God of all comfort, who sent Your Son to be for us a man of sorrows and to bear our grief even to death: Grant that we may keep our eyes fixed on You in hope, and hoping in You, that we may live as agents of Your blessing in the world, through Jesus our Lord and brother, who having passed before us through shame, despair and death and triumphed over them now lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
“Martial arts as a living tradition is like any craft tradition in that skills must be taught, learned, and performed by individuals who innovate even while reproducing the tradition.”
Worship is a similar tradition, and it is the tradition that orders our world. This makes alterations in worship a big deal-whether we recognize it or not.
In this culture, we suffer from an overwhelming temptation to change it up constantly lest our worship get ‘stale.’ Now, this can actually happen, but far more commonly, staleness is not the problem. When the worship begins to feel a little dead, most of the time that’s not staleness, it’s winter.
As a culture, we’re nothing if not mobile. It’s always spring somewhere, and you can just keep moving with the weather. But you’ll never grow roots that way. You can stay alive in a bonsai pot — beautiful maybe, but stunted, bearing very little fruit, dependent on constant care from others. You were made for better than this.
Settle in. Endure. Pass through the winter of your discontent. Spring is coming, and growth. Keep at it, and your roots will sink deep into the aquifer. Bonsai don’t fare well in droughts.
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!
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?
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.
Before I begin this entry, I need to make something clear to you, dear reader. Some of the examples I use here are indeed topics of discussion and continuing growth in my church, and I am using them because they are very much on my heart of late. But I am not picking on my church. As my church has been prodded toward obedience on these things, it has responded very well. So as I talk about evangelical resistance to growth in certain areas, that is not a passive-aggressive way of calling out recalcitrant people in my own circle. There aren’t any. I mean just what I say — I see this resistance in the broader evangelical church, and I am seeking to address it as best I can.
Options and Obedience
Many believers will simply fail to notice a biblical requirement — say, the one to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. They may have read those passages many times, but it simply doesn’t occur to them that they should do something in response. The first time this dawns on them, it is because someone is pushing for a particular type of obedience — say, “We need to sing the Sons of Korah version of Psalm 148 in the service this Sunday.” Upon being challenged as to why this is necessary, the speaker will respond with Ephesians 5:19.
The response at this point is pretty predictable. “There’s nothing there that says we have to sing that particular song this particular morning.”
This is of course true. The church could be in complete obedience to the biblical requirement and never sing any song by that particular band, ever. Unfortunately, too often what happens next is…nothing.
Because we need not sing that particular arrangement of that particular psalm this week, we don’t. Also we don’t sing any other arrangement of that psalm. Or any other psalm. And in this way the fact that God gives us freedom in how we obey becomes the occasion for not obeying at all.
This is where biblical patterns of obedience are so helpful to us. The Bible not only gives us requirements to obey, it gives us patterns of obedience to emulate. A particular example may not be the only way of obeying, but it is a way of obeying. We don’t have to start from scratch.
The first problem evangelicals have with these patterns is failing to even notice them. We notice that the early church successfully resolved an important theological disagreement in Acts 15, for example — but we pay no mind at all to how they did it. We recognize the commands to be of one mind, to submit to one another, to contend earnestly for the faith, and so on. And Acts 15 becomes a sermon illustration: “See, they stood up for the truth. We should too.”
Yes, but how? Are we acting in continuity with the way they did it? We don’t know. We never even checked to see how they did it. We just take the goal that the requirement gives us, and improvise something that we think will get us there.
At some point, some observant soul may point out how they did it, back in the day. “Look at what they did. They appealed to another church with more theological ‘horsepower,’ they appointed a day to gather, they pursued the dispute until everyone had fallen silent, and then they responded, unanimously, to the issue.”
Most evangelicals respond to that observation in the same way that they do to the suggestion that we must sing this arrangement of this psalm this week. That is, they say “Sure, that was a good way to do it. But it’s descriptive, not prescriptive. We don’t have to do it that way, just because they did.”
True, up to a point. Every situation is somewhat different, and it is the province of God-given wisdom to appraise those differences and tweak our response accordingly. This is to say that we will not respond in unison with our fathers at every point; sometimes we will be in harmony with them.
But what madness makes us suppose that we may simply invent an approach without regard for the examples that God gives us in inspired Scripture? What makes us think that we may act out of harmony with the way in which our fathers obeyed?
Truly, all wisdom is Yours,
And from Your lips come knowledge and discernment.
Before I cried out to You,
Before the prayer was formed in my heart,
Your eyes saw my plight
And You gave Your servant understanding.
Therefore I will praise You while I live,
I will bless Your name in the company of Your saints.
For You have dealt bountifully with me.
Sing to the Lord, my nation!
And kneel before the Lamb, all you nations of the earth!
Serve Him gladly, for He is great;
Inquire of Him, for in Him is all wisdom and knowledge.
He founded the seas;
He conceived the plankton before any existed.
The blue whale is His;
His mouth spoke the hummingbird,
The lions in their pride and the larks in their exaltation.
The ebbing tides proclaim His glory,
And the rising mountains utter His words.
Who is like Yahweh?
Show me, and I will praise him.
Who is like the Son of God?
Display him, and every knee will bow.
But the gods live at His pleasure,
And at His rebuke they will burn like chaff.