Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Reflections on the Lord's Supper

I wrote this reflection on 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 for the Feast of Corpus Christi or, as it is known in the Church in Wales the "Thanksgiving for the Holy Communion.

The Feast of Corpus Christi dates back to the 13th century and is mainly celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church although it is included in the Church in Wales Prayer Book and other Anglican Rites. The 15th century Reformers weren't keen on it and it fell out of use in many of their churches. Theirs was a reaction against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church of the day but now a more balanced view of Hol

Holy Communion generates more light than heat and we can take a more measured view of the feast.

The above arguments centred on the bread and the wine and whether they really become the body and blood of Jesus when the Priest prays over them, or are they merely symbolic.

I don't want to get into the controversy that has plagued the church over the past two thousand years, but just look simply at the one text we have in front of us that talks about the Lord's Supper.

1 Corinthians 11:23-29 which is thought to be the earliest account of the Lord's Supper. Here Paul is writing somewhere between 53-57 AD which is within 20-25 years of the death of Jesus. Here he recounts what he says he received from Jesus himself about the words and actions of the night when Jesus shared bread and wine with the disciples. A few things stand out.

First,  it was passed on by Jesus. When my mother passed away each of us children had something of hers to remind us of her. For my siblings it was probably jewellery, ornaments or similar. For me it was a pair of hair-cutting scissors. These have a particular resonance because my mother always cut my hair and wherever I have lived I have, invariably, gone 'home' to my mother for her to cut my hair. Thus the scissors bring back memories of those times. Jesus wanted the disciples and Paul to remember him and what he had done for them on the cross. He wants us to remember too.

Second, Jesus refers to the bread and wine as his body and blood but gives no explanation as to what he meant. Did he mean that the bread turned into his body as he ate it and the wine into his blood? I am not convinced. I think the emphasis is more on what the bread and wine point toward and not what they are in and of themselves.

So the bread is a reminder that Jesus gave his body for us: "This is my body which is for you." In other words it points towards his death on the cross for us. We are told to remember this when we eat it.

And the cup of wine points to the new covenant Jesus makes with those who believe in him, sealed by his poured out blood on the cross. In the Old Testament, covenants or contracts between individuals were sealed with the sacrificial deaths of an animal or animals. This also translated to the Covenant God had with his people where a Lamb was sacrificed to signify God's Covenant between Him and his people. Jesus is the Lamb of God who seals his agreement with the believer through his death. Pointing again to the cross he bids us remember "the new covenant in my blood".

Third, taking the bread and wine is not just about me. Jesus says that it should be a spur to mission. When we eat and drink it we are to "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."

At the start of a sports game the teams often gather together in a huddle, encouraging one another and speaking last minute instructions to one another before starting the game. Jesus wanted his disciples to do the same, sharing bread and wine, remembering his sacrifice and death for them, before going out to "proclaim the Lord's death" to others. But all too often we have narrowed it down to our own private form of religious devotion which is much too inward looking and me-orientated. We even refer to it as "my communion"and this is where we have gone wrong.

Fourth, Paul talks about the dangers of mistreating this meal. He talks about eating and drinking in "an unworthy manner" and even "drinking judgement" on ourselves. Strong words. Some people have taken this to be the result of receiving the bread and wine with unconfessed sin in our hearts or even because we come in unbelief, not "discerning the body" meaning not accepting that this is Jesus' body and blood. However I think Paul means something more than that.

In verse 17ff Paul has been complaining about the divisions there are in the Corinthian Church. He writes "..your meetings do more harm than good. ...I hear that when you come together as a church there are divisions among you." So in the light of that he comes to this conclusion in verse 20 "when you come together it is not the Lord's Supper that you eat."

In other words they are not discerning that as the Body of Christ - which is Paul's description of the Church - they should be united with the sharing of the bread and wine. But by falling out with one another and quarrelling they are not only denying that but showing disrespect to Jesus and his commandment to love one another and be one as he and the father are one. They are profaning the body and blood of The Lord, says Paul, i.e. treating it as if it meant nothing. As they do this they are eating and drinking judgement on themselves.

This has nothing to do with what we actually eat and drink and everything to do with our attitudes, our selfishness and our refusal to work together as the people of God instead getting caught up in petty quarrels and causing harm to Christ's cause.

So the lessons from all this are as follows:
1. Don't make too big a deal about what the bread and wine represent but what they point to which is Jesus himself, what he has done for us and what he calls us to do for him and for each other. That's when the Lord's supper truly becomes significant.
2. How do we "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." In the first place we take in what it means for us. As we eat and drink the bread and wine and digest them so that they become part of who we are, so we are to 'take in' and grasp the significance of Christ's death for us and the world he died for. Once this this truth has become part of us then the proclamation of his death for others becomes a natural outworking of who we now are, his body the Church.
3. I find it sadly ironic that the one thing that should be equipping us and gearing us up for mission is having the exact opposite effect in our churches. As we have become almost obsessed with Holy Communion and it's spiritual significance to us as individuals, we have become more introspective and inward looking. This hinders rather than helps us and becomes an end in and of itself rather than the means to the end that Jesus intended.
4. How many churches are in danger of eating and drinking judgement on themselves by narrowing down the Lord's Supper to just me and God? It's a scary thought that as churches die that may well be what is happening today.

To close I have to add this rider. I am not criticizing anyone's interpretation or understanding of the Lord's Supper in terms of what they understand the bread and wine to be. If people see it as something more literal than symbolic or vice versa then if that draws them nearer to God that's got to be a good thing. I believe there is room in the Scriptures for that. But what I am warning is of the danger of turning this into a sort of individualistic spiritual exercise that takes no cognizance the wider body of Christians or of the significance of Jesus' death for the world which we are duty bound to share and not hoard to ourselves. "For God so loved the world..." Jesus says in John 3:16, a fact that seems to fly in the face of some of the spiritualities that centre on a more individualitic interpretation of what the Lord's Supper is all about.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Spiritual Warfare


You don't have to be long in Christian ministry before you become aware of spiritual warfare in one form or another. Clearly whatever Christ is out to do there is one - the devil - who will want to undermine or confound His work. I personally always begin the day in prayer with my wife and we pray something along the lines of the following written by Francis MacNutt (See the source by clicking here.)

A Binding Prayer For Protection
In the name of Jesus Christ, by the power of His cross and blood, we bind the spirits, powers and forces of the earth, the underground, the air, the water, the fire, the netherworld and the satanic forces of nature.

We rebuke any curses, hexes, or spells sent against us and send them directly to Jesus for Him to deal with as He will. Lord, we ask You to bless our enemies by sending Your Holy Spirit to lead them to repentance.

We bind all interplay, interaction and communication of evil spirits.

We claim the protection of the shed blood of Jesus Christ over – (add people, places and things you want protected here).

Thank you for your protection, Lord. Amen.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Pentecost and the ministry of the Holy Spirit

The following is a short talk given at our midweek Holy Communion service. I used the Collect for Pentecost   Sunday (a collect is a special prayer that is used to precede the readings and touches on the general theme of the readings. Some of them go back to the first 5-6 centuries but most to the time of the Reformation and are thoroughly Biblical and reformed in their theology.) The reading I referred to was from Acts 8:14-17.

Here is the collect:
God, who at this time did teach the hearts of thy faithful people, by sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit: grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour, who lives and reigns with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

The collect for today identifies three aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work and ministry.

The first is light or enlightenment
“God, who as at this time did teach the hearts of thy faithful people, by sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit…”

In his last moments on earth Luke tells us that Jesus had to open the disciples’ minds to enable them to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:45) Previous to that they struggled to see how the Old Testament spoke about Jesus and how Jesus was the fulfilment of all that was written about him “in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”(Luke 24:44)

We are no different to the disciples. Without God’s help we too will struggle to understand and grasp the spiritual truths about Jesus and how we are meant to live our lives as Christians. Now Jesus has returned to the Father we have the Holy Spirit whom God sent on the day of Pentecost. Jesus promised that it is he who will “lead you into all truth.” (John 16:13) No wonder the apostles were so keen to pray for the Samaritan converts to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17). They knew how important he was in their growth as Christians.

The second is right judgement
“grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things”. 

Really this is a prayer for wisdom. There are basically two types of wisdom. One type—earthly wisdom—comes with age and is often a case of trial and error and then - hopefully - learning from our mistakes. Like putting your hand in the fire and finding that it burns so you avoid it next time or people who promise instant cures if you buy their medicine are not all they are cracked out to be! This wisdom can be passed down or take the form of Old Wives tales or parental teaching.

The other type is heavenly or godly wisdom. In the book of Proverbs we are told that: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10) What the writer is saying is that earthly wisdom is something we learn ourselves whereas godly wisdom is only found through knowing God. He will teach us right from wrong. He will help guide us when it comes to difficult decisions. He will teach us discernment and insight. All these things and more are available through the Holy Spirit whom Jesus describes as “helper” and “counsellor” and “advocate”.

Thirdly, holy comfort
“evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort.”
Another word Jesus use for the Holy Spirit is “the comforter”. We see the word ‘comfort’ mostly in terms of loss or sorrow. If someone is bereaved we go alongside to comfort or console them. But the word has a broader meaning for Jesus because it means “to help, to strengthen and to encourage”. We get an idea of this from a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings. In this scene we see the Norman soldiers moving forward towards the Saxons and behind them in William of Normandy with a spear poking them in the back. The words read underneath “William comforteth his soldiers”. In other words he is egging them on, encouraging them to keep moving forward and not turn back.

Catherine Marshall a devotional writer from the last century was once struck down with tuberculosis in 1943 for which there was no antibiotic treatment. She spent two years recovering from it, the initial period in a hospital bed. Left with so much time on her hands she became depressed but decided for some reason to look into the subject of the Holy Spirit whom she had heard mentioned in prayers or worship but did not know much about it. As she read more and more about him and studied what the Bible said, she experienced great joy and encouragement and went on to write a book called “The Helper” to be used during Lent which has since helped many others—including her minister husband—to experience the help and 'comfort' of the Holy Spirit.

So no wonder the Apostles made a point of leaving Jerusalem and travelling to Samaria to ensure that the new converts there should receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. The question therefore is this. Have you received the Holy Spirit? I don’t necessarily mean at Confirmation—because how many of us understood or were aware of what we were about to receive from the Bishop. Personally I was looking beyond confirmation to finally being able to receive the bread and wine along with everyone else, so I was not able to understand the significance of what was meant to happen, and I suspect a whole lot of other folk were in the same boat! So how many were open to receive him? If you are not sure maybe now is the time to start thinking about it? You have nothing to lose and everything to gain: understanding, wisdom, encouragement and a whole lot more.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Justin Wellby, hope, the Bible and the Church


Archbishop Justin Wellby speaking to Christian leaders in the Albert Hall pointed out that he was more hopeful than ever before for the future of the Church as it “fills in” the gaps left by the State in times of austerity. Referring to the food banks being run by the Diocese of Durham he said: “It is a great opportunity to demonstrate the love of Christ. I am more optimistic about the Church now than I have ever been in my life.”

For the first time in 70 years, he told Christian leaders from across the world, people are realizing that “Christ meets the needs of the world”. “The opportunities are endless”, he added.

During the interview with Nicky Gumbel, a vicar at the Holy Trinity Brompton which organises the conference, the former oil executive discussed his rise through the religious ranks. During a gap year in Kenya working on a voluntary project he lived with a religious man who used to read the Bible every morning.

“I read the only other book in the house,” he said. “Which was Bagehot on the English Constitution which I thought would be less boring than the Bible and so I read it three times and then I gave up and read the Bible.”

But his true conversion came during his second year at Trinity College, Cambridge, after a friend took him to a Christian Union meeting, he said. “It was staggeringly boring, but it just shows God is bigger than us because I remember being very bored,” he said.

During his time as an oil executive the Archbishop lost his seven-month-old daughter Johanna in a car crash and says that the experience brought him closer to God. He looked as if he was fighting back emotion as he added: “It was unbelievable painful. It is still a pretty rare day when I don’t think about Johanna and I think that is true for most parents who have been through this.”

After rising through the ranks of the Church he was ordained as Archbishop earlier this year. But he believes he has taken the helm of a Church which is in a better position than ever before as people come to terms with austerity measures.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Pentecost


Unless the eye catch fire,
God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire,
God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire,
God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire,
God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire,
God will not be known.
William Blake

I came across the following poem by William Blake the other day which seems to reflect a negative view of the coldness of the Church and the lack of a spirit of joy and celebration. Okay I will not go as far as to say we should introduce beer into the church, but the other points are noted especially the contrast between the warmth of the ale-house and the cold of the church, whether that be physical coldness or a lack of welcome.

Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;
Besides I can tell where I am used well,
Such usage in Heaven will never do well.
But if at the Church they would give us some Ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,

We'd sing and we'd pray all the live-long day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.
Then the Parson might preach, & drink, & sing,
And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at Church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.
And God, like a father rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as he,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel,
But kiss him, & give him both drink and apparel.

The Little Vagabond - William Blake, Songs of Experience

Hope for the church


"I am more positive and hopeful now than I have ever been about the church and its future. Our society may be secular, but people are looking for answers to deep questions about life and they want to experience spirituality...

....secularisation is merciless in its effect on churches. It will erode to vanishing point churches which operate in traditional ways and cannot adapt. It challenges the mindset of "as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be". But I believe that secularisation also presents a positive challenge for churches. It encourages us to develop church communities of new quality - disciples who are deeply engaged with their faith and not just of members who belong."
David Chillingworth,  Primus of Scottish Episcopal Church

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Back - well sort of

Just in case people had thought I'd emigrated I have been struggling a little with ill health over the past two weeks which has had the effect of dragging me down somewhat or necessitating a visit to the doctor. He sent me for some blood tests. Although all the tests are not back yet it appears likely that my stomach has been colonized by a bacteria with the unprepossessing name of 'h pylori helicobacter' whose screw like shape enables it to penetrate the protective levels of mucus on the stomach linings causing all kinds of interesting problems on the surface of my stomach. Apparently it is a precondition for the development of ulcers, and if not treated, cancer. The condition is exacerbated - and possibly activated - by stress, and treatment is usually with an acid suppressant and a course (or two) of antibiotics although there is no guarantee that that will entirely eradicate it, hence the need also for a change of diet.

I have to add that I am still awaiting confirmation of this but all the symptoms are there - bloated stomach, loss of appetite, belching, pain by the lower rib-cage, reflux, nausea etc. Luckily one of them - lack of sleep - seems for the moment to have eluded me (along with vomiting). I sleep like a log and dream vividly. What the blood tests did reveal so far, however, is that I need to lower my cholesterol and lose weight. The second of these, I am pleased to say, has been quite easy as I eat very little because of the almost constant discomfort, nausea, reflux and loss of appetite I experience on a daily basis . Lowering the cholesterol however may take a bit more doing but I have started taking steps in that direction. But things get a bit more complicated because I have to cut out dairy - and I love cheese/milk/butter - and now gluten which apparently make the symptoms much worse. Until I started looking at these things I did not realise how hard it is to avoid wheat! And what do I put on my cereal? And should I even have cereal? And on top of all that I am to avoid citrus, spices, caffeine and anything that produces acid. Happy days!

Luckily there is a lot on the web - too much in some ways - and gradually I am learning to drink herbal tea - without milk of course - use a vegetarian butter substitute on my crackers (although they have to be pure rye or oats) and generally try and eat more healthily. That still leaves fish, meat, vegetables and some fruit so its not all bad.

Enough of the medical history and on to the real reason I am writing this. God works in mysterious ways, as the saying goes, and even with all the above going on He still manages to teach me important truths:

First, the value of Christian fellowship. Recently a member of my congregation, Sylvia, offered to pray for me after the morning service and, praise God, it worked - for a while. However it wasn't so much the answer to prayer that was the important lesson here but how God designed the church to be a fellowship of believers offering support, prayer and comfort to one another in the bad times (and the good). It was humbling to be prayed for and I must say I really appreciated it. So thanks be to God for fellow Christians like Sylvia.

Second, the whole issue of food and stomachs got me thinking about fasting and self-control. As I was praying about my stomach a verse popped into my head from Philippians 3:19:

"Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things."

God made food to sustain and strengthen us. It is important for good health and enjoyable too. In its place it is a wonderful thing. But like any good thing it can become an obsession of sorts. Instead of being the servant it can become the master, or, as Paul describes it, a god!  I must admit to being someone who loves food and for over ten to fifteen years has outgrown shirts, collar sizes and trousers in the process. Now however, with the need to lose weight and take care what I eat, I am giving more thought to the place of food in my life. Yes I have to be careful that I don't bet equally obsessed with dieting, but re-thinking my philosophy about the place of food has been an interesting exercise.

Also it puts fasting into some sort of perspective too. As well as being a useful (and biblical) spiritual discipline, it is a God-given instrument to exercise the sort of self-control that puts food and the bodily appetites back into their proper perspective reminding us that only Jesus is Lord. No-one or no-thing else should be. So seeing my present feeding regime in that context is a useful lesson to learn.

Lastly, there is the whole issue of healing and its place in the Church. Healing was an important part of Jesus' ministry and work but ONLY within the context of the Kingdom of God. How it serves the Kingdom and achieves God's will is the predominant motivation. We would say, always, that healing glorifies God and would surely serve his Kingdom purposes. But sometimes illness or need can serve His purposes too. Paul's 'thorn in the flesh' kept him humble and reliant on God. Caring for those in need gives us an opportunity to prove that our Christian faith is more that just skin-deep. When Paul writes about the need to cry with people who are crying, or to love one another surely he had this in mind. As I said earlier letting someone pray for me was humbling, but I need humbling and so healing aside, it was good for me to be prayed for.

I must add too however that I believe in healing and will always pray for it. One day there will be no more illness and no more disease and when a person is healed we see the Kingdom of God breaking in. But when healing does happen the kingdom is breaking in but not here in its fullness and so whether we like it or not, illness etc. is here to stay for the time being.

So as you can see although I want to get rid of my unwanted guest h pylori helicobacter I am grateful that God is able to use it to get across some important teaching. My only hope is that I have learnt the lessons required and I can soon enjoy a healthier and less uncomfortable life.

Church for beginners?

In her book "The Word on the Wind" Alison Morgan makes reference to a young woman Sharon who was a respondent to a survey about ...