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.

Advertisements

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: 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.


An Advent Service Communion Meditation

18 December 2011

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.


The Lord’s Table: Is a Christian Allowed to Avoid Wine?

8 March 2010

(Given the discussion that’s occurred here over the last week, I feel a need to preface this post. The posts categorized “Preaching” are excerpted from my weekly Sunday sermons, generally a light edit of the charge at the close of the sermon.  I appreciate my brother Bobby and his online contributions, and I hope to continue discussion as we have opportunity to engage the deeper hermeneutical issues that underlie our disagreement.  Nothing here should be interpreted as a slam at Bobby; some of my thought has been shaped by interacting with him over the past week, but I’m not going after him here.  I am, however, expressing my convictions, with which he disagrees.)

The Scriptures are quite clear that the wine served at the Lord’s Table is wine—alcoholic, possible-to-get-drunk-on, wine. The Scriptures are equally clear that Jesus instructed us to eat and drink at His Table. It is highly inappropriate for us as Christians to start messing with the menu. I mean, imagine the scene: we come to church and hear the call to worship. The ceiling opens, the walls grow thin, and we are carried into the Holy of Holies in the heavenly tabernacle to worship our God as priests of the New Covenant. We offer our praises; we hear a word from God, and then Jesus, the priest after the order of Melchizedek, invites us, children of Abraham by faith, to come eat bread and wine at His Table. Can you imagine, in that setting, quibbling with the Lord about what He serves, and trying to make a substitution on Jesus’ menu?

Yet this is exactly what we do when we insist on something other than bread and wine. The proper course of action here is obvious: submit to Christ and eat and drink what He serves.   Simple.

Unfortunately, we come from a culture where there are long-standing bad connotations attached to alcohol—so much so that drinking grape juice is assumed to be the default position. There couldn’t be anything wrong with that, people think, and anyone who wants to see wine in a communion cup has a long, hard uphill battle to justify their position—as biblical as it plainly is. However cloaked in explanations, it is idolatry to elevate our tradition above what God actually says in His Word. The only thing we can offer in defense of our well-meaning brethren is that most of them have never given it a second thought, and those that have are often mired in a few centuries’ worth of very bright folks muddying the waters–which is to say that the idolatry is rooted very deeply in American church culture.  We won’t get free of it overnight.

That said, there is always a tension between where we ought to be—perfect holiness—and where we actually are, and we have certainly not attained perfection either. As Christians, we are called to love one another and stir one another up to love and good deeds. As we seek to grow the Church to maturity, we must do it without losing anyone, and without provoking them to rebel against the truth. So we change incrementally. The fruit of the Spirit is patience.

In practice, this means that if insisting on wine in the communion cup will have the practical effect of dividing the Body, then we can’t do it. The Table both celebrates and sustains our unity; to divide the Body over the way we observe the Table is to partake in an unworthy manner — and this we must not do. If necessary, we will serve Welch’s with joy and thanksgiving, rightly discerning the corporate Body of Christ that eats and drinks at the table. We will look at the grape juice in our cup and pray, “Lord, this is wrong. It’s wicked. Please bless it; the alternatives are far worse. Please hasten the day when we can stop committing this sin without doing something worse in the process.” And confident in God’s mercy, we will eat our bread and drink our ersatz wine with gladness and simplicity of heart.

Of course, the brother whose convictions run toward Welch’s ought to be as willing to drink wine for our sake as we are to drink Welch’s for his; no one should be willing to breach the unity of the Table over what’s in the communion cup.  In our case, we will seek to serve both wine and Welch’s at communion, so that each person can choose as he will, and no one’s conscience need be troubled by what he drinks.  This is not a perfect solution, by anybody’s lights.  But perfection is reserved for glory, and in the meantime we trust in God’s mercy.


The Lord’s Table: The Meaning of Wine

28 February 2010

As with bread, we are tempted to impose our own personal meaning on wine. Wine means excess and wild parties and losing control; wine means your drunk father who beat you; wine means scandal and appearing like a sinner; whatever. But no.

Wine means what God says it means. Lack of wine is either a form of fasting or a curse from God. God says wine is our labor blessed by His hand—which is to say it is the result of man having dominion over the earth, which is fulfilling his role as the image of God. It is God’s blessing. It is the gift with which Jesus blesses a wedding, the drink served by Wisdom, part of the Ascension offering lifted to God in the morning and evening sacrifices, the drink that Melchizedek the royal priest brings to Abraham and the drink that Christ serves to Abraham’s children by faith at His Table. Wine is rejoicing and fellowship.  Good lovemaking is better than wine—but not much else is.

As with any blessing, wine can be abused, and Scripture is filled with warnings about that; it is a wicked mind that turns God’s blessing into an occasion for sin. It’s an equally wicked, pinched, joyless mind that thinks rejecting God’s good gift is a holy thing to do. Both of these sins stem from a lack of gratitude.

My charge to you is to think of wine in this way, and to behave as Moses and Solomon instructed: Go and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has accepted your labor. Do this that you may learn to fear God and keep His commandments, because that is your whole duty.


The Lord’s Table: The Meaning of Bread

21 February 2010

When we consider the question of what bread means, we face constant temptation to sidetrack the question into areas that are more comfortable:

  • “What does bread mean to me?” – a question of individual emotional association, or
  • “What does bread symbolize in the Bible?” – part of our question, an important part – but to ask the question this way is to stop with the academics, which is missing the whole point.

We live in a meaningful world.  Everything means something; everything is a message from a loving, majestic Triune God.  Only when we begin to ask what each thing means do we begin to understand the world and our place in it.  So what we’re asking is what bread means in the world itself.  When you see a loaf of bread sitting on the counter in your own kitchen, what does it mean?  The Bible does speak about the meaning of bread, not just because bread symbolizes something in God’s Word, but because bread symbolizes something in God’s world—the only world there is.

Bread is provision, it is blessing, it is strength.  It is the product of dominion, a cooperation between God’s blessing of the crops and man’s labor in the fields, the mill and the bakery.  Every loaf of bread is God’s kindness, a demonstration of the image of God, of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, and when we eat this blessing, we receive strength.  And so, of necessity, every loaf of bread is also a call to thank God.

Knowing this about bread, begin to ask yourself what the other things in your life mean.  Don’t be afraid to find that you don’t know.  God wants you to know; He will teach you if you will trust Him.