My wife and I recently worshipped at a Lutheran Church and appreciated the liturgical, gospel-centered service. However, there was one element that left a remarkably sour taste in my mouth. It was the notion of a closed table at communion.
Theological Differences End At the Table
Granted, church traditions will always have different understandings of communion. There will be different views across the spectrum of Christianity, this is a historical guarantee. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptists all believe something different when it comes to the Eucharist. However, our differences should pale in comparison to the unity of sharing a common meal.
Bread and wine
In the First Century, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:
23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for[e] you. Do this in remembrance of me.”[f] 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. I Corinthians 11:23-26
Jesus did the most ordinary of things when he was with his disciples for the last time— He shared a meal with them.
He took bread and passed it to his friends.
He took wine and shared it too.
Differences between each of the disciples were put on hold, as they ate and remembered the story of Passover. Personality clashes paused for a moment, as Jesus reconstituted the direction of the Church with a new identity. An identity rooted in following Jesus.
Anticipation of Unity
The table also offers the prospective hope of unity when the Kingdom of God has been fully revealed. Right now, we eat and drink at the communion table in anticipation of the great feast of Jesus the Messiah, as depicted in Revelation 19.
One day Jesus will return, and He will put the world to rights. He will unify his people, and Roman Catholics will sit next to Lutherans and Russian Orthodox will sit next to Pentecostals at the feast of the Lamb. What better way could we prepare for this day then to open the communion table to all baptized Christians? Certainly each person must come to the table with a heart made ready through a time of reflective repentance—that’s a given. However, a Baptist should be able to drink the wine (or grape juice!) and eat the bread alongside a Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Anglican on any given Sunday.
For the sake of Jesus, let’s not overlook our differences, but at least demonstrate unity.
I posted the following prayer in a previous post, and wanted to comment on one portion of the passage.
O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner…
It seems as if I am standing on one side of a huge canyon and see how I should grow toward you, live in your presence and serve you, but cannot reach the other side of the canyon where you are. I can speak and write, preach, and argue about the beauty and goodness of the life I see on the other side, but how, O Lord, can I get there? Sometime I even have the painful feeling that the clearer the vision, the more aware I am of the depth of the canyon…
I can only keep trying to be faithful, even though I feel faithless most of the time. What else can I do but keep praying to you, even when I feel numb; to keep speaking in your name, even when I feel alone. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.
– A Cry for Mercy by Henri Nouwen
Did you catch what Nouwen wrote in the last quoted paragraph? He wrote that he tried to be faithful despite his inclinations of faithlessness.
Have you ever tried to be faithful?
Perhaps you tried to be patient, or kind, or gentle, or pure, or selfless? To be blunt how’d that work out?
I don’t know about you, but I fail. I fail way more than I would like! Even in those times I do succeed, I step away from the situation utterly exhausted. Thanks to the work in books like Willpower, we now know that humans have a limited amount of willpower that becomes depleted throughout the day. While Baumeister and Tierney offer helpful suggestions on the subject of willpower in everyday life, when it comes to the willpower of faith Nouwen is discussing, I am afraid it just cannot be implemented in the same capacity.
When I try faithfulness, I end up with moments of great success and failures. However, the God revealed in the Bible does not measure our lives on an average or curve. He measures it compared to his holiness, and we come up woefully short.
Fortunately, the great message of Jesus the Messiah, is that God himself reconciles the world through Jesus. We are saved through his faithfulness and are justified through his salvific work (see II Timothy 2:13 and II Corinthians 5:19).
Reader, don’t be burnt out through your own strength. Instead, trust in Jesus and his faithfulness. Everything else will be added to you through his Spirit who lives and dwells in you.
There was a Buzzfeed video circulating around last week featuring millennial Christians explaining what makes a Christian. While a lot has been said over the feature, the thing that most struck me was the complete lack of explicit Christian theology. There was no mention of the crucified Christ, the hope in the resurrection, about justification by faith, and our sanctification through the Holy Spirit. No Trinity, grace, repentance, prayer, or historicity of the faith.
What was there? Love.
There was a lot of love talk; however, it was not a costly love. It was cheap grace, to borrow from Bonhoeffer.
What I mean by cheap grace is that it doesn’t cost us anything. It’s an invitation to tolerance, but not to self-sacrificing love as demonstrated by the Messiah. It’s not an invitation for others onto the path of following Jesus, which means we have to put our own self-loving idols in the trash heap. Is it an invitation to perfection? Absolutely not! Christians will screw up time and time again, but we follow the one who did not screw up (to quote from the Greek…) and who restores our broken relationships with God and others.
Jesus calls us to follow him and to carry our cross. He calls us to discipleship, which is incredibly difficult! He calls us to deny our desires at times and to come to terms that some of our desires will be unfulfilled this side of the grave.
But you know what Jesus promises? It will be worth it.
It will be worth it, for he calls us to go into battle—even if the battle will be a long struggle. Paul had a thorn in the flesh that bothered him throughout his ministry and Jesus had an unfulfilled desire to not be crucified. We too might have a thorn in our side that will never go away.
The message of the Buzzfeed video was it is necessary to be loved and accepted, instead of it being necessary to follow Jesus in countercultural ways. Be kind to others, of course! But be rooted in the particular call of the gospel and the call to a discipleship that is shaped by the cross.
I am a Christian who does not have it all together, who is flawed, and does not have all the answers. But I have hope because of the faithfulness of Jesus. Let’s journey together, looking to the founder and perfecter of our faith.
“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”
Suffering is inevitable.
At some point in our lives, we will encounter people who are going through a difficult season. At some point in our lives, we will go through a season of tremendous difficulty ourselves. As I have encountered both of these scenarios, I wanted to offer a thought on what to do during those times.
The Book of Job is believed to be the oldest book in the Bible, and it also proves to be the most challenging to digest. Without getting into the exegetical aspects of Job, I want to offer one observation from the narrative. When Job suffered for no fault of his own, he was able to express his great frustration in the silence and mystery of a mighty God. When Job was drowning in sorrow, he lamented that he was in a tempest and that God would not let him catch his breath.
He was treading water and his friends were present. So far so good.
Job was treading water and his friends knew it. But his friends offered advice, moralizing sermons, and asinine comments. They did not sit with Job in his pain, but instead told him what to do instead. They were present in an unhelpful way. While comments of God’s justice and power are true, those comments were not helpful. Romans 8:28 is a wonderful verse, but it is not helpful to share with someone who just experienced tremendous loss.
Grieve with those who grieve.
During seasons of lament, we have permission to grieve and mourn. As friends of the mourner, we need to provide an atmosphere where the suffering person can be upset and process their grief. Whether it is the loss of a marriage, a job, an identity, stability, or family member, there needs to be a safe place to unload our emotional burdens.
We need friends who mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep. We need these friends who listen well and will enter into our pain through purely being present, instead of offering cheap platitudes. There will be a time for action, but perhaps that time is not in the initial days of grief.
In short, mourn with those who mourn, so that one day you can rejoice with those same people who will one day return to rejoicing.
At church this past weekend, the following quote was shared in the worship folder. There’s no need on my part to unpack the brilliance of N.T. Wright:
God doesn’t give people the Holy Spirit in order to let them enjoy the spiritual equivalent of a day at Disneyland. Of course, if you’re downcast and gloomy, the fresh wind of God’s Spirit can and often does give you a new perspective on everything, and above all grants a sense of God’s presence, love, comfort, and even joy. But the point of the Spirit is to enable those who follow Jesus to take into all the world the news that he is Lord, that he has won the victory over the forces of evil, that a new world has opened up, and that we are to help make it happen.
Have you ever caught yourself staring out the window wondering if everyone else is passing you in life?
Baby number 1, 2, or 3 shows up on your friends profile page.
A new house for someone else.
A dream vacation to that spot you’ve always wanted to go to.
A marriage. An engagement. A new car. A job promotion.
Have you ever left Facebook or Instagram and felt that you were three hundred steps behind everyone else?
It’s so easy to compare my life to someone else and to see all the good that is going on in their life. It is so easy to look into the highlight reel of that friend and not see the dark shadows that form around the horizon of their lifestyle.
Maybe we don’t see how the 6 digit salary comes at the price of overwhelming stress and little time with their child. Maybe we don’t see the health problem that is looming overhead. We don’t see the loneliness that is amplified from the accumulation of more toys and more trips.
Jesus talked about money so frequently in his teachings that is pretty startling. He said things like how it’s easier for a camel to fit into the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to get into the Kingdom of God. He relayed stories of people who went away sad because the cost of following Jesus meant that they needed to trust in him and not in their rich life. Harsh words relayed to an expectant group.
I look out my window as I type and see a few little birds on a wire, sitting there and chirping at each other. I look out my window and see that God cares for those songbirds. I’m reminded of the words of Jesus,
“Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?”
Maybe God will provide. Maybe God will be and is true to his word.
Is it possible to be a Christian apart from the community of faith? I submit to you that I think not.
While it is possible that you can read your Bible on your own for all your days, you will end up non the wiser and probably more dangerous without the community of faith surrounding you. For the Word of God comes from the relational dynamic of the Trinitarian God, where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dwelt together in unity and relationship.
The Trinitarian God brought forth creation and led to the formation of humanity in his image. Did you ever notice what the Trinitarian God said when he saw Adam all alone in the Garden? He said it wasn’t good for man to be alone. Even with a perfect relationship with God it was not good, in fact, God was not enough. Adam needed a partner, he needed a community and the family unit was brought forth into existence.
(Think about that, God was not enough for Adam!)
Similarly, reading the Bible on your own is not enough, you need others. Both you and I need to read within the community and within the broad narrative of the Church. We need to consult with others (both those living and those who have left us books). We need lay leaders, pastors, theologians, friends, and little old, blue-hair ladies.
Friends, I am convinced that it takes a church to raise a Christian.
Life is like a marathon.
It’s a long, grueling race, and within Christian thought, it is a race with a prize waiting for us at the finish line. It’s a tough mudder, a long adventure of both pain and eventual glory that will often leave you exhausted. Exhausted yet still moving toward the finish line.
There are no quick fixes to this race, not even if you prefer sprinting. There is pain but no instant pain relief and obstacles but no easy fix to hurdle over them. Sure, there are straight paths with sunshine and water stations, but there is also that grueling hill at mile 7 and bottleneck when you’re almost halfway there.
The Christian life is a race with an imperishable prize of glory that will neither fade nor disappoint. The marathon of the Christian faith is one that follows after Jesus, even in exhaustion and frustration (when will this mile be over with?!).
Keep running, even if it hurts.
The founder of our faith, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, ran this race with the joy set before him. He endured the cross with you in mind and ultimately we can draw strength from his own perfect account.
For the young theologian (and we are all theologians)
Would-be theologians…must be on their guard lest by beginning too soon to preach they rather chatter themselves into Christianity than live themselves into it and find themselves at home there.
Why should we read the Bible?
It’s not just for the knowledge or increasing the depth of our understanding of Western civilization (since so much of Western culture is rooted from the Bible) or picking up nice proverbs we can use throughout everyday life. We should read the Bible because it is God’s Word and He uses it to transform people, no matter how good or bad they think they are.
For me, I want to read the Bible because of the transforming power it has. This transformative experience is what I desire, I want it to change and guide me, to create a heart that loves others and loves Him.
I read the Bible to be changed and to shape my will to God’s. That his will, in fact, would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Might his will start first within my bankrupt heart.
Why do you read the Bible?