When the Church tries to embody the rule of God in the forms of earthly power it may achieve that power, but it is no longer a sign of the kingdom.
~ Lesslie Newbigin from Gospel in a Pluralist Society
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When the Church tries to embody the rule of God in the forms of earthly power it may achieve that power, but it is no longer a sign of the kingdom.
~ Lesslie Newbigin from Gospel in a Pluralist Society
Original post found here
People were asking questions. Their pastor was new and – so far – had celebrated communion every Sunday, something they’d never done before, so they decided to ask him about it. “Don’t you think it will become routine if we do this together every week?” The pastor was quiet for a minute, then posed a question of his own. “Do you think God is in heaven looking down at us and saying, ‘Stop it, people! Don’t do that so much!’ ” His listeners laughed; they took his point. The next Sunday, they gladly went forward during communion time.
Sacraments are dramatic rites/ceremonies – or to use Augustine’s term, “visible words” – modeled by Jesus and instituted by him that he intended the people of God to practice as well. In the last chapter, we spoke about one such sacrament, baptism. Baptism is the initiation that marks off individuals as belonging to the people of God, the church. Another sacrament regularly observed by the church is the Eucharist, sometimes called “Holy Communion,” “communion,” or “the Lord’s Supper.”
The term “Eucharist” comes from the Greek verb, eucharisto, meaning to “give thanks.” The night before his crucifixion, Jesus took bread and wine and gave thanks for them before giving them to his disciples (Matt. 26:27, Luke 22:19; see also 1 Cor 11:24). Luke 22:14-23 picks up the story:
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!” They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.
Meaning of the Eucharist
The context of this ritual is important. Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Passover. This annual Jewish feast commemorated the miraculous and hurried exit of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Particularly, it memorialized the last of the ten plagues that God had visited upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians, the killing of the first born Egyptian children by the death angel sent by God (see Exodus 11-12). Each Hebrew household was to sacrifice a lamb without blemish. Next, they were to sprinkle some of its blood on the sides and tops of the door frames. Finally, they were to roast the meat of the lamb, accompanied with bitter herbs and bread without yeast. When the death angel saw the blood on the doorposts, he would “pass over” that house, leaving all its inhabitants untouched (Exodus 12:13).
It is only in retrospect and through the eyes of faith that we can see how Jesus became the spotless Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world (John 1:29, Rev 5:12). He was the fulfillment of the Old Covenant – or agreement between God and God’s people – and now on the eve of his death, Jesus introduced a New Covenant. Now he anticipated his crucifixion at Golgotha the next day. He broke the bread and called it a symbol of his broken body. Likewise, the wine in the cup symbolized for Jesus the blood that he would shed on the cross.
In 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Paul adds two other important aspects:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Here we see that there is no prescribed frequency for celebrating Eucharist. Paul simply says “whenever.” (However, for the early church, this quickly became a weekly observance.) Secondly, he talks about the historical time frame for celebrating this sacrament. It began when Jesus instituted it “the night he was betrayed” and it is to be practiced “until he comes.”
What Eucharist is not
It may help us to first look at a few misconceptions about Eucharist. To do so, let us ask the question:
What is Eucharist not?
1) It is not an ordeal. In Corinth, some were getting drunk on the wine during the agape, a common meal shared by the believers preliminary to the Eucharist. They gorged themselves while others went hungry (1 Cor. 11:21). Paul was angry and warned them that if this abuse continued, even more might become weak, sick, or “fall asleep” (1 Cor. 11:30). This is the context for Paul’s warning not to eat the bread or drink the cup in an “unworthy manner.” Well-meaning Christians have torn this out of context, scaring faithful believers away from the Lord’s table, warning them to make sure they are “worthy” before partaking. One Liberian pastor told of hearing a preacher say that each time a communicant received the bread unworthily, it would stay in his stomach and eventually clog up the digestive system, causing death. Such a misconception makes of what should be a joyous celebration an ordeal, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a primitive means used to determine guilt or innocence by submitting the accused to dangerous or painful tests believed to be under supernatural control.” Let’s face it: If worthiness understood as meriting Christ’s sacrifice for us was a condition for Eucharist, no one would take it. We come to the table not because we are worthy, but because Christ is worthy, and he extends a winsome invitation. Shall we ignore the feast he has spread for us?
2) It is not a reward for exemplary churchmanship. The Eucharist must not be tied to other practices such as the giving of tithes and and offerings or regular attendance. Some have reported churches in Africa that issue to her members attendance and tithing cards that ushers fill out each week. In this scenario, only those who pass a certain minimal standard are admitted to Eucharist. Is this what Jesus had in mind when he said that his burden was light and his yoke easy (Matt 11:29)? Did he not instead say: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28)? Nothing says “Come to me” like the Lord’s Supper. Shall we turn away from his table those who hunger and thirst for righteousness?
3) It is not a magical ceremony with magical substances. Whenever spiritual truths are made concrete by visible objects, there is the danger that the visible objects become the focus of our attention rather than the invisible One to whom the objects should direct us. King Hezekiah, as a sign of his loyalty to Yahweh, was forced to break into pieces the bronze snake that Moses had made in the wilderness at God’s direction as a remedy for the snakebites from the serpents God had sent into the camp (Numbers 21:9, 2 Kings 18:14). In the same way, we should ascribe no inherent power to bread or wine even if sometimes we sing hymns such as “There is power in the blood.” We believe there is power not in the blood as such but in the Jesus who shed his blood. (For the same reason, we reject the use of “Holy Water” as if the water in itself contains power.) We must always focus our attention on the One who lies behind the sign and not put our faith in the efficacy of the symbol. Otherwise, like the ancient Israelites, we are taking a magical approach to the things of God. The belief in transubstantiation – that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ after certain words are pronounced by the priest – may lend itself to a magical approach to the sacraments. It is a too literal application of the words of Jesus, “This is my body…” or “This is my blood.” Symbols should not be confused with the Reality behind the symbols.
What Eucharist is
We’ve looked at a few things that Eucharist is not. We are ready to ask the question: So what exactly is Eucharist?
1) Eucharist is remembering the sacrifice of Christ for us. Jesus invited his disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine as a way of remembering his sacrifice. He said: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Too often, the celebration of Holy Communion resembles a funeral. Yet should not remembering the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf fill us with joy, not sorrow? Smiling and dancing – expressions of thanksgiving – may be more appropriate responses at the Lord’s table than long faces and hunched shoulders.
2) Eucharist is a celebration of solidarity with brothers and sisters in Christ. Acts 2:46-47 paints a picture of a united church:
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
“Breaking bread” may refer to the agape or Eucharist, perhaps to both. In any case, it’s clear that table fellowship created oneness.
3) Eucharist is a means of grace. John Wesley (1703-91) in his sermon The Means of Grace, defined “means of grace” as the ” ordinary channels whereby he (God) might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.” He identified the means of grace as prayer, Bible reading, and “receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him.”
Preventing (or prevenient) grace is the drawing activity of the Holy Spirit, attracting people to Christ (John 6:44, 12:32). Justifying grace is a synonym for pardon or forgiveness of sins. What does this tell us as related to the Lord’s Supper? In the Wesleyan understanding of Eucharist, we believe that the Holy Spirit is present at the sacrament, drawing people – believers and non-believers – to God. Therefore, for the non-believer, being drawn to the table and taking Holy Communion could be their first act of faith. Similarly, for the prodigal son or daughter, it may be the moment when they make their way home to God. Because of this, we must be careful not to set up a stumbling block in one’s path by impeding access to the table for the sake of our ecclesiology, of who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Jesus says to one and all : “Come!” One can always follow up with people later, inquiring about their faith and what God is doing in their lives. Those who are unbaptized can be encouraged to enroll in baptism classes, to formally identify with the people of God. One thing is clear: Eucharist is never the time to push away seekers who are drawing closer to Christ.
A father had long prayed for his son who for years had wanted nothing to do with the church. One Sunday, the son and his girlfriend finally came to worship. The father saw the beginning of God’s answer to his prayers. He was thrilled to see his son at church but was afraid of how he might react during the celebration of Eucharist at the end of the service. Would he be turned away? What would the pastor say? Much to his relief, the Holy Spirit seemed to be guiding the pastor’s choice of words. Besides faithful believers, the pastor invited all who wanted to follow Christ for the first time to come to the table. He added that those who had been far away were also welcome to make this celebration of Eucharist their joyous homecoming. Eagerly, the wayward son and his girlfriend both joined the line. They happily received the bread and drank the wine presented to them with the words: “The body of our Lord, broken for you…the blood of our Lord, shed for you.” Surely this exemplifies Jesus’s intent as recorded in Revelation 22:17:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.
At Eucharist, an unbeliever may respond to this universal call, resulting in saving faith. Likewise, the wanderer may return to the fold. Finally, the committed follower will be strengthened in his or her faith, empowered for continued service. All three of these categories of individuals – full of faith, though in various locations on their spiritual journey – are God’s “faithful people” as described in a Eucharistic hymn by Charles Wesley:
O the depth of love Divine,
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into man conveys!
How the bread his flesh impart
How the wine transmits His blood
Fills his faithful people’s hearts
With all the life of God!
Conclusion: Let’s celebrate
John Wesley spoke of the “duty of constant communion.” With due respect to Methodism’s co-founder, he got this title wrong. Communion, Mr Wesley, is no duty, no burden. Rather, it is a joy, a celebration of the good things of God given to us in Christ. Yet Eucharist – though vital – is only one element of worship; there are others deserving of our study. It is to these that we turn in the next chapter.
One of the most pressing question for humans in the depth of their existence is this one: How can humans go silent or compliant or, unfathomably, become even more committed to the leader and the cause and the ideology when their leader becomes a tyrant? On an airplane I was once next to an older German professor and so I asked the question, “You were there under Hitler. How did it happen?” I knew him well enough for him to tell me: “Ideology. I have no other word. Ideology.”
Some of you may wonder why I have such an interest in Germany of the World War II era and it is quite simple: our public education system had some exceptional German teachers. I began German in the 7th grade and by the time we were in high school we were reading soul-searching books. My high school German teacher, Herr Kurr, is the finest teacher I ever had. His assignments were not light: as high school juniors, but especially as seniors, he soaked us in post WWII existentialist writers who wrote in German — Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Hermann Hesse, Gerhard Hauptmann, Friedrich Dürrenmatt — but perhaps most importantly, he led us into the heart of the questions of that day as Germans themselves struggled with the question “How did it happen?”
The more I have learned about the rise of Hitler in Germany in the 1930s and into the war years and the horrors of the Holocaust, the more I have asked the same question: How did that happen? How could an entire nation fall in line? How could the church almost entirely capitulate?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous essay “After Ten Years” is an essay written to his co-conspirators and in the middle of it is a section called (in the English translation) “On Stupidity” (in German Dummheit). I’m not fond of the word “stupidity” even if it is rather clear that the word Dummheit and the word “stupidity” are about the same. But to Bonhoeffer we go because for him the word Dummheit connotes moral blindness and moral stupor and moral quiescense.
The essay “After Ten Years” is found in Letters and Papers from Prison (DBW 8:37-52) though it was written as a Christmas piece in 1942 prior to Bonhoeffer’s April arrest. There were no paragraph titles though the editors have provided them and the title of our paragraph is the fifth section (following hard on “Civil Courage” and “Success”). Now to a probing of how it all happened, and a way for thinking in our age for any leader who, though he or she has forfeited a right of being following, continues to compel a powerful following.
First, moral blindness is more dangerous than malice. Reason is not an option.
Second, moral blindness cannot be reduced to “an intellectual defect but to a human [character] one” (43). It is not so much “psychological” as it is a “sociological problem” (43). This is why I don’t think the word “stupid” is a good enough translation. People, he says, are made morally blind in consort with others — this rarely happens to the person living in solitude.
This is where Bonhoeffer gets to the core of his insight in seeking to comprehend the German problem: Third, “every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with” moral blindness (43). That is, as power increases moral blindness increases. Without it the power could not increase; without it the moral blindness would not increase. Instead of acting, the morally blind person is filled with stupor and quiescence.
Fourth, humans cease to think critically and rationally: “under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances” (44). In dealing with such persons, we are dealing with “slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him” (44).
Fifth, it follows that the morally blind person (what Bonhoeffer calls “stupidity” or the “stupid person”) becomes “a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil” (44). Stupor overcomes them.
Finally, only an act of liberation (not instruction) can free the person from moral blindness. He means both external and internal liberation, and he contends sometimes the former must happen before the second is possible. “The word of the Bible that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom declares that the internal liberation of human beings to live the responsible life before God is the only genuine way to overcome” this kind of moral blindness (44).
I would add one point: following the kind of liberation that comes, far too many refuse the responsibility for what they acquiesced to and find, instead, an alternative story to make sense of their moral blindness. The story enables them to carry on the stupor.
The issue points to the leaders: Do they want “stupidity” in their audience or “inner independence”? He fears the danger of becoming contemptible of other humans in the next section (called “Contempt for Humanity?”). What is the solution? “The only fruitful relation to human beings — particularly to the weak among them — is love, that is, the will to enter into and to keep community with them” (45).
After visiting Jerusalem and many of the biblical locations within this beautiful country, I left with a very despondent view after visiting Bethlehem. I am from a tribe that’s HQ and much influence is from the USA despite it being a tribe from a deeply Wesleyan beginning, and since that visit attitudes and silence about the whole subject of Israel and Palestine is noted by be far more.
Below is Peter Enns flagging up an article about biblical attitudes to this whole thing. It is worth reading in it’s entirety at this
It is for this reason that Paul would have scratched his head over the current Evangelical fascination with the modern secular state of Israel and its supposedly Bible-mandated right to do what it pleases with Palestine and its inhabitants. This way of reading the Bible misses the whole point of the story; it robs the biblical narrative of its climax.
Stephen Taylor, associate professor of New Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary, has written a very thoughtful piece on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that models what I feel is a truly “biblical” approach–not one that rests on proof texting or resurrecting ancient tribal conflicts, but that places the gospel at the center of transcending and redefining our expectations of what God is doing in the world. [To read the rest of this article–and you really should–click here.]
We see consumerism everywhere, yes, especially in church! We see business models promoted as magical tablets to cure ailing Sunday attendance, and we also know that many think of local church instead of kingdom thinking….
I am currently reading Michael Frost’s ‘The road to missional, journey to the centre of the church’, and here is something that churches still don’t get:
Church attendance is not the primary goal of Christian mission. As David Bosch says, ‘At it’s heart, the gospel is news about God’s action and reign, not his institution.’ As we’ve noted, mission is alerting people to God’s reign and should not be limited or reduced to simply alerting people to the address of our church building and the times of our services………. My concern is that we should allow church membership to be the outcome of Christian mission, not it’s goal. If we make the alerting of people to God’s rule the primary task, the church membership will be a secondary outcome. We need to learn to stop putting the cart before the horse. Whenever we assume church attendance is the chief end of mission, we will find ourselves reducing evangelism as recruitment and mission to salesmanship with all it’s attendant abuses.
On today’s date 25 years ago, six well-known Jesuit priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, were brutally murdered at the hands of the Salvadorian Army. The priests had been teaching at Central American University and were known for their advocacy of Liberation Theology. This event came at the height of the Salvadorian Civil War and helped bring the ugliness of this conflict to the attention of the world. It may have also contributed to the spread of liberation theology that is still noticeable today.
Jon Sobrino was a housemate of theirs who escaped their fate because he was not there that night. Jon’s copy of The Crucified God was knocked off a bookshelf as bodies were dragged into his room, and it became soaked in the blood of the slain. Hearing about this had a deep impact on Moltmann, who commented that “these martyrs are the seed of the resurrection of a new world.”
Bonhoeffer, in his book ETHICS talks about the worship of success. He writes,
In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. It is not ideas or opinions which decide, but deeds. Success alone justifies wrongs done… With a frankness and off-handedness which no other earthly power could permit itself, history appeals in its own cause to the dictum that the end justifies the means. The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.