Communion & Charity

Why do we celebrate weekly communion? There are many good reasons but one of the most important is one we might not think about often enough—communion with the risen Christ also entails communion with others who are united to him by faith. Union and communion with our Lord leads us into union and communion with our brothers and sisters in the church, and (to a lesser extent) all people. John Calvin highlights this when he writes about the importance of communion. Calvin calls communion the “bond of charity” and explains, “For as the bread, which is there sanctified for the common use of us all, is made of many grains so mixed together that one cannot be discerned from the other, so ought we to be united among ourselves in one indissoluble friendship. What is more, we all receive there the same body of Christ, in order that we be made members of it.”[1] For Calvin, communion with Christ is the foundation, and the motivation, for communion with others. This is one of our greatest motivations for mercy ministry—weekly communion reminds us of how much mercy God has poured out on us in His Son Jesus Christ. How can we hold anything back we see others in pain, in loneliness, in brokenness? Every week we participate in the sacrament of healing and wholeness, which equips us to be agents of the Kingdom in the lives of others.

[1] John Calvin, “Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of our Lord and only Saviour Jesus Christ,” in J.K.S. Reid, ed., Calvin: Theological Treatises (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954), 151.

Eucharistic Unity & Loving our Neighbors

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Most people associate the name of John Calvin with the doctrines of predestination and harsh examples of religious persecution. However, this caricature fails to capture the complexity of a remarkable man.  Reading through parts of his Genevan Catechism of 1538, Calvin’s practical and pastoral side shine through.  As he summarizes the basic points about the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, Calvin writes:

black-and-white-hands-e1281021939700 (1)“Now this mystery, as it is a proof of God’s very great bounty toward us, ought at the same time to admonish us not to be ungrateful for such lavish kindness, but rather to proclaim it with fitting praises and to celebrate it with thanksgiving.  Then we should embrace one another in that unity with which the members of this same body bound among themselves are connected.  For there could be no sharper goad to arouse mutual love among us than when Christ, giving himself to us, not only invites us by his example to pledge and give ourselves to one another, but as he makes himself common to all, so also makes all one in himself”     (I. John Hesselink, Calvin’s First Catechism:  A Commentary, 35).

A.A. Hodge on the Real Presence, Wine, and the Church Year

I found these thoughts on the Reformed doctrine of the Eucharist both poetic and profound.  They are from A.A. Hodge’s Evangelical Theology.  Hodge was the son of the great Reformed theologian, Charles Hodge, who taught at Princeton.   Obviously, my title is meant to catch the eye, but I was surprised at how strong Hodge is on certain points!  These are all from chapter 17, “The Lord’s Supper”:

“It marks the central, vital epochs in the believer’s life and intercourse with heaven.” (339)

“It is consequently the central ordinance in the whole circle of church life, around which all the other ministries of the Church revolve, and through which we have exhibited to the outward senses the indwelling of God with men, the real presence and objective reality of ‘the holy catholic Church,’ and the reality and power of ‘the communion of saints’.” (338)

“The act of partaking of these holy symbols, if intelligent and sincere, involves the most real and intimate communion–that is, a mutual giving and receiving–between Christ, the Head and the Heart of the Church, and his living members, and consequently a vital interchange of influences between all the living members of that spiritual body of which he is the Head.” (340-41)

Real Presence – “The worthy communicant immediately communicates with the present Christ.  The reality of the sacrament depends entirely upon his being really immediately present in the act.  Take away either its original institution by Christ or the immediate presence of Christ in every repeated celebration of it, and it is no sacrament at all.” (342)

Sunday & Church Year – “The Christian Sunday is an historical continuation of the Jewish Sabbath, only the day of the week changes, and runs back in absolutely unbroken continuity through the ages–through the ages before the Flood, through the years before the Fall–it and matrimony being the only monuments of the golden age of innocency.  Each recurrent holy day stands to us, first, as a monument of the sovereignty of Jehovah as Creator, and secondly, as a monument of our redemption consummated in the resurrection of our Lord.  Every Lord’s day when we celebrate the Holy Supper we repeat in a chain of unbroken continuity the memorial of his sacrificial death.  And in the beautiful circle of the Christian year, Holy Week, Good Friday, Easter, we repeat in a far longer chain of unbroken continuity the Christian sacrament of the Supper, looking back over a vista of nearly eighteen centuries and three-quarters  to its institution, and also over a vista nearly twice as long, of nearly three thousand five hundred years, to the institution of the first Passover and the redemption of Israel from the bondage of Egypt.” (343)

Social Lord’s Supper – “It is evident, from the allusion to its observance throughout the Acts and the Epistles, that the apostles commemorated the communion in connection with ordinary social meals, and in the use of whatever bread happened to be present, which on such occasions we know to have been the common leavened bread.”  (347)

Wine – “‘Wine,’ according to the absolutely unanimous, unexceptional testimony of every scholar and missionary, is in its essence ‘fermented grape juice.’  Nothing else is wine.  The use of ‘wine’ is precisely what is commanded by Christ in his example and his authoritative institution of this holy ordinance.  Whosoever puts away true and real wine, or fermented grape juice, on moral grounds, from the Lord’s Supper, sets himself up as more moral than the Son of God who reigns over his conscience, and than the Savior of souls who redeemed him.  There has been absolutely universal consent on this subject in the Christian Church until modern times, when the practice has been opposed, not upon change of evidence, but solely on prudential considerations.” (347-48)

Sabbath & Supper – “The Sabbath day and the Lord’s Supper, preserved and disseminated with absolutely unbroken continuity down the ages and throughout the nations, keep the memory of Christ alive just as it was at the first, because their very existence and their constant repetition are the unfaded testimony of Christ’s contemporaries, the accumulated testimony of all the ages, that Jesus Christ was in very fact delivered sacrificially for our offences and raised again for our justification (Rom. iv.25).” (351-52)

The Sacred Meal – Review

The Sacred Meal: The Ancient Practices SeriesThe Sacred Meal: The Ancient Practices Series by Nora Gallagher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found Gallagher’s book simultaneously illuminating and infuriating. To start on a positive note, Gallagher definitely has a gift for writing. I’m used to reading fat books by scholars on this subject, but Gallagher brings a lot of wit and earthy wisdom to this topic. And, I’ll certainly agree that the scholars have muddied the waters quite a bit. Jesus told us to do something really simple, but we’ve managed to fragment this sacrament of unity into a hundred thorny questions. Gallagher’s catchy metaphors appropriately turn our attention away from whatever might be going on “inside” the bread, and she exhorts us to remember that “we” are the Body of Christ, when we gather as the Church. When we take communion, she exhorts us to “Look around you,” something I’ve said when I’ve administered communion. Don’t try to conjure up some deep, mystical experience–just look around at all other messed up people that God is in the process of healing. Gallagher has many wonderful stories about her experiences with partaking, and administering, communion–stories about real people being transformed by ancient rite. She helps us to look at this “ancient practice” from lots of new angles, and I think much of what she says is spot on and quite helpful.

But … there were a few parts which made me gag a little. I think Gallagher is far too quick to buy into the neo-liberal reading of Jesus which highlights Jesus’ supposed critique of “empire.” Now, I freely confess that we should do more to care for the poor. I confess that our government is not righteous. I acknowledge that there are more than a few unsettling analogies between America hegemony and the pagan Roman Empire. But, I’m just not convinced that this is the right way to read the Jesus narratives. However, I will agree enthusiastically with one of Gallagher’s conclusions: “So part of waiting in Communion is examining what we did last week to find the kingdom of heaven in our midst and to help others find it” (pg. 37).

A quibble–I didn’t really buy her imaginative reconstruction of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28). I find Kenneth Bailey’s interpretation much more convincing (see Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, ch. 16).

Lastly, I believe Gallagher goes too far in her desire to be inclusive and welcoming. She writes: “Communion is so important to me that I don’t think there should be rules about who can take it and who cannot” (pg. 88). Now, I fully applaud the motive here. I’m trying to write a dissertation on some of the reasons why churches should celebrate the Supper more often. It’s important to me. But not more important than the Word of God. Gallagher doesn’t want to create “rules” about who can, and who can’t, take Communion (pg. 89). The only problem is that the Apostle Paul lays down some pretty tough rules in 1 Cor. 11:27-32. Perhaps Gallagher has some exegetical reasons for why Paul isn’t setting up some sort of “fence” around the Table. If so, it would have been nice to have those reasons summarized. She also appears to drive off the cliff of tolerance when she writes: “Thieves are welcome here, and embezzlers; so are murderers and prostitutes and sex abusers and those who have been or are abused … Everyone.” (pg. 92). Now, I agree that no sin should keep us away from the Table, but I would add that no sin we “repent” of, should keep us away. What about 1 Cor. 5:11? When Jesus refused to condone the stoning of the woman caught in adultery, he did not just dismiss her sin. He commanded her, “Go, and from now on sin no more.” (Jn. 8:11). The Eucharist is medicine for sick souls, and repentance (the process of turning away from sin) must be part of how approach the Table (Ro. 6:22).

I’m thankful to Gallagher for writing this book, and for forcing us to re-think a ritual that so many of us take for granted.

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(Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”)

 

Leavened or Unleavend Bread?

Recently, someone visited our church, and was distressed over our use of leavened bread for the Lord’s Supper.  They felt so strongly about it, that they could not partake of the Supper.  Questions were asked, and here is my shooting-from-the-hip response.  If anyone finds a hole in my arguments, or has additional points to add, I’d be most grateful!

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Here is my brief explanation of why we use leavened bread.  First, I’m glad that someone cared so much about what we are doing in church!  Too often, we don’t realize the importance of what we are doing.  We need to think, study, and pray about every detail of our worship service!  Second, we need to ask what our pattern for NT worship is.  Why would we assume that we should use unleavened bread? Continue reading