Archive for January 2016
Related to my weekly communion jaunt, a friend asked whether I see communion as central to the liturgy, and what elements of the service ought to be present weekly.
As to which facet of corporate worship is central, I’m not sure we can identify that any more than we can identify which leg of a stool is central. I do see communion as the celebratory climax of the service, but no less important is Jesus himself speaking a word to his people through the mouths of his representative heralds (consider how it is that Jesus preaches peace to the Ephesians in 2:17).
The notion of worship as covenant renewal helps to answer the question of what is essential and even in what order these facets ought to appear. It is interesting that the New Testament portrays the church more as the new temple (2 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:21) and the new Zion-Jerusalem-assembly (Heb. 12) than the new synagogue. New covenant worship is the explicit heir of the old covenant’s sacrificial worship (Rom. 12:1, Heb. 13:10–16). We ought to look closely at how models like Sinai (consecration, word, meal with God) and the sacrificial system (the order of which is always purification offering, ascension & tribute, peace offering meal) translate into the new covenant. Other obvious covenant renewals like Deuteronomy and Ezra-Nehemiah are useful here; so too are David’s liturgical reforms that overlay sacrifice with song; and Revelation, however obscure, nevertheless gives us a heavenly pattern for organized corporate worship. Kline and others have done work analyzing the structure of Biblical covenants that is helpful here. But even considering only Sinai and the sacrificial system it seems evident that we ought to have a minimal pattern of confession-absolution; followed by ascension in song to bring tribute and hear a word from our commander-king-husband; and closing with a meal. (It seems possible to link these three legs of the stool with the offices of Jesus, and also with the members of the Trinity.) In addition to these three, a good case can be made as well for a kind of call and commissioning as opposite book-ends of the service.
How do we integrate this order of worship with 1 Cor. 14, where everyone is to bring a hymn, lesson, revelation, tongue, or interpretation? These fit with the central “ascension” portion of the service: the song and tithe and word. Obviously that leaves unanswered questions of what these things look like in detail, and what their specific place and proportion is.
Returning to the question of what is central in worship: it is Jesus who stands behind both word and food; worship is an actual going–up to meet with him. If he has spiritual eyes, who does the worship leader see when he turns around on the Lord’s day? It is Jesus (Rev. 1:10ff). Who is the true worship leader? It is Jesus (Heb. 2:12).
Over the past seven months I have written a series of blog posts arguing for the practice of weekly communion in the church. Weekly communion is not something for which we have an explicit command in scripture, so at best it is possible to establish it as a “good and necessary consequence” of scriptural examples and commands. This makes it a question of fittingness, betterness, and wisdom rather than a matter of right and wrong that ought to bind everyone’s conscience equally. Still, we ought to pursue not only what is permissible but also what is best, and I hope that you will consider with me the merits and blessings of celebrating weekly communion in the church. What follows is a set of arguments primarily from biblical theology and biblical typology: what you might call a sort of typological logic. You may find a few of these arguments to be somewhat fanciful, but I hope that you will find them to be cumulatively persuasive.
- In everything, eucharist!
- Jesus knocks: will we open the door and have a meal with him?
- Worship is sacrificial, so as priests we too have a daily partaking of bread and wine
- Worship is a tryst, thus morsels and wine
- Worship is the gathering of the host, a dress review banquet
- Worship is spiritual warfare, and we must always find a table set in the presence of enemies
- Tithing is linked with bread and wine via Abraham and Melchizedek, and is to result in “food in my house”
- Worship is not only a tryst, but a jealousy inspection, a day of the Lord
- Bread is to be set out continually in God’s house
- There is nothing better than to eat, drink, and be joyful
- Joyful feasting is commanded on the day of the Lord
- Following Moses’s inspired application, Sabbath feasting is how we obey the fourth commandment
- The church’s week to week experience ought to be a taste of God’s blessing rather than his judgment and withdrawal
- Whether or not we eat communion, we are showing forth something about the kind of table Jesus sets for his people
- Worship is covenant renewal, and to renew covenant is to feast
- Worship is in fact the renewal of a marriage covenant, and is it even necessary to ask how often a husband and wife should get together?
- Now that we have a perpetual sacrifice and are made permanently holy, we are continually in a festal season
- Worship ought to be accessible to all, from the least to the greatest
- The worship service that the early church inherited from the apostles was a Eucharistic service
- To enter God’s gates with thanksgiving is to enter them with a thanksgiving feast
While Jesus may graciously overlook the fact that much of his church today does not practice weekly communion, we still ought to consider whether it is better for us not to practice weekly communion, and for this I think we have hardly any excuse. God could have chosen the ongoing renewal of his covenant to take many forms, and he chose to cast it as a meal, a covenant meal, a family meal, for very good reasons. It is a widely acknowledged truism even among unbelievers that families ought to to eat together as much as possible.
I hope you will find that this has not only brought to mind the merits of weekly communion, but also other applications. There are many additional worthwhile directions we could take our investigation, and perhaps your mind is already reaching towards some of them. For example, we could ask whether it is better to use wine or grape juice in communion; whether it is better to use bread or crackers; what is the most fitting portion size for communion celebration; whether communion should tend to a penitential or a celebratory tone (Deut. 14:26, Neh. 8:9-12); just what kind of self-examination the apostle Paul means for us to make; whether little children ought to have a place at Jesus’s table (Ex. 10:9-11); where communion ought to fall in the order of worship and whether it ought to carry the burden of confession and absolution; the appropriateness or impropriety of individuals’ withdrawing from the table; and what sort of passages might be appropriate for use in communion exhortation beyond the tried and true words of institution. Perhaps we will consider some of these in the future if time permits.
Thus far in our consideration of weekly communion we have contemplated the testimony of the Holy Spirit through the biblical theology presented in scripture. But the Holy Spirit also works through the church—teachers are a gift of the Spirit—and it is useful to consider how the Holy Spirit has worked through the church in history.
It is generally acknowledged that weekly, twice-weekly, or even daily communion were the common practice of the early church. There are some hints of this in the Bible itself which are suggestive of a high frequency of communion if not weekly communion (e.g., Acts 2:42, 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:18, 20, 25). What is particularly interesting is to consider the absence of any indication that the supper could possibly be severed from ordinary corporate worship. This is so far unusual that Wes Baker writes that:
I have been unable to find evidence that any professing Christian until the Zurich Reformation (16th century), ever thought that Christians could have their regular Sunday worship without the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. I am not saying that they rigidly insisted that it never be omitted. My point is simply that they would consider such worship irregular. . . .
It was Zwingli’s liturgy that first introduced the idea that regular worship is primarily a preaching service. Up until that point, no one that I have found, ever seems to have thought that way. (The Lord’s Supper and the Weekly Assembly, unpublished manuscript)
Even by the time of Augustine, weekly communion still seems to be the general practice. In fact, Augustine urges tolerance toward churches that celebrate the supper weekly rather than daily:
There are other things, however, which are different in different places and countries: e.g., some fast on Saturday, others do not; some partake daily of the body and blood of Christ, others receive it on stated days: in some places no day passes without the sacrifice being offered; in others it is only on Saturday and the Lord’s day, or it may be only on the Lord’s day. In regard to these and all other variable observances which may be met anywhere, one is at liberty to comply with them or not as he chooses; and there is no better rule for the wise and serious Christian in this matter, than to conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the Church to which it may be his lot to come. For such a custom, if it is clearly not contrary to the faith nor to sound morality, is to be held as a thing indifferent, and ought to be observed for the sake of fellowship with those among whom we live. (Letter 54, Section 2)
We certainly would not wish to swallow everything from the early church fathers hook, line and sinker. But it is instructive to consider that the early church lived in an environment where the Lord’s Supper was frequently celebrated.
Thus, weekly communion: because we have every reason to believe that the worship service the early church inherited from the apostles was quite plainly a Eucharistic service.
We have considered several different models for worship, all of which capture different aspects of what it means for the church to meet with Jesus on the Lord’s day. As the chief shepherd-pastor, Jesus is concerned that all of his sheep would be fed and tended (John 21:15-19) as they meet with him.
Different parts of the Lord’s service have different degrees of accessibility to Jesus’s lambs. The sermon is perhaps the least accessible. Confession and singing and tribute-bringing are more accessible to all. But there is only one part of the Lord’s service that is accessible to all but the smallest infants, regardless of age (young or old) or mental capacity.
Thus, weekly communion: because Jesus wishes to feed all of his lambs as they come to worship him, so that all from the least to the greatest share in the experience of meeting with and receiving from him.
Paul writes to the Corinthians that:
. . . Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival . . . (1 Corinthians 5:7-8 ESV)
Calvin comments on this, writing that:
Paul, having it in view to exhort the Corinthians to holiness, shows that what was of old figuratively represented in the passover, ought to be at this day accomplished in us, and explains the correspondence which exists between the figure and the reality. In the first place, as the passover consisted of two part—a sacrifice and a sacred feast—he makes mention of both. For although some do not reckon the paschal lamb to have been a sacrifice, yet reason shows that it was properly a sacrifice, for in that rite the people were reconciled to God by the sprinkling of blood. Now there is no reconciliation without a sacrifice; and, besides, the Apostle now expressly confirms if, for he makes use of the word θύεσθαι, which is applicable to sacrifices, and in other respects, too, the context would not correspond. The lamb, then, was sacrificed yearly; then followed a feast, the celebration of which lasted for seven successive days. Christ, says Paul, is our Passover. He was sacrificed once, and on this condition, that the efficacy of that one oblation should be everlasting. What remains now is, that we eat, not once a year, but continually.
Thus, weekly communion: we, who have a perpetual sacrifice and are made permanently holy, are continually in a festal season.
We have called worship a kind of a tryst between Jesus and his bride, and have identified it as a covenant renewal, which is really a highfalutin way of saying the same thing. We as the church do not live in just any old covenant with Jesus, but a marriage covenant:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph. 5:31-32)
Luke Welch observes that human marriage-covenants have two primary covenantal motions in them: the wedding that establishes the marriage, and one-flesh sexual relations that “renew” it. He goes on to make the powerful point that in Jesus’s covenant with his bride, there are two analogous motions to our earthly marriages: Jesus’s death-resurrection-ascension that establishes the covenant (together with our baptism that brings us into it as individuals), and the continued communion that the church enjoys with Jesus at his table to renew this covenant. This communion is even a kind of one-flesh relationship, where the church-body consumes Jesus’s body (and is herself consumed by Jesus; Rev. 3:16).
Thus, weekly communion; because is it even necessary to ask how often a husband and wife should get together? Do not deprive one another (1 Cor. 7:5) or neglect to meet (Heb. 10:25).
While we have considered several models of Lord’s-day worship such as a tryst or the gathering of a military host, the primary model for corporate worship presented to us in scripture is that of covenant renewal. This is presented to us more by way of model and repetition than by way of explicit instruction, but it is one of those things that you begin to see everywhere once you realize it is there.
God’s people live and worship in covenant with him. Consistently, when God’s people assemble before him, there is a structure to that assembly that we call covenant renewal. This structure is repeated time and time again: in some of the great covenant renewals such as those of Deuteronomy and Ezra-Nehemiah, in the order of sacrifices prescribed for tabernacle and temple worship, and even in the heavenly pattern of worship laid out in Revelation. We see this in much of the language used to describe worship: worship is sacrificial (Rom. 12:1, Heb. 13:15), a drawing near to God (Heb. 4:16, 10:22), a visit to the new Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22), an eating at an altar-table (Mal. 1:7, Heb. 13:10), a going to Jesus (Heb. 13:13), an ascending to be with God (Ps. 24:3) that often symbolically takes place in an upper room (Acts 1:13, 20:8).
The consistent structure of covenant renewal is this:
- God calls his people into his presence
- God’s people respond by consecrating themselves: confessing sin
- God’s people ascend in song to meet with him, he speaks his word to them, and his people give tribute-gifts to him
- God fellowships and feasts with his people by serving them a covenant meal
- God commissions his people to go back into the world as his ambassadors and army
All of these elements are properly aspects of every covenant renewal, and the renewal is really incomplete if they are missing. For example, we ought to bring tithe-tribute to God every time we meet with him (Deut. 16:16). Likewise, to call worship a sacrifice is in fact to identify it essentially as a covenant meal: the one old-covenant offering that is called a sacrifice is the peace offering, which was the one offering that all worshippers were to eat with God in his presence. Similarly, Israel’s worship at Sinai was equated with a feast (Exodus 5:1,3; 10:7,9), and the worship-service of Revelation culminates in a feast (Rev. 19:9).
Thus, weekly communion; because we have weekly worship, and to worship is to renew covenant is to feast.