Monthly Archives: May 2017

The Lord’s Supper (conclusion of The Sacraments)

Besides calling attention to Christ’s ongoing life (instead of his death alone), the Lord’s Supper goes beyond baptism by representing comm-union.  Protestantism does not believe in celebrating  the Lords’ Supper in solitude.  The Lord’s Supper, as said before, symbolizes the ongoing nature of that fellowship, plus the ongoing unity of all believers, like the several members of of a human body, in the one Lord Jesus with whom they died and now live.  Baptism is administered individually, denoting personal entrance into Christ’s fellowship.  And here is where we go wide awry in this whole matter of “preparation” and self-examination, which is kind of a carry-over from the Catholic custom of “going to confession” before taking communion, and even there, the horizontal reference is involved – namely, ones relation to fellow-communicants, rather than between the communicant and God, for I understand that a Catholic may attend mass and not take communion, without going to confession.

The custom of preparation and self-exam also stems from “fundamentalistic” influence, which believes that a Christian can be saved today and lost tomorrow.  True, every Christian has his spiritual ups and downs, but that is one of the very reasons for which the Lord’s Supper has been instituted and is intended, namely, to strengthen weak faith, by drawing on the Lord Jesus.  Much like prayer, when we need the Lord’s Supper the most we might feel the least worthy of it, which is a good reason why we should participate.  Spiritual weakness is a reason for going to communion, not for staying away.

As regards the touchy question of admission to communion on the part of non-members, we are guilty in this regard often of giving greater importance to a picture of God’s truth than the inspired truth itself.  Any one who presents himself before the preaching of God’s Word is surely adding to his condemnation if he responds negatively, and yet we encourage such persons to keep coming.  Consistency would recommend that if we bar some people from communion we ought to bar them from the two-edged “sword of the Spirit.”  In practice this means that groups like the LDS have some clear thinking and principal behavior when they open their “tabernacles” to all who wish to enter, but limit the temples and the worship therein, with the sacraments, to members.  We try to worship and do evangelism simultaneously , which is difficult in a normal service, but it is unChristian and discourteous to invite unchurched neighbors to any and all of our public services only to tell them politely that from one of the ceremonies they must abstain.  As regards our long-suffering children, who sit through long communion services in the hope that we may provoke them to a holy jealousy, it were better that a separate service be held for non-communcants; no part of a congregation should ever be told, “This part is not for you.”

Apart from that, by what criterion is one to examine himself to see just how sinful and miserable he is or isn’t?  Just how much faith should he have in Christ for salvation, and how can that be measured?  How strong must be the resolution to live the Christian Life (presumably by one’s own efforts)?

The Bible assumes (and so should we) that every member of Christ’s body is always “worthy” to take part in the Lord’s Supper;  readiness is something that should mark him constantly, not just at inspection time.  In the classic passage where Paul says we should “examine ourselves” he is not talking at all about the participants worthiness; you and I might have had our doubts about some of them on that score, and think that Paul should have scolded them.  To the contrary, he says that they were not celebrating the meal in a proper way, and they should give thought to that.  “Either celebrate it with the right attitude toward the meal and others, or stay at home,” he says.

When he says, “You eat and drink judgment upon yourself because you do not discern (see in this meal and its celebration) the Lord’s body” he is certainly not saying that they weren’t thinking about Jesus and his “physical” body; that was part of the problem.  They were not thinking about fellow-Christians, that body of Christ.  They were thinking only of “Jesus and me.”

Paul is saying nothing more nor less than Christ did when he talked about leaving our sacrifice on the altar (the Lord’s Supper on the table) until we are “one” with our fellow-Christian.  On that score we can and do “fall out of grace” between Lord’s Suppers.  That was the sin of the prodigal’s older brother, for the likes of whom the parable was told  – not a rescue mission story.  If the crash programs of family-visits that some churches have prior to the Lord’s Supper lay stress on that aspect of our Christian life, well and good.  But let us not let our reconciled state with God be an object of quarterly or even weekly analysis and anxiety;  that is not entering into God’s “rest”.  A nervous stomach is bad for digestion, either physical or spiritual.

Other weaknesses in the Lord’s Supper celebrations which confuse its participants as to purpose and meaning include:

  1. Inexact typology in one of the forms says that just as a great many berries are squeezed into a single container of wine, or many kernels of wheat are mixed  into one loaf of bread, so are all the members of Christ’s church molded by his Spirit into a unified whole.  This is a pretty picture, and we are allowed to make up such illustrations of our own as “types” of spiritual truths.  In this case, however, the analogy is not found in Scripture but, in fact, is exactly the reverse of what the Lord’s Supper intends to depict, mainly , that from the one to the many, we who partake of the one Lord Jesus Christ find our unity, despite being as “different and apart” as members of a human body, in Him as our single source, life-giver.
  2. Similarly, the breaking of the communion loaf (a symbolism to be preferred to the mechanically-cubed pieces) does not, as we said before, depict the fracture of Christ’s body in crucifixion, but, in symbolizing the death of the believers with Christ, may well depict also the fact that they must be “broken” and “poured out” in order to feed others in turn, first of all their own physical “flesh and blood” (relatives, families).  We are not simply to be served, but to serve; not only dine, but work; receive life, but to give it (by dying to self, as a mother “dies” to reproduce life).  Paul makes the startling statement that he “fills up” the sufferings of Christ by means of his personal sufferings in behalf of the gospel and its dissemination.  In Scripture the picture of wheat-kernels is not that they are ground up to make one bread, but that they are buried and die in order to re-create countless others.
  3. That, in turn, reminds of the un-communionlike controversies that ironically have fractured the fellowship within single congregations over the pictures of truth instead of the truths themselves; bad enough that we create denominations over disputed doctrines; the height of heresy (which basically means “trouble-making”) is to quibble over symbolism.  In the case of baptism it has taken the form of immersion vs sprinkling, but that quarrel can be understood because the reality behind the picture is at issue; two or more things are thereby being represented.  In the case of the Lord’s Supper, individual congregations (the basic unit of the church) have split over the question of individual versus common cups, and wine vs. grape-juice.  Both quarrels arose from failure to understand typology; it’s the common drink, not the container(s).  It’s the color and form of that drink, not the material, which is the point of comparison.  Would those who insist upon wine be agreeable to the white variety? So, a red soft-drink is acceptable (to say nothing of grape-juice) as in many (overseas) communions.  Perhaps not even color is significant; wine (or grape-juice) was the “coffee” of the culture in which Jesus lived and died.  It is not without significance that Jesus did not speak of that after-dinner beverage by name, but he and Paul consistently referred to it as “the cup.”
  4. It is the “cup of blessing” (or “thanksgiving”) which is the term the Israelites had used for 1400 years previously.  The pastor’s hand of benediction upon it is harmless enough, but it is we who do the blessing (praising), not God; we bless Him for it!  Much better that the cup of celebration be raised (by one or all) in tribute and toast to the host and the King.  Let’s let God’s pictures be picturesque!

The Lord’s Supper, Part II (Sacraments, cont.)

Editor’s note:  This is the 100th posting on this blog.  If you have found it to be educational or a blessing and you don’t mind taking just a minute, post a comment to let me know there are readers out there who enjoy following this. Thanks in advance for the encouragement.  

The Lord’s Supper is obviously a meal.  This would seem to be so obvious as not need mention.  But at this point we make the mistake of thinking that we are symbolically dining on Jesus’ crucified body and drinking his disembodied blood, much like a bunch of cannibals.  One of the Lord’s Supper liturgies speaks of eating Christ’s “broken body and shed blood”, a phrase for which there is no Scriptural warrant (showing how closely we ought to stick to the Word in our attempts to improve upon it).  Many people think that the breaking of the communal loaf symbolizes the separation of Christ’s soul from body or perhaps the rupture of his heart, but Scripture is quite insistent that Christ’s perfect atonement involved a physical wholeness of body, which was not broken either in death or as a coup de grace.  (The passover lamb was not to be carved up in the fashion that we do with a pork loin, but roasted in one piece.)

It would have been unthinkable for any Jew, albeit a “fulfilled” (Christian) one, to dine even in symbol on a dead body or drink the blood of a corpse.  This was the intent of the prohibition against meat with the blood in it, a custom in Judaism extending to the present, and which an early Christians council confirmed (while all other dietary customs were called kosher) in order to remove any grounds for the crazy accusation that the first Christians were in superstitious, heathen fashion trusting in a ritual that supposed anybody could get life and strength  from anyone’s death.  (On what other grounds do we feel today that the proscription against blood-wurst does not apply to us? As regards a general distaste for such food anyway – like drinking blood mixed with camel milk –  compare with the general reluctance in “civilized” countries to use blood from cadavers for transfusion even though it is identical to that of a living person.  As regards the prohibition in Acts 15 against fornication, this is not a Puritanic overemphasis on sex sins, but a caution against incest, so prevalent in worldly society of those days,  like the Herods and Caesars, and which was once permitted to their own believing forbears, like Abraham.)

When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” he certainly included his sacrificial death, but certainly more than that, particularly his eternal reality in glory right now which we are so prone to forget with all our pitiful pictures of Christ’s life here upon death, from mewling baby to bloody corpse.  Paul says of all that, “From now on I no longer know Christ Jesus after the flesh.”  When Jesus said, “This (the Lord’s supper) is my body”, he was very much alive, and, of course, he was talking neither of his body of that moment nor what it would become in the next hours, but of the eternal life-giving energy of which “body and blood” are to us symbolic.  “Remember me as I am, now, not as I was”, is what Jesus wants us to do today.

Christ was only doing in graphic fashion at the Lord’s Supper, what he taught in John 6, after the miracle of the feeding of 5,000, when he said, “You have to eat my flesh and drink my blood”, participate in my eternal life, be ingrafted into me and take me into yourself.  If he were to repeat that “sermon” today he would likely use the illustration of a transfusion, in which the very literal life of a vibrant person flows into a desperately weak one.

This point should really have not required all this wordiness.  To put the whole matter in terms of the reality instead of the type, every mature Christian knows that we are not made alive through Christ’s death; that took care of our sin, our guilt.  (“The wages of sin is death.” “God made him to be a sin-offering for us, that we might become the righteousness of God through him”, and made righteous by his life.)  He was delivered up for our transgressions, and raised (made alive) for our justification – to make us righteous.  In the Lord’s Supper we do not dine on Jesus’ death, but on his life, and not the life of that tired, destructible, mortal body he wore from Bethlehem to Calvary, but that immortal, glorious, eternal life he is living right now.  In that sense he is both the meal or food on the Lord’s Supper table and at once the host at its head.  And because of our participation by faith, he is even within the hearts of the communicants, who are veritable “temples” of Christ’s very Spirit.  A Reformed catechism puts it succinctly, we are bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

It hardly needs pointing out that if this conception of the Lord’s Supper would grip us our entire celebration(s) of it would radically change.  Somehow we have the idea it is a meal comparable to the refreshments served after a funeral/burial, and while we are not quite as forlorn as at the grave-side, our joy must be pretty tempered and rather soberly expressed.

Not so.  This meal is comparable to a Thanksgiving feast which a father (and mother) have prepared by literal “blood, sweat and tears”, but do either they or the guests remember that?  It is a “birthday party”, with the honoree bringing all kinds of gifts in addition to the meal, such priceless gifts as love, joy, peace, etc.  Do you see any reason for long faces, melancholy music in that?  It is a home-coming, comparable to the feast for the prodigal son, though it ought immediately be added that such a party is not given if the guests honor should run away after every one and expect another upon his return. (This in reference to the impression that is often left that we have done just that between almost every communions.)  We speak of “celebrating” the Lord’s Supper; celebration denotes singing, dancing, joy.  Quite out of place are such songs as we have in our hymnals for “mission” meetings, with which to invite the unsaved;  Just as I am – poor, wretched, blind.  More on this in the conclusion on this topic.

The Lord’s Supper, Part I (“Sacraments” cont.)

In the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we also easily settle for some superficial meaning and significance, although truer ones are equally obvious.  In a sentence, the Lord’s Supper is usually thought to represent Christ’s death and, secondarily, our life or salvation on account of that.  Closer to fact is the statement that it represents OUR death (in and with Christ), and his life now, in us.

If the Lord’s Supper represents primarily or only the death of Christ on the cross, it is almost superfluous, like a photo of a person who is very much alive and right beside us.  For one thing, we have the written Word with its detailed description of Christ’s death and its significance for us.  In addition to that we are surrounded by countless duplicates of the cross on which Christ gave his life, which is certainly more apt a reminder than a bit of food and drink, which connection has to carefully explained or be meaningless to the uninitiate.  (A picture should be self-evident to any viewer, and not have to be entitled or described in order to be “intelligible”, as in the case of a bunch of purple triangles with the label “Nude descending staircase.”  The fact that it takes far longer to read an explanation of the Lord’s Supper than it does to celebrate it makes one wonder as to whether our explanation is the correct one.)  The cross on which the Lord was “lifted up” has literally been lifted up around the world and in every age since his crucifixion; who can escape its testimony in the civilized world?  It is exposed to the public far more than the Lord’s Supper ever is, which is more of a testimony to oneself and fellow-Christians than to the unsaved.

And if Christ’s death is the prominent truth depicted in the Lord’s Supper, its celebration is of doubtful timeliness at, say, Christmas time, one of the most favorite times for its observance.  Good Friday or Maunday Thursday is appropriate, but a birthday anniversary is a bit incongruous for a death-memorial observance.

A sacrament, after all, is not designed merely to portray objective fact, but to communicate understanding and to elicit the observer’s participant’s involvement.  (Here is where the cross, as a symbol, just because of its very familiarity, has lost much usefulness, can even be counterproductive.  Perhaps an Old Testament comparison would be the brass serpent, a very-real type of Calvary (see John 3:15) which at one time was a God-given means of healing, but later became an an idol through whose veneration people lost their souls.  At one time the cross around a person’s necks was a reminder to the wearer rather than an attractive form of jewelry.  Also with a thousand other forms and uses, including acres of markers over the graves of blatant atheists and profane military people.)

As in the case of baptism (for the two sacraments reinforce one another by having points of similarity as well as difference in typology), the Lord’s Supper is intended to denote and to  assure ourselves of our personal participation in Christ’s death.  That is to say, not just the indisputable fact that an historical Christ, the perfect God-man, once died, (who is so stupid as to challenge that?) nor even that he died in my place (which we believe better on some days than others), but that when he died I died, with him and in him (much like I was in Adam and creation from the very beginning; God added no new molecules or genes to creation after his “rest” on the “seventh day”).  The Lord’s Supper is a picture of Gal 2:20, Romans 6:3,4; Col. 2:20; 3:3.

“As often as you do this,” said Paul in I Cor. 11, “you do show (demonstrate, exhibit) Christ’s death until he returns.”  What he means is that we exhibit, by our participation in that memorial meal, Christ’s death in us.  This is even clearer when he says, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which I am crucified to the world and to me.”  To the same Galatians he also writes categorically that Christ had been displayed before them as crucified.  Paul did not mean that he drew any pictures or had celebrated the Lord’s Supper with them, but that he, though very much alive physically, was a walking demonstration of death to self, death in Christ.  It will come as a surprise to most Christians that the Bible talks more about the Christian’s crucifixion (in the number of times it uses the word) than of Christ’s, who himself repeatedly said that unless we take up our cross and follow him (to Calvary, symbolically) we cannot be his disciple.  That congregation of Christians was inspired which put the letters S E L F on the cross at the back of their pulpit.  This was no offense; we do that by adorning it with jewels and drapes, even finishing finely the crude, splintery log that the original tree must have been.  The cross is incomplete, has not performed its saving purpose, until each of us is nailed upon it.