The Sacramental Universe

23 08 2014

082414_0157_TheSacramen1.pngEveryone eats. Not everyone gives thanks for the food consumed.

The Greek New Testament word for “giving thanks” is eucharisteo, which by the second century quickly became shorthand for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper itself– the Eucharist.

Perhaps one reason the Eucharist is such a low priority for many churches today is because giving thanks to our creator for all His good gifts is hard to come by in a time when many, in North America, are seemingly self-sufficient. We work to earn money to buy food. What did God have to do with it?

Simultaneously, the very presence of God in our daily lives is ignored or belittled. God has become, at best, a mysterious force quite removed from the morning commute and the paying of bills. Most now believe, in behavior if not in thought, that the commerce between heaven and earth dried up long, long ago– if it ever really existed in the first place.

For those who lift thankful hearts to the Lord for every good gift, however, the Eucharist is the culmination of a thank-filled week. The Lord’s Table and the sacramental food shared there bring life and meaning and understanding to everything else.

 

My own “mental furniture” is arranged within a home whose architecture has been largely influenced by the cosmology of a little book by Alexander Schmemann, entitled, For the Life of the World. What follows comes from the early pages of the first chapter. If we would think and live as Biblical Christians–disciples of Jesus the Messiah–the worldview espoused and described in what follows ought to inform our own presuppositions about God, the universe, and the human race.

 

In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God. The world as man’s food is not something “material” and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically “spiritual” functions by which man is related to God. All that exits is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God know to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” . . .

 

And in the Bible to bless God is not a “religious” or a “cultic” act, but the very way of life. God blessed the world, blessed man, blessed the seventh day (that is, time), and this means that He filled all that exists with His love and goodness– made all this “very good.” So the only natural (and not “supernatural”) reaction of man, to whom God gave this blessed and sanct082414_0202_TheSacramen2.pngified world, is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it and–in this act of gratitude and adoration –to know, name and possess the world. All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. “Homo sapiens,” “homo faber” . . . yes, but, first of all, “homo adorans.” The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God–and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.

 

Men understand all this instinctively if not rationally. Centuries of secularization have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. A meal is still a rite–the last “natural sacrament” of family and friendship, of life that is more than “eating” and “drinking.” To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that “something more” is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.  

 

By “sacramental life”, Schmemann does not mean that everyone is secretly pining to attend church services that celebrate communion. Rather, human beings are innately desirous to have deep meaning and purpose even in and through mundane necessities like eating and drinking. To put it more plainly, we humans need to find connections to our Creator in and through his creation.

 

Andrew Peterson’s song, Don’t You Want to Thank Someone, is a great poetic expression of Schmemann’s philosophical framework:

 

Can’t you feel it in your bones

Something isn’t right here

Something that you’ve always known

But you don’t know why

 

‘Cause every time the sun goes down

We face another night here

Waiting for the world to spin around

Just to survive

 

But when you see the morning sun

Burning through a silver mist

Don’t you want to thank someone?

Don’t you want to thank someone for this?

 

Don’t you ever wonder why

In spite of all that’s wrong here

There’s still so much that goes so right

And beauty abounds?

 

‘Cause sometimes when you walk outside

The air is full of song here

The thunder rolls and the baby sighs

And the rain comes down

 

And when you see that spring has come

And it warms you like a mother’s kiss

Don’t you want to thank someone?

Don’t you want to thank someone for this?

 

I used to be a little boy

As golden as a sunrise

Breaking over Illinois

When the corn was tall

 

Yeah, but every little boy grows up

And he’s haunted by the heart that died

Longing for the world that was

Before the Fall

 

Oh, but then forgiveness comes

A grace that I cannot resist

And I just want to thank someone

I just want to thank someone for this

 

Now I can see the world is charged

It’s glimmering with promises

Written in a script of stars

Dripping from prophets’ lips

 

But still, my thirst is never slaked

I am hounded by a restlessness

Eaten by this endless ache

But still I will give thanks for this

 

‘Cause I can see it in the seas of wheat

I can feel it when the horses run

It’s howling in the snowy peaks

It’s blazing in the midnight sun

 

Just behind a veil of wind

A million angels waiting in the wings

A swirling storm of cherubim

Making ready for the Reckoning

 

Oh, how long, how long?

Oh, sing on, sing on

 

And when the world is new again

And the children of the King

Are ancient in their youth again

Maybe it’s a better thing

A better thing

 

To be more than merely innocent

But to be broken then redeemed by love

Maybe this old world is bent

But it’s waking up

And I’m waking up

 

‘Cause I can hear the voice of one

He’s crying in the wilderness

“Make ready for the Kingdom Come”

Don’t you want to thank someone for this?

 

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallalujah! Hallelujah!

Come back soon

Come back soon

 

082414_0202_TheSacramen3.pngThis eschatological longing for the “Kingdom Come” makes all our thanksgivings here and now bitter-sweet. We have the joy of experiencing God’s love in and through all that He has made. But our hunger and thirst is not satisfied even by this. Indeed, much of the power of the Eucharistic celebration in the liturgy is its anticipation of the day when we will eat and drink with Jesus face-to-face. For only God can truly satisfy what all of our appetites are really after:

 

“Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him.”





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.





Unworthy

6 11 2011

Once again, this day, I presided at the Lord’s Table… why I am allowed to do this I may never understand.  But it is precisely my understanding (human reason) that I must set aside as I approach the Table, and simply bow my heart and body to the grace there bestowed.

What follows in an ancient Eastern prayer that I prayed today before worship (a prayer of St. Basil the Great):

O Lord, I know that I am unworthy to receive your Holy Body and Precious Blood; I know that I am guilty, and that I eat and drink condemnation to myself, not discerning the Body and Blood of Christ my God.  But trusting in your loving-kindness I come unto you who has said:  He that eats my Body and drinks my Blood shall dwell in me and I in him.  Therefore, O Lord, have compassion on me and make not an example of me, your sinful servant.  But do unto me according to your great mercy, and grant that these Holy Gifts may be for me unto the healing, purification, enlightenment, protection, salvation and sanctification of my soul and body, and to the expulsion of every evil imagination, sinful deed or work of the Devil.  May they move me to reliance on you and to love you always, to amend and keep firm my life; and be ever in me to the increase of virtue, to the keeping of your Commandments, to the communion of the Holy Spirit, and as a good defense before your dread Judgment Seat, and for Life Eternal.  Amen

 

 





Wesleyan Eucharistic Spirituality

27 10 2010

I recently finished reading Lorna Khoo’s doctoral thesis, which is now published in book form under the title Wesleyan Eucharistic Spirituality (published by Australian Theological Forum).

 

First I should note that the topic of discussion in the book is the theology and practice of Holy Communion by John and Charles Wesley and not the Wesleyan Church in particular.  In fact, Lorna Khoo is ordained in the Methodist Church in Singapore where she has carried out pastoral ministry over the last 26 plus years.  Also, she was the director of the Charles Wesley Heritage Centre in Bristol, England.

 

The first half of the dissertation is spent discussing: the historical background of Eucharistic practice before, during and after the time of the Wesleys; the Wesleys’ Eucharistic theology and practice as seen in their Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, their personal journals and letters, and their respective ministries; and finally the sources for the Wesleys’ thought and practice (Anglican, Moravian, Catholic, Patristic, Medieval, etc.).  The second half works to flesh out a Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality that could be put to good use for the spiritual children of the Wesleys in the 21st century (especially those now growing strong in places like Singapore).  Khoo’s emphasis is more on practical issues of spiritual growth than on abstract theology, hence the use of “spirituality” in the title rather than “theology.”  Overall I found Khoo’s study to be full of things I was ignorant of and a solid contribution to a much under-discussed topic for those who bear Wesley’s name but tend to downplay, be ignorant of, or reject his impassioned call to a Eucharistically centered spiritual life.  Other, more specific comments follow.

 

The Lord’s Supper as it is a Sacrifice.

This aspect of the Wesleys’ understanding of Salvation and Communion surprised me the most, despite my training in church history.  John and Charles believed that at each service of the Lord’s Supper the church is lifting up a holy reminder to God of the all-atoning sacrifice of His Son on our behalf.  Jesus took into himself on the cross the full wrath of the one true and holy God aimed at a sinful humanity.  This is substitutionary atonement through and through.  Today we say, “Christ took my place on the cross, receiving the punishment I deserved.”  The Wesleys’ Hymns on the Lord’s Supper (HLS) are replete with such themes.  I bring this up first because it the one area of major disagreement I have with the Wesleys in the area of salvation theology.  I am much persuaded by Orthodoxy which sees penal substitutionary atonement as a spurious and inaccurate description of what happened on the cross.  I wholeheartedly believe in the reality of God’s righteous wrath– after all, the Bible is clear that it is so.  Now, to be honest, I have a good deal more thinking and researching to do on this topic, but to this point I fail to see where Scripture clearly indicates that it is God’s wrath that Jesus is enduring on the cross.  Yes, he is suffering for our sins, he is receiving our just punishment.   But, is he doing this at the hands of God the Father?  If we say that Jesus did just that, then we have a serious mess to figure out in relation to Trinitarian theology.  The eternal Father unleashing His holy wrath upon His eternal Son?  Is that the only way God’s wrath can be assuaged?  Isn’t God able to “repent” of his decision to visit wrath on His people as we see in the Old Testament?  At the end of the day, notions of Jesus somehow absorbing or deflecting God’s wrath on our behalf do not fly with me.  It all feels a bit too pagan, where the placating of the gods’ anger is the primary preoccupation of life.   Rather, Jesus is taking our place because we had given ourselves over to Satan, sin and death.  In fact, Satan owned us as a result of our sin– our blood belonged to him, we were his property.  Our only hope is to be ransomed– but only one person, the God-Man, can accomplish such a task.  Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for the salvation of the world because he was sinless, holy and perfect, and Satan could make no claim on him (and neither could death).  But Jesus willingly handed himself over to evil and death when he did not have to do any such thing.  He offers himself on our behalf thereby breaking Satan’s claim on anyone who is in Christ.  Satan and death are the Enemy that Christ must deal with on the cross– not God’s wrath.  Therefore, when we take the consecrated bread and drink the holy wine, we enter into the spiritual reality that Christ is in us and we in him– we are no longer under the dominion of Satan, sin or death.  The Wesley’s would certainly agree with that.  And who knows, at the end of the day, I might be wrong about God’s wrath and the Atonement!  (I feel better now that I’ve gotten that off my chest!)

 

Before I offer a list a summary points of Wesleyan Eucharistic Spirituality, I think it important to give this captivatingly powerful summary statement from Khoo:

The Wesleyan eucharistic spirituality’s view of life creates a very secure person, grounded in the assurance that one is deeply and truly loved.  There is a freedom of healthy detachment in one’s life.  There is no need to grab at things or people for security.  Life has meaning.  The meaning is not tied to mere self-centered understanding of fulfilment.  Instead, meaning comes as one gives one’s life away to God and others in response to the love one has experienced.  There is a great deal of joy there– for the world is a place of promise and life.  Time is not an enemy but a space for God’s surprising work and for love to mature. Eternity is tasted and the feast awaits beyond the door of death.  The person walks thus in the world with a sense of spaciousness, utilizing its gifts, enjoying them with the five senses as well as with imagination, always conscious of the fact that the one who loves him/her is always with him/her, never leaving him/her nor forsaking him/her.  (pg. 212)

 

Now here are the summary points of Khoo’s study that lead her to make such a statement (which come form the 7th section of her 4th chapter):

 

  1. Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality is unflaggingly Christocentric.  Celebration of the Lord’s Supper is radiating with intimacy, immediacy, and expectancy with and for and because of Christ
  2. The Wesleys give primacy of place to God’s grace at the Eucharist rather than on the preparedness of the recipient.  Christ’s unique and unrepeatable act on the cross makes this necessary.  Additionally, the Holy Spirit is an active “companion-sanctifier” who works this grace into the recipient through participation in the sacrament.
  3. “Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality has Christian perfection as the goal of the Christian life firmly in view.  The Eucharist is the main formational instrument towards that goal.”
  4. “Growth towards that goal of Christian perfection is seen in a therapeutic manner.  From the sickness of sin the believer grows towards healing and wholeness.”  This is a key aspect of formation.  (I find it highly significant that the Wesleys saw salvation as more than just a legal transaction related to guilt– something many Evangelical Christians mistakenly do.  We are not just guilty we are soul-sick, which makes sin and selfishness the default behaviors.)
  5. “It is a hymnic spirituality.  The HLS not only informs the Christian’s faith:  the hymns form the Christian’s outlook in life.  Hymns deepen the Eucharistic experience” [in a way that only music can accomplish].
  6. Key to a lived-out Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality is the support and persistence of the faith community.  Both strong clergy and lay leadership are crucial to the “mentoring and monitoring of one’s spiritual life and discipline.”  The preaching, teaching, and accountability groups (Wesley’s “classes” and “bands”) of early Methodism helped lead believers deeper into the divine reality experienced at the Lord’s Supper.
  7. Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality provides a comprehensive world-view– a particular way of looking at God, self, others, time, eternity and the temporal things of this world.  For example, one can enjoy temporal things with an appropriate sense of detachment.  Just as the Lord’s Supper, as wonderful as it is, is only a foretaste of the feast to come; so also are the good gifts of our earthly life now.
  8. Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality “is a spirituality of joy.”  Early Methodists celebrated the Lord’s Supper with “reverential joy” in contrast to the always somber seriousness of most Anglican and Catholic services.

 

Lastly, Khoo discusses the future of Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality in the context of global Christianity (specifically, global Methodism).  She catalogs the reason for the rapid decline of Eucharistic fervency after the death of the Wesleys and then offers some things that may help to bring about such a revival in our own day.

 

First, the liturgy used for the Lord’ Supper needs to match what Wesleyans actually believe about it (she notes that the current United Methodist liturgy is a good step in the right direction).

Second, the Hymns on the Lord’s Supper must be re-appropriated and used often in our Communion services.  She points out that there is a translation problem– how to translate 18th century English poetry into modern English and other languages without losing the theological and spiritual impact of the original?  Khoo, I believe, is correct to encourage a fresh effort of creative hymn writing that re-works Charles Wesley’s original themes, and theological emphases into new works– lyrically and musically.  I admit some things may be lost in this effort, but some things are going to be lost regardless.  In truth, such efforts will not be perfectly true to the Wesleys, but their hymns themselves are not perfect either (not theologically or poetically).  So it is time to get over these fears and strongly encourage a fresh outbreak of creativity to come forth that is inspired by Charles Wesley’s own creativity!

 

Third, the theology and practice of spiritual warfare in relation to the Eucharist must be explored much more fully.  The church in Europe and North America may be resistant to engaging in and talking about spiritual warfare, but they are the only ones in the world who are!  If the Eucharist is to be a key element in the believer’s growth towards holiness, we must get our minds and hearts around how it can help in setting the believer free from the chains of Satan, sin and the world.  As we confront demonic powers, persistent sins, and emotional woundedness, what does it mean that at the Lord’s Supper Christ is very present and that the communicant “feeds on Christ in his heart with thanksgiving”– i.e. that Christ is in the one who partakes of his body and blood in the sacrament?  This must be explored to the fullest extent.

 

 

I end with a small caveat.  Khoo advocates a Communion Table that is not only open to believers of other denominations, but a “free” Table that is open to the sincere, seeking unbeliever.  She takes her cues from Wesley’s belief in the primacy of grace at Communion and his belief that it could be a “converting ordinance.” What of the historic truth that only baptized believers have been permitted to the Table?  She recognizes that in Wesely’s day nearly all were baptized even though many did not really believe or trust in Christ.  This, of course, is how Wesley, a strict adherent to all that he understood of the practices of the very Early Church, could speak of the Lord’s Supper as a “converting ordinance”– it converts the baptized unbeliever.  Khoo puts forth the sadly common scenario of a young believer (pre 18 years of age) whose parents are Muslim or Buddhist and will not allow him to be baptized as long as he is under their authority.  While I cannot identify with this, I certainly sympathize.  But I fail to see how making the Table “free” to all is a real help to this problem.  It is a “fix” that will only cause more problems in the long run by making the Eucharist less potent to spiritually form the people who receive it.  The Early Church was unwavering on this point.  And the believers of the first three centuries faced no less difficult circumstances as they lived and moved in lands hostile to the Church.  Often, for a variety of reasons, believers put off baptism for years (sometimes until the very last days before death!!) remaining a Catechumen who could not approach the Lord’s Table and was even dismissed from the building after the sermon.  I’m sure this will sound unduly mean and harsh in our politically correct age, but I would counsel that teenager whose parents would disown him (or worse!!) if he were baptized into Christ and the church, that he trust the Lord.  Trust Him by patiently waiting for the appropriate time to be baptized or trust Him by getting baptized against his parents wishes.  This young person then personifies before the church the real cost of claiming Jesus as Lord, AND the unsurpassed treasure that Jesus and His Kingdom are– worth paying ANY earthly price to obtain.