Wednesday, February 15, 2017

More Than a Memory

Dear Friends,

She came into the Wednesday service and sat by herself in the corner. I’d not seen her before and went over to talk with her after the service. Janelle told me that she had come to the Abbey Road Villa assisted-living home just a few days before and said how happy she was that she found a church here. Then she lowed her voice and confessed to this Protestant pastor, “But I’m Catholic.” I assured her that she was in good company because about three-quarters of those who attend our church service are Catholic. I also told her that our Holy Communion service was on the first Wednesday of every month and her eyes brimmed with tears. She said what she missed most about her church was no longer being able to receive Communion. I told her that I was born and raised Episcopalian and could understand how she felt about the Eucharist. 

At Abbey Road Villa, I was challenged with the concept of a Eucharistic service in an ecumenical setting. Scattered among the Roman Catholics and Armenian Orthodox are the Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists and a Pentecostal or two. Because of our diversity, I don’t teach a Communion doctrine other than to acknowledge that we believe the actual presence of Jesus. We impart this belief, not with didactic teachings, but with the reverence of our liturgy. How we take Communion often says more about our theology than the teachings of our doctrine. 

I used to occasionally receive Communion at a Lutheran church that believes in the actual presence of Jesus Christ in the elements of the bread and wine. The people reverently knelt at the altar rail as the organist quietly played Bach melodies in the background. Many crossed themselves as they received the Body and Blood of Jesus. It was a deeply personal, Spirit-filled sacred moment that would evoke strong feelings of Communion with Jesus. At another church across the Valley, in the same denomination with the same doctrine of the actual presence of Jesus Christ, the congregation stands in a circle with people talking and joking with their neighbor. They’ve just finished greeting each other during the “passing of the peace” and murmured conversations continue as they line up to receive Communion. Elvis gospel songs blare from the speakers; some people sing and some even dance to the music of the “King of Rock ‘n Roll.” The priest sometimes has to interrupt a conversation to hand them the bread – the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ. While the words spoken in the Eucharistic liturgy were the same in both churches, one conveyed to me a liturgical atmosphere rich with reverence and awe while the other conveyed a nice time of fellowship with good friends. 

In another church I attended, Communion was a monthly perfunctory ritual at the end of the service that was over and done with so quickly that one moment you were chewing through a stale piece of matzo cracker, and in the next moment, you were standing outside chatting with friends and eating a sugar-glazed donut. Oh wait.. That was the church where I was the pastor. 

In the early days of NHFC, we believed and taught the traditional Memorialism doctrine that Communion is a reeenactment which reminds us of the event that we call the “last supper.” Like a champagne toast at an anniversary party, we raised our plastic cup of grape juice and drank to the memory of Jesus. The problem was when the Word of God got in the way of our Baptist/Calvinistic/Pentecostal understanding of the Eucharist. What a doctrinal bummer it is when the Bible conflicts with what you’ve been taught, believed and practiced! But really... Could Jesus have made it any clearer when He said, “..I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. But anyone who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person at the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. Anyone who eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him.” John 6:53-57 NLT We then read that many of the followers of Jesus left in disgust and we note that Jesus didn’t say, “Hey wait a minute guys! I was only speaking symbolically!” Instead, we read the words of Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed as he broke the bread and gave it to His disciples saying, This is my Body” and then He lifted up the cup of wine and said, This is My Blood.”

At New Hope Family Church we believe that the consecrated bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ because Jesus taught it, the apostles taught it and the early disciples believed it. The Apostle Paul said, “So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the Body and Blood of the Lord. For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God's judgment upon yourself.” 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 NLT If the early disciples were eating only bread and drinking wine as a thoughtful ritualistic gesture to remember Jesus, this instruction from Paul would make no sense. But Paul teaches that this was the Body and Blood of the Lord and therefore if you take the Communion elements casually or as a perfunctorily ritual, you dishonor God and you will receive His judgement for doing so. That’s why we need to make sure that our familiarity with the ritual doesn’t foster an informality that erodes our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus. That’s why we must have the utmost respect and reverence for the precious gift of His Body and Blood. We must never take for granted those things that should be sacred. 

Like my new Abbey Road friend, Janelle, I too hunger and thirst for the Eucharist and miss it when I go too long without it. For it is when we come to the Lord’s Table, we offer ourselves anew to the Savior and receive His sacramental nourishment for our journey through life. Amen?

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