Tag Archives: Communion

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!
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The “Sacraments” (Ordinances) Part I

So-called sacraments should receive some attention in any course on “preaching” because of the important part they play in worship services and the fact they are New Testament signs or types of spiritual truth which we try to communicate.

Judging from Paul’s and other Scriptural reference to sacraments (I Cor 1:17) it would seem that we either attach undue importance to them or/and are not clear as to their purpose and meaning.  (A few Protestant groups take a dim view of them altogether and leave them optional to their membership.)  Examples of our over-emphasis are the use of the expression “minister of the Word and sacraments” (a non-Biblical addition), and limiting the celebration of the sacraments to the clergy, when they are only the administrants; the officers of the church are in charge of such ceremonies and supervise them.  Protestants as well as Catholics tend to make a “production” of the simple ceremony of the Lord’s Supper by weeks of preparation, long formularies and elaborate liturgies, forgetting that Jesus said, “Do this…”, not “Talk about it,” or “Adorn it.”

And we say that the sacraments are the keys to the kingdom of heaven, reminding of ridiculous caricatures of Peter at the Pearly Gates, but we are inconsistent on that score when we keep a person of uncertain faith from coming to communion and finally may bar him altogether, but do nothing comparable when it comes to the annulment or cancellation of a person’s baptism, by revoking it as having been invalid.  In reciprocity or recognition of other communions we are equally inconsistent.  Most “denominations” (a word that is not found in Scripture) recognize one another’s administration of baptism, but many do not let members of sister (!) fellowships sit down at the Lord’s table unless they subscribe to the peculiar doctrines of the host church.  (No one thing has obstructed the ecumenical movement – not even doctrinal differences – as much as differences in the Lord’s Supper and the ordination of the clergy – a related matter.)  It is the height of irony to recognize, as we should, that there is only “one baptism”, when that is an individual and personal relationship, but not the fact of one comm-union!

Baptism

The most immediate and superficial meaning of this symbol is discipleship.  There were many baptizers in Jesus’ day, some within his fellowship and others not.  This explains the re-baptism of some believers in Ephesus during Paul’s time, see Acts 19.  This seems to be the meaning of baptism in Matt 28:19, where Jesus commands his disciples to make others, baptizing them.  It had this kind of meaning for the Corinthians, who even thought they could be baptized “in the name of ” Paul.  As said above, Paul did not commend those who said they were “of Christ” (versus those of Apollos, et al.), but said they were all deficient in thinking that baptism made them only followers of any one, even Jesus.  (Perhaps this is one way to explain the baptism of the Samaritans by Philip and their later realization as to what it meant. Acts 8)  Paul refrained from baptizing not merely because of the danger of his becoming the spiritual guru to his converts, but lest even Christ, whom Paul preached, be one more, even if the best, of messiahs or religious leaders.  The “Christ” party in Corinth should not have said, “We are OF Christ,” but all of them should have said, “We are IN Christ.” (The NIV wisely translates I Cor 1:12, “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Christ.”)

We make a great deal of the fact that  the baptism formula ought to include the words, “…the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, in order to assure the deity of Christ (in contrast to the point made immediately above).  (The Early Church, it seems, often baptized only  “in the name of Jesus”.)  Of equal importance in the baptismal formula is the little preposition, which is supposed to be “into” –  more on that point later – instead of the familiar “in“.  All that the latter expression means is “on one’s authority”, be it the law, the army, or some individual,  For example, the Trinitarian phrase is found in many wedding ceremonies (which the Catholics call a sacrament), and is of very dubious significance, since everything that any Christian does is supposed to be “in” the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Col 3:17), and every marriage ought to be performed in God’s name or on his authority.  (He instituted this wonderful human relationship.)  Anybody, by rights, should be able to perform a wedding (“in God’s name”).  Actually, a clergyman or civil official does not “marry” a couple or even “pronounce” them man and wife.  The wedding couple marry each other, and it is the state (with its license) that declares them to be legally married.

In other words, the baptismal formula as commonly understood, (comparable to the wedding ceremony) means simply “I baptize you on my authority as a minister of the gospel and of God; as an official representative of the church I declare that you are a member of the church.”  (Once more, a baptizee – if an adult – actually baptizes himself; the official is a witness, as he is in the case of marriage.)  Parents of a child should be the ones to baptize their infants, just as they dedicate their children to God and make solemn promises regarding them even before the child was born or conceived.  Our customs tend to confuse membership in Jesus’ body with membership in a visible organization of which a minister is the executive officer.  In some communions an “ordinary” pastor, who himself trained communicants, cannot himself “confirm” them.

Baptism, Part II of the Sacraments, next post.  

Infant vs Adult Baptism

Editor’s note:  This was undoubtedly written as a mental exercise when faced with members of his congregation that favored adult baptism over infant baptism and the problem of what to do about it.  He sent this note (which I did edit) to a number of individuals to get feedback.  The return correspondence didn’t completely support his conclusions and I am uncertain if that influenced his later thoughts on it. In any event, this reflects to some extent the time that it was written (probably late 1970s) as I believe that the Christian Reformed Church has since allowed at least local congregations to decide whether to allow children to partake in the Lord’s Supper. This is a good example of how he was ahead of his time and thought “outside the box”. 

The Christian Reformed Church, like many other churches, is committed to infant baptism.  However, there is NOT agreement as to its meaning.  One group says it is covenantal, like circumcision; the child belongs to the Christian community.  (I Cor 7:14)  Nothing is said as to the individual recipients’s salvation.  Romans says plainly that not all Old Testament covenant members were saved.  Others say that baptism is a symbol of salvation for adults and infants alike.  The problem with that is, what about the majority of baptized children who do not remain even church members upon reaching maturity?  Facts do not fit our wishes.  Our baptism forms are an attempt to say both views, and thus are self-contradicting.  Church order commentary is even more so.  Biggest compromise is rule regarding adopted children; baptism is optional!

Many calvinists do not believe in infant baptism.  And many Baptists believe that Christian’s children are covenantal, building Christian schools, etc.  And we have always recognized an accepted Triune baptism performed in any church, whether Catholic or Mormon, etc.  We insist that the mode of baptism is not important; while immersion may be preferable it may not always be practical.  As an aside, the large Eastern Orthodox church practices immersion of infants.

There are some members in our church that are being re-baptized (either mode) upon confirmation of faith or other occasion.  Synod, the CRC’s governing body, did not regard this as meriting discipline, but pastoral admonition, and the recipient should not be allowed to hold office in the church.  While Belgic Confession XXXIV says we “ought to baptized but once”, it may have in mind those who might want it repeated frequently, or those who say that their infant baptism was not valid.  Most Christian Reformed members re-baptized as adults regard it as a confirmation, re-affirmation, or personal validation of what their parents did in their behalf.  (Some denominations anoint with oil at “confirmation”.)  We recognize the difference between full and minor by means of admitting the former to the second sacrament, the Lord’s Supper.  (To speak of non-full members as “baptized” members is poor terminology;  ALL members are baptized!)  However, the propriety of limiting Communion to full members has been questioned; in the Old Testament EVERYBODY partook of the passover (which all agree has been replaced by the Lord’s Supper); some New Testament denominations allow children to participate.

To this point, I have stated the facts.  Now for a few observations:  First, any baptism should imply more for the recipient than merely belonging to the visible church.  A dedication ceremony would take care of that and recognize our children as special, deserving Christian nurture, etc.  But the very formula – “Into the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” means simply engrafting into Christ.  (One liturgical committee caught in a dilemma, sought to cut the Gordian knot by changing the formula to “in the name of”, which means simply baptizing by God’s authority, but leaving the meaning of the ceremony open.)  At one time in our short denomination history, parents who themselves were not full members could have their children baptized.  Meaning what it does (Mark 16:16) it would seem that those who cannot make a confession of their faith (children) cannot qualify for baptism.  Does the Bible give two grounds for baptism, or have two kinds, or have two meanings, one which applies to children, the other to adults?

Second, on the Indian Reservation (as well as in the Nigerian church) some covenantal children are not brought for baptism.  There may be a practical reason, e.g. the lack of ready availability of an ordained official.  Or is it confusion in their minds as to baptism’s meaning, which seems to mean something so much different in the adults’ experience from that of the unconscious child’s situation?  Regarding the converts’ children who ARE baptized as children, the fall-away rate is great; is it that THEY have a casual, presumptuous attitude toward their “easy” baptism?  Might not dedication in every case make the assumption of parental covenantal responsibilities more obvious, plus the recipients personal ones, later?

To clarify, by “dedication,” I mean an official, formal ceremony in divine worship at which parents affirm, as presently, their own personal salvation, conviction of the fact of our natural birth in sin thru Adam, of the necessity of rebirth in Christ who died to take away the sin of the world, and a solemn promise to regard their child as a member of the covenant, with all the rights and responsibilities that this favored condition involves for the parents as well as the children.

The question may be asked as to whether this difference of infant vs adult baptism is one that is tolerable within a body of believers who are completely agreed as to such “fundamentals” as the Inspiration of Scripture, Deity of the Lord Jesus, Justification by Faith, etc.  In fact, a person may have reservations about infant baptism and be completely committed to such specific creedal standards as the Five Points of Calvinism, which do not concern themselves with the former question.

If advocates of infant baptism should argue – properly enough – that there ought to be some symbol, ceremony sacrament to mark the minor members of the ‘family of God’, as circumcision did (for only male children in the Old Testament), the obvious answer would be to let them share in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  If this seems unthinkable, remember:  1. Baptism is a once-and-for-all sacrament, while the Lord’s Supper is repeated and can be withheld at any time; 2. While baptism is an individual matter and could well wait for personal decision, the Lord’s Supper is by very nature and name a communal, familial affair;  3. There isn’t a shred of Scripture argument against it;  4. To the contrary, Scripture would favor it on the score that the Lord’s Supper has certainly come in the place of the Passover, in which ALL children took part, almost from birth.  (By contrast, the claim that baptism has come in the place of circumcision is highly inferential and is, of course, the very question at issue, and the subject of differing opinions within the Reformed tradition as well as with those outside it.)