He Ain't No Butcher!
Friday Advent Greetings Rock Creek,
For a great many years of my younger Christian life, the Lord’s Supper was frightening for me.
I don’t believe anyone set out to make it so. But I always tended to hear the warnings, or what we in the business call “the fencing of the table” in ways that left me fairly nervous, unsure, and unsettled when taking communion.
“UNWORTHY MANNER” was how I heard it shouted in ALL CAPS. Even though I know it wasn’t shouted.
“ANY UNCONFESSED SINS or UNRECONCILED RELATIONSHIPS...?” The comprehensive nature of the demands for admittance blared much more loudly than anything good that may have been said about what we were about to do.
“ARE YOU WILLINGLY CONTINUING IN ANY SIN?” or some such diagnostic would undo me.
Taken together, I came to conclude that the Lord’s Supper was an awful, somber, and unflinching religious rite, and I had sure better be more than careful there.
And, I surmised, it was a time that was all about me looking at myself to make sure I was living my faith with integrity, correctness, and undiluted loyalty. Unfortunately, I could never satisfactorily scrutinize myself without there still be sizable space for a possible misunderstanding or self-deception.
“I don’t want to continue in any sin. But I keep continuing in some sins. If I say I am making a break with sin, maybe I am fooling myself. I might be determined to break with it now, but what about later? And I think I have confessed my sins, but maybe I left some out, maybe my heart is too cold, too distant, too disorganized, too disloyal....maybe I haven’t repented enough, believed enough, examined enough, worked hard enough for reconciliation....”
Ping-Ponged Neurotic Banter
All sorts of neurotic patterns of theological banter pinged and ponged in my insides.
Now, it is always dangerous to absolutize one’s own experience as if it neatly aligns with that of everyone else. So I am not presuming that everyone feels or has felt the same way as I. Nor do I mean to attribute blame to ministers whom I am certain were seeking with all their might to be faithful to Scripture and to the Savior presented there.
But those experiences, for good or ill, (and I think good!) have tempered my approach to the Lord’s table as a participant and, as what the Episcopalians would call a Celebrant, the one who administers the Lord’s Supper on Jesus’ behalf. My understanding of Scripture and our own theological tradition have also done some heavy-lifting in unburdening my diseased view in these matters.
I came to realize that I had been hoodwinked and sabotaged by at least two mistaken notions. One had to do with my relationship to Christ (or rather, his to me!). And the other, with the nature of the Lord’s Supper itself.
I was erroneously, but earnestly, staying stuck in the murky precincts of my own fitness of heart, belief, and understanding. As a result, I rarely had any rest or could receive any rich welcome from Jesus. Always looking within, as I had understood myself required to do, left me trapped, damned no matter which way I zigged or zagged. No amount of mental gymnastics could give me the internal quiet I presumed I had to have to gain a rightful admission to our Lord’s dinner table.
Even the ordinarily good advice that “unless you see the depths of your sin, you will never see the heights of Jesus’ love for you” always backfired on me. Because, I generally stayed trapped in a labyrinth of my own toxicity of heart, and it created a filmy slime over my eyes that kept me from fully gazing on Christ. It’s hard to see what’s above you when your eyes are riveted downward in introspection.
O Happy Discovery
Happily, I discovered, for instance, that Paul had insisted, “my conscience is clear but that does not make me innocent, it is the Lord who judges me.” Of course, Paul’s words insist that what you feel about yourself can be altogether wrong. O Happy discovery!
You can think you are innocent, but be guilty. You can think yourself guilty, but be innocent. Or your own self assessments can concur with reality...but at the end of all that sorting out, it isn’t your heart, thoughts, or even your ability to address them, but Christ who is greater than your heart, thoughts, or ability to address them who is the one who accepts us or acquits us, welcomes us or rejects us.
And this Jesus said “whoever comes to me, I will never drive away.” This Jesus is the one who has “called us into fellowship with himself” and who has “become sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And in him, “there is no condemnation left for sin.”
John Calvin put it like this:
...Therefore...If you look to yourself damnation is certain: but since Christ has been communicated to you with all his benefits, so that all which is his is made yours, you become a member of him, and hence one with him.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 2, Section 24)
I had mistakenly gotten locked up in a tiny room, looking at myself where “my damnation was certain.” While there, I failed to realize that what’s Christ's is now mine, and what’s mine is now his. Correction, what’s Christ's is now OURS, and what’s OURS is now his.
He Ain’t No Butcher
And of course, through prayer, loitering in Scripture, being around God’s people, and learning more and more about the good news of Christ’s reconciling and renovating work in the world (aka “The Gospel”), I also came to fervently believe that our charismatic friend and church member, Virginia Beard was absolutely correct when she insisted, “There are only two types of people who deal with sheep in the world, butchers and shepherds, and our Lord ain’t no butcher.”
All this has changed my approach to communion considerably. Now it is the place where the Shepherd who “restores our souls”, “has come that we might have life and to the full,” and who said to the woman caught in adultery, “neither do I condemn you, now go and sin no more,” is welcoming us to his table to dine with him.
He isn’t saying, “stay away, stay away, unless you are extra-super-duper positive that you have tidied up every aspect of your life and are 100% positive you’ll never flub up again---no, on second thought, just don’t bother, better not risk it, you aren’t worthy of this so don’t participate.”
For me, as I hope will be so for you, the tone has changed. Jesus’ posture towards us has changed. I had failed to realize that he really likes us and wants us there.
The meal is a place where Jesus means to furnish weary travelers who are in so many ways a great burden to themselves replenishing, reassuring grace for our continued pilgrimage as his followers.
It’s where he means to “spread the Christ-life to us” rather than where we go once we feel like we are Christ-like enough. It’s where we go to participate in His self-donation to eradicate the penalty and stain of every act of rebellion and unworthiness by bearing them himself. It’s where we go to realize once again that the One we follow, is somehow, inexplicably and beyond all measure, fond of us, and ardently committed to our repair.
We get to participate in this warming means of grace on Sunday together. I hope you will feel welcomed. I hope you will ask Jesus to meet us there, and to whet our appetites for him. I hope we will all experience the reality that at the table we are nourished by Christ himself who gives us what St. Ignatius of Antioch called, the “medicine of immortality.”
See you Sunday,