Bob Close, a Presbyterian minister, was on a retreat with some of his minister friends when the subject of worship came up. “When do you worship?” was the question. “When do you feel closest to God?” And here are some of the answers those ministers gave –
“When I’m caring for children at the Daycare Center.”
“When I’m sharing a meal with my family.”
“When I’m listening to beautiful music.”
“When I’m working with the homeless and the poor.”
“When I am with my spouse.”
“When I’m walking in the woods.”
“When I’m playing golf with my good friends.”
“When I’m tending to my garden.”
Now, the way I see it, there’s nothing wrong with any of these answers. The God of the Bible is a great big God, an “everywhere and always” kind of God. Why, the Psalmist even went so far as to say that “If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: (and) if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there!”(139:8 – KJV). So, there’s nothing on this list that seems out of bounds to me. I know this “everywhere and always” God that they were talking about, in fact, I’ve met Him in many of these same ways and places myself.
What bothers me is not what they said, but what they didn’t say. You see, not one of them said anything about church, or prayer, or the Bible, or preaching, or the Lord’s Supper, and that troubles me. I’m bothered by the fact that people who are responsible for planning and leading weekly worship in churches said nothing about what happens in worship at those churches when they were asked about when they feel closest to God! In my mind, this flies in the face of what we say we believe, and it makes the effort we expend each week to do this seem a little silly. I mean, we do this because of God, right? We’re here to be close to God, and if that’s not happening, well then, why bother?
Jesus Christ made several promises before He went away about where we would be able to find Him going forward. For instance, in Matthew 18:20 Jesus said – “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” We gather every Sunday morning under the banner of this promise. And in Matthew 25 Jesus said – “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (25:35-36). And when it’s asked – “Lord, when did we do these things for you?” (25:37-39), Jesus answers, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (25:40). I suspect that we’ve all bumped into Christ when meeting the needs of others.
A few years ago, I read a blog written by a young minister who is the father of several school-age girls. He said that most of his parenting responsibilities at that point in his life consisted of “waiting” and “picking up.” “Knowing when an event ends and when and where I need to be waiting in my truck to pick them up is a big part of what I do.” And he said this always worked out pretty well out so long as three things were clear – first, so long as he’d told his girls exactly where to find him; second, so long as his girls came to exactly where he told them that he’d be; and third, so long as they got into the right truck when they got there. Spiritually, Jesus Christ did this same thing for us.
Jesus told us that there were some places He planned to be, and some activities that He planned to be a part of, and that so long as we went to those places and did those things, then we’d find Him there. I’ve already mentioned two of them, Matthew 18, in the fellowship of the church, and Matthew 25, in the distress and disguise of the poor and needy. So, here’s a third one, the one that has been central and especially precious to our life as a church – the Lord’s Supper.
On Easter Sunday evening as the two forlorn disciples sat down at table with the stranger who’d joined them on their walk to Emmaus, and He took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it, Luke tells us that “their eyes were opened, and they recognized” that they were with Jesus (Luke 24:31). It seems to me that this is the promise that the Lord’s Table holds out to all of us every Sunday. When we break the bread and bless the cup of the Lord’s Supper, we are being given a way to be with Jesus Christ that was chosen by Jesus Christ Himself! He said, “This is where I’ll be.”
This is why it’s called “communion.” “Communion” comes from a Latin word that means “coming together as one.” This clearly has a horizontal reference, to the way that we find our unity with each another around the Lord’s Table. But it’s first reference is vertical, to the way that we find our unity with God restored by what it was that Jesus Christ did on the cross for us. The broken bread and poured-out cup of the Lord’s Supper are signs of this saving work that Jesus Christ did for us.
In the Old Testament the Tabernacle in the wilderness that became the Temple in Jerusalem was known as the “Tent of Meeting.” It’s where God’s first covenant people went be with God. They went there because that’s where God told them that He’d be. It was where they could always be sure to always find Him, and the Lord’s Table is our “Tent of Meeting.” This is where Jesus Christ said that He’d be for us. He’s known “in the breaking of the bread.” So, how come it doesn’t always work? How come there’s times when instead of sharing in the body and blood of Christ at the Lord’s Table, all we seem to get is a bite of bread and a sip of juice?
I Corinthians 11 describes a moment when this very thing happened in the life of the church at Corinth. Paul told them that he knew that they thought they were getting together to take communion, but in fact. He told them, it was not the Lord’s Supper that they were eating (11:20). Rather than being a means of grace, a “celebration with thanksgiving of the saving acts and presence of Christ,” Paul told the Corinthians that what they were actually doing was “profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (11:27). Rather than the Lord’s Supper serving their spiritual health and growth, Paul told them that it was making them spiritually sick and killing them instead (11:30).
“You are eating the bread and drinking the cup in an unworthy manner” (11:27) was Paul’s diagnosis of what was going wrong. The Lord’s Supper isn’t magic. We don’t just say the right words, perform the right rituals, and then abracadabra, God shows up in a puff of some like some kind of genie from a bottle. We bring something to this party. This is why Jesus told the Parable of the Sower. Remember –
“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Matthew 13:3-8)
Note that the problem in this story was not with the seed but with the soil. Where the soil was receptive the good seed produced a bumper crop. But where the soil was crowded with weeds, or shallow, or hard, it brought no return. That seed is the Gospel, Jesus said, and the soil, our hearts.
The Lord’s Supper is a way that the Gospel gets preached to us every Sunday morning. The broken bread in remembrance of Christ’s broken body, and the cup poured in remembrance of Christ’s shed blood, are seeds of the Gospel’s hope, and power, and peace that get sown into our hearts each week. But what becomes of those seeds depends on the condition of our hearts. Are they open or closed? Are they hard or soft? Are they receptive or resistant?
Paul told the Corinthians that the remedy for their unworthy participation in the Lord’s Supper was self-examination. This is how the soil of our hearts gets prepared. “Let a person examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup,” Paul told them (11:28). Whenever I hear this, I think of those signs for the roller coasters over at Six Flags that say, “You must be this tall to ride.” Put the words “worthy” and “self-examination” together, and I can’t help but wonder, and worry, about the requirements. Have I done enough? Am I good enough? Will I get in?
I grew up in a church that did two things every Sunday morning. The Ten Commandments were read to us, every week, and then we celebrated Communion. In my little boy brain, how I put this together was by thinking that obeying the Ten Commandments was how you got to go to the Lord’s Table. It was the “You must be this tall” sign at the beginning of the ride. But in time, as I grew in in understanding, when the Ten Commandments took my moral and spiritual measure each week, the further I found myself falling from God’s glory and the less deserving of God’s grace I felt myself to be. The Ten Commandments didn’t congratulate me. They condemned me.
One of the prayers we prayed together at that church when I was a kid gave voice to what I felt after hearing the Ten Commandments read out loud each week. “We have offended against thy holy laws,” it said, “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; we have done those things which we ought not to have done; there is no health in us.” The Old Testament Psalmist came to the painful realization that if God was keeping score, taking note of all his sins, then there was just no way that he was ever going to be able to stand in God’s Presence (139:3). If keeping the moral and spiritual demands of the Ten Commandment are what it takes to be worthy of the Lord’s Supper, then I’m out. I’m not good enough or faithful enough to be here. That’s where honest self-examination is going to leave me every single time. But, in a surprising twist, this is precisely where the way to the Lord’s Table opens before us. This is where grace meets us.
As the Psalmist discovered, it was only when he knew that he had nowhere to stand before God on the basis of some imagined spiritual proficiency or moral superiority that he discovered God’s basic nature to be love, and experienced it as forgiveness (Psalm 130:3-4). The honest self-examination that Paul told the Corinthians was the prerequisite for their “worthy” participation in the Lord’s Supper doesn’t turn us into the Pharisee that Jesus talked about who went up to the Temple to pray with his list of moral and spiritual qualifications firmly in hand, but rather into the Publican who could only bow his head, beat his chest in the presence of God, and say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14).
John Hunter, a 19th century English Congregationalist minister, wrote one of the most widely used worship books for the churches of his day. It’s entirely possible that Thomas Campbell, one of our church’s founders, was familiar with this worship book, and maybe even used it. What I do know for sure is that more than once I’ve heard echoes of John Hunter’s invitation to the Lord’s Table in the invitations to the Lord’s Table at Disciple churches where I’ve worshipped, and every time I have, I’ve thought it exactly “right” in tone and content.
“Come to this sacred Table, not because you must, but because you may: come to testify not that you are righteous, but that you sincerely love our Lord Jesus Christ, and desire to be His true disciples: come, not because you are strong, but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on Heaven’s rewards, but because in your frailty and sin you stand in constant need of Heaven’s mercy and help.”
This is a Communion Token. There was a time when the only way you could come the Lord’s Table was if you had one of these, and the only way you could get one of these was to prove to someone like me that you deserved it, that you were “worthy” of having it! Can you imagine having to convince your minister that you are a good enough Christian before they would serve you Communion?
The beginnings of our church can be traced to the moment when our founders rejected this practice. We don’t qualify for the Lord’s Supper because we’re good, or because we believe the right things, or because behave in the acceptable ways, but only because we need grace. The self-examination that Paul said we need to conduct as our preparation for coming to the Lord’s Table doesn’t establish our credentials, it exposes our need, and it’s only that need that makes us “worthy” of the Lord’s Supper. “Whoever comes to me,” Jesus said, “I will not send away” (John 6:37). So come, not because “any goodness of your own gives you a right to come, but because He loves you, and gave Himself for you.” It’s admitting our need for grace that makes us worthy of the gift of grace that we receive in the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Table.