It was a Sunday morning worship service at an average congregation of Restoration Movement heritage. We were the visitors from out of town. The "regular" preacher was gone, so the youth minister, a recent college graduate, delivered the sermon. It was an average to good sermon about Saul and Jonathan against the Philistines as recorded in 1 Sam. 14. While Saul was in a defensive posture sitting under a pomegranate tree, Jonathan and his armor-bearer slipped away and, discerning a sign that the Lord was with them, attacked and killed a regiment of about 20 Philistines. The commotion, together with a little earth-shaking from the Lord, confused the Philistines enough that they began killing one another, and they were routed by Saul and his men. In the course of telling this story, the young minister made a statement of profundity - the application of which was quite possibly beyond his intention or recognition.
"Saul was fighting to keep from losing; Jonathan was fighting to win."
The mysterious profundity of this application became evident to the discerning eye during the following part of the service involving "the observance of the Lord's Supper." It was a traditional observation - reading, songs, prayers, emblems (in the scripturally correct sequence) -- yes, all in decency and in order according to the "authorized pattern." Nothing remarkable happened to particularly take note of, except in the shadow of contrast from the above statement.
The service continued: There was a dramatic reading from the "Last Supper" (Matt. 26:26-30), a song ("Come To the Table"), the bread, a song ("Nothing But the Blood"), the cup, prayers.
Everything was handled within the range of "doctrinal acceptability." The song: "Come to the table of mercy...." - mercy because we don't receive the condemnation we deserve; Jesus carried that burden in our place. (Note: But why did Jesus do that?) Another song: "What can wash away my sin, nothing but the blood of Jesus; what can make me whole again, ...." The thought: Except for the blood of Jesus, we would be nothing but sinners bound for hell. The grace provided by Jesus' shed blood cleanses us from sin and saves us from condemnation. (Again, why did Jesus do that?) A prayer: Do this in remembrance of me - remember Jesus hanging on the cross for you, in your place; you should be grateful by remembering and not forgetting. (Again, why did Jesus do that?)
Next, sing "Celebrate Jesus," wrap up, dismiss, and head for the restaurant.
Okay, so, what is your problem with that? Jesus died for your sins so you wouldn't go to hell, and you need to remember that and be grateful He did that. Do you think something's wrong with that, or what?
No, it's not a matter of what's wrong with that service (and thousands of thousands of others essentially like it); it's a matter of what's missing -- what is incomplete about it.
Did Jesus die so that we would not lose, or did Jesus die so that we will win?
What did God predestine before the world began that we would do -- not go to hell, or go to live with Him in eternity? What does the foreordained plan of God say is His will for us -- to continue to celebrate the historical events giving forgiveness of sin or to be transformed into the character of Jesus Christ (the image of the invisible God, Col. 1:15)? Will we lose our forgiveness if we don't continually regenerate human gratitude for it. Is that the regeneration of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5)? Do we meet together to spur one another to remember a historical occurrence or to accomplish the purpose of that event with a view to the future? (hint: answer in Heb. 10:25)
The foreordained plan of God was that we would be transformed into His likeness (2 Cor. 3:18), into the image of the Creator (Col. 3:10), which has been our destiny before time began (1 Cor. 2:7). Jesus died, and our sins have been forgiven so that we can be free from the grip of the guilt of sin and death, so that we can do what -- escape punishment or become like Him (Eph. 4:24)? This is a fear vs. love battle. Centering on escape from punishment is not being perfected in love, and perfected = maturity (1 John 4:16-18).
So, how does a focus on Jesus dying (to keep us from losing) promote spiritual maturity? How well does concentrating on the historical sacrifice of Jesus cause us to go out in gratitude and proclaim Him without also saying "I have to do this?" Aren't we to show our gratitude by glorifying Him as we become like Him and as we build up the body into Him (Eph. 4:12-16)? Into what are we being transformed - ever-increasing glory or ever-increasing gratitude (2 Cor. 3:18)? Glory supersedes gratitude; focusing on gratitude doesn't necessarily produce glory. We can leave gratitude at the altar; glory comes from within (2 Cor. 3:18).
Heb. 12:1-2 says that we are to keep eyes on Jesus as we are transformed into the glory of God, not to keep eyes on our encumbrances that we have (supposedly) gotten rid of. We can't focus on two opposites at the same time. It doesn't work, and it isn't working.
So, what spiritual value does the church's "traditional observance of the Lord's Supper" promote? Has anyone thought, "He suffered and died, so I really do need to try harder to be pleasing to God."
The problem is not the Lord's Supper, itself; it is the form into which we have shaped that liturgy. Christianity has developed a tradition of interpretation of a few verses about the Last Supper to mean that Jesus intends that we continue to honor what He did in the flesh instead of honoring Him at the right hand of God by being transformed by the Spirit (Heb. 12:1-2).
And, yes, I've got a problem with that.
Jesus made a choice to go to the cross so we would be free to make a choice to become like Him. So, what would He have us to do - statically remember the historical choice He made or dynamically become like Him? The Corinthian church separated the formality of the historical remembrance of Jesus from the present reality of how their lives should be shaped because of what He did. They separated static liturgy from dynamic transformation. Paul said - don't call what you are doing the Lord's Supper, because it's not. That, and a few other wake-up slaps to the head, are in 1 Cor. 11:17-34.
What about recycling of sin, of forgiveness, and of a relief that we are escaping condemnation (as long as we continue to "remember")?
Focusing on sins and encumbrances - on either doing the sin or being forgiven of it - retains spiritual immaturity. The church to whom the book of Hebrews was written was not growing into maturity - too many followers were staying in the milk of the word and not getting past the elementary teachings. They were not moving into the meat of the word -- the maturity of righteousness (Heb. 5:11-14). The writer gets more specific and lists in Heb. 6:1-3 some of these elementary teachings that were being recycled. Some of these subjects sound like sermon material.
"Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so." (NIV)Did Jesus command that a liturgy be performed so that we would be continually reminded that we are sinners deserving death and eternal judgment, that the reason Jesus came to earth died was to take care of that (if we continue to fearfully repent), and that if we have enough faith, God will (barely) save us from the torment to which we are otherwise verily headed? Does this message need to be repeated over and over because we would otherwise forget?
Why do we find the need to refresh our memories that our sins have been forgiven? Is it because we always need to be forgiven over and over because we continue to drag our sins with us, and we even point out and remind others that they have sins attached. Jesus gave the plank vs splinter in the eye analogy (Matt. 7:3-5) under the Old Covenant to people who only knew the Old Law of Moses, when the foreordained plan of God was still an unrevealed mystery. Now, under the New Covenant, instead of saying "Take the plank out of your own eye so you can more clearly see the speck in your brother's eye," Jesus would say, "I have removed the plank and speck from both of your eyes so you can clearly see ME. I died that you would focus on Me, not so that you could keep from losing to 'the attack of the planks.' Is it "Identify those splinters and planks; don't let them impale you." No, it is "Leave the planks and splinters behind and look forward, because the architect of your faith has a spiritual temple for you to build - the foundation of which has already been laid." We can't be looking in our brother's eye for either planks OR splinters and keep our own eyes on Jesus.
How really Christ-centered is our traditional observance of the Lord's Supper? Are we to celebrate "the New Covenant in His blood" by thanking Jesus for continuing to remove our planks because the devil keeps putting them back in? If we actually believe that He died once for all (Rom. 6:10), why do we continue to recycle His death over and over by the Lord's Supper as though we aren't really sure about that? Why isn't that like crucifying Christ all over again and subjecting Him to public shame (Heb. 6:6)?
Recycling immaturity presents a bad witness
We recycle the old, old, story of forgiveness of sin instead of becoming the new, new Creation - made to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Our liturgical, traditional, legalistic, and "check it off" observance of the Lord's Supper that focuses attention back to Calvary does not follow the foreordained plan of God that calls for us to look forward to being transformed into God's glory.
This retrograde focus is also what the church presents to the world, and what is called "evangelism," or, more recently, "missional." (Note: Need to get a new word = "transformational.") What is that incomplete message? We are telling the world, "Jesus saved us from hell, and He will save you, too, if you just say this and do this and that, because if you don't, you will have the same fate we barely escaped from. So, we invite you to join us in as we continue to fear that we might still be consumed by that which we have been delivered from." What??
If we have to continue to recycle a remembrance that our sins have been forgiven, doesn't it show a lack of faith that we have been delivered? If we live without the confidence that our sins have been forgiven along with the shame and guilt of the past, have we really escaped from anything, or do we drag the spirit of condemnation with us like the tablets of stone from the Old Law?
Did Jesus die so that the world would not lose (be condemned) or that the world would win through Him? What does our favorite Billy Graham Crusade passage say (John 3:16-17)? Instead of preaching escape from condemnation, the church needs to show the manifold wisdom of God in His eternal plan for us to become like Him (Eph. 3:10).
There are doctrines that have been designed to justify this approach. Calvinism presents a straw man of inherent condemnation to set up the necessity of Jesus for the escape from hell. That is not the foreordained plan of God, and the doctrine of universal depravity is fraudulent for that and other reasons. Calvinistic thinking began as a response to Catholicism and has pervaded just about all parts of Christianity, especially in denomination-derived groups.
Our attitudes within the church need to change - they need to be renewed by the Holy Spirit instead of protected by competitive maneuvers from primitive tribal fiefdoms. The church, with its doctrine, needs to be baptized within the Holy Spirit by Jesus. Basically, the church needs to repent and be saved.
Recycling immaturity leads to apostasy (falling away)
Hebrews (5:11-6:12) discusses classifications of immaturity (milk of the word) and maturity (meat of the word). "Mature" is usually defined as "us," and "immature" is defined as "them." But the passages give characteristics of both. Those who are mature are "acquainted with the teaching about righteousness" and those "who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil" (5:13-14). This is the transformation process. But, the immature stay in the elementary foundational teachings about Christ - repentance from acts that lead to death (or useless rituals), foundational faith in God, water washings, laying on of hands, resurrection, and eternal judgment. The immature stay in their immaturity by recycling fundamental elementary teachings about Christ (6:1-3). Like a liturgy performed according to accepted code every week or every month?
The verses following Heb. 6:4 are not encouraging about recycling immaturities. Those who are supposed to know of the goodness of the word of God and the power of the coming age fall away and crucify the Son of God all over again and subject Him to public disgrace. Was the Last Supper given so that we would remind ourselves each week that our sins really have been forgiven - as though we are going to forget? If we need to be reminded that our sins are forgiven, isn't this like crucifying the human Jesus all over again when we "remember the suffering Savior hanging on the cross?" Where does "proclaim" and "blood of the Covenant" and "drink it with you" fit into this?
We are the future, not the past
We do not serve an historical Jesus; we serve a risen Savior, victorious over sin and death, who is seated at the right hand of God. We are not transformed into history, but into an eternal future.
Heb. 12:2, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."How has this been working for us?
Phil. 2:8-11, "And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death -- even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Col. 1:17-18, "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy."
Many consider the Lord's Supper (Eucharist) to be the most important part of a worship service. What testimony are we giving in this ceremonial performance? Does it testify into Whom we are being transformed? Jesus died so that we could be transformed into the likeness of God. This was a necessary part of the foreordained plan of God - a plan that included Christ before time began (2 Tim. 1:9-10). We honor the sacrifice of Jesus when we are transformed by the Holy Spirit, not when we continually reinforce the human aspects of His death.
We say that we understand that the foreordained plan of God is important; we say that we understand that transformation is important, but apparently we don't comprehend the relation between the two and that there is nothing more important in the universe. If the church can't proclaim that (Eph.3:10), who will?
The liturgy of the Lord's Supper isn't the problem, but the way it is handled is a prime example of the incompleteness of understanding that has been maintained and protected for nearly 2000 years. Changing the songs and reading some different scriptures and telling people to remember Jesus on the throne in addition to Jesus on the cross would make little to no difference. It is the attitude of our minds that must first change.
Finally, what about "recognizing the body" (1 Cor. 11:29)? Doesn't this necessitate thinking about Jesus hanging on the cross?
1 Cor. 11:27-32, "Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world."The Corinthians had a problem understanding the link between the body of Jesus on the cross and the body of Christ, the church. They were separating the two events and performing the ritual of the Lord's Supper while discriminating against poorer brethren by eating in front of them when they had nothing. Paul said (somewhat expanded interpretation), "You can't separate these events -- historical vs. what you do now. Jesus died so that you could be transformed by serving one another in love -- becoming like Jesus by showing the love of Jesus to one another. Don't call your liturgy the Lord's Supper, because it is not. You demonstrate the history of Jesus' body on the cross, not by repetitive motions, but through present attitudes about his body, the church, and by your transformation into your eternal future."
When the history of Jesus' death is separated from the reason for His death - our transformation - what is the result? Paul said the result to the Corinthians was God's judgment and discipline, which included weakness, sickness, and death of some of the members.
Examine yourselves to see if you are recognizing the foreordained will of God for the church when you take the Lord's Supper, because that is why Jesus died.
Straining to win or trying not to lose?
Paul and the writer of Hebrews used the analogy of transformation as being like a race that is marked out (Heb. 12:1), that one trains for and runs to win (1 Cor. 9:24), and that is being run while straining toward the finish tape (Phil. 3:14). We are not transformed into God's likeness by looking over our shoulder at history, like Lot's wife (Gen. 19:26). We are transformed by moving forward in perseverance and the power of the Spirit.
So, what is the foreordained plan of God and the necessary mission of Christ on earth intended to do? Is it God's will that His people (the elect) not lose or that they win? How then should we live - as ones who barely escaped being lost and exist in fear of God's wrath, or as ones who are destined to become like God and live in His perfect love?
So, what do our actions reveal: Are we winners through Jesus Christ or just barely not losers? It can't be both - the attitudes don't mix. Jesus said you cannot serve both a worldly master and also God (Matt. 6:24). Paul said it is the fleshly nature or the Spirit in control (Rom. 7:21-25). "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things" (Col.3:2).
Let us keep eyes only on Jesus and pray for renewal of the mind within the body of Christ, before we call the judgment of God down upon us because of our poor choices.
Note added in edit, February 26, 2016:
The "observance of the Lord's Supper" needs to be understood in light of the meaning of "created in the image of God" (Gen 1:26-27), which is theme of scripture and part of the foreordained plan of God. A new web site has been started to explore this topic.
The Imago Dei Research Initiative