Sunday night I found myself, for the first time in a long time, a visitor in church.
No…I’m not church hopping. Rather, I was merely visiting a friend who was playing drums for the evening Christmas service. As I entered the lobby of the auditorium in which the service was held, I was promptly greeted by this sign ——————>
My immediate, somewhat cynical thought, for which I quickly repented was, “I’d much prefer this sign to say:
AN ANCIENT KIND OF CHURCH.“
(Any church planters out there who want to capitalize on this great idea of mine…no need to cite me. Just consider it my gift to you!)
Little did I know, communion would, in fact, be available that evening. Not only was communion the highlight of my night, but I believe my thought about communion is a telling glimpse into the spiritual journey that I have been on for the past year and a half.
In a recent post at First Things Russell Moore writes, “On the individual level, our past—what we’re leaving behind—often defines what we mean by following Christ.” He continues, “One who was converted despite an exuberant but theologically vacuous church will seek out the ancient roots’ and ‘structure’ of a more liturgically ordered church.”
While my Christian upbringing was far from vacuous this, indeed, describes the path that I have been on.
What does that mean for me?
It means that instead of scouring iTunes, looking for the latest contemporary worship songs to learn, my soul has been enriched by committing to memory the ancient credal affirmations.
It means that instead of flocking to the bookstore to purchase the latest New York Times Best Seller written by (insert celebrity pastor), my soul has been enriched by plumbing the depths of The Book of Common Prayer.
It means that amidst the landscape of contemporary American Christianity in which churches seem to be competing with each other over who can do the “new thing” each week, my heart is drawn to the churches that remain steadfast in their commitment to doing the “same thing” every week. This, I believe, is the only rhythm that can sustain you when times get hard and dull.
Furthermore, we don’t get to make Christianity up! It is received.
Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in communion — The Eucharist.
What is The Eucharist, you ask?
I’m not exactly sure. But I think that is why I am so drawn to it. In an age of paper-thin evangelicalism that has become so marked by axioms and slogans that could easily be printed on coffee mugs, I find myself increasingly drawn to the beauty and mystery of Christianity. Every time I approach the Lord’s Table, I find, in The Eucharist, beauty and mystery.
Augustine wrote of The Eucharist as a sacramental symbol. He described The Eucharist as an outward visible sign of an inward invisible grace.
The Eastern Orthodox Church, at least as I understand it, speaks of The Eucharist as “mystery” rather than “sacrament.” Thomas Cranmer, among others, held the view that in the Eucharist was, mysteriously, the real presence of Christ.
The Swiss reformer, Huldrych Zwingli, dismissed any notion of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine. For him, Christ was present with the worshippers who have gathered. The focus, then, moved from “this is my body, this is my blood” to “do this in remembrance of me.” The Lord’s Table became a place of reflection and thanksgiving, making The Eucharist a memorial meal.
I think there are important things to be gleaned from each perspective. Augustine is right to remind us that the sacrament of communion tells us something is happening, here, involving our faith and God’s grace.
While The Eucharist is, in some sense, a memorial meal, I believe that it cannot be ONLY a memorial meal. That is, The Lord’s Table is not just about looking back, but it is the place where the past and future come to meet us in the present. Put differently, The Eucharist, is not just about looking back at Christ’s crucifixion, but about looking forward to the cruciform kingdom that is breaking into our present reality.
Yet over the past year and a half I have discovered, within myself, an increased appreciation for The Eucharist as mystery — an appreciation for what is inexplicable at the heart of The Eucharist.
For me, these inexplicable things are:
1. The presence of Christ in the elements.
2. The collapse of time that allows the death and resurrection of Jesus to be a reality for us now.
3. Our transformation along with the transformation of the bread and wine.
But arching over all of these mysteries is the central mystery of God’s love for us. Why does the infinite God love us so much when we hurt God so deeply? Each time I receive communion and I hear these words spoken over me — This is the body of Christ broken for you, Patrick. Take and Eat. This is the blood of Jesus, spilled for you, Patrick. Take and Drink. — I always feel as though I am being led deeper into the mysteries of love and having been led into these mysteries, I can only wonder.
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “This is much ado about nothing.” But I’d like to suggest that this very thought is the result of America’s roots in the “free church” tradition that has led to a diminishing of The Eucharist’s significance. In much of the evangelical church, The Eucharist has moved from being the center of Christian worship to the peripheral and now it is, in many congregations, interchangeable or just one way to experience God’s presence.
Most people, now, experience God in song, with the aid of a skilled band. Others experience God through a sermon, with the aid of a charismatic preacher. Many of these gifted and anointed leaders sit in planning meetings, stressing over what “new” thing we can do in our services of worship in order to reach “new” people for Christ. I find myself often wondering if the answer moving forward is actually found in reaching back to the rich and ancient traditions of church history. I wonder if the answer is found in re-establishing The Eucharist as the central act of worship. After all, The Word did not become song. The Word did not become sermon. The Word became flesh. Furthermore, The Word that became flesh tells us that, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. That is to say, the Christian faith is not foremost about singing spiritual songs or gaining spiritual knowledge, but rather, it is about connecting our lives to the life of Christ. And the sacrament of Communion offers us a direct experience with Christ!
In a culture that is rapidly changing, I wonder if the most unique and significant thing we can offer to that culture is an experience that doesn’t change. I wonder if the most unique and significant thing we can offer the world is an opportunity to receive the body and blood that was broken and spilled out for us and to hear:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
This is the mystery of faith.
And its beautiful.