a meditation for Maundy Thursday

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

John 13:1-17

Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him,God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.

“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:31b-35

Jesus instuted the Last Supper as part of the Passover meal. He was indeed to be the Passover Lamb not only for God’s people, but also for the world.

I miss being a part of a church which recognizes that this partaking of the bread and the cup is both a memorial, as well as an actual participation in our Lord’s body and blood (1 Corinthians 10:16). And that it should be celebrated regularly. The table has been central for centuries in the Christian church and helps keep the gospel front and center.

We do well today to meditate on both what happened around the time of the meal, our Lord washing the feet of the disciples, as well as on the meal itself. But with the readings such as they are today, I will choose to reflect more on the texts at hand. And how we’re to in love serve one another before the world, as a demonstration of our Lord’s love to us, ultimately seen in his death soon to follow, for us and for the world (1 John 2:2).

prayer for Maundy Thursday

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

community in Jesus: a life and death matter

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

In Christ we are members together of one body, Christ being the head. While we can talk about a universal, global church, most of the time in the New Testament, each local church is the body of Christ, in itself. This analogy presses home both the relationship we have with Christ and from that with each other. It is not the case that we all get our sustenance from the head and then everything is good. In God’s will and working Christ’s body depends not only on the head, but on the “work” of “each part.”

Early on in the history of the church, the church took on a ceremonial sacramental understanding of participation in the body of Christ. What came to the fore was the essential need to partake of Christ’s body and blood through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in the bread and the wine. What was likely the case in the beginning, actual meals, was now about a ceremonial, sacramental practice.

In this sacrament through the partaking of the bread and the wine, the faithful partake of Christ. The church in its teaching made this essential for salvation, even if grace has been extended to those who either don’t believe in “the real presence” in the bread and the wine, or don’t practice the ordinance. I personally have no problem calling the Lord’s Supper a sacrament. I believe that through the Spirit the Lord is especially present during such times. However I wonder if unwittingly we can lose out on the aspect of sharing in Christ through our actual participation in him with each other. Not only is there a vertical aspect, but a horizontal one as well. We go on as best we can essentially by ourselves, of course in relationship with God through Christ, hardly touching the aspect the passage (quoted above) is referring to. We don’t experience much at all of the ministry of the body through the head. So much of the time it is more the case that we get what we can and go on, not really expecting much if anything in the way of ministry to each other. That does not necessarily follow, but I think it most often is the case, at least to some degree.

The danger in emphasizing what I want to emphasize here, is that we can simply try to minister, or probably better put, serve each other, apart from the needed emphasis on a relationship with Christ. On the other hand we may also simply be satisfied with getting what we think we need from the Lord himself, and minimize with a shrug of our shoulders, the need to give and receive in relationship with others. None of us will arrive on this, and perhaps we are weak one way or another, even both ways (“vertically” and “horizontally”). But God in his grace in Jesus continues his good work, even though it will suffer as a result of our lack of understanding and participation.

I believe this is a life and death matter. Christianity is essentially organic in the sense of a living union by the Spirit to Christ, which consists of all who belong to Christ being joined to each other, especially to be worked out in local settings. We all suffer much when this is not practiced. And this analogy of Christ’s body is not merely for itself, but for the world. We in Christ are Christ’s body for each other and for the world.

a problem with the high church tradition

I like beautifully worded liturgy, steeples, quiet, even incense and chanting. There is something in place in all of that which can help one to be still, and hopefully come to know that God is God, in and through Jesus.

At the same time one needs to step back and consider the fruit. Oh yes, the fruit of all churches, “high” and “low”, to be sure. But one needs to ask the question: Is this church one that is an expression of the church as we find in the New Testament, or in line with Christ’s calling. To begin to have discernment in this is a tall order indeed.

My personal biggest problem with the high church tradition, from what I’ve seen of it, is that the emphasis seems to be on one’s vertical relationship to God. The Eucharist is a prime example of this. Participants partake of the actual body and blood of our Lord, which by a miracle is somehow actually being physically taken into one’s own body. Which does not stand, in my view, scripturally. And the Lord’s Supper, which is meant both to be vertical and horizontal, ends up essentially about this personal partaking of Christ. Isn’t the tone set for all of life in that? So that the church is all about how well I am in my relationship with God, rather than how well are we doing in our relationship individually and together in God, and out of that in mission to the world?

Of course a few of the few readers I have will disagree with the interpretation of scripture I mention above. What we might come to agree on is the need for both “high” and “low” expression of church. Low in the strong sense of a unity that is not just about how well each of us is doing individually, but by the Spirit how we are united together in our diversity. The dynamic, and dare I say, the chemistry and beauty seen in that. The high church model tends more toward the “haves” and the “have-nots,” I’m afraid.

The New Testament is filled with “one another’s”: how we are blessed and responsible for and to each other as one body in Christ. The expression I’m trying to get at is not about coming together to share all about our vertical relationship to God, though that should be a major part. Instead, it is about the life in God through Christ by the Spirit in which we share. Then the works that follow will carry with them a dynamic that otherwise might be missing.

relationships

We meet God through Jesus and we draw near to God in and through Jesus. And there is a rather strong Christian tradition of solitude, its roots likely in the early church Desert Mothers and Desert Fathers, that tradition rooted in scripture, although taking a life of its own (some matters good, and some in my opinion, probably not so good). We find the practice of regular solitude in the life of our Lord in his meeting with the Father privately in prayer.

And so there’s something fundamental and indeed relational about that. God is a relational God as Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit, being in eternal union and communion with God’s Self in these Three Persons. And in and through Jesus by the Spirit we are taken up into this communion. We too, made in God’s image as humans are relational beings. We relate to God, to each other, to ourselves and to creation. Indeed, we are in relationship with each other, a relationship which is actually to be lived within the relationship we have with God, in the love of God in and through Jesus.

We can err in simply emphasizing the “horizontal,” that is the relationships we have with people. While those can have much good in common grace, they are not inherently Christian. And for that matter we can err in simply emphasizing the “vertical” our relationship with God as individuals, apart from the communion of the saints, the Lord’s people into which we are brought. The dynamic from the Spirit of life in Christ includes both as one whole and as regular parts of our lives in Jesus. We partake of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Table together, not just as a bunch of individuals. We are friends of our Lord, and therefore friends together, family no less, in and through Jesus.

Without both aspects of this relationship, we will not do well. We have to work at both. Perhaps priority is given in sequence to our relationship with God, but we can’t stop there. We must relate with others as well. That is inherent in our humanity. Not just in the marital relationship, but “it is not good for the man to live alone,” I think has implications beyond that primary meaning of the Genesis text. And in Christ we are members together of one body, likened to a human body and meant to grow up together into maturity in Christ.

And so we are relational creatures. We are in relationship to God even if that’s broken by sin, restored through Christ, and we are in relationship to other human beings, again often broken through sin, but restored through Christ. And so we must live with an emphasis on growing in this fundamental aspect of our humanity. We do so together in Jesus in God’s love and for the world.

sacramental understanding

I was reading a conversation between two highly intelligent ladies who are members of the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination as I am. It was on a sacramental understanding of life, holding to the Real Presence in Holy Communion. I much respect that position, and while I think they may be right, I don’t hold to the Real Presence because of what I accept as a viable exegesis of the relevant passages in scripture such as John 6, the accounts in the gospels of the Last Supper and 1 Corinthians 10 and 11.

That said, I do accept that God conveys his grace through what he has made, and that truth is inextricably linked to being. God makes himself known through his works. Incarnation is tied to Jesus himself, and we in Jesus do then participate in that. God became flesh in the person of Jesus, which involves the miraculous in the conception by the Holy Spirit in a young virgin, Mary.

I see the bread and wine in Holy Communion as symbols and signs of the reality. And by simple, humble faith we partake of Christ in a spiritual sense, certainly by the Spirit. Must we partake of him physically as well? Those are questions which seem to me to be asked and answered in the realm especially of the philosophical, and tied to that as well as to an interpretation of scripture, in the theological as well. But lacks adequate grounding in scripture itself. Of course I’m not denying that we all live according to some philosophical view. My question simply would be is our philosophy grounded in a Judea-Christian understanding of scripture, in scripture itself? General revelation may need to figure in, in the nature of the case, but to what extent, and where do we draw the lines to determine what is general revelation and what is not?

And so I am blessed to know those (including both our pastors) who hold to the Real Presence, and I hope they don’t apologize for it, and perhaps can help me see it. I am glad I can participate in the blessed Holy Communion with them without having to hold to that myself. Even as I believe grace is somehow conferred in this practice, even if in nothing more than our Lord being specially present in our participation of the bread and wine, as his body- the body of Christ, the church. His body for the world.

the sacramental is the actual

Yesterday I wrote a post simply pointing out that a sacramental understanding and emphasis of God’s will for us in Jesus can be pitted against an actual living out of that calling as spelled out in the New Testament.  I wrote from my rather low church understanding in contrast to a high church orientation. Today I want to point out that the sacramental is in a true sense the actual reality out from which we are to live.

Sacramental as I understand it is the communication and bestowal of God’s grace on recipients in and through Jesus. In a sense all of life in terms of all its good, every good and perfect gift, is from God, and in that sense is sacramental. The church has come to see sacramental in terms of institutions and ordinances which God has prescribed. To the Roman Catholics the sacraments include marriage along with a few other important aspects of life. To others, and I would include myself there, any sacramental understanding in this way would be confined to baptism and the Lord’s Table. It seems that in the practice of these that some grace is communicated. I take it that faith is a prerequisite to that.

The sacramental brings us into the reality in the sense of the world as God is remaking it in Christ. I am not talking about experience as much as substance. In other words I never think in terms of having some actual experience when I partake with others of Holy Communion every week (at our church it is offered weekly at the end of the service, as well as monthly in the service). It is in terms of bringing us into the reality of God in Christ through Christ’s death and resurrection, at work in the world from God through Christ by the Spirit.

Even from my rather low church perspective, baptism and the Lord’s Table are blessed by God in a special way in and through Jesus. So that I expect that what they symbolize and our enactment of those symbols is both a proclamation to the world as well as blessed by God to and then through us to others. These are both communal and missional activities. And so that has bearing on their significance and in terms of God’s special blessing of them. Baptism of course in part is a testimony to the world of a pledge or appeal to God for a good conscience, as Peter tells us. It marked one’s commitment to Christ in a certain sense, as circumcision in the old covenant did. Participation in the Lord’s Table is called a proclamation of the Lord’s death until he returns.

Of course God’s work in the world is grounded in Christ and Christ’s death and resurrection, in terms of the truth as it is in Jesus, as understood from all the writings of scripture, laid out in promise and type in the Hebrew/Old Testament writings, to use a scriptural term. And then fulfilled later in the Christian/New Testament writings, again in and through Christ.

And so the sacramental is the actual in that it brings us in touch with the mystical aspect of the reality that is destined to pervade all creation someday, when heaven and earth become one in Jesus. Already even in this world this reality is at work, ushering in this new creation through which God in and through Jesus will make all things new.

I don’t grasp all of this well, and I’m not that concerned about that. I go on, participating, and simply looking to God through Jesus. That God’s will will be done in and through my life together with others in Jesus for the world.

sacramental versus actual

One of the beauties of blogging amounts to the same problem blogging imposes on readers. A post is expressing where someone is at, at a certain point in their journey, in words and ways they’re familiar with. A couple years down the road I may not want to say this this way, or I may be saying something different on subjects like this one.

I am rather betwixt between two because on the one hand there is indeed a sacramental aspect to all of life, and especially to baptism and the Lord’s Table/Holy Communion in scripture. Sacramental I might define as something which communicates and bestows God’s grace, grace being something like gifts or blessing. There is no way we can divorce baptism from salvation in New Testament texts. We can say that the New Testament knows no unbaptized Christian. And there are texts which seem to make baptism into Christ as putting on Christ, or baptism as saving us. I am not advocating baptismal regeneration, but I am saying that baptism is to be a part of our response of faith from God’s grace.

Holy Communion as I prefer to call the second sacrament is likewise possibly a sharing in Christ’s body and blood in some mystical sense, the possible meaning from 1 Corinthians 10, though I prefer to see that as symbolic of how we share in Christ and the benefits of his death and resurrection through faith. But it makes all the sense in the world to me to suppose that where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name around the Lord’s Table (yes, I know that’s taking that thought out of context, nevertheless I think it applies beyond that context),  Christ is present by the Spirit. And that he blesses this gathering of his people in a special way since it is an enactment of what is true in him. How his broken body and poured out blood gives us life and makes us one body in him. And so we can surmise that it is more than symbolic. But even if we don’t hold to that, and it is more, the benefits of that more can still be ours (as one person quite gifted suggested, in better words), though it would in that case help to believe that this is more than just a symbol, as well as remembrance, as important as those are.

But finally to my gentle push back, into what I call here the actual. It is interesting how scripture in the New Testament calls us over and over again into lives of self-forgetting love and humility toward one another in Christ. We may seem to have a right on a certain level to withdraw or be reserved toward someone who has wronged us. But in Christ we’re called to love them and to forgive. In fact we’re called to do all sorts of things, as well as to not do certain other things in our relationships with each other.

I think I’ve noticed that in some sacramental settings, body life as just expressed (found in the “one another’s” of scripture, such as “love each other deeply”) seems often to be lacking. Although in our church in which the sacramental is probably stronger than any church I’ve been a part of, it does seem like body life as I’m calling it here, is indeed important and to some extent lived out. Though I’m wondering if an emphasis on one or the other may tend to cancel out the other.

Although I tend to come with a Baptist, and specifically Anabaptist lean toward this and other issues, my thought here and now is that this is not a question of either/or, but and/both. Christ is indeed present with us by the Spirit, and unlike the sinning Christians at the Communion Table at Corinth, we’re to recognize the Lord’s body, i.e., each other in Christ, and to live out the meaning of that in love and for the world.

What do you think? It is unwise to play one off against the other? How do you see sacramental and how does your position affect the actual living out of the meaning of baptism and the Lord’s Table in everyday life?

feeding on Christ

Jesus said that people do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. Our Pastor Jack reminded us on Sunday from John 6 that unless our souls are satisfied, we won’t be satisfied, no matter how full our bellies might be. (Not Jack’s exact words, but my words in listening and considering what he said).

Yes, we need to learn to feed on Christ himself, who later in that chapter calls himself the bread of life. Our Catholic friends insist that we feed on Christ through the Eucharist, Holy Communion, by a miracle partaking of his actual body and blood. We Protestants see that differently in various ways. I would take it that by the Spirit in Holy Communion we partake of the Lord’s body and blood, that is the benefits of Jesus’ death, and by that receive anew his life, and that by the Spirit Jesus is then especially with us, his body–we being the body of Christ.

While John 6 certainly alludes to Holy Communion, the context would suggest that it is simply by faith that we begin to feed on Christ, that we taste and see that the Lord is good. This feeding is about communion with a person, communion with Jesus himself. We begin to experience his love in his grace and truth and that in a personal sense. A love that is poured out into us, and meant to be shared with the world.

Feeding on Christ is to occur in a special way as well when we read scripture. Pastor Sharon has well taught us something of lectio divina, and I want to incorporate that everyday into my life. I simply read a passage of scripture, my NIV Bible has sections (titled), several times, two at least to four or more times. I want to hear what God may be saying to me, or impressing on me through the text of scripture. I think this is powerful when done with others of Christ’s body. But it is also powerful, and in a sense important for us to learn and do this discipline ourselves, if anything so we can learn to contribute well to the body. But our spirituality one on one with God through Jesus is also important, essential as a part of the whole.

To learn to feed on God’s word in scripture, is to learn to feed on Christ himself. Those words are meant to not only point us to Christ, but to bring us to him, and to help us come to be in him, that is, in union with him. Which of course means being in union with all who are in him. But we find that Christ is indeed our life, our portion, our all. We’re to live our lives in him, yes with others in him, and in his mission from the Father by the Spirit to the world.

And so let us evermore eat this bread. And help others, that they along with us may come to know the one who alone satisfies the soul.

Scot McKnight on the gift of the Eucharist

Humans need something tangible, something physical, something real. We are physical beings; we encounter life physically. We have wedding rings, Christmas presents, statues, memorials, and trophies….

From the beginning of time, and with a gentle tip of his divine cap to the empiricist in our hearts, God has shown his love physically so that we can see, touch, smell, and taste it. God creates; he establishes covenant ceremonies with Abraham and Moses and David; he forms a national body as his people (Israel); he gives this people a place to live (Israel), and in that Land he makes a temple for worship. Christians see the physical touch of God in the Incarnation, in baptism, in the Eucharist, in the physical act of worshipping together, in the physical expression of faith, in the church “building,” and in the church itself—the one holy, catholic church.

But only one of these is given as a sacred rhythm of rememberance.

We call it Eucharist or Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper. Jesus establishes for his followers a physical, sacred rhythm so they will never forget his gracious act of love for them. The bread and wine are his “tangible truth.” As New Testament scholar Tom Wright observes, Jesus didn’t give us a theory of the atonement but “an act to perform…a meal that speaks more volumes than any theory. ” Jesus’ parting gift is bread and wine, a simple meal designed to create for his followers the rhythm of remembering him. These two little tangible truths need to be seen for what they are.

God is saying this: If you want to remember what I have done, look at Jesus. What makes God odd is that Jesus leaves two earthy bits as “mini-icons” of himself: a small chunk of bread and a short swig of wine. These two little tangible truths are physical elements designed to draw us into remembering Jesus so we can participate in his life for us. “Taste, see, and know my presence,” he says.

Scot McKnight, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others, 269-271.