Seeking an Encounter with the Living Christ

11 01 2014

For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. –Jesus (John 6:33)

On the Sunday following Christmas, I heard a stirring sermon: many who attend church know the right things about Jesus (doctrine) and live good lives (morality), but have failed to have a genuine encounter with the living Christ. And the point is important. I can have all kinds of wonderful knowledge about another person, but until I’ve seen him face-to-face, and spent time in conversation and activity together, my “knowledge” is laughably incomplete.

The pastor spoke well of lives changed by those who have had such an experience of Jesus. It was truly moving and inspirational. One crucial element, however, was missing: the actual “how to.” How does one procure such an encounter with the Savior?

Various things were hinted at: devotions, Bible study, worship, good works, and the like. But the one method that seemed to be hinted at the most was a supernatural encounter experienced by the worshipper who had made a positive response at a revivalistic service. Like a struggling young man walking the sanctuary aisle and kneeling at the “altar” in response to the preacher’s urgings. It is in that moment he meets Christ in an intimate, powerful, life-altering way.

I do not impugn or belittle such experiences. Very similar decisions and events make up a crucial part of my own journey with Jesus and His church. It was, after all, while I knelt at an altar rail at the age of 15 that I heard the Lord speak clearly into my own life concerning the pursuit of vocational ministry. So, I am not advocating the banning of revivals or altar calls (although, as a preacher, I am VERY sparing with extending altar calls). But…

Such things are not daily food meant to sustain the weary pilgrim. Those sort of powerful encounters with Christ are something like Bilbo & Frodo’s stays at Rivendell with the Elves. The food, song, story-telling and fellowship of such a place was very necessary as a reviving respite in the midst of a long and perilous journey. But it was the lembas, the Waybread of the Elves that kept Frodo and Sam on their feet all the way to Mount Doom. Yes, the memories of their times in Rivendell and Lorien with the Elves played an important role in motivation and inspiration, but the bread kept them alive and on mission.

How can a Christian encounter the living Christ more than intermittently throughout life?

The spiritual disciplines are, of course, key: Scripture, fasting, worship, fellowship, service to others, journaling, etc. The problem is that these are not as dependable as I’d like them to be. In many ways the spiritual disciplines depend a lot on my own personal… well, discipline. When I fail to practice them, they provide little nourishment for my weary heart and soul.

Isn’t there anything that you and I can depend on consistently? Something NOT dependent on my own performance?! If not daily, at least weekly?

The answer was obvious to the Apostles, the Fathers, and even most of the Reformers. Conservative Evangelicals, especially those of the Holiness-Revivalist branch, however, seem to be quite averse to the answer: Eucharist, Communion, the Lord’s Supper.

We have come to treat Communion as another “encounter” with Jesus that only helps us as an inspiring memory when we think back on our experience. We have been tricked into a secular world-view that has convinced us that nothing uniquely supernatural happens at the Lord’s Supper. (For more on this, check-out Fr. Stephen Freeman’s post: http://glory2godforallthings.com/2014/01/06/baptism-and-the-final-destruction-of-demons/

Even worse, we have convinced ourselves that this secular, modernist perspective is Biblical! After all, it’s Medieval superstition to ascribe mystery and other hocus pocus notions to this simple meal instituted by Jesus. How foolish to think Jesus and the Disciples saw anything supernatural in this table ritual. It is a memorial, an ordinance, a quiet moment of reflection, but NOT a sacrament or a means of grace. Christ, in His Body and Blood is not REALLY with us! What a crass notion! We’re just remembering his sacrifice and that memory alone is powerful enough to carry us through! So it is believed. So I was taught.

As reasonable as this Memorialist belief about Communion sounds, it has had a deleterious effect on how we think about our relationship with Jesus. We have, essentially, banned Jesus and his very real presence from the very meal that He commanded us to keep “as often as you do this.”

And yes, I know Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (sounds very “Memorialist” doesn’t’ it?), but his idea of remembering is an entirely different animal from what we mean by the word. A Jewish mind had Jesus, and to remember always means using physical things to connect in very real ways to spiritual realities and even to God Himself! But we think of “remembering” as facts to be kept hold of, or a casual stroll down “memory lane.” But most Christians in all times and in all places have always believed that Communion not only helps us remember what Christ has done for us, it also enables us to truly participate in those spiritual realities and even to encounter the living Christ himself.

If Wesleyan-holiness denominations want to help their members have regular, consistent encounters with the living Christ, let me recommend weekly Communion– Holy Eucharist. Along with teaching and discipleship that emphasizes that this act is no mere memorial, but it is Christ with us– His embrace, His kiss, His food and drink for the journey. Food that turns out to be Christ Himself. That sounds like nourishment to sustain a travel-worn soul.

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