Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Why Have the Lord's Supper Every Sunday? (1)

As a teenage member of the Christian Church in Milwaukie I learned the answer to the question of why have the Lord's Supper every Sunday and for a long time, if anyone asked, I simply told them that we wanted to be a New Testament Church and this was the practice of the church from the beginning as seen in the New Testament. I had been taught that the Christian Church (along with the Christian Church (Disciples) and the Church of Christ) originated from a movement in the early 19Th century that wanted to restore the purity and simplicity of the N. T. Church. In fact, it was known as the Restoration Movement.

It was also a movement for unity. Thomas Campbell, one of the founders, described the divisions of the church in his day as a sword in the Body of Christ, rending and mangling it into a thousand pieces. He and others believed that restoring the essential practices of the N.T. Church was the means by which unity could be achieved. We can only have unity by giving up our special traditions and going back to the original church -- the church God intended and as revealed in the New Testament. It's a little like arriving at the correct time of day. If we all have different times we could add them together and take the average, or we could arbitrarily take the time of one of us, but we wouldn't necessarily have the right time. We have to go to the authority, the standard.

This kind of thinking led the founders of the Christian Churches to embrace a slogan: In essentials, unity, in opinions liberty, and in all things love. But what is essential to being the church? This may be debated but there is widespread agreement that the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper are essential to the church. After all, they were ordained by Christ, hence the term "ordinances."

But how are they to be observed? The Roman Catholic Church has observed the Lord's Supper, the Mass, on a weekly basis for its entire history. But as the centuries passed the Mass became burdened with many traditions and concepts that took it far away from the simplicity and purity of the N.T. Church. Consequently, the Protestant Reformation tried to reform the practice of the Lord's Supper. Even though leaders like Martin Luther, John Calvin and others recognized the New Testament practice of weekly communion, and openly said so, the churches that resulted from their work adopted a variety of practices. Some observed it monthly, some quarterly, and some even less often.

It was in this context that Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and others in the early 19Th Century Restoration Movement, led the Christian Churches to practice weekly communion. They believed that restoring the practice of the N.T. Church would help promote unity. As a result, we have the Lord's Supper weekly in our church. We want to be a biblical church, a N.T. Church, and follow what we believe is the Lord's will. At the heart of this, of course, is the fact that Jesus ordained it. In the upper room he took the actions and spoke the words that instituted the Lord's Supper.

Having said this I need to add one more thing. While I think what I have said is valid I also feel that the reason given above for weekly communion is inadequate. There is a deeper question that must be answered -- next time.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Different Jesus?

Sometimes, what we get is not what we expected.

Cheryl Cornish is Pastor of a Congregational Church. She writes (I have forgotten where): My Grandfather, a homesteader in Western Nebraska, loved to share stories of the people who settled in the Sandhills in the late Nineteenth century. One of his favorite stories involved a wedding dance at Broken Bow, where one of the musicians played a trick on the wedding guests. Customarily, whole families came to the dances. They usually arrived early in the day and didn't return until the early hours of the following morning. When evening came, parents bedded their babies and younger children in separate corners of a room.

At the Broken Bow wedding dance, the fiddle player took a break while the other musicians played on. During that break, he played a practical joke on the wedding guests. Sneaking into the room where the babies were sleeping, he switched their caps, their coats, and their blankets. When the long night's celebration ended, the parents scurried to get their children out of the dark room and into the wagons. Sighting the familiar hats and coats, they grabbed their babies and headed out to the wagons for the trip home.

According to Broken Bow's Callaway Courier, chaos reigned at the telephone office the next morning. The switchboard operator was besieged with phone calls from frantic parents who discovered, by the light of day, that they had grabbed the wrong babies.

This story reminds me of the way God, in a sense, "switched babies" on the Jewish people. They had expected one kind of Messiah -- someone regal, powerful, one who could get things done, a Messiah who could rally the troops, drive out the enemy and restore their kingdom. Instead, they got a baby who went to the cross -- a baby whose greatest weapons, when he became a man, were love and forgiveness.

Many years later Paul was still dealing with people who preached "another Jesus" (2 Corinthians 11:4) -- that is, not the Christ crucified that Paul preached. Instead, they apparently wanted a triumphalist Christ, one who would give them nothing but success and victory, power and glory.

Are we any different? A recent survey, reported in today's paper, indicates that what young people want more than anything else is lots of money. When Oprah Winfrey was asked why she built a school in South Africa rather than here she said that when they asked what American kids wanted the answer was ipods, cell phones, and other such things, while the kids in South Africa wanted uniforms so they could go to school
(Register Guard, 1/23/07). Our culture of greed, success, power and creature comforts has infected us more than we know. We too want a Christ who gives us what we want.

What a switch. Instead of a triumphalist Christ we got one who said that he came "not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45) and challenged his disciples with the words, "if anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34).

So how do we honor and remember this Jesus? Not by gazing on the marble statue of a great warrior, but by coming to the Lord's Table and remembering his sacrifice. Not by going to some great monument but by taking common elements and hearing his words as he broke the bread, saying "this is my body," and as he offered the cup and said, "this is my blood, shed for the remission of sins. Do this in remembrance of me."

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Our "Memory Hole"

Remembering the past is critical to our survival and to our identity as persons and as a people.

This was brought home to me again while reading the book Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick. He tells the story of the first Pilgrim settlement at Plymouth, the community they developed and the Indian wars that followed. Eight or nine months after their arrival on the rocky shores of New England, on July 2, 1621, Edwin Winslow and Stephen Hopkins left the Plymouth settlement to visit Massasoit, chief of the Pokanoket Indians, for the first time. It would be a journey of some forty miles, on foot. They were guided by an English speaking Indian named Squanto. Soon they were joined by a dozen Indians, men women and children, returning after gather lobsters in Plymouth Harbor.

Philbrick says, "As they conversed with their new companions, the Englishmen learned that to walk across the land in southern New England was to travel in time. All along this narrow, hard-packed trail were circular foot-deep holes in the ground that had been dug where any remarkable act had occurred. It was each person's responsibility to maintain the holes and to inform fellow travelers of what had once happened at that particular place so that many things of great antiquity are fresh in memory. Winslow and Hopkins began to see that they were traversing a mythic land, where a sense of community extended far into the distant past." We might compare their memory holes to our historic markers placed along our highways.

Philbrick says, "They (Winslow and Hopkins) also began to appreciate why these memory holes were more important than ever before to the Native inhabitants of the region. Everywhere they went, they were stunned by the emptiness and desolation of the place. Thousands of men have lived there, Winslow wrote, which died in a great plague not long since ... (as many as 3,000 Indians populated the area until about three years earlier when some kind of plague wiped them out.) With so many dead, the Pokanokets' connection to the past was hanging by a thread -- a connection that the memory holes and the stories they inspired helped to maintain."

The Lord's Table is like the memory hole maintained by the Indians. It reminds us of a remarkable act that occurred long ago. And like those Indians we are each one required to maintain it and to tell the story of what happened so long ago. It is critical to our survival and identity as God's people. Here we can tell our story, the old, old story of Jesus and his love. Of Jesus and his sacrifice on our behalf of Jesus and what he taught.

We don't have a memory hole but we have a Table, and several who recorded the story of what happened. One of those was Matthew and these are his words:

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, take, eat; this is my body. Then he took a cup and gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, Drink from it all of you. For this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my father's kingdom. And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

A Purpose For Everything?

Rick Warren has caught the attention of millions all across America with his book, The Purpose Driven Life. His thesis, that God has a purpose for our lives and we will find fulfillment and satisfaction by living out that purpose has been studied and discussed in thousands of churches. Many people buy into the idea that we can't be happy without being driven by some purpose. Certainly, businesses and organizations, even churches, should be guided by a clearly understood mission or purpose. And as individuals, we don't want to just drift aimlessly through life.

But there is another side to this coin. Marion Milner in A Life Of One's Own, writes about finding out what she liked ... how she most liked to spend her time. She wrote, "I want a chance to play, to do things I choose just for the joy of doing, for purpose of advancement."

As we grow older we develop the idea that we must have a purpose for everything. If we go for a long walk its because we think it is good for us, we need the exercise. It isn't for the walk itself, the feel of the ground beneath our feet, the sound of birds singing in the trees, or the sights and smells of flowers along the way. If we play golf we "work" on our swing -- and it is work aimed at lowering our score, winning a bet, or accomplishing some other purpose. It isn't for the joy of a round in the early morning by yourself, of playing with close friends, of enjoying the challenge of nasty weather, of allowing yourself to feel good over a solid long iron or a tricky putt, even when it barely slides by the hole.

When everything must be done for the purpose of advancement play becomes effort, and effort becomes work, and the joy of doing it just for the sake of doing it is lost.

I guess what we need is a purpose in life that's broadly enough defined so that we can do some things for no purpose at all. As our choir director says repeatedly during rehearsals, after explaining something, "does that make sense?" Or as Ecclesiastes puts it, "There is a time for every delight under heaven --" (3:1).

Could it be that we miss the joy of the Lord's Supper because we have made it our duty, our work, our effort. We have come to receive the grace of God, not earn it, to enjoy the love of God, not force it, and to experience the presence of Christ, freely. Does this make sense? I think it does.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

New Life For A New Year

My nephew, Kevin Austin, is a missionary in Northern Thailand. Recently he posted this story on his web site. In the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand long ago, an invading army approached the gates of the city ready to make war. But before the war began the king of Chiang Mai and the king of the opposing army met and agreed to a contest to decide the fate of the city. Each army would choose a champion to dive into the water of the moat. The man who stayed under longest would decide the outcome of the imposing war.

The two men dove into the water. The invading army lost because the man from Chiang Mai never surfaced. Later they discovered that he had tied himself to a branch deep in the water, giving his life to save his people.

C.S. Lewis writes that the Christ becoming man is like a diver who dives into the water, finds a great prize, then surfaces with his prize. The water is this mortal life. The prize is us. Unlike the great man who gave his life for the people in Chiang Mai, Jesus surfaced -- he rose again victorious.

And it was all for our salvation. As Paul says in Romans 4:25, "He was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification." A few verses later he adds, "If, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, much more surely, having been reconciled, we will be saved by his life" (5:10).

It is altogether fitting and proper that we should gather at this table to remember the death of our Lord upon the cross, but in this new year, as we think about new life and hope, it is equally fitting that we remember also his resurrection. These two gospel events are pictured in our baptism as we die to sin and self, are buried in the water, and raised to walk in newness of life. They should also be kept in mind as we come to the table. Yes, he died because of our trespasses, and we are reconciled to God through his death, but as Paul adds, "he was raised for our justification," and "we are saved by his life."

As we come to the Lord's table in this new year we can celebrate new life in him.