I am not able to attend many church services since I am usually conducting one myself on Sunday mornings. Occasionally I do participate in a communion service at a large member church. They are often hurried and abbreviated services using prepackaged elements and void of spiritual context. There is no doubt that people experience the presence of God and are uplifted by the rest of the service, however the Lord’s Supper is not a critical means by which they experience this grace.
I am always disappointed when I attend a church which is so casual about serving communion. It seems to be a part of the lexicon, a checklist to be marked off rather than a re-affirmation of faith which leads to a greater awareness of Christian identity. In fairness to this denomination, they place a great emphasis on “Altar Calls” which is something I have never experience in a Methodist church.
In a sense sharing the Lord’s Supper is an Altar Call. We are asking people to come forward and re-affirm their commitment to follow Christ and serve God. Yet the act of communion becomes an agenda to be marked off the first Sunday of the month and can become an empty gesture with little meaning or purpose. This emptiness creates a disengagement from the true meaning of scriptures and the awareness of God.
In the sacraments of communion and baptism our experience of the scriptures is both spiritual and tactile, allowing them to be means by which our relationship with God is nurtured. According to St. Augustine, “Whoever thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all.” The physical act of engaging in scripture needs to build the love of God into our personal and communal lives. The sacraments given to us through the scriptures are God’s invitation to a covenant relationship. If it does not “build the double love of God and our neighbors…” then it is simple “…a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
The church is an invitation to know God’s grace and a means by which we nurture that relationship of Grace. The components of worship, prayers, music, scriptures, confession and affirmation, should cultivate this covenant. Unfortunately, by their repetitiveness they become the empty vessels which do not have life-giving water that can be changed to wine.
It seems critical that clergy remind their congregants, and themselves, of the essential purpose of the sacraments. They should not be done because they are part of Christian tradition. Rather the sacraments are an active engagement of God in our lives. Christians should be aware that the Eucharist and baptism are a dynamic expression of God’s presence in our churches. And that the church has a responsibility to infuse the congregation with an awareness of God’s love, so we may engage in discipleship.
Theologians and author Ted Peter makes three points which can be the foundation of our understanding of the sacraments and the churches role in their application;
“This is theologically significant in three ways. First, an important christological truth is at stake here, namely, that God can become Emmanuel. In these two mysteries, a physical embodiment of a so-called spiritual reality takes place. Heaven and earth come together in the water, the bread, and the wine just as they did in the Jesus of two natures. Second, the physical and ritual character of the mysteries expresses the objective character of God’s action in history and in the life of faith. Communion with the divine is not sought solely by turning inward to contemplation, solely to the realm of the soul independent of the mundane world. Our communion with God occurs in, with, and under physical realities such as water, bread, and wine. Third, when we think of baptism in terms of initiation and the Lord’s Supper in terms of festival, and when we think of both as practices of the church enduring through centuries, they help underscore and establish the existence of Christian communion. They tie us to the transpersonal unity we share with one another because we are members of a single body, the body of Christ.”
To Peters first point, God became human through Christ, experiencing our human suffering. I emphasis this sacrifice by declaring, “This is my body which is Broken for you”. And “This is my blood which is Shed for you”. It graphically expresses that Christ suffering was the human nature rather than the more sanitized spiritual nature which was “given” and “poured”. While it was God’s human nature which suffered, the spiritual nature overcame death and gave forgiveness.
On the second point, Communion allows us to experience scripture during a physical act. It is an inward meditation that requires an outward response. One which is witnessed by others. It should also be a statement that those who receive the eucharist want to respond to God’s call. I often “dis-invite” people to not take the Lord’s Supper if they do not feel they can respond to the scriptural message. For example, if the message is on forgiveness and they are not able to forgive, then they should not come forward. If they want to obey the command to forgive, then they should. Some may come forward giving false testimony. Still they had to make a decision witnessed by others which they may not have contemplated otherwise.
On Peters third point it is an act shared by Christian throughout history and the world. It should have a continuity which binds us with others in the past and throughout the present world. More importantly it is a shared experience with their fellow congregants. This communal act reaffirms that we are joined together in Christ and share in His death and resurrection. It is a collective encounter which transcend time and place.
The Lord’s Supper should remind us of God’s mighty act on the cross and at the tomb. He became human yet spiritually conquered death for our sakes. It should also compel us to make a genuine commitment to be guided by the Holy Spirit toward discipleship and transformation. And finally, it should bind us into a family of Christians with a shared vision of a universal church.
Three years ago, I began the Ash Wednesday service by dragging the baptismal font from its dark corner to the center of the stage. I declared that it would stay there until the end of Easter season. My intention was to illustrate that baptism is the beginning of our spiritual journey and we need to be reminded of its presence in our quest towards sanctification. The next week it had been dragged back to its lonely dark corner. I made a great show of dragging it back to center stage, declaring that this is where it will stay. The next week it was returned to its proper place off stage. When I asked why I was told it made the stage “unbalanced”. Eventually I won out and it was used to make a dramatic and powerful statement on Good Friday.
Baptism is not a onetime event. We need to be reminded of the commitment we made for ourselves or someone else, that we will seek to follow Jesus and keep him at the center of our lives and the lives of those that are baptized. This is a commitment to journey with Christ uniting our fate with his and witnessing both his crucifixion and resurrection. As Ted Peters states, “First and foremost, in baptism we become identified with the death and resurrection of Jesus so that, in an all-important sense, we die to our estrangement from God and rise to everlasting fellowship.”
The church needs to remind its people that just as we shared Jesus’s baptism we also shared his death and ultimately his resurrection. Through the Lord’s Supper we reaffirm this covenant as a reminder of God’s gift of Grace. The Sacraments reaffirm the presence of a triune God and of our desire to share in the journey of faith God has set before us. Ted Peters states. “They not only re-present the original bread and wine consumed at Jesus’ last supper or the waters of the Jordan with which Jesus was anointed messiah; they also continue today to bear the saving power of God’s presence. They are a means of grace.”
It is the churches responsibility to explain the covenantal purpose of these rituals and prepare people to move into a covenant of Grace. Peters reminds us that, “The defining characteristics of Christian worship are: the proclamation of the word of God and the celebration of the sacraments of baptism and eucharist.”
It is important to remember that our church, though Methodist in name, is a universal or catholic church. That the sacraments are also universal though they may follow denominational guidelines. The goal of the church is to open the pathway which leads to Grace and ultimately allows people to receive Grace, be changed by Grace and share Grace.
Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, third ed. (p. 61). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.
Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Location 65970). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.
Peters, Ted. God–The World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a New Era (pp. 551-552). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Peters, Ted. God–The World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a New Era (p. 552). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Peters, Ted. God–The World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a New Era (p. 66). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Peters, Ted. God–The World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a New Era (p. 537). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.