Saturday, February 7, 2015

This Do in Remembrance of Me

This Sunday, February 8th, our local church will be partaking of the Lord’s Supper as the climax of our evening worship. This Supper will be open for observation to anyone wishing to attend, but participation will be only for members of our local fellowship in good standing.[1]  Guests, even members of sister churches, will not be allowed to participate - we practice closed communion.[2] This will not be a full apologetic for closed communion, but more of a primer on the Lord's Supper to prepare our hearts and minds for this great ordinance.
An ordinance is a recurring practice laid out by Jesus (ordained by Him) for churches to carry on throughout the ages. There are two ordinances of this kind: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both of these “preach with pictures,” giving a visual illustration of what Jesus has done for us. Sacraments, the other term sometimes used, refer to things which give grace to the person who receives them. We do not believe baptism or the Lord’s Supper are sacraments, except in the way that preaching is – that graces comes directly from God and that preaching and pictures can be used by God to stir up people’s hearts.[3] I avoid the term sacrament to prevent confusion about the actual process giving grace, but have never actually stoned anyone for using it.
The ordinance set up by Jesus during the Passover meal immediately before His death is usually called the Lord’s Supper by Baptists. It consisted of wine[4] and unleavened bread and is called Communion (because we share in community – commune – with God and each other -1 Corinthians 10:16), the Lord’s Supper (because He set it up, He is the host and it is  for His glory- 1 Corinthians 11:20), the Eucharist (Greek word meaning “thanksgiving” because it is a celebratory act of thanksgiving for what God has done- Mark 14:23) and the “breaking of bread” (I bet you can figure the origin of this one out – Acts 20:7).[5] Any of these terms is biblical and acceptable; the term “Lord’s Supper” has taken hold for mostly cultural reasons.
In the Baptist view[6], the Supper is a memorial of Jesus’ sacrifice (1 Corinthians 11:24-25), where the wine represents his blood poured out and the unleavened bread represents His sinless, broken body. As the wine glides down the throat, the participant can remember the sword sunk into Jesus’ side, as blood poured out to wash away the sins of the world. As the bread breaks apart, the participant can remember the soldiers whipping Christ, punching Him and nailing His battered body to a cross. It is not a sacrifice in the usual sense, because Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all (Hebrews 9:12); instead, it is an occasion for us to offer up a sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15) as an echo of Jesus’ sacrifice. Again, the elements have no atoning power but are signs. A sign which points to itself is a waste – signs always point to something else. The Lord’s Supper points to the Lord’s cross – it is a sermon that everyone in the church preaches together.[7] This is probably one of the highest honors of being a Christian, and it is shameful that so many treat is cavalierly with their non-attendance.
Because of this, it is supremely important to have a sense of the gravity of the thing being done. An unsaved person or a person in willful, high handed disobedience, will take the Lord’s Supper unworthily. We must be united with God to share in this ordinance. This manifests itself, at a minimum, in salvation and baptism (baptism being the first Act of obedience[8]). A Christian who has been living in sin ought to examine themselves and repent before partaking, but God is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins, and there is no need to abstain once forgiveness has been received.[9] I can imagine little more beautiful than an erring church member who has been under discipline repenting and being restored[10] immediately before the healed body takes the Lord’s Supper together.
Of course, as this already suggests, the Lord’s Supper is not for lone individuals. This is made very clear in 1 Corinthians, where the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is laid out in the fullest detail. 1 Corinthians 11:20, in the midst of Paul’s condemnation of their poor practice, explains that their fellowship was not the Lord’s Supper at all when he writes: “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.” Together how? The answer is given two verses earlier: “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you;”[11] Open communion is not compatible with this verse, and close communion must stretch the idea of “church” uncomfortably farther than the New Testament ever does. A local assembly comes together as a church, and one of the things they do to celebrate the Lord is to take His Supper as a unified body. To accomplish this, in practice, we do everything in as unified a way as possible. The elements are taken, and we pray together, thanking God for each one. We do not drink or eat until everyone is served, and we do so together. It is a visual proclamation of the gospel, as it remembers the first coming of Jesus which reconciled us to God, the unity of believers brought together in Christ and the second coming where God will put all things under His feet.
To elaborate, the gospel is about our reunion with God, but it is also about the unity of the new humanity in Christ. A local church is Jesus’ body, and they share the same bread together. There is not black bread and white bread, rich bread and poor bread or pastor bread and laity bread. We all partake together, because we are all in the same desperate need of the same Holy Savior. His body was broken for all of us – there is no difference.[12] Table-fellowship, who you are willing to eat with, has been a major point of contention in history for lots of reasons. In the United States, it has not been long since water fountains were divided on the basis of color and that restaurants excluded certain people. Eating together is an intimate expression of unity, as every member of the church is brought together and placed in this church by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.[13] This is the reason that church discipline includes the requirement that the church not even eat with those who claim to be Christians but are involved in gross sin.[14]
Early Christians partook of the Lord’s Supper as they assembled daily (Acts 2:46), although by Acts 20:7 it was apparently done weekly. The Bible does not give a schedule, but simply declares that we do it in memory of Jesus as often as we do it.[15] Since we are required to be unified in it, some churches do it much less frequently, often once a quarter or once a year. These are decisions to be made by the local congregation based on their spiritual health, but such a beautiful proclamation should not be abandoned, and we should realize that doing it very frequently is not condemned.
To tie it all up, the Lord’s Supper is when a local church comes together to drink the fruit of the vine and to eat unleavened bread in memory of the blood and body of Jesus, to visually proclaim His great power in bringing them together and uniting them to God. As they do so, they do so worthily, made acceptable by the very blood and body they remember, repenting of their sin and loving one another and the Lamb who bought them. Some churches do it more frequently and others less frequently, but as often as they do it, they do it to remember the King.
As we come together tomorrow, it is my prayer that the scope of this magnificent thing will be vibrant in our minds. Maranatha!

[1] Members who have been joined to us by baptism, or by transfer after baptism in another church of the same faith and similar practice and who are not currently under discipline as described in Matthew 18.
[2] Open communion – Anyone can participate. Close Communion – Baptized members in good standing of other churches can participate. Closed communion – Only local church members can participate.
[3] Of course, the Lord’s Supper and baptism only have this power in conjunction with some kind of teaching to explain their meaning. But this teaching may have been in the past and the ordinance may serve as a reminder.
[4] We use grape juice, to try to carry through the theme of incorruption from the unleavened bread in the Passover meal, as well as prudence for those who may struggle with alcohol addiction. In the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus called it “the fruit of the vine,” a phrase used nowhere else in the Bible. In the New Testament era, truly unfermented grape juice did not exist – it is simply impossible to prevent fermentation without pasteurization or refrigeration. The evidence is mixed on whether or not fresh wine was used for the Passover (which was six months after the grape harvest and was made by boiling raisins and which would have had a negligible alcohol content), or if they treated the yeast for wine differently than the yeast in bread. While a discussion of the alcohol content and dilution of biblical wine (it was apparently mixed with water a lot) will have to wait for another time, it is at least clear that undecayed grape juice is an acceptable picture of Jesus’ blood, and probably ideal (though, again, it will remain for another time for me to prove this).
[5] Our Catholic friends call it the “mass.” Apparently, this comes from the Latin word for “dismiss” used to dismiss the general public before the sacrament began. Despite the fact that I believe in closed communion, I doubt this particular term is going to catch on with Baptists!
[6] Zwinglian, if you really want to know the person who did an excellent job of laying out the logic during the Reformation.
[7] 1 Corinthians 11:26.
[8] Acts 2:41.
[9] 1 John 1:9.
[10] It is important the church restore such a one, on the basis of Matthew 5:23-24, as well as the community arguments I make below.
[11] 1 Corinthians 11:18. The word translated “come together” and “meet together” are the same term in Greek. Emphasis added.
[12] Acts 15:9, Romans 3:22.
[13] This interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12:13 may be controversial, but it is beyond my scope to defend it here.
[14] 1 Corinthians 5:11. This is a strong condemnation of open communion and at least suggestive against close communion. To offer the Lord’s Supper knowingly to someone who shows no evidence of salvation is reckless, so open communion is out. But if it is the responsibility of the church not to eat with someone who is involved in sin, how can that be ensured outside of the local church?
[15] 1 Corinthians 11:25.

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