The Way to Harmony

 
 
“When we bless the cup at the Lord’s Table, aren’t we sharing in the blood of Christ? And when we break the bread, aren’t we sharing in the body of Christ?  And though we are many, we all eat from one loaf of bread, showing that we are one body.” –1 Corinthians 10:16-17
 
            Imagine waking up in the morning eager to go to work.  The harmony between you and your co-workers makes for a happy work environment.  The challenges of accomplishing tasks are easy because you have a supportive boss.  The sales team communicates with you and your colleagues so that production happens with a seamless co-operation.  Lunch-time talk is discussing one another’s families and your hopes for the upcoming evening with them.
            Imagine going home and enjoying conversation around the dinner table with your loved ones.  Laughter, inside-jokes, hilarious stories about the day’s antics are shared with great food and great fun.  Everyone lingers at the table, enjoying the time and staying in their chairs to put a puzzle together.
            Imagine getting out of bed on Sunday morning with joyful anticipation in your heart of worshiping God with people of like mind.  You know the interaction with fellow believers in Jesus will be open, honest, sweet, and full of grace.  The wonderful relationships between God and people will be celebrated at the Lord’s Table….
            It could be that somewhere in those descriptions you pursed your lips with a “ppfffff” – like that’s gonna happen!”  That’s because you feel drained from the lunch-time gossip gab session at work; you couldn’t wait to finish supper at home because of the bickering between your kids at the table; and, you drag yourself out of bed on Sunday out of duty, knowing that the Lord’s Table will be just another ritual to do with people who don’t talk to each other across the divided aisle.
            There is someone who understood this reality first-hand, and knew that it really could be different – it could be a new reality that fulfills, even exceeds your imagination of harmony and unity.
The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the 1st-century Corinthian church to emphasize that the work of Jesus on the cross effected what we call “reconciliation” between God and people, and between each other as people.  This means that God, in Christ, has restored relations between us and God, and between one another.  The relations between the Corinthian believers had broken down into special interest groups, and there was no interaction or fellowship or participation between those various factions.  People basically just hung out with others who thought just like them, and did not care about what other people in the church thought; each group wanted their own way, and they had not yet learned how to work together and have true unity and fellowship with each other.
Participation in Christ, and participation with each other is the result of the reconciliation that has been applied to us because of the cross; and, it is this reconciliation that brings unity or one-ness to your church, to your workplace, and to your family, allowing you to work together and play well with others.  So, when we come to the Lord’s Table, it is this truth that we celebrate, enjoy, and re-create together.
            Jesus is not just someone we remember, but someone we participate in through the Lord’s Table.  Sharing the Table together brings healing and forgiveness, and builds up our faith so that we might joyfully live in the reconciliation that Christ has brought us.
            Therefore, we must live up to what we possess – our participation in Christ results in participation and fellowship and unity with each other.  Since we are forgiven, we work at being harmonious at church, at work, and at home.  This is symbolized by partaking of the same loaf of bread, and drinking from a common cup.

 

            Peace, harmony, unity, and fellowship begins with Jesus Christ.  Workplace enjoyment will happen with an intentional development of encouraging language on your part, based in your participation with Jesus.  Family harmony will come when you seek to live into the reconciliation bought for you with Christ’s body and blood.  Church unity will exist when you make things right between you and God, and you and others with the cross always at the forefront of your mind and heart.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

            NPR gave a report a few years ago about the relationship between our minds and our stomachs.  Scholars at UCLA conducted some experiments that give us some insight on what we know as a ‘gut feeling.’  Their studies indicate that microbes in our stomachs affect the neural activity of the brain.  They concluded:  “Your brain is not just another organ.  It is affected by what goes on in the rest of your body.”  Scientists are discovering that there is a vast network of neurons lining our guts that is so extensive that some researchers have nicknamed it our “second brain.”
 
            When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper and invited his disciples to eat and drink with him as a way of following him, he was reaching us as holistic people.  We do not simply follow Jesus by affirming right doctrine in the head (as important as that is); we walk in the way of Jesus on a very visceral level, literally!  Perhaps Jesus knew that the way to our hearts is through our stomachs.
 
            We observe the Lord’s Supper as part of our full-orbed Christian discipleship.  This is also why practices like hospitality and even church potlucks have the incredible power to form us as the people of God.  As often as we break bread together and drink together, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  We preach Christ not only with mouths, but with our stomachs.  How cool is that!
 

 

            Look down O Lord, I pray, on all of us, your family for whom the Lord Jesus was betrayed and delivered into the hands of wicked men, and to suffer torment on the cross.  In the Holy Supper which you have instituted, let us remember this great love which you have bestowed on us.  May I eat and drink knowing the wondrous unity I have with you, in Christ.  Amen.

Pursue Peace

 
 
Over the past several years I have developed the notorious “pastor paunch.”  But, in the past three weeks I have lost fifteen pounds.  It didn’t just happen.  It has been intentional.  If I were to only focus on the negative of what I can’t eat, I would never make it.  After all, if I keep thinking about the anchovy pizza that I’m not supposed to have, eventually my willpower breaks down.  But if I focus on the positive, of becoming healthy and incorporating positive practices of health into my life on a daily consistent basis, then I am setting myself up for holistic well-being.
 
            Peace does not just happen.  Peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus (Colossians 1:20).  And it must be pursued (Ephesians 4:3).  Practices of peace must be engrafted into our lives if we are going to experience it on the daily practical level (Romans 14:13-15:7).  Is it hard?  Yes, absolutely.  Is it worth it?  I’ll let you be the judge.  I think your conscience already knows the answer.
 
            How bad do we want to be spiritually healthy?  How bad do we desire the peace of God:  Enough to stop being negative? Enough to reconcile and make things right? Enough to pursue Jesus?  It is high time we begin redefining our situations from a negative focus on only problem solving to the positive vision of peace, wholeness, integrity, and spiritual growth and health.
 
            Zechariah’s song of praise anticipating the birth of Jesus gives us a vision of a future full of peace, joy, and thriving (Luke 1:68-79).  The name “Zechariah” means in Hebrew “God remembered.”  God has not forgotten his promises.  The time has come to take hold of the vision God had from the very beginning to walk with humanity in continual fellowship and happiness in the garden, a place of abundant growth, beauty, and health.
 
            The World Health Organization did a study which has found that 10% of Americans suffer from some form of depression.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has taken notice of the rising figures of suicide in this country, which has been growing steadily for the past thirty years.  Last year nearly 42,000 people took their own lives in the United States.  That’s approximately 13 suicides per 100,000 people.  Large numbers of people lack peace in their lives.
 
            This year a study came out from a task force put together by professionals across a wide spectrum of disciplines known as the World Happiness Report.  Every country in the world was ranked according to criteria such as the gross domestic product, social support, healthy lifestyles, freedom to make choices, lack of corruption, and both negative and positive outlooks on life.  The U.S. did not even make the top ten.  Even with all of our vast resources Americans are, collectively speaking, a very unhappy people.  I believe the most interesting finding from the World Happiness Report was their conclusion as to what makes one country happier than another.  The Report concluded that citizens of the happiest nations on earth continually find a steady stream of joy in three sources:  their families, their rituals/traditions, and their religion.
 
            If we are not finding joy in our lives through our Christianity and/or our church involvement, then it is reasonable to conclude that we are not experiencing the peace of Jesus Christ.  Perhaps we need to find newfound hope and joy through celebrating the Table of the Lord together.  It is a religious ritual that we experience together which reminds us that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
 

 

            Forgiveness of sins, spiritual peace, and human well-being is ultimately found in Jesus.  We both remember Christ’s accomplishment of peace through the cross, and participate in that peace through the common elements of Bread and Cup.  As we eat and drink, let us ingest the peace of Christ into our lives.

The Lord’s Table

The Lord’s Table proclaims the gospel to us, and the good news of Jesus Christ is what we need to be molded and shaped into disciples.  Just as the simple routines of eating breakfast and getting ready in the morning shape our daily lives, so the ritual of the Lord’s Table is to set the tone for our lives by orienting us around healthy routines of learning to follow Jesus.  We need the Lord’s Table because our hearts are often thorny with cares and worries which leads to a weakening of faith.  A sermon is words; the Table is tangible.  Preaching may say the words “I love you!” but the Table seals those words and makes them real, like a kiss.
 
 
 
            The purpose of the Lord’s Table is to participate in the blessings of Christ by visually re-creating the story of Jesus.  There are three different terms for the Table in the New Testament, and each term is meant to convey a different aspect of the Table’s significance.  One of those terms is The Lord’s Supper.  The focus of The Lord’s Supper is remembrance, a memorial of Christ’s death that is deeply reflective and contemplative.  Paul said to the Corinthians:  A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.  Paul said this because at the Table whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26).
 
            A second term for the Lord’s Table is called The Eucharist.  Eucharist literally means “thanksgiving.”  The focus of seeing the Lord’s Table as The Eucharist means that we are celebrating our victory over sin, death, and hell through Christ’s death.  At the Last Supper, the Gospel writer Mark said that Jesus took bread, gave thanks (Eucharist), and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”  Then he took the cup, gave thanks (Eucharist) and offered it to them, and they all drank from it (Mark 14:22-23).  We might say that observing the Table as both The Lord’s Supper and The Eucharist means that we will engage in a sober celebration.
 
            The third term describing the Lord’s Table is the term “communion.”  Communion means to participate in Christ and with other Christians.  Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ?  And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?  Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).  This emphasizes that when we partake of the Lord’s Table, we ought to do so with unity and fellowship; we do not just participate as individuals, but together as the community of the redeemed.
 
            As we allow the Table to be a remembrance, a celebration, and participation with each other, we engage in a ritual that helps us to know Christ better and we are better able to realize his grace to us.
 
 
 
            One of the wonderful realities about communion is that believers all over the planet share in Christ together.  Communion and participation is important because we can easily be fragmented and not fellowship with one another, both in the local church, and the world-wide church.  Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians because they were divided among themselves.  He emphasized the work of Jesus on the cross as bringing reconciliation between God and people.  Christ’s work of reconciliation has restored a broken relationship between us and God, and also between one another.  The relations between the Corinthians were not good; they existed as a network of special interest groups, instead of being aware of each other and intentionally participating with each other.  They did not necessarily fight among each other, but simply ignored other people in the church.  Each group wanted their own way, and they had not yet learned how to talk to one another and work together in a unity and fellowship that reflects the gospel.
 
            One of the things we need to be aware of as we think of sharing in communion together is that we are not to approach the Table to be with people who are like us in the way we want them to be. We come because we have staked our souls on the fact that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the church is the best place, the only place, to be while we all struggle to figure out what that means. We come because we’d be hard pressed to say which is the bigger of the two scandals of God: that he loves me—or that he loves everyone else.  The Lord’s Table is the great leveler, where we all have equal footing and accept one another according to a common confession of Christ.
 
            So when we talk about the Lord’s Table as being communion, we are emphasizing that it is not just a remembrance, but a participation in the body and blood of Christ.  And since that is true, communion is participation with all Christians everywhere.  The Lord’s Table is not just to be an individual experience in isolation from others.  There is solidarity not only between the individual and God, but between all believers.
 
            Therefore, we are not alone.  Communion lets us know that God is with us, and that he has so closely identified with us that he took our place on the cross.  As a result, every believer in Jesus is linked to all the others so that, when one suffers or rejoices, all suffer or rejoice, whether it is an African pastor rejoicing over newly saved persons out of animism, or a suffering Syrian Christian trying to survive in a refugee camp.
 
            We must live up to what we profess.  Our participation in Christ results in participation and unity with each other.  Since we are God’s forgiven people, we are to work at living the Christian life together.  This unity is symbolized by partaking together of the same loaf of bread, and drinking from a common cup.
 
            On one Sunday, a group of missionaries and believers in Papua New Guinea were gathered to observe communion together.  After one young man sat down, one of the missionaries recognized that he seemed to be quite upset.  But, then, in a while, the young man seemed to be fine.  The missionary leaned over and whispered to him, “What was it that troubled you?”  The young man replied, “The man who just came in happens to be the man who killed and ate the body of my father.  And now he has come in to observe communion with us.  At first I didn’t think I could do that.  But it is all right now.  He is washed in the same precious blood as I am.”  And so together they had Communion.
 

 

            We have peace because of Jesus.  His death has brought reconciliation not only between us and God, but between each other.  As we approach the Lord’s Table, let us be aware not only of our personal relationship with God, but our relationships with one another in the local church, and our unity with the world-wide church.  May our lives be shaped and formed around the cross of Jesus Christ, as we remember, celebrate, and participate together.

The Importance of Baptism and Communion

Okay, I know there are some people who think that I am out of my crazy skull talking about baptism and communion as things that actually shape a person’s worldview as if they play a central role in a Christian’s life.  Are they really that important?  The short answer to that is “yes”. Here is the longer answer, and I will frame it by asking two questions: what place do the sacraments (or ordinances in non-Reformed theology) have in the Christian life? and, why do we even need them since we have the preaching of the Word?

We get something in the sacraments that we don’t get by sermons alone. The sheer physical presence of the elements of water, bread, and wine engages the whole person in sight, touch, and smell and not just through an engagement with the mind through the ears. The sacraments present the good news of Jesus to us, along with the Word, more clearly. Perhaps all of us have had the experience of receiving an e-mail with an attachment we cannot open. We may gain a certain amount of knowledge and understanding from the e-mail itself, but without the attachment the communication is insufficient and lacking. Holy communion and baptism are the attachments opened to us revealing the presence of Jesus among his people and showing us the incredible union we have with God through Christ’s redemptive events.

The big deal here is that we need more than just talk in communication of the gospel. Just as lovers need more than just the words “I love you” (sermon), they need an embrace, a kiss, some action that reveals and seals the words as real. This is the role of the sacraments in the life of faith, that they assure us, in a material way, of the great love shown to us in Christ (VanderZee, Christ, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, pp.191-2). They lift us to heaven where Jesus is seated at the right hand of God and help us to know the reality of grace. The Belgic Confession says this of what we are speaking:

“We believe that our good God, mindful of our crudeness and weakness, had ordained sacraments for us to seal his promises in us, to pledge his good will and grace toward us, and also to nourish and sustain our faith. He has added these to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what he enables us to understand by his Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us.”

It is a misguided belief that the only things believers need is a lively sermon and some good praise choruses for their worship experience. Two thousand years of church history testifies to the importance of the sacraments in the life of Christians. We push them to the periphery at our own peril. They are meant to seal the message of union with Christ to us with greater certainty. When they are practiced with the attention they deserve, along with the preaching of the Word, it provides a solid foundation from which to construct a decidedly Christian world and life view of human need and divine redemption. So, how do you view your life and the world around us?

Twenty-Somethings and Reality

 

            A statistic that probably is being discussed more than any other right now in the Church is that the age group 18-29 years old is leaving in great numbers.  Depending upon the study (and many have been done!) the numbers run anywhere from 65%-80% will be gone from the Church by age 29.  As a former minister to college students, I can attest first hand to this reality.  This is a topic that well deserves a great deal of attention, and needs to be addressed from a variety of angles.  Here is just one angle I want to explore:  that of instilling a decidedly Christian worldview into the lives of college age persons through the sacraments. 
 

One of the great tasks of the church, and a vital pursuit for any believing college student, is to continually come in line with a Christian world and life view. Our postmodern and post-Christian society works against becoming spiritually formed according to biblical categories. The university, as important as it is, can be the vehicle of promoting a rival worldview to Christianity. More than one professor in my undergraduate experience told me that they enjoyed shocking freshman students into thinking in more secular terms and away from their “narrow” thinking about God and the church. Although that has been a few years ago, I continually speak with students who feel like they are swimming upstream of the prevailing attitudes on reality in our society and university culture. One of the most significant means that the church can help inform students and promote a Christian worldview is through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Western society, and sometimes even the church, tends to hold to a cleavage between the spiritual and the material in an inherent dualism inherited from ancient Greek categories of thought. Yet, in the sacraments these two elements are firmly united. The good news of Jesus is not just proclaimed by stating propositions of truth, but, as Frank Senn has said in his book Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical the forgiveness of sins is declared “by sentences joined to a bath, the laying on of hands, and communal eating and drinking” (p.31). God is the creator of all things, both visible and invisible (Colossians 1:16). The incarnation of Jesus is where the invisible God became a visible human. There is no dichotomous reality here between the material and the spiritual, but an essential unity. Leonard VanderZee has said that this unity makes the sacraments “a place where God meets us and where the spiritual and physical come together for our wholeness and healing” (Christ, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, p.28). Now that the Lord Jesus has accomplished his great redemptive events of cross and resurrection, the sacraments serve as material signs to us of the now invisible Christ. John Calvin called this a “visible word” that declares God’s saving work in Christ on behalf of every human being.

There is certainly a profound place for didactic instruction in the church on a Christian worldview, and I would argue that it needs to take place. But this is insufficient. God himself has instituted baptism and the Lord’s Supper as means of proclaiming forgiveness and declaring the unity of reality, and the great union we have with God because of Jesus. When we partake of this, we are doing much more than remembering; we are providing and re-enacting a view of the world that is in contradistinction from prevailing notions outside of Christendom. Here is where college students can find a place of seeing life from God’s perspective.  Emphasizing the place of the sacraments in the life of the Church gives an alternate view of reality from that provided in many secular environments.  This, certainly, is not the last or only word on addressing the great slide of a whole generation of people out of the Church, but the Word proclaimed at the Table is a necessary element to help college students meaningfully connect with a Christian view of life and reality.

 
So, what are some reasons you think people ages 18-29 are leaving the Church?  What are some ways that they might reconnect with their faith?  How might you build a meaningful relationship with a person in this age group?  Do you think the sacraments are important for spiritually forming people?  How about asking those in this age group who have left your church why they did so?