Communion in 3-D

1 08 2010

I offer here some quotes and reflections from J. Ernest Rattenbury’s study, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley (Akron, OH: OSL Publications, 3rd American Edition, 2006)  [This work was originally published in the mid 1900’s]

“The antithesis [that many mistakenly place] between social and personal Christianity, neither of which is really exclusive to the other, is nearly as absurd as that between Sacramentalism and Evangelism; both antitheses unfortunately mislead many people.” (pg. 135)

Rattenbury spends the first couple of chapters describing how the Wesleyan revival in 18th Century England often took the form of overcrowded Communion services!!  Our own American revivals of the 19th Century often brought sinners to the “altar” (which is actually the altar rail, the real altar being the Communion Table) but rarely resulted in brining them regularly to the Table.  Few things raise my ire more than to hear pastors and worship leaders speak disparagingly about celebrating the Lord’s Supper too often for fear of alienating the “seeker”, who would apparently be offended, frightened or irreparably confused by such an arcane ritual.  On such matters I’m little interested in being diplomatic.

Such pastors and leaders are simply wrong and misguided, while Rattenbury is right when he states: “And even today [in mid 20th Century], when in many Protestant churches the Atonement is a subject of which nothing is ever heard, and the pulpit is often confined at its best to the preaching of Christian ethics, there never can be a Communion Service, whether simple or elaborate, which does not show forth the death of our Lord till He come.  So long as a single Eucharist remains, the fundamental truth of the Gospel is declared.” (pg. 118)  I question the sanity of those who claim heart rending concern for the lost and unchruched while simultaneously exhibiting a nonchalant attitude for the dust gathering on the Communion Table, now hidden behind the drum set and the glare of the giant screens.

Rattenbury, in exploring Wesely’s Communion hymns, also reminds us that we cannot escape the issue of sacrifice (chp. 7).  First, there is Christ’s unrepeatable and impossible to duplicate act on the cross which the bread and wine help us to recall and enable us to re-present.  But second, there is the reminder that the Church, Christ’s followers, are the Body of Christ, who are called, for the sake of the world, to suffer and die with Christ, by offering up ourselves as living sacrifices in loving service to God and others.  Perhaps this second aspect of sacrifice is one reason the Table is too easily neglected and forgotten—we do not like to be reminded that to follow Christ is to take up the cross and walk the Via Delarosa.  Rattenbury graphically states, “The Church can do nothing apart from Christ and out of union with Him.  In reality, apart from Christ it would only be a decapitated corpse, not a body. When not only in ideal but in practice she is one with Christ, she shares alike His suffering and His glory.  Such a realization and implementation of the oneness of the Church with Christ would be indeed a manifestation of the sons of God for which the whole creation waits.” (pg. 128)

Please allow me one other short quote before offering Rattenbury’s brilliant summary of the significances of Holy Communion.  The Lord’s supper points to our need for union with Christ and union with each other.  He states, “Our life in Christ can only be His life in us, which can only be ours by perfect trust in Him.” (pg. 133)

Now, here is Rattenbury’s golden summary of his study on Wesely’s Eucharistic hymns and the multivalent nature of Communion:

“The Lord’s Supper, though primarily a memorial of the crucifixion of Jesus – of Christ crucified – is much more; by means of it the risen and ascended Christ is called to mind, the Victim-Priest in heaven, whose death is ‘ever new’ and always availing for sinful men.  Though ascended to heaven, He is present in His Church, because his ascension does not localize Him.  Heaven is just behind the Veil.  The Elements, the tokens of His dying Love, are the organs which the ever-present Christ uses to feed and refresh His people.  Not only is He really present at the Supper, but heaven come with Him, and His people find their joyful experience heaven on earth and taste of the fullness that is to be.  Furthermore, the bread and wine are the offering on earth of the tokens of the eternal sacrifice in heaven and correspond with that sacrifice, echoing as it were below, the plea made to the Father by the Priest-Victim, the Lamb of God who is also the Shepherd of the Sheep, who ever liveth to make intercession for us.

“But the symbolic offering of Christ is not the whole sacrifice of the Church, which is a real oblation of itself, that is, of the body of Christ, for His body are we.  The sacrifice is corporate, made by the collective body of believers who are priests of God, who altogether offer both symbolically and really the body of Christ to God.  The collective body is not a machine of regulated parts, but a congregation of people, each with his own individuality, although in relation to the body, members of it, bound together not by organization and hierarchy, but by the spirit of love, which is the Spirit of Jesus.” (pg. 139)

The next time you approach the Table (or pass and partake of the bread and juice in your seat) ask the Holy Spirit to help you see beyond the two-dimensional, “I remember that Jesus died for me”, to the three-dimensional, living color glimpse and taste of all that Christ has done, is doing, and will do AND our union in Him!  Try chewing on that this Sunday.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore, let us keep the Feast.  Hallelujah!!

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