Sour grapes and stale crackers.
Passing out the elements for the Lord’s Supper shouldn’t feel like a funeral dirge.
This article was originally written for 1517.
I’m a lifelong Baptist and I’ve always been in church. Both my grandfathers served as pastors at various points in their lives, and my dad still ministers at a Baptist church in upstate South Carolina. Consequently, my understanding of the faith and practice of Christianity didn’t come with much in the way of liturgy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing or something of which I’m resentful — it’s just a fact. The liturgical tradition of Baptists is not nearly as robust as, say, Lutherans or Anglicans or Episcopalians. I don’t wish to comment on the merits or faults of liturgical elements in worship; that’s beyond the scope of this little blog. However, I do I think some Baptists are so scared of anything that even subliminally resembles Roman Catholicism that they purge their services of elements of worship that might be misconstrued as such. This is why, I think, the majority of Baptist congregations aren’t familiar with much in the way of confessions, creeds, or public responsive readings. (This is largely being counteracted by the efforts of the fellows at The Center for Baptist Renewal.) That all seems too “high church” for our “good ‘ole preachin’” way of doing church. And that’s okay, I guess. But somewhere along the line, though, the Lord’s Supper was replaced with Christ’s Funeral.
Seriously, have you been to a Baptist service where they take communion? I have. And sometimes it’s as if we’re still embalming an entombed Savior. Or maybe everyone’s just been made to sip sour juice and nibble stale crackers. The dour nature of this time siphons whatever joy might’ve been seen or felt during the preaching just prior. And it’s not that I truly believe those involved in these types of services did this intentionally (perhaps). It’s just how I felt in the middle of them as a young churchgoer. That’s certainly the overriding feeling I got out of communion as the deacons slowly distributed the elements as the organist droned an old hymn.
Nonetheless, the seriousness with which we engage the Lord’s Table rolls the stone back over the grave — one that’s filled, not empty. We bury Jesus with our somber communions. We put him in the grave all over again, as disciples who both don’t know the truth and don’t have the Word. We keep him in the grave with our pensive partaking of the bread and the cup. But I don’t think that’s how it should be. Passing out the elements shouldn’t feel like a funeral dirge. Taking the bread and the
wine juice (Baptists!) isn’t an occasion for solemnity but celebration! The Lord is risen! He is alive! Death couldn’t contain him (Acts 2:24). He has put Death to death (1 Cor. 15:26).
Some, however, understand this idea of “celebration” as irreverent. After all, doesn’t the apostle Paul warn us to examine ourselves before taking communion in an “unworthy manner”? (1 Cor. 11:27–28). Certainly, he does. But I think we’re missing the point if we think that this “examination” is one that’s sullen and stony. Paul’s discussion of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 has, in my opinion, been grossly misinterpreted. The sentiment that’s given during the communion service is the participant had better make sure there’s “nothing between them and God” or else they’ll risk eating the cracker and drinking the juice unworthily. Such is why the the distribution of the elements is often accompanied by a somber moment of pensive, pious, inquisitive (silent) prayer.
It is my estimation, however, that the “unworthy manner” of which the apostle cautions is directed more towards a calloused or flippant disregard for what the elements signify, that is, the body and blood of Christ. You may feel yourself unworthy, but that’s good. You are. But this Table is made precisely for the unworthy. They are whom receive the invitation to this meal. The examination with which we are to conduct on our hearts is, therefore, meant to test our motives as we approach the Table (1 Cor. 11:27–32). The gravity of this scene shouldn’t grieve us but should make us glory in what our Savior shouldered for us. As we participate in communion, we are preaching the gospel to the world and ourselves. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).
You see, the communion service is a sermon in and of itself. The communion sermon is that which most expressly tells us of the sinless One who stands in the sinner’s stead. Of how our Redeemer was counted among the rebels to redeem the rebels themselves (Isa. 53:4–12). Of how the spotless Lamb of God was reckoned a sinner that sinners might be declared righteous (2 Cor. 5:21). There is nothing magical or mystical that happens at this Table — but there is something momentous. At this Table, we are re-offered Christ’s wounds as incontrovertible proof of his authority over death (John 20:24–29). We are re-given the bloodied and bruised body of the crucified Christ (Isa. 53:4–5). At this Table, we sip and chew on bread and wine and are reminded of the Savior who himself tasted death for everyone (Heb. 2:9). At this Table, we ingest the good news all over again. At this Table, we are made to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). At this Table, we find out that yes, the rumor is true: grace did it all, your sins are forgiven. At this Table, we are told of a “full Saviour and a full salvation; a full Redeemer and a full redemption. A full Saviour, a free gospel, and a finished righteousness, are set before our eyes” (Bonar, 16.4).
When Jesus broke the bread and distributed the cup at the Last Supper, he instituted a sacrament in which believers of every age might remember the covenant of God’s blood poured out for them. “This is my body which is given for you . . . This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you,” our Lord declares (Luke 22:19–20). The meal which our Lord himself established was such that puts the forgiveness of sins into our mouths over and over again. These graphic words paint for us a gracious picture in which we are made to remember the cross and the gift of God’s own self. “The Supper,” says Gerhard Forde, “is a place where God literally lays himself open to us and says, ‘Here you have me’” (85–86). In this Supper, we are made to remember and revel in the God who welcomes sinners to himself by giving himself to them.
Perhaps that’s why we should be partaking of it more frequently than we do. As Dan Price writes, “A faith that is fed a steady diet of the grace and mercy of God in the body and blood of his Son cannot be dead” (69). As he consumed our death and is emptied, we consume his life and are filled. He reverses the Serpent’s clarion call, “Take and eat,” by giving us the same command. “Take and eat,” our Lord says. Only the Savior’s words aren’t followed by death and condemnation but life and peace. “Take and eat.” “Taste and see.” Let us come to the Table.
Horatius Bonar, Kelso Tracts (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1851).
Gerhard Forde, Where God Meets Man: Luther’s Down-to-Earth Approach to the Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing, 1972).
Daniel Emery Price and Erick Sorensen, Scandalous Stories: A Sort of Commentary on Parables (Irvine, CA: 1517 Publishing, 2018).