Monday, February 26, 2007

When a Pardon is Not a Pardon

One of the elders in our church, Mel Mead, gave this meditation at the Lord's Table recently. He agreed to let me share it.

Micah 7:18 "Who is a God like Thee, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love."

There is a danger when you put a history major in front of you to give a communion meditation, because today you get a history lesson.

Andrew Jackson was our seventh President; he served from 1829 to 1837. His nickname was "Old Hickory," because he was as tough and unbreakable as a hickory limb. He is better remembered for his exploits in the War of 1812, and in particular the Battle of New Orleans. He was a rough-hewn Tennessee farmer, and he changed, at least temporarily, the way the White House was used and viewed by the people.

In 1830, Jackson had an experience which, so far as I know, has never befallen another President. A man named George Wilson held up a coach carrying the U.S. mail, and in the process shot and killed the driver. He was tried and convicted, and sentenced to hang. For reasons we do not know, President Jackson issued a Presidential pardon for Wilson. But a strange thing happened -- Wilson refused the pardon. He was guilty, and he did not feel that he deserved a pardon.

Jackson was perplexed. He asked the Supreme Court to rule on the matter. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the Court's response: "A pardon is merely a scrap of paper unless it is accepted by the pardoned. The sentence stands."

So it is with God's pardon. It is far more enduring than a "scrap of paper," but it isn't a pardon until we accept it. We do that initially when we accept Christ as our Savior, and we accept it again each time we come to the Table, remembering the sacrifice that Jesus made for us and renewing our commitment to live as He would have us live. As with George Wilson, if we do not do so, the sentence stands. (Credit to Hugh Poland, Secret Place, October 10, 2006)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Underlying Order

Have you ever felt like I do sometimes, that everything is changing, nothing is predictable and the world is falling apart? Chaos in the Mideast, chaos in politics and society, chaos in the market, and even chaos in the weather. Everything is changing and unpredictable. Even though weather prediction has become more reliable it is still a long way from perfection.

Back in 1960 a meteorologist, Edward Lorenz, was working on the problem of weather prediction when a sequence of equations led to what became a new theory in physics called "Chaos Theory." Lorenz illustrated how complex and unpredictable weather systems are by what he called the butterfly effect. Something as small as a butterfly flapping its wings can set off a sequence of events that changes everything. He said:

The flapping of a single butterfly's wing today produces a tiny change in the state of the atmosphere. Over a period of time, what the atmosphere actually does diverges from what it would have done. So, in a months time, a tornado that would have devastated the Indonesian coast doesn't happen. Or maybe one that wasn't going to happen, does. (Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos, 141). He concluded that it is impossible to predict the weather accurately.

The same kind of thing happens, not only in the physical world, but also in the worlds of economics, politics, and human relationships. We experience the changes as disorder in our world and long for stability and order. Scientists are trying to find the underlying order in apparently random data by applying chaos theory to systems in the world.

But there is another answer. There is a deeper, more fundamental answer to the problem of disorder than that provided by chaos theory. We can go back to the creator. Here is how Paul puts it in Colossians 1:16-17, "All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things and in him all things hold together." Or, as Peterson puts it in The Message, "He is there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment." Or, to use the language of scientists, He is "the underlying order in apparently random data."

Paul makes it even more explicit in verse 2 when he shows what Christ did to bring about order in our broken world. Peterson puts it this way: "All the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe -- people and things, animals and atoms -- get properly fit and fixed together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross."

It takes more than a scientific theory to explain how all things hold together in peaceful harmony. At the Lord's Table we find our peace. At this table we find the Christ in whom all things hold together. At this table we find the blood of Christ that "fits and fixes everything together in vibrant harmonies." Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Why Every Sunday? (3) What does "Communion" Mean?

I doubt that they still have a "radiator club" at Northwest Christian College. It was never official -- just a group of guys gathered around the warmest spot on campus on a cold day who debated heavy theological subjects. One of the topics that came up occasionally was how and when we come in contact with the blood of Christ. If His blood was shed for our forgiveness and salvation, how and when does it become effective in our lives?

I was familiar with language in the New Testament that seemed to link baptism with the blood of Christ, as in Romans 6:3, Do you not know that as many of us as were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? It sounds like he is answering our question. The blood of Christ, shed for our salvation becomes effective in our lives when, with faith, we are baptised. If it is through the blood of Christ that we are forgiven then Peter's words on Pentecost also link baptism with His death: Repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of your sins ... (Acts 2:38). He used a purpose phrase: be baptised for the purpose of receiving forgiveness of sins.

Paul also seems to link communion with the blood of Christ in 1 Corinthians 10:16 where he asks rhetorically, Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? This is where the word "communion" comes in. The Greek word, koinonia, is translated here as "sharing". It can also be translated as "participation" in the blood of Christ, or as "communion," that is, a common sharing in the blood of Christ.

Add to this what Jesus says in John 6, using strong and graphic metaphorical language: Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (6:53-54). When we read this in context it becomes clear that Jesus is not speaking literally. Instead, he is stressing what happens when we truly believe. When we have an active, dynamic faith in Him it is like ingesting him, i.e., making him a part of our lives in a real sense. Many commentators see these words in John 6 as his interpretation of what happens when we partake of the Lord's Supper with faith.

It is significant, I think, that the words of institution used by Jesus in the upper room were not, "the bread is a symbol of my body," or, "this cup is a symbol of my blood." What He said was, This is my body ... This is my blood. Sometimes I think we would feel the impact of this more if, as in some churches, we would come to an altar, kneel and receive the communion from someone who says to us, with the bread, "the body of Christ, given for you," and with the cup, "the blood of Christ, shed for you."

Why do we have the Lord's Supper every Sunday? Because baptism alone is not enough. In baptism we meet Christ in his death and receive the benefits of his death. But that doesn't end our sinning. Fortunately, the Lord has provided for our need and each Sunday we can once again, as Paul says, Share in the blood of Christ.

Dr. G. Edwin Osborn, one of my teachers at Phillips Graduate School, attended Edinburgh University. He told of attending a Church of Scotland communion service when a high school girl near him hesitantly lifted the cup to her lips and then, with tears in her eyes, put it down. The Minister leaned forward from his seat on the chancel and whispered in a hoarse, easily heard, voice, "take it lassie, it is for sinners like us." Amen.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Why Every Sunday? (2) -- Memorial or Experience?

Last time I said that we observe the Lord's Supper weekly because the N.T. Church did. We want to promote unity by going back to the essential faith and practice of the church in the New Testament. While valid, this reason for weekly communion is inadequate. We must go beyond asking, "why did the NT Church ovbserve the Lord's Supper on the first day of the week," to "what is there about the Lord's Supper that led them and leads us to commune weekly? There are several answers.

First, Jesus himself ordained it when he said, "Do this ..." Or, if we use the Latin we could say he "mandated" it. The word Maundy, as in Maundy Thursday, is from the Latin "mandatum", from which we get mandate. An even better word might be "prescribed." I like the word "prescribed" because it gets at the power of the Lord's Supper. Medicine prescribed by a Doctor can have powerful effects. By this clear prescription Jesus ordained a practice that has powerful effects in our lives.

The most obvious effect that he intended was to recall him. "Do this," he said, "in remembrance of me." We need this simple ceremony weekly in order to remember him. Recently, I heard it said that we are faced every day with 'Weapons of Mass Distraction.' We are constantly bombarded by all kinds of stuff and involved in many activities. And it is so easy to forget. How many times during the week do we consciously remember to say to ourselves, "Jesus died for me?" We call this a memorial service. We do it in remembrance of Him.

But is it enough to call it a "memorial?" In the upper room at the last supper Jesus was the host. He is still the host. Another powerful effect of the Lord's Supper is to help us experience the presence of Jesus as our host.

In the Bible, memory has a very special meaning. The theologian, Alan Richardson says, "When we remember something from the past, we do not merely entertain a pale idea of it; we actually make it present again, make it once more potent in our lives ... What does it mean that we who today receive the ... bread and wine in remembrance of Christ's death and passion are made partakers of his body and blood? The biblical answer to such a question [is] that when we remember the past, we make it present" (An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, 367-8). Let me stress his words: when we remember something from the past ... we make it once more potent in our lives. In our remembering, the Lord is present again as the host.

Isn't this at least part of what Luke meant when he told the story of the men on the road to Emmaus who encountered the resurrected Christ and took him home for dinner? They did not recognize him until he, acting as the host, "took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew him." Later they found the eleven disciples and "told them about the things that had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread" (Luke 24).

As the hymn says, "Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face ... Here would I feed upon the bread of God ... Here drink with thee the royal wine of heaven." We need the weekly communion in order to remember, but more than that, we need it to experience him as host.