Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Monthly Evangelical Metamorphosis into Gnostic Materialists: 12 Thoughts on the Lord’s Supper

So I am preaching on The Last Supper from Luke next week (it should show up on the preaching transcripts page around Tuesday). In 25 minutes I plan to talk about atonement, communion and leadership from Luke 22. That means I have many thoughts about how the Last Supper translates to the Lord’s Supper that won’t fit into my 8 minute second point…and honestly most of them are not appropriate for the venue. So they get relegated to this venue.

1. In the Lord’s Supper Jesus prescribed a sensual act of worship.[1] It is fully tactile and engages all the senses. We see the elements, hold and tear the bread, waft the wine, taste the bitter sweetness of fermented grapes and the comforting softness of bread[2], and hear the story of God’s intimate celebration of his vicarious atonement told one more time…or at least that was the intention.

2. If it is true that we are supposed to frequently remember the atonement through the engagement of our senses, then it would seem to follow that the beauty in each category would be of value.

3. The evangelical reductionism of this practice betrays a deep and insidious Gnosticism[3]. It is pretty obvious from the plastic thimble of Welches and the sub-chicklet-sized-carb-pellet, that we do not believe the quality of the experience has any importance.[4]

4. We spent much of last year considering and planning a church plant in midtown Sacramento. We discussed a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. As soon as we had a building[5], I wanted to put in bread ovens to optimize the production of quality elements.

5. The standard pragmatic argument against a substantial sacrament is cost.[6] This emerges from a misunderstanding of the OT tithe. Every sermon I have ever heard about tithing has been based on OT texts. So churches raise money based on a First Testament mandate[7] of 10% giving but tend to ignore the OT mandate of how the money is to be spent. Check out the law for spending the tithe:

“Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the LORD your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the LORD your God always. But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the LORD your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the LORD will choose to put his Name is so far away), then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the LORD your God will choose. Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice. And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.

At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” Deuteronomy 14: 22-29

It seems the tithe is supposed to be used for three things.[8] (1) The support of full time religious staff (and presumably property). (2) The poor and powerless. (3) Food for religious parties for the purpose of remembrance. Americans (including me) have all sorts of unhealthy eating habits. Church people are arguably worse.[9] But I think some of this is because of the dissociation of the spiritual and the physical. Eating is a physical thing, not a spiritual thing. Well, not to the Hebrews. And not to us. Church budgets should be structured to afford quality bread and wine (preferably as part of a larger joint meal as celebrated on the Sabbath by the early church) for a weekly celebration of the sacrament.
6. Ceremony revels in repetition and lifts the burden of novelty and innovation. It is the only part of evangelical worship that is not based on someone’s performance. Liturgical apologists boast of the value of ceremony because its effectiveness is independent of leadership personality. It is a sound point.

7. But by celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly, you are never far from rehearsing the gospel. The vicarious substitutionary atonement is the central insight into humanness that Christianity claims to offer. Regularly rehearsing the unilateral rescue of God through God’s the annihilation of God ‘for us’[10] produces all of the things that Christianity is about: humility, repentance, worship, kindness, joy, and grateful service in the pursuit of justice, faith and beauty. At the heart of Keller/Driscoll/Chandler movement is the idea that unless the gospel is for Christians too all we have is a dry religion.

Also, my tradition has competing values: Christocentricity and expository preaching of the whole Bible. In one sense this is not a huge problem. Jesus certainly thought the OT was all about him, but a month into a series on 1 Kings[11] one can find that they have not talked about Jesus in weeks. Weekly observance of the Supper reestablishes the centrality of the gospel in Christian worship.

8. A thought from my brother, Nic: “The sacraments are not something special to let us know about something special they are something special to help us remember the sacredness of the ordinary…You need to come up to the front and take the little ridiculously processed stale piece of bread and dip it in the wine that isn’t wine and eat it and remember that God became a human being and was murdered to infuse your real life, every breath with sacredness…Nothing that you do in you life is really ordinary.”[12]

9. The medieval church believed that special men could say magical words and turn bread into Jesus. I grew up in this tradition and always found it awkward when I got Jesus stuck in my teeth. This is error. As is the belief that the sacrament is necessary for salvation. These are significant reasons that I do not belong to this tradition any more.

But the protestant reaction leaves the proverbial baby dazed, forgotten, in its puddle of thin suds, the bath water already watering the roots of the back lawn grasses. We have reduced the sacrament to a materialist[13] transaction. I eat tiny ‘cracker’, it makes me remember. The medieval right was overspecified, but at least it was supernatural. Protestants need to recover some sense of the spiritual mystery of the sacrament.

10. Amanda took my early church history class with me at Wheaton. The Apostolic Fathers[14] were the highlight for both of us. We often found them nearly Protestant in their outlook, free of some of the medieval encumbrances Luther et al were trying to reform. But there was one topic on which they looked nothing like us…their emphasis on and theology of the Eucharist. The Didache, Justin[15], Clement all cited the sacrament as central to early Christian worship. But more shocking than their emphasis, was their theology. They agreed that, in a non-trivial sense, Jesus was especially present during the sacrament. Not in the overspecified ritual of the later church, but in a mystical, super-material way none the less. This has led a number of contemporary Protestants to adopt a ‘real presence’ theology that in some, mystical, unspecified way, Jesus is uniquely present in the meal. We are among those Protestants.

11. Luther would agree. The Reformation occurred simultaneously in several cities.[16] After it was clear that they were going to form a new church Luther and his Swiss counterpart Ulrich Zwingli[17] met to try to unify their movement. They discussed 12 points. They agreed on 11. In the end, Luther could not join Zwingli because the latter insisted that the sacrament was just a symbol. Luther refused to unite the movement over his conviction that in some mystical way, Jesus is uniquely present in the meal.[18]

12. Finally a thought from Darrell Bock: “It is perhaps a great tragedy in the church that this meal often gets relegated to a minor role in the church’s worship. Many observances of the Lord’s table are relegated to a quick addition to the service, observed once a quarter or even less. This supper was never designed to be a ‘tacked on’ element of worship.”[19]

But why do we tack it on. Because in its Gnostic, materialist forms, it is virtually without value. So we do it by force of will…by rote obedience…when the pastor would rather have and extra 10 minutes to preach…and the musicians would rather have an extra 10 minutes to sing…and the people would rather spend the 10 minutes almost any other way. But in its sensual, mystical, ceremonial form, the meal could be a centerpiece, even of evangelical worship.

This post was prepared while listening to: The Fair Pandora Station

[1] The fact that we have come to see ‘sensual’ as synonymous with sexual is unfortunate, but kind of illustrates the point here. Sex also engages all the senses, and is in no way boring.
[2] I have, sometimes, playfully called it ‘taste worship,’ but that actually short changes its sensual value.
[3] Here I am invoking the docetic nature of Gnosticism…the belief that the physical world is evil or, at least, doesn’t matter…not the weirder demiurge stuff. (But on a side note, wouldn’t ‘the demiurge’ be a great comic book or Buffy villain.)
[4] I am not making a specific critique of my church here. Every evangelical church I have ever been to (with the exception of my grandparent’s church where they passed a basket of rolls once when I visited – I was 7) uses the same ridiculous pellets (or oyster crackers).
[5] Actually, I did not want a building for a while. Most of the midtown restaurants do not open until noon and I was hoping we could rent one on Sunday mornings. I think there is value to utilizing ‘secular’ space when trying to reach a post-Christian community (an idea which should be its own post). And they would have had bread ovens we could have rented as part of the package.
[6] Actually, the reason given for using grape juice instead of wine is that we do not want to cause recovering alcoholics ‘to stumble.’ This strikes me as smokescreen. I think it is our legalistic rejection of alcohol as having value…which is also a byproduct of implicit Gnosticism.
[7] Incidentally, I embrace this mandate and think it is appropriate for Christians.
[8] The proportion question is more difficult and applying the law from a theocracy (where it was also tax) to self governing corporations of worship and mission within a secular state is, problematic, at best. But there are principals here that are binding.
[9] Amanda and I often joke that the types of food that frequent church potlucks are designed to ‘speed God’s people to glory.’
[10] In the words of the ‘first supper’
[11] In my opinion, the Kings and the Chronicles are the most boring books of the Bible. Give me the blood and holiness of Leviticus over them any day.
[12] From an excellent recent sermon called ‘Closing the Distance – A Few Thoughts on Getting Closer to God’ – seriously, he has got to be one of the best preachers of our generation.
[13] If it seems weird that the evangelical celebration of communion would suffer both from Gnosticisim (with its belief that the material is evil and should be overcome or, at least ignored) and materialism (the belief that matter is all that matters), well I think so to. This strange paradox seems like a symptom of our almost comical dysfunction on this.
[14] The apostolic fathers are those who wrote within a couple hundred years of the scriptures. There are only about a dozen orthodox authors who’s writing survive from this period. They do not bear the authority of scripture, but I weigh their testimony pretty heavily as they were the closest to the events and several of the authors were friends of apostles. A couple of these writings were actually included in early cannon lists.
[15] Justin actually suggests that it be brought to the houses of those too sick to attend the worship gathering.
[16] Incidentally, it also happened within Catholicism. Devout Catholics of this era went about the business of getting rid of the gross abuses of the medieval church. I actually suspect that if I had been alive then, that I would have joined Erasmus, Ignatius and Xavier and their in house quest for reform.
[17] If you look for images of Zwingli on Google image a surprising number of dogs come up. This confused me for a moment, but I am almost certain how it went down.
Nerd Husband: “I am so happy we are going to have a baby, honey. If it is a boy I want to name it Zwingli.”
Sane Wife: “That’s nice honey, but we need to name the puppy now, let’s use this very special name immediately.”
[18] To this day, Lutheran churches hold to a middle position called ‘consubstantiation.’ It is kind of obtuse, but I think it boils down to a special, mystical, real presence.
[19] The NIV Application Commentary on Luke


Kel said...

my favorite form of communion (the Lord's Supper) at church was the method of intinction, where you took a chunk of bread from a loaf and dipped it in a chalice of grape juice (we were methodists, after all). There was something very viceral about tearing the piece from the loaf, and something about an actual piece of bread as opposed to a wafer that stuck to the roof of your mouth that made it seem more "real" to me. I think it is that sensual aspect you are talking about. And also something about the entire congregation using the same loaf and chalice. Something that made us feel more like a family in Christ than the little plastic cups (that looked disturbingly like the cups we used to give medications at my last job actually) with individual sized portions that kept us all separate.

You with us said...

I love all the paintings you posted to go along with your thoughts. Especially the placing of the muted pastel one in point three.

I have really enjoyed celebrating communion once a month and particularly having wine as a part of communion. The strong visceral impact of wine correlates more to blood for me, but now with your thoughts I see it is probably even more than that.

Bronwyn said...

Thanks for an excellent and thought-provoking post.

I'm with Kel: When I was in seminary we used to have communion every week at chapel, and they would buy a huge loaf of fresh bread from the bakery down the road and we would pass it from person to person pulling chunks out of it. It was delicious. And more than that, I realized for the first time what the "community" aspect of communion was - that somehow each of our individual bites coming out of the one loaf showed how we each participated in Christ.

Also (and this is far wierder), I used to imagine those individual pieces of bread after the meal, bobbing around inside each of us - and yet in my head I could "reconstitute" them like a 3D puzzle, and somehow it gave me a mental picture of us as the body of Christ - all somehow fitting together as one.

We used to race to the front at the end of the meal: first come, first serve to finish the delicious bread. Was that sacrilegious, or appropriately celebratory?

Ford said...

Seriously, there must be something in the Gibson clan's water. How do you guys manage to be such phenomenal writers (Nic, too, when he's not typo-ing), preachers, and thinkers (and you managing these talents in addition to your day job)?

I think your rendition of the old baby in the bathwater adage got me:

"But the protestant reaction leaves the proverbial baby dazed, forgotten, in its puddle of thin suds, the bath water already watering the roots of the back lawn grasses..."

Great word picture there.

I know I have been the sort that has sympathized more with Zwingli's take on the Lord's Supper, relegating it to the back of the line in my list of Godward priorities.

Perhaps a weekly fellowship meal with the Lord's Supper as the centerpiece may be the most appropriate remedy for my blase approach to what I have always experienced as a rather perfunctory ritual.

I think your observations on this topic are very helpful.

stanford said...

Kel, Byranie and Bronwyn: That is precisely what I am talking about. Our more visceral experience are the most memorable.

I love that even Presbeterians can get away with serving real wine in Sanoma


Thank you for your kind words. I felt like the image needed a little expansion to reclaim its power. :)

JMBower said...

Having grown up in a church that served chunks of real (and tasty) bread, my sole comment is in favor of bread being bread, in all its implications.

Jesus was the best of men. I'm not saying we should be eating only the finest artisan breads for this purpose, but if Jesus were a carbohydrate-based foodstuff, I'm pretty sure it would be bread, and not a piece of cardboard-masquearding-as-a-bread-chicklet.

Or a pretzel. But that's a whole other issue.

Linda said...

Since I live in Sacramento, I'm wondering about your church plant--have you begun gathering together in Midtown?

stanford said...

Hi Linda, We actually decided not to plant for now. We moved to Davis to preach and minister through our church's on campus college ministry. We haven't ruled it out for the future, but we decided we couldn't sustain it for now.