February 20, 2019

Wednesday with Michael Spencer: Thoughts on Weekly Communion

Wednesday with Michael Spencer
Thoughts on Weekly Communion (2008)

In June of last year, I began taking the Lord’s Supper weekly. I’d like to write about what this has meant to me, and to the community of worshiping Christians that I lead.

My Southern Baptist tradition has been de-emphasizing the Lord’s Supper for a good deal of its recent history. This has not been so much intentional as it is the result of a weak ecclesiology (manifested in a loss of emphasis on church membership and church discipline), an over-emphasis on evangelism and church growth, and lack of theological foundations for the place of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the church and the Christian.

The result of this de-emphasis is sad: the supper is rarely served, it is rarely preached about, and most Baptists have no positive role in their own spirituality for the Lord’s Supper.

Part of the picture is the tendency of Baptists to define themselves by as many negatives as positives. This is especially true with baptism and the Lord’s Supper, where many pastors are far more comfortable with saying what they don’t believe than what they do believe.

This situation has been unacceptable to me for many years. In the last twenty years of my ministry experiences, I have given many opportunities to take the Lord’s Supper more frequently, and I have emphasized the place of the Lord’s Supper in worship and the Christian “walk.”

One of my motivations has been simple: the Lord’s Supper is a vivid and vital connection with Jesus. To come to the Lord’s table is to return to that night when Jesus gave the supper to his disciples. It is to be re-invited to believe, to be re-invited into the community of Jesus’ followers. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are literal moments from the ministry of Jesus, re-lived and re-joined with all the power of that moment.

Most Christians in my tradition are starved for these connection points. Contemporary evangelical spirituality offers emotional experience — “quiet time,” music, church programs and information in sermons as the individual’s “connecting points” with Jesus. The roles of the church, baptism, the Lord’s Supper and service to others are not completely neglected, but there are few churches where the life of the New Testament church resembles to language and emphases of the New Testament.

When soli deo [i.e. the house church Michael led for a time] began, I offered a summation of our values and vision. Several of those values revolve around frequent communion, and the shaping of worship around scripture, liturgy, creeds and the Lord’s Supper rather than around music and the sermon only.

This emphasis on weekly communion is an emphasis on a particular vision of the Christian life, one that enters into the Biblical story and especially into the particular story of Jesus, as the primary shaping force of the Christian life. This is in stark contrast to the starvation diet most evangelicals and most of my Baptist family endures in a constant dependence on music, consumerism and massive doses of preaching to form their identity. The results are paltry, shallow and frequently non-existent.

So, since June of ’06, I have been receiving communion weekly. In contrast to the 2-4 times a year communions that are normal in Southern Baptist life, I’ve been at the Lord’s table every Tuesday night. I’ve shared that community with a worshiping fellowship from many different denominations and backgrounds, some learning about this more ancient way of worship for the first time, while others are much further down the road of post-evangelicalism than I am.

In addition to the vital and vivid connection with Jesus, I’ve recovered a joy in communion that theological debates had taken away. For some time, my awareness of and participation in debates about the nature of the Lord’s Supper turned the Lord’s Supper into a source of division and anxiety. It reminded me of those theologians who, in their insistence on a particular version of the “real presence,” defend the supper with philosophical categories and language that are far from the actual, unifying, language of scripture. Such language may be apologetically useful, but it is devotionally vacuous.

One of our values in soli deo is to say little about communion, and to stay as close to the actual words of institution as possible. I will usually do a 2-3 minute communion meditation, then, using the actual words of I Corinthians 11, slightly expanded (usually with connections to the passover meal), we share the Lord’s Supper in bread and cup, received in silence.

I do this for the very practical reason of leading an inter-denominational fellowship that has chosen not to work through all the aspects of theology before worshiping together. As fellow missionaries and members of a missional community, we share some aspects of “church” fellowship, but do not share others. Minimizing the words associated with the Lord’s Supper to the words of institution keeps us at the point where our shared fellowship is not divided, but united, at the Lord’s table.

The aspect of weekly communion that has been the most significant for me is the constant reminder that inclusion in the community of Jesus comes with the reception of forgiveness. The community of Jesus is not formed by miracles or testimonies, but by Christ’s forgiveness of sinners. Rather than focusing on “walking the aisle,” weekly communion focuses on constant forgiveness from Christ himself. In communion, Christ is active, faith is receptive and I am passive.

In my Baptist upbringing, we were frequently told that weekly communion turned the supper into a meaningless, rote ritual. Roman Catholics and those in the Disciples of Christ churches were examples. Of course, this same standard didn’t seem to apply to preaching, the offering, choir specials, hymns and, of course, the offering. It is was always obvious to me that the kinds of demeaning language used in describing frequent communion was not rooted in the Bible, but is simple prejudice: we don’t want to be like the Catholics.

The difference has become clear. When communion is properly elevated in worship, the meaning of communion is elevated. I am not particularly fond of the idea of dividing the service into “two” liturgies. I prefer to keep communion in the area where Baptists typically think about the invitation, but instead of walking the aisle, we are offered Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

Some will no doubt be surprised to hear that a shortening of the sermon has happened as we re-emphasized the Lord’s Supper. This is not a necessity, but our worship contains a Psalm and three lessons. We have consciously tried to place the teaching of the Word in a servant posture to the reading of the lessons. In much Baptist tradition, the reading of the scripture is servant to the sermon, and I feel this is inappropriate.

In the Lord’s Supper, the Word is proclaimed, the Gospel is offered and Christ is present in power to save. The “memorial” view can be presented in a stripped down, barely significant view of taking a pledge, or it can be presented as remembering one who has promised to be with us, in power, and in fellowship with those who share, believingly, in the Lord’s Supper as living members of Christ’s body. I am convinced the “stripped down” view of the Lord’s Supper has needlessly removed the power of the Supper from the experience of many Christians, and made the reformed, Lutheran and Catholic views more attractive to many Baptist Christians.

I never feel I am participating in “just a symbol.” A “symbol” has the power to include me in the reality of the thing signified if I enter, with faith, into the story in which the symbol occurs. The language of “just a symbol” is, in fact, offensive, for it demeans all kinds of Biblical language and many aspects of the Biblical story. (Should we say that Passover is a “symbol with power” or “just a symbol?”) It is a measurement of our confusion regarding communion that we see nothing strange about taking all the power and influence that God has associated with the Supper and describing such as “just” a symbol.

I’ve become convinced that occasional communion tends to drain the event of its significance and emphasize the wrong aspects. If we believe that communion is a “pledge” on our part as well as an offering of the Gospel itself, then we want to keep both aspects together and not overemphasize either one at the expense of the other. It is extremely hard for me to see that communion 2 or 3 times a year can possibly emphasize the new covenant gospel that Jesus explicitly says is present in the Lord’s Supper. I believe Spurgeon understood this when he did what no megachurch pastor would dare do today: have the Lord’s Supper at every Sunday service.

Weekly communion is a constant reminder that we journey with Jesus; that we are vitally connected to him and to the movement he began; that Christ, in the new covenant, offers his people all that their salvation means through simple, empty-handed faith. It would be difficult for me to go back to worship without weekly communion. The place of Christ’s New Covenant meal in worship can’t be replaced with music or preaching. It is Christ’s meal of fellowship, Christ’s table of invitation, Christ’s body and blood proclaimed for us in bread and wine.

Virtually eliminating what Christ gave to us to be at the very center or worship is trading away our great inheritance for trinkets and decoration. Restoring the Lord’s Supper to a central place in worship is a crucial part of the renewal and reformation post-evangelicals should work toward.

Comments

  1. “Weekly communion is a constant reminder that we journey with Jesus; that we are vitally connected to him and to the movement he began; that Christ, in the new covenant, offers his people all that their salvation means through simple, empty-handed faith. It would be difficult for me to go back to worship without weekly communion. The place of Christ’s New Covenant meal in worship can’t be replaced with music or preaching. It is Christ’s meal of fellowship, Christ’s table of invitation, Christ’s body and blood proclaimed for us in bread and wine.”

    Amen, amen, amen.

  2. senecagriggs says:

    In my teen years I attended a Grace Brethren Church where communion was quarterly BUT we actually had a meal together, very simple sandwiches ,and then – separately [ men/women] – had a literal foot-washing where everybody had their feet washed and then washed someone else’s feet.

    • There is something deeply profound that happens during foot-washing. I’ve experienced it once when I was in a small play, acting as Doubting Thomas, and had my feet washed by the man playing Jesus. Wow. Every one of us who was playing a disciple and experienced that ended up in tears. Then we all partook in washing the feet of anyone in the audience who came forward.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        At the very least, it’s a potent image.
        That has an echo.

      • Christiane says:

        Hello Rick Ro.

        I found your comment very moving, this:
        “There is something deeply profound that happens during foot-washing. I’ve experienced it once when I was in a small play, acting as Doubting Thomas, and had my feet washed by the man playing Jesus. Wow. Every one of us who was playing a disciple and experienced that ended up in tears. ”

        There IS something to ways of praying that recall to us more actively and vividly the events in Our Lord’s ministry. If we want to sense the Presence of the Lord in our midst as we pray, why not incorporate as He did, the bread and the wine, and the water, and the service to others that are found in liturgies that have ‘acted out’ the themes of the Holy Gospels over the millenium where most Christian people couldn’t read or had no access to sacred Scripture unless their Church had a copy from a scriptorium written by hand, usually in Latin/Greek.

        There was a need for the involvement of such Christians in the ways of praying that called them to ‘participate’ actively . . . standing, kneeling, bending, giving of the ‘offerings’ and the recieving of the Eucharist, the touch of the holy water, the signs, the touching of the prayer beads, the lighting of candles . . . .
        like a panorama also, the stations of the Cross, and The Story told in the stained glass through which the sun shone on them as they worshipped.

        It is sad that ‘liturgy’ in that way went out the door for many when the invention of the printing press put a Bible in their hands . . . . because IN the participatory portions of that liturgy, the physical and emotional component of worship was also set aside, as ‘no longer needed’ . . . . . but still, your comment describes the tears of the participants as something was awakened in them that had belonged a thousand years ago to their forebears in the faith of Christ. . . .

        thanks for sharing that, Rick

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          There was a need for the involvement of such Christians in the ways of praying that called them to ‘participate’ actively . . . standing, kneeling, bending, giving of the ‘offerings’ and the recieving of the Eucharist, the touch of the holy water, the signs, the touching of the prayer beads, the lighting of candles . . . .

          What is now called “Full-Sensory Immersion”.

      • I don’t think foot washing has quite the same impact on us today as it did in the time Jesus walked the earth. We have incredibly higher standards of cleanliness and sanitation and lack a truly analogous experience to identify it with.

        Our feet may stink, but they don’t normally get that dirty by comparison, and they are easily cleaned quite thoroughly by our daily bathing rituals. The points of Christ’s action was not in the act itself, but in the social implications of it. The washing of feet was something that the lowly servant did for his master, and in so doing, God showed himself to embrace a lowliness beneath us, because he came to serve and not to be served. Clean feet are a relatively incidental detail next to this.

        I’ve participated in this once, and was not so nearly moved by it. I think I understand why some are. The knowledge of Christ’s story and resulting love for him can connect a lot of emotion to this symbolic recollection.

        But as far as I’m concerned, I don’t need a re-enactment, because Christ himself actually HAS washed me, lowered himself to a servant status to cleanse me from a filth deeper than our modern lifestyle can understand. He did this with actual water, and it’s called Baptism. This is why he says to Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Jesus will never scrub our feet today, but he washes us still.

  3. “The aspect of weekly communion that has been the most significant for me is the constant reminder that inclusion in the community of Jesus comes with the reception of forgiveness. The community of Jesus is not formed by miracles or testimonies, but by Christ’s forgiveness of sinners.”

    Well said. Amen.

  4. Steve Newell says:

    The practice of frequent Holy Communion is part of the early church. We see in Acts 2:42 ” They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

    I grew up in various Southern Baptist Churches where the Lord’s Supper was done on a quarterly basis and the focus was on us as we ate the bread and drank the grape juice. The words “Do this in remembrance of me” was the focus with little placed on words “This is my body, which is for you” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22).

    How as a member of several Lutheran (LCMS), I have gone to appreciate the full understanding that Lutheran provide to Holy Communion in terms of its frequency, it is an important part of standard worship, and it takes Christ’s words of that Communion as being a sacrament.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I grew up in various Southern Baptist Churches where the Lord’s Supper was done on a quarterly basis and the focus was on us as we ate the bread and drank the grape juice. The words “Do this in remembrance of me” was the focus with little placed on words “This is my body, which is for you” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22).

      We sure as hell don’t do it that way in the RCC.

      But then, dogma in the SBC was “NO POPERY!” even before it became Calvin and Comp.

      “If we stand just because enemy Christians kneel, that is Protestantism taken to its most sterile extreme.”
      Evangelical is Not Enough

  5. …the result of a weak ecclesiology (manifested in a loss of emphasis on church membership and church discipline)

    WOW, has the SBC come around since 2008. With a vengeance.

    Was Michael talking more about 1978?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The SBC and its young on-fire Calvinjugend have taken the Mark of Calvin on forehead AND right hand. An Image of Geneva come to life and decreeing that all who do not Take the Mark shall be Purged.

      • Membership and church discipline are two of the most important planks in the 9Marks platform, and Mark Dever is a major player in the SBC. I wonder if 9Marks hadn’t hit Michael’s neck of the woods by 2008. Still, that’s around the time when Michael’s article “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” hit the stands.

        • There’s a lot about Dever with which I very strongly disagree. However, he does have some important things to say, and I believe there are nails he really hits on the head. I wish more of our Lutheran churches would take more seriously the idea that a membership 5 times higher than your attendance is a serious sign of spiritual unhealthiness. My experience has borne this out far too many times. My current congregation has enough members who would never darken our door on a Sunday, but they make sure to throw in their weight when it comes time to vote on a matter that will never affect them. There is a special place in hell for people like that.

          There. I said it.

  6. “This is my body, which is for you” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22). If only people emphasized the ForYou we might be able to again see how frequent we should be taking the Eucharist or Communioon.

  7. Richard Hershberger says:

    The Reformation quickly divided into three main traditions: Reformed, Lutheran, and Anabaptist. The Anglophone church, in all its variants, owes most to the Reformed tradition, including its theology of the eucharist as a memorial. The de-emphasis of the eucharist follows from this. If the eucharist is a sacrament in which we encounter the living God, this commands our attention and respect. If it is merely a memorial, particularly of something we remember anyways, then it is not nearly so big a deal. It is like decorating soldiers’ graves on Memorial Day: An important, and perhaps beloved, tradition, but a separate thing from our day to day lives.

    The Lutheran tradition started with quarterly communion, but this was already more frequent than the laity had previously taken the sacrament. We love our legalisms, so some people took quarterly as The Way, but that was never the idea. Quarterly was very old fashioned when I was a kid. I heard of such churches, but I don’t think I ever saw one. The discussion was between monthly and twice monthly. Nowadays twice monthly is old fashioned, though far from unheard of. Weekly is more common.

    Which leads me to “an inter-denominational fellowship that has chosen not to work through all the aspects of theology before worshiping together.” Color me skeptical. Theology and worship practice are intimately interconnected. We can put a lot of weight on “all” and worship while some incidental issues are unresolved, but there mere act of weekly communion carries theological implications.

    • Richard, in the ECUSA the Holy Eucharist, is considered a sacrament (though we certainly don’t open a window into men’s souls). It is also the principal service in the church and as such, when possible, it is celebrated every Sunday.

      • Richard Hershberger says:

        I perhaps was working “most” a bit hard. The Anglicans are the odd man out in Anglophone Christianity. In sacramental theology they are in some respects more like Lutherans.

    • I agree with your final point, but I’m pretty sure Lutheranism did not start with quarterly communion. I’ve read most of the early Lutheran church orders, and weekly communion seems like it was maintained in continuity with Catholic tradition from the start. It certainly was still in order at the time of Bach.

      American Lutheranism is a completely different animal. Monthly communion was very common in the LCMS, largely because of a clergy shortage. When a pastor had to simultaneously serve four congregations over a large area, you got him once a month, and that is when you communed.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Some will no doubt be surprised to hear that a shortening of the sermon has happened as we re-emphasized the Lord’s Supper. This is not a necessity, but our worship contains a Psalm and three lessons. We have consciously tried to place the teaching of the Word in a servant posture to the reading of the lessons.

    If the “three lessons” are OT, NT, and Gospel (with Psalm between OT & NT) he’s reproducing the standard Western Rite Liturgy of the Word. (Which is followed by a Homily or (short sermon), then Liturgy of the Eucharist (communion).)

    Was he going ROMISH(TM) or just (like a lot of non-liturgical church types) Reinventing the Wheel?

    • Burro (Mule) says:

      “Those who reject UNIX are inevitably bound to reinvent it”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        One of my fannish contacts (Jordan179 in the Bay Area) is a self-described atheist with great respect for Christianity. He wrote on one of his blogs that “Christianity is a meme which has been gradually and constantly debugged for the past twenty centuries.”

        Using his imagery, these Latter-day Apostles trying to restore the True New Testament Church of the Book of Acts are wiping the debugged version and reinstalling the 1.0 Beta version.

  9. senecagriggs says:

    UNIX? Are we talking about the computer operating system? Otherwise, I don’t know what is being referenced.

    [ I’ve toyed with Unix off and on in the past but family members were resistant to changing OS.]

  10. Christiane says:

    I was looking at these words:

    ” I prefer to keep communion in the area where Baptists typically think about the invitation, but instead of walking the aisle, we are offered Christ in the Lord’s Supper.”

    I thought about two things:

    first, the statement of faith in Christ given by the Centurion when he asked Our Lord to heal his servant, this:
    “…6“Lord, my servant lies at home, paralyzed and in terrible agony.” 7“I will go and heal him,” Jesus replied. 8The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (from the Mathean account, chapter 8)

    and we know Our Lord’s response, this: ” “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”

    the second thing I thought about were the words said by all present at mass including communicants waiting to receive the Eucharist, these:
    “Lord I am not worthy to receive You. Speak but the Word, and my soul shall be healed”

    Soooo, I put the two together and I do see the reception of the Holy Eucharist to be more biblical of a statement of faith than the ‘walk the aisle’ ceremony of a person who is affirming faith in Christ;
    HOWEVER,
    for someone in that tradition, who has almost no concept of Eucharist as it has been celebrate since time immemorial, then certainly, if the ‘walk the aisle’ works for them, God Bless them . . . they must do what has meaning for them, and therefore honor Our Lord . . . .

    FINALLY (I promise), the preparation for the Eucharist is a statement of faith based on ‘Domine, non sum dignus’ or ‘Lord I am not worthy’;
    but the idea of that concept within evangelical circles seems muddled to me, with the ‘I’m saved’ and ‘your not’ creating a wall between ‘the saved’ and ‘the others’, and this sometimes leads to judgmentalism instead of the recognition that ALL need the mercy of Christ, every day, because as sinners, we are ‘not worthy’ and therefore rely on Him for our salvation completely