call it the Revolutionary Mind.
The Revolutionary Mind wants to take a vision of how things could be and make that vision come true, right here, right now. “Behold, I make all things new” is the motto of the revolutionary. Because history and habit get in the way, the Revolutionary Mind despises history and habit—what Proverbs would call “The instruction of your father” and “the law of your mother.” In America, the soul of the Revolutionary Mind is political, but it manifests itself in the church in liturgical ways.
To put this in more concrete terms, let me offer an example. I read some time ago about a Baptist pastor who began his ministry in Arkansas in the early 1900s. Being a practical man—a thing then fashionable—he set about to abolish all needless ceremonies and reduce the church service to the essentials only. For example, the church had previously stood to hear the reading of Scripture; he abolished this practice on the grounds that the Bible never commanded it.
He gave no consideration to why the practice existed or whether it accorded with the whole picture of biblical worship; it was enough for him that the Bible never commanded it. It was therefore impractical and unnecessary, and it had to go. Of course, if he were consistent, he would have thrown out the church pews on the same grounds: the Bible never commands us to sit to hear teaching, either, and certainly not in pews. But he didn’t, and this is because he was a creature of his age, and in his age, pews were considered practical. This man was, in his time, a revolutionary, and a revolutionary of the sort that was fashionable in his time.
His revolution was displaced by another revolution in the seventies and early eighties, when Calvary Chapel-style music and informal worship practices began to crowd out the so-called ‘traditional’ worship (which was really nothing of the kind). That revolution is now being replaced in turn by yet another, in which ritual is returning to the worship service because it’s retro. I am not in favor of any of these revolutions, and I maintain that as Christians we are required to be at war with the revolutionary turn of mind that drove all of them. We are called rather to a slow and steady obedience founded on Scripture, which turns out to be quite a different thing, even when it looks similar from outside, which it occasionally does.
As over against those examples, I would submit that we have done something different. We have not forsaken our recent brothers and fathers – we look to Sons of Korah as well as to Martin Luther. But we look further back as well. We have not made all things new; we are in glorious communion with those who have gone before us.
In America, we manifest the same revolutionary mind in a number of ways. Our immigration philosophy, for example: If any man be in America, he is a new creation; old things are passed away, behold, all things are become new. Because this is the case, in America we worship the state as the source of real, concrete salvation, and identification with America becomes our primary cultural identification, rather than identification with Christ.
American Christians also tend to think of the State as the source of salvation, and therefore work very hard to try to get control of it. As a result, we keep making compromises because we are trying to get, and keep, the reins of political power. This has been a problem for a very long time. Speaking of American political conservatives, R. L. Dabney wrote:
This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be seasoned? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always, when about to enter a protest, very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance. The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it “in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy [fat] and lazy from having nothing to whip.
That was in the mid-1800s, and how much has changed since then?
At the turn of the century, American liberalism was revolutionary; American fundamentalism recoiled into sola-doctrinal-correctness and moralizing. Evangelicalism woke up from that sarcophagus and got politically involved—on the same principles as the liberals of 70 years earlier. The political action of the Christian Right today is on these principles, and it will fail because the weapons of its warfare are carnal, the very same weapons used by Big Tobacco, Greenpeace and the NRA. These are weapons that its enemies can also wield, and against which there are many defenses.
A Christian king should govern as God commands him; a Christian congressman should do the same; a Christian voter likewise. But if we think getting out the vote will be enough to win the culture, we are sadly mistaken. The history of Israel shows us repeatedly that you can’t reform the culture from the top down; several kings tried and failed.
But we have another weapon which is not carnal. Worship is warfare; it is the weapon against which our enemies have no defense. All they can do is get us to stop doing it, and in the American church, they have enjoyed remarkable success doing just that. In order to win a culture war, it is necessary to first have a culture. At the very center of a culture is a cultus: the sanctuary is the center of the world, and the culture is the overflow and externalization of the worship. We begin by reforming our worship because that is the root of the matter.
In Eden, the river that flows from the sanctuary waters the world.
In the New Jerusalem, the river flows from under the throne of God, and the leaves of the trees beside it are for the healing of the nations.
In between, Jesus says “He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures have said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.”
Loyalty needs to flow appropriately, and that means, among other things, that loyalty to Christ and His people supersedes loyalty to America and her people. This is not exactly a new idea: “Do good to all, but especially to those of the household of faith.” As Christian Americans, we owe more to an Iraqi or Japanese or Palestinian Christian than we do to an American unbeliever, and this ought to be expressed in our attitudes about foreign policy.
For example, at 11:02 in the morning, August 9, 1945, the US dropped a bomb on Nagasaki. It was aimed at the business and industrial district, but the wind blew it off course, and it actually exploded above the Urakami Catholic district of Nagasaki, where 12,000 Christians lived—the largest single population of Christians in the Orient. The blast destroyed the largest Christian church in East Asia, killing the 32 people who were inside it at the time. In all, 9600 Christians — well over three quarters of the city’s Christian population — were killed by the bomb.
For right now, let’s sidestep the whole debate over whether the bombing was morally justified, and just ask this question: how many of you even knew this part of the story? And if not, why not? These are Our People; how could we just not know? Do we believe in the unity of Christ’s body, or don’t we?
No, the story we tell is how many American lives were saved by dropping those two bombs. Many of those American lives would also have been Christians, it’s true. But let’s be honest: we’re not thinking about how many brother Christians we saved; we’re thinking about how many Americans we saved. Telling, isn’t it?
Of course, where would we have heard this part of the story? Who would have told us? We can’t expect government-funded American schools to tell the story of Our People honestly. But what about the churches?
When the events of 1945 are discussed in the town square of the New Jerusalem, do you really think they’ll still tell the story the way we do? Which will be more important: that America won the war with that bomb and saved countless American lives, or that America killed almost 10,000 Christians, blew up the biggest church in East Asia, and utterly destroyed the largest Christian community in the whole Orient?
MacArthur’s call for Christian missionaries after the war certainly takes on a peculiar irony, doesn’t it?
While the Nagasaki example is difficult for us to hear, there isn’t really anything we can do about it. So let’s also look at another, more current, example. However you might feel about the war in Iraq, one of the unintended consequences of the disorder has been a wave of violence against Iraqi Christians. American officials have been largely unwilling to do anything about this, for fear of alienating the Muslim majority—one of the rare continuities in policy between the Bush and Obama administrations — and both these men consider themselves Christians.
Again, this is the sort of thing we ought to know about—and we don’t. Why not?
If your instinctive response to this news is to think that you should call your congressman: isn’t there something else you want to do first? Isn’t there another, more powerful Ruler to whom you should address your first appeal? Let’s do that now:
Lord God, we pray every week for our persecuted brothers around the world, but right now we would like to specifically lift up our Iraqi brothers and sisters before you. They are suffering from persecution by Arabs and Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis alike. They are suffering from neglect by America. Many of them are actually worse off now than they were under Saddam Hussein. We ask you to intervene on their behalf. Give them shelter from their enemies; give them the hearts of their neighbors; give them wise government so that they might live a quiet and peaceable life; and above all, give them Iraq as a discipled Christian nation. Finally Lord, we ask that for as long as America remains a presence in their country, our actions would work for these things rather than against them.
As we go into communion, remember that this is a celebration of our union with Christ and with all His people. Those who eat and drink Christ at His table are Our People—wherever they may be in the world.
We worship in heaven, and we are unified with those who join us there in worship—including those believers in other nations, and those who died long before us. This unity surpasses any earthly tie, including ties of where you were born—or when.
The saints of every age and place are Our People, and we should hear the voices of those who have gone before us. They are sinners, and they can be wrong. But so can we, and so we listen to their wise counsel, and—as always—measure everything by Scripture. We cannot be revolutionaries, because we belong to a long line of people from whom we cannot separate, even though we may want to. “Behold, I make all things new” is not something that we are allowed to say—and it doesn’t work anyhow.
If we cannot remake our church, or our society, or our world at a stroke, through revolution, then what are we to do?
In Eden, the river that flows from the sanctuary waters the world. In the New Jerusalem, the river flows from under the throne of God, and the leaves of the trees beside it are for the healing of the nations. In between, Jesus says “He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures have said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.”
The life of the world flows from God through the sanctuary, through our worship; this is our first and most powerful agent of cultural change. Worship is a weapon by which we may battle God’s enemies and serve the people of the World at the same time. When we resort to carnal weapons, there is always collateral damage, but worship harms no one except those who insist on remaining enemies of God.
The charge therefore is this: Every change in your life, every difficulty, every new situation, should come first into your worship. Praise God, thank Him, ask for what you need. Situate your life in God-honoring heavenly worship before the throne of Grace. Then, having done that, pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven—and watch as God answers your prayers.