With this post I officially begin my blog’s companion podcast, The Nicene Nerdcast. I don’t have much in the way of introduction to give you, so here’s the first installment. This is the result of some of my ponderings on race and the Church in recent days.
[This is a post I wrote quite some time ago but which has not been published here.]
I just finished reading the behemoth that is The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul by Douglas Campbell. The book is quite interesting, even if some of its major ideas are rather unconvincing in the final analysis. In this case, it seems to me that the redemption is in the details, while the devil is in the big picture.
All of that is rather tangential to the point of this post, though. I mainly want to address something that came to mind for me while reading a section in TDOG about conversion. Campbell was pointing out the characteristics of conversion experiences as studied by sociologists. He explained that, contrary to ideal evangelical imagination, but rather like the actual experiences of evangelicals if we thought about it, conversions usually take place as the result of gradual shift from one community to another. The basic progression, according to research on people who convert between religions, seems to be something like this:
- Person introduced to (or has attention brought to) new religion by friends, family, or other persistent relationships.
- Person interacts more and more with new group, developing new relationships and connections.
- Gradually, the connections to this new group begin to outweigh connections to the old, and loyalties begin to shift.
- Person, according to the manner learned from the new group, makes a decisive change of association and identifies with the new group. Conversion is complete.
As far as I can tell, this appears to be about right. Certainly, I’ve watched it happen myself within Christianity, with denominations and individual churches. While of course there are exceptions, these do not seem to be particularly normative, and many (though by no means all!) of the people who make less progressive and more instantaneous “conversions” tend to be like the rocky soil, and they wither in no time. If we only count conversions that “stick,” this would seem to be an even more accurate account.
So reading this about conversion got me to thinking just how useful it really can be to invite people into our churches and welcome them with love and kindness. If someone is brought into a community of people worshipping Jesus Christ in faith, hope, and love, and those people actually do treat them in a radically gracious and genuinely invested way, this display of the Spirit through love really can do wonders, and can fill people’s natural social interactions with God’s power unto salvation. Nothing can make people want to follow Christ more than to see Christ’s life being truly embodied before their eyes by a community of His people proclaiming His Word.
Yet there is, it seems to me, a danger latent in this strategy. Welcoming the unbeliever into our association and love is certainly good, but appears to carry with it the danger of mere assimilation instead of conversion on its own. When we simply fellowship with and love and befriend the visiting unbeliever, we might run the risk of them eventually just thinking as though they are one of us, a true Christian and member of the Body, despite having never repented of their sins, responded to Christ in faith, or submitted to accountability within the Church as legitimate member. We might lose them one day to realize that we have lost a friend, but that this friend fell through the cracks of our love and acceptance without ever joining in the new and eternal life found in Christ.
So what can we do about this? How do we leverage the power of Spirit-filled community to draw people to Christ while simultaneously ensuring that people aren’t just silently absorbed without any defining encounter with Christ resulting in a conversion to faith and repentance? I think the proper answer to this potential difficulty lies in the proper use of the sacraments. I am a firm believer in weekly Communion, despite being immersed in a Baptist world where such practice is rare. One day I hope to remedy that. But that is rather beside the point.
Setting up baptism and Communion as strict distinguishing marks, I believe, provides the necessary protection against mere assimilation. Weekly Communion where only those who have been baptized may participate provides a constant and, depending on how Communion is performed, potentially quite conspicuous reminder of the difference between being in Christ, part of His Body, and outside Christ, still part of the world. Even when the unbeliever is loved and welcomed and finds himself deeply wanting to be one of these people and share in their (Spirit-filled) life, the dividing line of Eucharistic separation is bound to create a tension which will have to be resolved at some point, either by abandoning the community he has grown attached to or by converting and joining that community. Arms wide open and altars narrowly restricted, a powerful love and a burning awareness of distinction, should act as the opposite pressures driving the potential convert in one of two directions: join the Body and its Christ or flee from both.
As another thought, I suspect the impact of this could be further enhanced by weekly fellowship meals, with Communion taking place immediately prior to the general eating. If you want to stay and eat with all of the people you are growing to love but must first watch only those committed to union with one Christ participate in a celebration of Him, I expect the decision-driving tension would only grow more powerful. In the end, the idea is to create a fellowship so attractive, virtuous, welcoming, and gracious that all want to become a part, but to make a public commitment to Christ in baptism the only path to truly do so. I suspect this will weed out many who are not truly concerned, but will provide opportunity for strengthening for those who might find themselves being drawn. May this be what happens, no matter what we actually do.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Communion in recent weeks, and there are three things which have stuck in my mind:
- Communion is first and foremost about Christ and His Body, not Christ and me. Now, I see people give lip service to this notion every once in a while. But I’ve rarely seen it put into practice. Most Communion services encourage people to reflect on Christ’s death for me, deal with my own sins, consider my personal walk with Jesus, and eat individually (or at widest, by family). None of this aligns with what Scripture teaches about Communion. Paul declared, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). He speaks as though coming together as a church is the same as coming together to take the Supper (1 Cor. 11:18-21). They cannot be divided. Communion is designed to unite us as one Body of one Lord, so why do we take it like we’re each only dealing with Christ personally? I would love to see churches take a hard look at how they do Communion. There are surely ways to drive home the corporate, fellowship side of the Christian table.
In Protestant circles, we should speak more freely about Christ’s presence in the Supper. I don’t think we need to accept the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the Lutheran view (often called “consubstantiation,” which most Lutherans disavow, or “sacramental union,” which most accept), or anything along those lines. But we need to be able to call the bread and wine—without any qualifications—Christ’s body and blood. We don’t need 10 minutes (or even 10 seconds) before each Communion saying, “Remember, this is just a symbol.” After all, right after John died the early Christians would write stuff like this:
Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us…They abstain from the Eucharist…because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.
Ignatius, “Letter to the Smyrnaeans”
Whatever we think about the details of how the Supper works, we should at least get this: Jesus is there, and we are nourished by His atoning sacrifice. And that should give us great joy.
The one loaf is far more appropriate than crackers. This ties in a lot with my first point, but it’s still different. Originally, it seems quite clear that Communion was observed with loaves of bread divided among the believers. This was definitely true when Jesus started the Supper during His last Passover meal. Now most of us use wafers, crackers, or stuff that is probably just edible styrofoam. Practically speaking, it makes sense that this would happen over time. But practicality isn’t the point of the sacraments. I think this development betrays the original purpose. If we break whole loaves together, it reinforces the united body element mentioned above (we all share the same loaves of bread) and the significance of Jesus’ body being broken for us. It picks up on the Biblical theme of meal-sharing in celebration before God. But again, I just have to go back to the point of the united body. The Didache, basically an introduction to Christianity for new converts written in the second century, makes the point in its Communion prayer. I’ll wrap up by quoting it:
We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.
In my last post, I addressed the direct Biblical evidence for weekly Communion as a proper practice of the Church. In this one I want to pick up where I left off and examine the actual theological rationale for having the Supper every week.
Reasons from Theology
So, if we take it that Scripture indicates weekly Communion, and indeed Communion as a central piece of church gathering, then why? What is the reason for coming together weekly to take the Lord’s Supper? What makes the Supper so important?
The Presence of Christ
There are essentially three major theological themes which give Communion its significance. The first is the most discussed in Christian history, and the most central. Basically, the first is that Jesus is there in the Supper in a way He is not always present. When we take the bread and the wine, we—in some way or another—experience Christ’s body and blood given for us. The Church has always believed this, that in the Supper Jesus is present. Now, there has been disagreement about what this means. The Orthodox Church holds a rather ambiguous and mystical belief that the bread and wine become Jesus’ actual body and blood. The Catholic Church teaches with transubstantiation that the bread and wine transform in reality, but not in appearance (to oversimplify), into Christ’s full body and blood, including His divine presence and power. The Lutheran Church simply teaches that they are the body and blood, and that Christ’s body and blood are “in, with, and under” the bread and wine, without detailing how this works. Reformed Churches vary in their beliefs, but John Calvin believed that in the Supper we ascend through the Spirit by faith to Christ’s heavenly presence and are spiritually nourished by His body and blood. Most Baptists believe that Jesus is simply present insomuch as we remember Him in the symbolic action.
However we slice and dice it, the truth remains that Jesus is there in Communion in a way that He is not always there1. So to take the Lord’s Supper frequently, indeed weekly as the Church, is to accept an invitation into the presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If we love Him, is this not what we wish to do?
Heaven Here and Now
The second major theological dimension to the Supper is its role in eschatology. The end times, the final climax, the coming kingdom—all of this from the future comes into the present through Communion today. There are multiple dimensions to even this. On the one hand, this tails off of Jesus’ presence. Right now Jesus is ascended and absent from the world in a real way. In Communion, He is present, anticipating the day when He actually will physically return to earth. This entails not only an anticipation of the return of Jesus Himself, but also the benefits which His return includes.
What benefits do I mean? There are many. There is the benefit of eternal joy and celebration. The use of wine for Christ’s redeeming blood points to this, for God has given wine to make men glad2. When we eat and drink, a basic act of celebration, we rejoice that Christ is coming back, and indeed His coming and kingdom is already present in the Church because of the sacrifice He made.
In fact, what is really happening here is the pre-enactment (rather than reenactment) of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb3, the time when all the redeemed will rejoice and celebrate the return of the Bridegroom for His bride. And if this is the meaning of eating and drinking together as the body of Christ, eagerly awaiting His coming, then we do well to do it often, that we may be sustained in hope and always reminded of our mission and purpose in light of His imminent return.
One Body, One Body
The final major aspect of Communion is the unity of the Church. As we all find ourselves nourished by the one body of Jesus Christ given for us, we are all bound together as His one body in the world. The simplest place to go for this theme is 1 Corinthians 10:14-21. In these verses Paul rebukes some of the Corinthians for participating in feasts to idols, and he does so in contrast with the Lord’s Supper. What he says is revealing:
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking as to wise people. Judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread. Look at the people of Israel. Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in what is offered on the altar? What am I saying then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I do say that what they sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to participate with demons! You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot share in the Lord’s table and the table of demons.
Here Paul teaches clearly that the one bread and one cup we share, sharing in the same body and blood of the same Lord Jesus Christ, bind us together as a single body. It is not called “Communion” for nothing. In Communion we both commune with God through Jesus Christ, and we commune with each other through Jesus Christ. We are made into one body through one Supper.
This is, in fact, is half of the sacramental unity of the Church. All of us who perform baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one Church, bound together by union with Christ. When we participate in these acts, all divisions crumble. Nothing makes one baptized man better than another, nor does anyone do anything more than simply receive God’s gift in Communion. They are greatly equalizers and unifiers. When we share a meal, the Lord’s meal, we become the community of Christ. Is it not usually the case that eating with someone draws you closer to them? Indeed it is, and even more so when what you eat and drink is provided by God to enjoy His Son through His Spirit.
Of course, is Communion is at all about unity, we must do it every time we meet together, for that unity is the basic foundation of meeting together at all. Can two walk together unless they be agreed? By no means! When we gather, then, we must gather in not only the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and prayer, but also in the breaking of bread. Only in this way will we be fitted together as a whole body, of whom Christ is the head.
This has already gone on way longer than I intended. Hopefully I’ve made my point. I believe weekly Communion is Biblical and essential to healthy church life. I hope at least someone is persuaded of this as well. I’ll end with this early Christian prayer:
We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever.
We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever.
Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.
Unlike most of my Baptist brethren, I believe in having Communion every week. Moreover, I do not merely think it is a good idea. I think it is an essential one. But most of my fellow Baptists have never done this, or seen any reason to, or really ever considered why it is only done rarely (quarterly in most Baptist churches I’ve seen). And all of this applies not only to Baptists, but to their wild Pentecostal cousins and the homeless non-denominationals. Weekly Communion is, I suggest, a vital part of what church should be. Without further ado, I’ll move into why.
Reasons from the Bible
The first relevant text—not counting those when Jesus instituted the Supper before He died, since He said nothing about when, where, or how to observe it then—is Acts 2:42. This is basically the first description of the New Testament Church. After the initial conversion of 3000 people, they become a new community marked by four things. Here’s the verse:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.
Three of these are obvious elements of true church. The teaching of the apostles, Christian fellowship, and prayers certain define and shape what meeting together as a church involves. But what of “the breaking of bread?” What is this about? While some people argue that it is merely a reference to eating together (and it may involve that), traditionally it has been understood as referring to, or at least including (cf. the NLT), the Lord’s Supper. Calvin, for example, comments this:
My reason why I would rather have breaking of bread to be understood of the Lord’s Supper in this place is this, because Luke doth reckon up those things wherein the public estate of the Church is contained. Yea, he expresseth in this place four marks whereby the true and natural face of the Church may be judged. Do we then seek the true Church of Christ? The image thereof is lively depainted and set forth unto us in this place.
In Calvin’s view, “breaking of bread” is a defining element of the true Church and probably what Luke was talking about here. Whenever the Church came together, they participated in all that defines the Church, which includes Communion.
In addition to 2:42, Acts 20:7 also refers to a church service in which Paul is preaching, but specifies that they “came together to break bread.” If breaking bread is indeed meant to be a Communion reference, as seems likely and was historically believed, then this again suggests Communion is a key part of why churches are to meet at all.
More Biblical reason comes from 1 Corinthians 11. In verses 17-34, Paul gives instructions about the Lord’s Supper. Interestingly, if you pay attention you’ll notice that he seems to assume they do this all the time, and in fact every time that they come together as a church. Pay close attention to 18-20:
For to begin with, I hear that when you come together as a church there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. There must, indeed, be factions among you, so that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore, when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper.
In this passage, Paul speaks of their meeting together as a church, and then rebukes them because they don’t really come to eat the Lord’s Supper! Surely this implies that, when a church comes together, in at least part it should actually be to eat the Supper. This reinforces the “came together to break bread” from Acts 20:7.
Until Next Time
I was originally going to make this all one post, but it turned out to be almost 2000 words, twice the suggested length for reader attention. So I’m splitting it here. The next post will look at the theological rationale for the Biblical practice of weekly Communion. Why should it be done? That’s the question I’ll seek to answer.