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For a Sacramental Non-Conformism

I love Communion. I think we undervalue it – possibly because we often seem to place more emphasis on what it isn’t than on what it is. We try to delineate our definitions more smoothly than (I think) Scripture does itself, lest we trample on a piece of Sacramentology for which our forbears of the English Reformation gave their lives, by appearing too ‘Catholic’. Now please don’t get me wrong: I’m saying this as a conservative evangelical Protestant. A New Calvinist, no less. But I’m not scared of how I might ‘look’ if I speak of my convictions. We Protestants and Catholics share the heritage of the Early Church, if we would claim to be one catholic (universal) body of Christ, and the zeal of the Early Church for the Lord’s Supper is not to be sniffed at. I understand where the theological boundary lines lie. I can’t claim that I have the whole truth as I proceed, but I’m not going to hold back purely for the sake of tribalism.

My thought at Communion this evening was this: what a great sense of assurance that we have, when we are mandated to appropriate the body broken for us and the blood of the covenant poured out for the forgiveness of the sins of many, by taking them into ourselves as bread and wine. There’s little room to doubt whether Christ’s death on the cross can really bring salvation when we stand before the Communion table – Jesus made the promise at the Last Supper and embodied it in a sign, and taught us not only to love that sign as we love the sign of the rainbow, but to take it into ourselves bodily and digest it. There really are few bolder ways to appropriate something as your own, than to incorporate it into a consumable of some sort and to eat it. If ever you needed assurance that Christ’s blood was meant for you, struggling believer, then the Communion table should remove all doubt. There, you don’t just see your covenant membership articulated: you pass it through your lips and taste it and swallow it.

Moreover, when we consume that sign, we’re acknowledging that Jesus’ body broken for us, and his forgiveness-conferring blood, are our spiritual staple food and drink. We keep on consuming Christ’s body and blood, at his Table and in Spirit and in the Word, and we do it to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. Until he comes again, Christ’s body and blood, broken and poured out, will never cease to be our sustenance in this life no matter how advanced we are in our spiritual walk, as we were commanded to drink of the cup until Christ comes again. He pointed to his flesh and called it bread, and he pointed to the bread and called it his flesh; he called his blood “true drink”, and he called the cup of wine, the cup of the New Covenant in his blood. He taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”. Would we tire of this bread, as the Israelites tired of the Manna that rained down on them, and demand ‘meat’ instead? What, pray, could we conceive this ‘meat’ might be but something bound to bring us to ruin? It would seem paramount to tempting God’s wrath if we implied at any moment that his grace, secured for us by what Christ has done (that is, with his body and blood on the tree), were not sufficient for us, as they were sufficient to the Apostle Paul though he had a thorn in his flesh.

Matt Redman puts it beautifully:

“Now that I’m living as a risen child of God, my every road leads to the Cross.”

I used to sympathise with people who complained about ‘leaving Christ on the cross’, because crucifixes seemed oppressive Catholic things to me, and we preached the Resurrection life. But now I think differently. The empty tomb may well be an apt depiction of the triumphant Christian life, as some like to say who claim that they have ‘moved on’ from a Cross-centred identity, but the tomb is not where Christ is, and it is Christ whom we worship and model. All the same, Christ is risen, they would say: we do not keep him on the Cross, for he is not there. Maybe so. Yes, I will concede that geographically speaking Christ is not on the Cross. But if he’s not on the Cross and not in the tomb, then where in fact is Christ? Christ is at the right hand of the Father in heaven. What is he doing there? Making intercession for sins. By what? By his blood. How? By his death – which happened on the Cross, when he became a curse for us. Ah, they might say, that’s his blood – but that was poured out 2000 years ago! The body that died on the on the Cross isn’t the same one as the one he has now, is it? He left the old broken one behind and got a new one – right?  Indeed he did, it seems. And his Resurrection body, albeit apparently new, was no less than perfect for the fact that it had the same holes in the hands and side as the old one did. You cannot separate Christ from his wounds: even the Resurrected flesh bore the marks of Christ’s affliction for us on the Cross, and surely if it was perfect with the marks, then the marks participated in its perfection, and it would thus have been imperfect without them. This is to say that though Christ was Resurrected, he clearly did not ‘move on’ from the Atonement that he made. He might have ‘sat down’ at the right hand of the Father, but that didn’t mean that he stopped making intercession by his blood. Even at the end of the age, when time ceases, the angels will sing of Jesus, “Worthy is the Lamb” – the name ‘Lamb’ enshrining him for all eternity in his identity as sacrifice.

We can have Christ without depicting him on the Cross, but we can never have Christ without the wounds by which we are healed. What good is an empty tomb – or even an empty cross – if it wasn’t for the sin-bearing body and the wrath-appeasing blood, broken and poured out on the Cross where he died? It was what Christ achieved that we bring to remembrance when we go on taking our Communion elements until Christ returns as commanded; it is this blood which forgives us our sins, and bids us die, and provides the ballast that raises us and keeps us raised. Even as a risen child of God – a child of God living the Resurrection life – I cannot wander from the Cross where that body was broken and that blood was spilled, because the wounds from that breakage and spillage did not disappear from Christ’s body even when he took on a new one in his own Resurrection life and sat at the right hand of the Father in glory. Besides this, if I neglected to sate my heart daily on the Bread of Heaven and quench my thirst on the True Drink, then I fear I’d starve and thirst to death.

In a mystical way, the Lord’s Supper makes Christ’s wounds feel nearer to my heart and my soul in a real way. I think we do the Eucharist a disservice by saying it is “just” a symbol, and has no further significance. For between the body and blood of Christ, and the bread and wine of the Eucharist, there is a textual unity; a poetics of bread and wine, body and blood that is repeated throughout Scripture. Now, when a poetics or a textual unity like this is found in merely human literature, we say that the bread and wine are just ‘metaphorical’, or a ‘figure of speech’ – and if the Bible is merely human literature, we can claim that they are ‘just’ a symbol. But can a unity like that be ‘just metaphorical’ or ‘just a symbol’ and have no function in the realm of the ‘real’, when ‘bread’ and ‘wine’ and ‘body’ and ‘blood’ constitute words uttered by the Mouth that makes concepts into things of real significance just by giving them utterance? The utterance doesn’t need to make them into material things: it is only a naturalistic worldview onto reality that says that a thing cannot be ‘real’ if it is not ‘material’. If the property of the Mouth of God is that its Words create things and bring things about by speaking them, then to my mind, the unique ‘creation-engendering’ power of this Word would necessitate that the symbol and the thing symbolised must be equally ‘real’: for both were spoken into being by this same creator Mouth. ‘Real’ doesn’t need to mean ‘concrete’ or ‘material’. We are Christians, not naturalists. Jesus is a concrete, material man, but his work is spiritual. God the Father is not material, he is Spirit, and we worship him in Spirit and in truth. But for the fact that he is Spirit, he is no less real than the woman sitting at home typing these words to you now.

If Christ said “this is my body”, then textually, spiritually, it is, as it has been declared so, by the voice that brings about what it utters. He gave the declaration utterance, so in every sense that matters spiritually in accordance with his purpose and aims, the broken bread was his body. Again, it is not that I would want to go into an essentialist description of precisely what it is chemically: I don’t think this is required. Again, I say that ‘real’ doesn’t need to mean ‘concrete’ or ‘material’ if it can yet mean ‘spiritual’, whatever we understand ‘spiritual’ to mean. As a ramification of this thought, I don’t think we even need to decide whether to define the bread and wine as either a symbol of the real thing, or the real thing thing itself, to determine whether it is ‘real’ or not. Whether the bread and wine are chemically and physically the body and blood of Christ, or whether they merely represent it, is immaterial (no pun intended): it is declared to be what it is declared to be, and the word that declares it is more powerful to create, and engender, and set in motion than any living creature that walks on the earth besides the Son of Man himself, and is capable of doing so in many more ways and modalities than the industry of any human being alone. Whatever the act of ‘being’ of these Communion elements looks like, if the Word binds that act of ‘being’ into existence, then so it must be, even if its ‘being’ is of a different order than the sort of ‘being’ that most things perform. Between the conventional mode of ‘being’, and the conventional mode of ‘non-being’, I believe that there is fillable space. If quantum physics has shown that even material objects can be and not be something at the same time, and that they can be in two places at the same time, then it’s not too far a stretch to propose that spiritual things can be when they don’t appear to be in a material sense. It is a question of there being different modes of ‘being’; different levels of reality. At what did Balaam’s donkey baulk before it showed itself?

As well as being and non-being, we may also perceive there is an alternative to the binary distinction between ‘symbol’ and ‘thing symbolized’. It might be helpful to think about it in the way we think about states of righteousness. There is an alternative to the binary distinction between righteous and unrighteous. For besides these two things, righteous and unrighteous, there is ‘counted righteous’. That is, legally, textually, and on a level higher than the surface appearance of things, we are ‘counted’ righteous through faith, even though we ourselves are not personally righteous. Now, legally, textually, and on a level higher than the surface appearance of things, can the bread and wine not also be ‘counted’ as the body and blood of Christ, even though they remain bread and wine? Can they not be statutory tokens of the things they represent, acting as and on behalf of them in substitute for them, and having the efficacy of the same in what they are appointed to do?

I’m not claiming to have the truth here. I’m not outlining a new theology, and God forbid that anyone should pick this up and base their practical belief system on it without any further study or consideration. I don’t want to make trouble for anyone; it’s just an idea that has been rolling around inside my messy, over-populated head. In truth, it’s one that I’d like to discuss. Until then, I would feel privileged just to be heard.

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What Our Worship Lacks: A reflection on ‘Tragic Worship’ by Carl R. Trueman

Original article: Trueman, Carl R. (2003) ‘Tragic Worship’ in First Things
http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/06/tragic-worship [last accessed 2nd May 2014]

I’ve had a rip at ‘chipper’ worship music already. Shallow, exclusively-cheerful music expressing profound and complex truths as simple platitudes doesn’t give people time or space to weigh up how they feel about the realities they’re expressing – and these realities take more than a bit of emotional and intellectual digestion. There are paradoxes everywhere we look – paradoxes whose lines converge ever-imperfectly in our finite minds like geometric lines into exultant joy, but also into heart-broken sorrow. We are free because God was nailed to a tree to suffer in our place. When we meditate on this, when we sing about it, how can our thoughts and feelings not be complex or even incomplete? This is not something to be ‘chipper’ about. This is not the ‘chipperness’ of having just baked a pie or won a game of football, or having finally won that pay rise or that job we were hankering after. No, this is the “pleasing grief and mournful joy” of which John Newton writes in his hymn Looking at the Cross, and it is profound and heart-breaking, as well as uplifting. The paradox inherent in these feelings is nothing new to Christ’s order of things. We are saved from death and hell by a crucified convict who is the Son of God, and this is surely a paradox par excellence. We are worthy of hell, but stand with the hope of heaven. We are weak, and yet we are strong. We are poor, and yet we are rich. We are at peace, and yet we are at war. We make well, and yet we are sick. We are dying, and yet we live. We are being crucified, and yet we are triumphing. St Augustine of Hippo put his spiritual experience in similar terms of paradox:

What is this which gleams through me
And smites my heart without wounding it?
I am both a-shudder and aglow.
A-shudder, in so far as I am unlike it,
Aglow in so far as I am like it.

I was encouraged to find that my favourite preacher John Piper had similar things to say about this pet subject of mine in the last sermon of a series entitled Thirty-Year Theological Trademarks, ‘Sorrowful, But Always Rejoicing. But for now, I would like to turn your attention to a 2003 article by Carl R. Trueman in First Things, entitled ‘Tragic Worship‘. Trueman believes that the missing element of our worship; the thing that makes it sound trite and shallow and unexciting, is precisely the lack of that half of the emotional paradox which we cannot bear to present to people. We, as a British culture, are allergic to mourning. We are allergic to death. We are allergic to meditating on our inadequacy before God – and if some of our music pays lip service to these, much of our other music does what British media does: it serves as a form of distraction from sober questions and heart-breaking realities.  We might listen to a sermon that causes us to question the deepest motivations of our heart – and then before we even have time to think and present our admissions and concerns to God and reconsider our priorities or the authenticity of our faith, we are forced into a high-octane performance of ‘Oh, Happy Day!‘.  At times like this, it seems as if these genuine wrestlings, these heart-changing feelings of discomfort, were not the very stuff of the Christian life, but were instead so many cracks that we have to paper over by a cheery onslaught of noise. We do not like discomfort or questioning, because these things are awkward, and like everyone else, awkward is something we resist, because it threatens the status quo and makes our lives more difficult. Deep, soul-searching questioning, especially when it borders on sad thoughts and confounding paradoxes, is what we seem to invite through our evangelistic events, but we stifle it when we treat it like this. There is authenticity, there is real life, when we allow ourselves to admit our own disquiet and our own grief and our incapacity to understand to each other and to God. When we admit that our plant is diseased and seek to heal it, rather than sticking a faux flower on with some PVA, we see a growth that’s real. I think our churches would do us a favour if they incorporated this into our some of our worship, rather than leaving us in a position in which we struggle to muster the courage to air these matters and get ourselves taken seriously by people who are accustomed to an emotionally, intellectually and existentially easy ‘church’ life. Sure, we laugh together. We learn together. We even sing together (sort of). But do we weep together? Do we grieve together in a real, mutual way over Kingdom things? Do we wrestle with God’s Word together? Do we confess our sins to each other and do we share our spiritual burdens, sorrows and trials with each other? Sometimes. But not usually, in my experience.

This insistence on the importance of the ‘tragic’ in our services might sound absurd to some. But I’m convinced. As well as life, joy and healing, Christianity addresses death, human corruption, the nature of God, the price of evil. Our view of life and humanity is authentic: the Biblical worldview supports existential questions and uncomfortable truths; it provides catharsis for our despair over the brokenness of the world and humanity and ourselves, and it and validates our grief. Christ is a haven for the weary, the orphaned, the widowed, the foreigner; he is a friend of the sinner and a Redeemer of the unworthy. Our faith is a faith that encompasses our grieving and thinking and wondering and crying. The point that Trueman makes in his article is that when we remove this from our worship, we impoverish it. The point that I want to make in my article is this: if the gospel of Christ has the capacity to do this, then why aren’t we using it? When worship can only be “undignified“; when it cannot also be sober, or thoughtful, or mournful; when it cannot sit in a corner and weep plaintively to God in anguish and fear at the same time as it rejoices in loud and jubilant singing; when it cannot express those deep feelings of undeserving and human inadequacy mingled with our delight that we do and should feel when we sing the words, “in royal robes I don’t deserve, I live to serve your Majesty” – we are erasing part of what belonging to Christ is about. We are erasing part of the human condition and its needs, even, and these are needs that Christ himself can satisfy. Why won’t we let him? In Christ’s ‘arsenal’ of promises, his promise to satisfy our thirst and give us rest come close to the top of the pile!

Now, there are many things Christ didn’t promise: he did not promise, for instance, a miracle healing to everyone who believed in him, as some would have him do. However, he wept for the dead with mourners. He wept over unbelieving Jerusalem. He promised rest to those who are weary and heavy-laden. He placed himself in the role of physician to the sin-sick. He was kind to doubters and genuine questioners. He was grieved by the unbelief and perversity that he saw in his generation and the obstacle that it posed to the power of his disciples’ ministry. What’s worrying me is that people today, especially young people, are deliberately turning away from Christ to get their experiences, emotions and concerns validated elsewhere, because the church does not draw on the resources provided by the God of Israel in his Word to minister to people in this way. And the killer is this: the Word of God is more than capable of doing it. It has this capacity built-in. You only have to read the thing, and you find comfort. What a vanity, what a waste, that people don’t seem to know about this.

The world is out to distract us from uncomfortable truths, paradoxes and complex feelings, probably because these things don’t do well at the hard-sell, and probably because the world doesn’t have any meaningful answers anyway. In Britain the secular distaste for matters of death and sin is fairly universal. But they are real things, and they perturb us, and, stifled by social conformity, when we find ourselves in need of an outlet to express and embrace our concerns, the church of Christ should be a place where we feel accommodated rather than alienated. The glorious, joyful, life-giving gospel has, and is founded on, these heavy and burdening aspects of life that are suppressed from polite conversation as taboos. The Christian worldview should validate as real and considerable things, the deepest, darkest crevices of human depravity and the loftiest heights of the holiness of God alongside the greatest deceptions and disappointments of the world and the most righteous and true promises of God. We should be among those brave souls who are not too prudish or morally squeamish to accept that these things exist; those who can relate to a convicted mass murderer or a child rapist, and recognise them as sons of Adam, as sinners who fall short of God’s holiness just like we do; as human beings made from the same stuff as us, who are just as worthy of hell as us but for the undeserved grace of God, and not as monsters. We don’t just impoverish ourselves, I feel, but we impoverish our ministry of the gospel when we join the world in erasing the tragic from the visible aspects of our worship. Through this erasure we offer, in Trueman’s words, “a less realistic view of life than one can find in a movie theater”. Life is hard, and that is something we’ve been promised. God is not less good because we suffer. If (God forbid!) we are embarrassed of God for allowing evil and suffering in the world, as much of the world goads us that we ought to be and even manages to convince some of us, then masking the fact isn’t going to sort out either the world or us. If we make pain, suffering, hardship, hell and doubt into so many white elephants crammed into one room, it’s just going to make the gospel of Christ look trite, cheap and irrelevant at best, and at worst, it’s going to distort it. I say, let’s get real about how we present ourselves and humanity before God, and about how we present God. There will always be stumbling blocks and people to stumble over them, but the glory of God is dearer to God than that, and the gospel is the thing with the power to redeem anyone at all from spiritual death, and from the depravity of their own heart.

This doesn’t mean that we have to be perennially dreary, but perhaps it does imply a balance shift that allows us to feel more authentically. Cue Leeland weeping for “the lost and unsaved“, and Godfrey Birtill on God being “still God, when we’re desperate for our healing/even through the things that hurt us/when the government has no answers“, and Laura Story on our experience of disappointment and heartache in this life as “the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy“.

 

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Christ the fear-buster.

God helped me face my phobia of needles today.  Continue reading

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