The Lord’s Table: Passover and the Last Supper

14 February 2010

Christ is our Passover, and in the supper we eat and drink the ultimate Passover feast. Or maybe not quite the ultimate. One of the lessons of Passover, and of the Supper, is that we are pilgrims in this world. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to be a pilgrim.

If we think of ourselves as pilgrims in space—now we’re here on earth, but we’re on our way to our home in heaven—then we will behave like rats on a sinking ship. That is, we won’t care at all about the ship. But this is exactly the wrong lesson.

You see, we are pilgrims in time. Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.*  We wait for the coming of Christ’s kingdom, and then what a feast we will have—the Lord’s Table, with Christ himself drinking the cup with us in His Father’s kingdom. That kingdom will not be in a far-off heaven, but right here on earth—the very same earth we are commanded to cultivate and protect.

Therefore, we live not as pilgrims who are going away, but as pilgrims who are waiting for this world to be turned into our home. And this is the good news that we carry out to our neighbors: this world is passing away, and its lusts. Stand apart from it, and seek the Kingdom of God. Christ died for us so that we need not fall in love with the temporary; He has freed us to seek a home in His eternal Kingdom.

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*I am indebted to N. T. Wright for this lovely turn of phrase.


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.)