Sunday, May 23, 2010
As I reflected on the awesome privilege of gathering with the brothers and sisters at PaLO VErde around the family table today some things came to my mind. What rich, what incredible grace we experience through communion. Let me share a few things I have thought about today. This is not a complete theology (many dimensions not touched on) of the Supper but just some things that came to mind after Mike led our thoughts today. So here are a few of my "grace through communion" thoughts ... after the fact.
Is it not strange, even bizarre, at first glance, that Christianity which promises us life, should present for our contemplation the emblems of death and sorrow? The primary reason for our gathering on the Lord's Day is to celebrate and remember the tragic scene of Christ Crucified. In the first Christian century, and especially in our own of the 21st, it is stranger still that death should become a subject of commemoration.
Death! The very consummation of human fears! That death should become a source of voluntary reflection, even a source of happiness and hope; is this not a "contradiction" in terms?? Stranger still, we have met together today to celebrate the death, not of an enemy, but of the very best friend we could ever have. Two of the most significant events that any Christian will ever participate, her baptism and taking the Lord's Supper, are both reenactments, rituals if you will, of the Passion of our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. In baptism we die with Christ to start our Christian journey and we take the Supper to renew our gracious covenant with him every resurrection day. Both proclaim our transformation by his sacrifice and blood that was shed on the Cross of Golgotha. Both proclaim the fathomless depth of God's grace.
ROOTS OF THE SUPPER
I have titled this blog, "Grace THROUGH Communion," because every time we gather together and celebrate the Eucharist we are renewed in spirit by his wonderful loving Spirit and grace. To understand more of what I speak we must back up and talk about the justification of sinners by our Holy Father. We will do this by exploring a few key concepts in Romans 3. We will briefly at the SOURCE of our justification; the GROUND of our justification; the MEANS of our justification; and the EFFECTS of our justification.
The Source of our justification is stated by the apostle Paul in no uncertain terms: we are justified by grace! "[We] are justified freely by his grace . . ." (Rom. 3.24). According to Paul we are justified wholly and totally by God through his unmerited favor. There can be no debate here. God alone gets the glory for our salvation (justification). Paul declares that no one is righteous, not even good church folks (3.21). This knocks the props out from under any efforts at self-justification. It is a sheer impossibility (3.10). Only God can justify us according to Paul in Romans 8.33; and he does it "freely" (= dorean, "free gift," or "gratis"), not because of any works of our own, but because of his decision to be gracious.
We have looked at the Source of our justification but what of the Ground of our justification. How can God be just while justifying the sinner? The answer that Paul gives to these questions is we are justified BY Christ's blood. "Since we have now been justified by his blood . . ." (Rom. 5.9) Justification is not a synonym for amnesty. No, justification is an act of justice, of gracious justice. There was and is still a penalty to be paid for our sin. Jesus paid that penalty and continues to pay that penalty with his meritorious blood -- not any human deed on our part. There could not be any justification without the atoning death of Jesus the Christ.
The Means of our justification is through faith (Rom. 3.28; Gal 2.16; Phil 3.9). Grace and faith are linked together and cannot be separated. Faith's sole purpose is to receive what grace freely provides. We are not, therefore, justified "because" of our faith in the sense that faith has merit. We are justified "because of" God's grace and "because of" Christ's blood, that is where the ONLY merit is. Faith is, however, the Means of our justification. Our faith has its focus in the Crucified One who died in our place, only then is it of value. Here the words of Paul, "God presented him [Jesus Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood" (Rom. 3.25).
Now we can ask what are the Effects of our justification? The effects of justification is to bring us into a community of believers called the church of Jesus Christ. Justification puts us in a fellowship of "Cross-bearers" who devote themselves to do good works and the pursuit of holiness and the character of God (Eph. 2.10). This community helps each other, bears one anothers' burdens, gives each other hope.
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH THE SUPPER?
You may be asking yourselves, "This is all good but what does this have to do with the Lord's Supper, Communion, or Eucharist?" It has everything to do with the Supper. Just as baptism is where justification by faith is actualized for us (Rom. 6; Tit. 3.3-8); it is in communion that all the benefits of Christ's death are renewed in me. In baptism I am crucified with Christ, I am buried with him in water, I am raised with him to a new life -- all through faith in God's power to raise him from the dead. Paul declares these truths in Colossians 2, "having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead" (v.12). In other words I "participate", or share in the gospel story through baptism. Now Paul says that is exactly what happens in communion as well. Listen carefully:
"I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup Thanksgiving [where we get "eucharist" from] 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 Cor. 10. 14-17)
In celebrating the death of our friend, Jesus, we become an actor in the divine drama of the Gospel in both baptism and communion. To become a Christian I must participate in the drama of baptism, and to constantly grow, to be healthy, and renew my "vows" (covenant) with him I "participate" in the Gospel story again. We do this each time we have communion -- fellowship with his blood, fellowship with his body. It points me back -- as the Passover did -- to where I came from and how I got here, that this is about God's work and not mine. Nothing could be more central than the Lord's Supper.
BENEFITS OF "PARTICIPATING" IN THE DRAMA OF THE SUPPER
In communion, in the Supper, in the "Thanksgiving" (Eucharist), I am reminded that I am truly accepted by God through his Son. One of Satan's most effective tools with Christians is to get them to doubt their salvation. But in the Supper we have a visible reminder that "Yes! I am in right standing with because of the atoning death of his Son." The Italian reformer, Don Benedetto, said "God did not give us a certificate but a sacrament that gives our soul the assurance of eternal salvation" (Juan de Valdes & Don Benedetto, The Benefit of Christ, pp. 145-146). This is one reason we celebrate the Lord's Supper each Lord's Day. Because the Enemy throws anxiety in our path. During the week we may be assaulted by his fiery darts, we begin to fear! In Communion with the Lord, and with our brothers and sisters, we are affirmed in our faith. We again hear by faith the Gospel story. We again are reminded of the power of God. We confess with Benedetto,
"I have deserved a thousand hells and eternal deaths because of the great sins I have committed. But when I reflect on this heavenly sacrament which I now receive, I am assured of the forgiveness of all my past misdoings and of my atonement with God" (The Benefit of Christ, pp. 146-147).
In the Lord's Supper the mysteries of Christianity are very deep indeed! Communion is a means of grace also because it is "spiritual food." Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."(John 6.53). Now we do not literally drink and eat Christ's flesh and blood. However we do "participate" in that body and blood in some mysterious way. Mysterious in the sense that I believe what the text says but I do not fully grasp. The same mystery surrounds baptism -- we do not literally get washed in the blood but somehow we "participate" in it. Now our point is more simple. If we are to thrive spiritually we need spiritual food. It is only by taking of that bread which came down from heaven, and which was given for the life of the world, that we can live eternally. How precious then, is the life this spiritual food imparts.
Look at the ironies we find in communion, the Lord's Supper. It is participating in death that we get what we need most, LIFE! Jesus in giving his life for us, gave us a life to live for God. Indeed, God's ways are not man's ways.
Let's notice one more thing about the cup. F. W. Krummacher in his devotional classic, The Suffering Saviour notes that the Lord did not select water but the fruit of the vine for the symbol of his shed blood. Christ is,
"the real vine, and we possess divine life only in so far as we, like the branches, grow through Him, and are pervaded by His influence. Besides, the cup reminds us of the wine press of torture and agony, in which the Son of God was to become our Saviour and Mediator, while the bread represents His body, offered for the deliverance and blessedness of His believing people" (p. 53).
Everything about the Supper reminds us that our God loves to give to his people and he loves to be with his people. What amazing grace we find with him.
Every time I take the Supper -- if I listen and discern -- I hear the message that says:
"'I LOVE THEE MORE ARDENTLY THAN THOU HAST LOVED THY SIN.' I know how I have loved my sin. I know how I have clung to it. I know how I have yearned after it. I know what illicit pleasure I have found in it. I know I have pursued it at any cost. And now, in the school of Calvary, My Master takes up this, my so strenuous and overwhelming passion for sin, and contrasts it disparagingly with his passion for me: `I HAVE LOVED THEE MORE THAN THOU HAS LOVED THY SIN.'" (quoted in
Jim McGuiggan's awesome book, The God of the Towel, p. 26).
When I participate in, share in, the gospel drama of the communion, it is THAT message that confronts us. It is haunting but it is compelling. It is gut wrenching but it is so life changing. It is for this that we gather together each Lord's Day and here the voice of the savior assures us of his infinite love when we have fellowship with him at his Table. In the breaking of the bread he is made known to us. In the Supper he renews his covenant with me and showers rich blessings of mercy upon us. He reminds us that I am saved and he
loves us more than we love our sin.
Grace through communion, that is what we find as we gather together on Sundays in the name of Christ. He took us sinners and allowed us to participate in baptism with him and he allows us to continue to have fellowship with him at the Table each week. If that is not grace, I fail to comprehend what it is. Thank him for all he has done for you. Thank him for all the sisters and brothers we have through him. Thank him for the unity we celebrate in the Supper of the Lamb for sinners slain.
Ut omnes unum sint (John 17.21, Vulgate, 'that they may all be one')