Monday, April 24, 2017

Some Thoughts on the Eucharist

Thinking out loud for a bit on the matter of observing the Eucharist (communion, Lord’s Supper) weekly instead of monthly. I grew up in the monthly tradition. I know of some who partake of it quarterly. I never really questioned the pattern; it was what I was used to and that was that. Mainstream free church Protestant.

But these past few years I’ve been embracing a more liturgical tradition. Some of you know I’ve been on a spiritual journey (we all are, really) and as a Baptist pastor who preaches Sunday mornings I began, awhile back, attending an Anglican-style worship service Sunday evenings.

At Church of the Resurrection we celebrate communion every time we meet. That’s because the structure of the worship service has two focal points – the service (liturgy) of the Word and the service (liturgy) of the Eucharist. I’ve grown to appreciate this pattern and understand why – biblically, theologically, spiritually, historically – it’s, well, the way to do things.

And so I introduced weekly communion at our church this past Advent season as well as during this (recently completed) season of Lent. As an experiment. I explained the purpose. Got a consensus. Took the leap. It was well received, I think.

Most everyone appreciated the emphasis on the Lord’s Supper during these special seasons. I was hoping we’d continue this new tradition the rest of the year. I took an informal poll, however, and while a solid group of folks wouldn’t mind celebrating the Eucharist weekly, a good number – with absolutely no complaining or grumbling (we have a magnificent spirit of peace and unity at our church) – stated they simply preferred monthly observance.

So we ended weekly communion on Easter Sunday. And this past Sunday felt quite odd for me when we concluded the service without a trip to the Lord’s table. The new pattern had become very meaningful to me.

Now the main reason I think a lot of us who fall into the monthly tradition category are hesitant about going weekly is this: we say we want communion to be meaningful and a too-oft repeated observance may somehow make it less so. I can understand this concern to a degree.

The challenge I have with this view is that it could be said for almost any aspect of worship. “We shouldn’t sing each week, songs becomes less meaningful.” “We shouldn’t read the scripture each week, it will get old.” “We shouldn’t receive a weekly offering, that diminishes its impact.” See what I mean? And yet this idea is front and center with regard to communion.

So I got to thinking, what perspective of the Lord’s Supper prompts this position? You see, I’m pretty sure how we view the Eucharist influences how often we want to observe it. So my question is: how are the “monthlies” viewing communion? Not sure about everyone else, but I can certainly ask myself: When I was a monthly observer, how did I view this sacrament?

My answer for me: I didn’t view it as a sacrament.

That’s the key issue, I think. For most of us “monthlies” (I’m including myself because I still struggle with this perspective), we want to make sure we do communion “right” so we “get ourselves ready” and “examine ourselves” to make sure we aren’t partaking in an “unworthy manner.”

(Sidebar: See 1 Corinthians 11.27-28; but for a fuller context be sure to read verse 29 in light of verses 17-22 which reference the body of Christ, the church. This warning is about division, not whether we are worthy or not to receive communion…because we aren’t, that’s the miracle of this event!)

Did you hear the implication of this view? “Get ourselves ready.” “Prepare for communion.” Do you see the inherent self-effort in this approach? The Lord’s Supper has (for some, not all) subtly become primarily about us. It’s what we do to pretty ourselves up; it’s about our attitude and approach to God. This then changes how we handle communion. We think we need to safeguard the ceremony because if we don’t, it will no longer be special.

But if this event is viewed as a sacrament (an expression and means of God’s grace – a free gift of love), then the Eucharist is really about what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives. It’s primarily a celebration of Christ’s victory over death (and thus our victory in Christ), not a solemn remembrance of his suffering. In fact, eucharisteo means to give thanks and is based on the words of Jesus himself. (See Luke 22.19; Matthew 26.26; 1 Corinthians 11.24, even Matthew 15.36.)

In other words, the bread and cup are God’s gifts to us, not our gifts to God. The bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Christ and are therefore our spiritual nourishment given by God so that we might truly partake of Jesus. In the Eucharist we are welcome guests at God’s feast that gives life to those who participate in faith.

If that’s the case, why wouldn’t we want to eat and drink of Christ every chance we get? We feed on God’s Word (the scripture) each week (daily, one would hope), why not feed on God’s Word-made-flesh (represented by the bread and wine) each week (or even daily, for that matter)?

Or, completely different metaphor, imagine my wife’s response if I told her I was thinking we should only go on date nights once every quarter or so. After all, I don’t want to cheapen the experience by going out each week…


Well, those are some thoughts. I hope I haven’t offended anyone. I’m not implying the “monthlies” are self-centered. I simply think if we view communion as a sacrament it can help ease the burden of having to “make it special.” After all, if the bread and wine are truly gifts from God, then every time we receive them something special happens. Now for me, that’s a refreshing perspective.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Proclaiming the Year of God's Favor

Citizens of a New Kind of Country
A reflection on the life and politics of Jesus by Lyndon Perry

I’d like to tell you about a man who was born in Palestine a number of years ago. He was seen by more than a few as a revolutionary figure. A Yassar Arafat, if you will; a polarizing figure who spoke of a new government for Israel. This really disturbed the higher-ups, of course, but excited many of the common people who had been living like refugees in their own country – occupied territory! – for many years.

It’s strange, the story of this man. Predictions about him becoming a kind of prime minister, king even, of Israel began when he was born. His mother Mary, for instance, believed God was going to throw princes from their thrones so that her son could reign. His uncle, Zechariah, called him a political savior - like King David of old. When he was born he was even named Yeshua, or Joshua, which means “God will save.” (Of course, we know him by way of his Greek name, Iesous, or Jesus.) It was prophecy fulfilled: this Yeshua was destined to save his people from their oppressors. At least, that is what so many people believed.

You see, foreign armies had occupied the Eastern Mediterranean Seaboard for nearly 400 years. The enemy’s presence was a constant reminder of their once free nation. And the people were bitter, some were divided. All anticipated a day when things would be better.

Yeshua grew up with much the same anticipation, but he was not bitter or alone. There was his cousin, John. They were likely good friends. They must have played together, talked with one another, dreamed of the future – a future where God would rule through one person chosen especially for the task. A messiah. They yearned for this future and had a feeling that they were going to be a part of it somehow.

 As John and Yeshua grew they saw the political climate of Israel change. Revolutionary groups sprung up, died away, and sprung up again. Would-be saviors were killed and their cause humiliated. Yet one loosely organized underground resistance force gained strength and numbers. They were known as the Zealots. Their purpose was to overthrow their oppressors and reestablish a government by the people, for the people - the chosen people!

Neither John nor Yeshua joined the Zealots but each knew the day was coming when they would have to act, when God would call upon them to fulfill their destinies as agents in the new government. So they continued to talk and dream and prepare. For they would have to be ready; one day they would have to act.

One day John did.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Key Ingredient for Friendship

Reciprocity.

I think that may be the one key, necessary ingredient for any long term relationship. There has to be reciprocity for a friendship to work. The reason I'm thinking about this is because I just finished a book by William Shatner called "Leonard." It's as much a memoir from Shatner's perspective as it is a remembrance of his friend of 50 years, Leonard Nimoy,

The book was good. The somewhat rambling story telling style fit the tone of the bio and it revealed quite a bit about Nimoy's career and his many and diverse avocations. Shatner also pulled back the curtain on the golden age of television and explained how they, when both of them were starting out, scrambled from job to job simply trying to make ends meet. Nimoy struggled for 17 years in Hollywood (never working in a project for more than two weeks!) before landing his first recurring role as Spock. He then spent the rest of his career alternately running from and embracing that identity.

What I found most interesting, though, was their relational history. Most of us know of the - at times - turbulent friendship between these two icons. But their deep, deep love for each other isn't as well attested, I don't think. And then, near the end of the narrative, I was struck and saddened by an apparent crumbling of their friendship which occurred about two years before Nimoy's death. The breakdown happened, seemingly without cause and, much to Shatner's disappointment and regret, never found resolution.

Shatner writes (page 268/269): "Essentially, he stopped speaking to me....It was very painful to me. As I'd never had a friend like Leonard before, I'd obviously never been in a situation like this, and I had no idea what to do about it. If I knew the reason Leonard stopped talking to me, not only would I admit it, I would have taken steps to heal those wounds. If I had done something wrong, if I had said something that was perhaps misunderstood, I would want to know it so I might make amends. But none of that took place. I have no idea what happened....I was mystified. It was baffling to me. I kept asking people, 'What happened?' But no one could give me an answer. It remains a mystery to me, and it is heartbreaking, heartbreaking. It is something I will wonder about, and regret, forever."

This is a poignant reminder that life is often like that. And it's sad. Without reciprocity, friendships fail.

True confession: I've had friendships crumble and can't for the life of me figure out why. I've reached out, I've tried making amends, but for whatever reason some people in my life who were once good friends have left me behind. That's what it feels like. And it hurts. Now I would gladly renew those relationships - as I think most of us would - but something is preventing it. A misunderstanding, a perceived slight, a misspoken word. Would that these relational potholes could be patched. But like Shatner, after doing my part to heal the brokenness and not finding any reciprocity, I'm left wondering what went wrong. And I'm left with feelings of regret.

If you're one of those friends who feels something is wrong between us, would you reach back out to me? I didn't want the relationship to crumble. I just don't know what to do about it anymore. Now if we're kosher, then I still want to hear from you. Let's do lunch. But give me a call - even if it's my turn at this reciprocity thing - and you can tell me it's my turn! Because maybe I didn't know.

Having said that, I do wish you the happiest of New Years.
Here's to reciprocity.
Here's to friendship.
Here's to 2017.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

Some Reflections on the Feast of Christmas
by Lyn Perry for Faith Renewal Church


The Annunciation by Paolo de Matteis, 1712
After mentioning a sermon series I was preparing on why we should observe the liturgical calendar, explaining allseven seasons of the Christian year and teaching about their important rolein shaping a maturing Christian, a pastor friend asked me what scriptural basis I had for such a series. His assumption was that observing certain seasons of the year, like Epiphany or Lent, or recognizing specific feast days, like the Annunciation or Transfiguration, were ‘extra biblical’; and since they were not specifically taught in scripture we shouldn’t observe them.

Yet this pastor and the church he served celebrated Advent and Christmas and Easter. To me, this seemed like cherry picking. Because if you think about it, celebrating Christmas isn’t explicitly taught in scripture. And yet it culminates the year for many a church. This is an inconsistent and reductionist approach to say the least. It’s also a tacit nod to secularism. I fear many contemporary evangelical churches (those in the ‘free church’ tradition) take their cues from the world when it comes to holiday expressions. The fact that the annual Christmas pageant is often seen as an end-of-year (!) tradition is case in point. (Advent actually begins the Christian year.)

Recently, however, I was reminded that some Christians don’t observe even Christmas. And for much the same reason my pastor friend looked askance at Lent or Ascension Thursday or the various Saints days (and for the reason I stated above) – it isn’t sanctioned by scripture. I’ve already reflected (here and here and here) on why observing the liturgical year is important for our spiritual health, but a quick one-liner that breaks the power of that argument, for me at least, is the fact that Jesus observed Hanukkah (John 10.22-23), an extra-biblical festival. If Christ, our Lord, participated in a non-biblical festival, surely we have permission to do so as well. Don’t we use the essence of that argument to affirm attending wedding celebrations since, according to John 2, Jesus graced the wedding in Cana with his presence, not to mention turning the water into wine when the wine had run out? Plus, if we only entered into what the scripture expressly authorized we’d be sorely limited in our faith and practice.

A second reason for some to forsake Christmas (and, by association, all the other Christian seasons) comes into play, however. It bolsters the first reason, I think, in the mind of the non-observant believer. And that is the (false) assumption that Christmas – at least the celebration of the feast day on December 25 – began as a pagan holiday. [I say false assumption based on what I’ll summarize below as to the real, albeit theological and pietistic, reason for the December 25 dating of the holiday (owing the details of my summary to Andrew McGowan’s article at Biblical Archeology Review).]  I think we all know of churches that disparage Halloween, assuming wrongly that it’s a pagan holiday. But there are a number of believers who think Christmas and Easter were originally pagan holidays as well. Therefore, in an effort to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (an unfortunate mistranslation of 1 Thessalonians 5.22 by the King James Version), we’re best off, it’s argued, if we stay away from such festivities altogether.

I want to argue that we’re actually best off if we recover the original intent of the early Church, which saw December 25, not as a pagan celebration coopted and transformed for Christian purposes (though that isn’t a bad strategy, per se, for us moderns to utilize if occasion warrants), but as a devotional and worshipful remembrance of the sovereign grace and reign of their Lord.

Here’s what I mean.

Without going into the calculations and change of calendars during the first several centuries of the common era, the consensus of the early Church was that Jesus died on March 25. Based on the assumption that transformative events occurred on the same day, an early tradition puts the conception of Jesus on March 25 as well. This is a devotional explanation, a way to reflect on the salvific connection between the Annunciation of Christ and his death. As Augustine of Hippo wrote in a sermon, On the Trinity (about the year 400): “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived…corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried….”

Augustine then tells us that Jesus was born, “according to tradition, upon December the 25th.” It’s easy to see why that date was chosen. It comes nine months after his conception. So the argument that Christmas Day was originally a pagan holiday which we ‘took over’ doesn’t really help us understand the thought process of the early Church. Now we may not agree that this thought process leads us to the actual date – in fact, Jesus probably was born in the late spring, in warmer weather when shepherds could in fact be back out in their fields to watch over their flocks at night. But this is beside the point, isn’t it? The day is not as important as the event. And that event was so transformative for the early followers of Jesus that they drew the natural conclusion we can still make today: the birth of the Messiah and the death, burial, and resurrection of the Messiah are truly one salvific moment in history. We can’t have one without the other.

And so we should celebrate Christmas. It’s a day for worship, acknowledging the sovereign grace (God's gift of His Son) and reign (Christ's victory over death) of our Lord Jesus Christ, thereby making it a truly Christian thing to do.

(Acknowledgement: Here's the source for the dating of Christmas and quote from Augustine.)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

I don't often write political posts, but when I do...

...I actually don’t. Or try not to.

You might know me well enough by now to know that I don’t typically blog or post about politics - nor do I preach from the pulpit sermons about health care or economics or gun control or any number of social issues that many Christians in our culture are passionate about.

Even when it comes to concerns such as the sanctity of life and marriage, I don’t go out of my way to create controversy, but I won’t shy away from them either. (Now, I have blogged about these things in the past, but have truly gotten away from it lately, preferring instead corny jokes, puns, and one-liners. It’s much safer ground to stand on! ;)

As a pastor, though, my preference is to address cultural issues from a biblical perspective when the biblical text calls for it. In other words, I typically like to preach through a passage and let the text speak for itself rather than go looking for particular texts to support a controversial topic-du-jour or hot-button issue of the day.

So a big reason for not bringing up political or social issues on a regular basis isn’t because I’m afraid to. Nor is it because I adhere to a particular interpretation of the concept of separation of church and state (that says pastors shouldn’t be political from the pulpit). And it’s not because I don’t think scripture has anything to say about these host of issues – quite the opposite, I think there are biblical principles to apply in every situation we find ourselves in.

The main reason I don’t preach politics is because that’s not the reason (or shouldn’t be the reason) people gather on Sundays. Instead, we’ve gathered together to sit at the feet of Jesus and be transformed by the Gospel, re-invented by his teaching of the Kingdom of God. We are called to be his students, and for whatever reason – by God’s grace and mercy, obviously – the church I serve has called me as their pastor to be a “lead student” in helping all of us be discipled by our Lord Jesus.

The truth is - news flash - I am not an expert on socio/economic/political theory. I am not a dedicated student of the democratic process. I’m knowledgeable, sure, but that’s not my bailiwick. There are much smarter voices out there that people can turn to to find information on what the candidates stand for, the implications of their platform, etc., etc.

You don’t gather for worship week after week to hear another opinion about those sorts of things. Truthfully, if that’s what I offered, I would just be adding to the noise and my thoughts on politics probably wouldn’t add anything very helpful anyway.

What we really want, I believe – why we really gather week after week – is to hear God’s Word proclaimed. And although I wouldn’t call myself an expert here either, I do admit to being a dedicated student (flawed though I am) of Jesus. And in fact, I desire to become a better and better student of the Jesus Way – the way of the Kingdom, the way of life as a follower of Christ.

Now, admit I’m not very good at it. I stumble and fall and flail around. We all do. But I think and pray that my desire – our desire as a church, your desire if you're reading this – is genuine. We want to be what we know is the true definition of church – ekklesia. We want to be a ‘new community of transformed believers who represent Jesus.’

A new community of transformed believers who represent Jesus. 

This is what it means to be the church. This is why we gather each week. This is why I preach (and sometimes post about spiritual things). I don’t want to be known as a political preacher, but as a preacher who pursues the way of Jesus, a member of his Kingdom community. Pray for me in that regard, I’d appreciate it.