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.

The Lord’s Supper, Part 2: What’s Actually Happening?

24 January 2010

Last week, we saw that the Corinthians had permitted their actual practice of the Supper to become a way of reinforcing divisions in the Body of Christ.  For this, many of them were weak and sickly, and some of them were killed.  This week I’m offering you a similar warning, not about the practice of the Supper, but about our understanding of what is happening in the Supper.

God requires us to believe His word, and sanctified imagination is absolutely necessary to faith.  But there are temptations here that we must avoid.  When you allow your imagination to carry you so far that in doctrine or in practice, you are contradicting Scripture, you have gone too far.  Even if you don’t do that, if you allow your particular way of imagining the thing to become a point of contention so that the argument divides the body, you have sinned.

There is a parallel temptation in the other direction: the temptation to say “It’s all a mystery” and then ignore the things the Scripture does say.  You must subject yourself to the discipline of the Scripture; you must believe what it says, not cultivate a sort of devotional ignorance.

And so the charge is this: Submit to the Scripture.  All of it, straight up the middle, with no fancy footwork.  Whatever the Bible teaches you to believe and do, make it a part of you.  Let your sanctified imagination roam free on the mountains of the Bible—but stay within the limits that the Bible prescribes for you. Sanctified imagination is only sanctified so long as it is obedient.

How We Know What Words Mean

25 January 2009

For some years now, I have grappled with how to communicate certain things for which the proper words have all been co-opted.

By way of example, suppose you are giving foster care to a child from an abusive Christian home, whose father always said,  “Son, I love you, and that’s why I have to do this,” before he delivered the inevitable daily beating.  When you say “I love you” to the child, he cringes and shies away.  What do you do?  The words have been stolen from you; you must reclaim them.  The only way to reclaim them is through experience, carefully.  Over time, the child will learn that when you say those words, they mean something different — they mean what they ought to mean.

I have been grappling with other expressions, things like “Christian worldview,” “interpreting Scripture according to context,” “church,” “fellowship,” and the like.  I had reached the conclusion some time ago that more explanation was not the answer; I had first of all to deliver an experience that was qualitatively different from what people expected. Then when the explanations came out, people would understand what the words meant.

This has always made me uneasy.  I had a hard time making my peace with it, theologically.  It always seemed to me — no doubt because of my bapti-fundamentalist background — that I was making some sort of weird compromise that should not be made.

I have slowly made my peace with it, grappling with how God establishes the meaning of words through creation, how He teaches all theology through history (which is to say, experience), and so on.

About a week ago, I read something that summarizes and extends this trend in my thinking far better than I could have done.  Here it is:

Our words are often flabby and weak.  For the word to be passed on and to give life, it has to be made flesh.  When, along with your word, you give your flesh and blood to others, only then do your words mean something.  Words without flesh, which do not spring from life and do not share out our flesh which is broken and our blood which is shed, mean nothing.  This is why, at the Last Supper, the Lord summarized the mystery of His preaching by saying: “Take, eat my Body,” “Drink My Blood.”

Fortunate is the man who is broken in pieces and offered to others, who is poured out and given to others to drink.  When his time of trial comes, he will not be afraid.  He will have nothing to fear.  He will already have understood that, in the celebration of love, by grace man is broken and not divided, eaten and never consumed.  By grace he has become Christ, and so his life gives food and drink to his brother.  That is to say, he nourishes the other’s very existence and makes it grow.

(from Archimandrite Vasileios of Stavronikita, Hymn of Entry: Liturgy and Life in the Orthodox Church , translated by Elizabeth Briere  (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1984) 36.)