23 January 2012

Making the Supper Significant

I grew up Baptist.  When I was a child my mother took my sister and I to a little independent Baptist church not even a mile from our home.  It was there that I was first introduced to the Lord's Supper.  I observed it for sometime before I could actually participate in it myself.  But after my conversion and subsequent baptism as a believer I found myself participating. 

At my little childhood church the Lord's Supper was observed the first Sunday of each month (if my memory serves me well at this moment).  We did the supper at the end of a typical service. Men would pass out the bread (a little stale cracker) first and we would eat it together.  Then they would pass out the wine in little cups.  Now, I don't mean wine in the symbolic sense.  We used the real thing!  That's right. The first time alcohol passed over my lips was as a minor in church.  It was a strange juxtaposition of biblical literalness and fundamentalist Christianity.  The church used real wine because that's what Jesus used.  However, as conservative Baptists and heirs of the temperance movement we promoted teetotalism as the proper Christian lifestyle.   I can still remember a friend who got into trouble for finishing off the leftovers after a service down in the basement kitchen like he was throwing back shots at a bar.  I digress.  After we had finished receiving the elements, then we would sing a hymn.  I remember while we sang the pastor would walk to the back.  When we finished the last note he would say, "and after they had sung a hymn, they went out."  Then we would leave. 

I believe that I had a decent understanding of what we were doing in the Lord's Supper even as a child.  However, I'm not sure that I was ever led to have a significant appreciation for it.  It always felt like an add on, an afterthought.  It never felt like it was the point of a service.

I came to realize over time through experience and some education that the de-emphais on the Lord's Supper in some Protestant traditions (including mine) is largely due to the anti-Catholic sentiment that has pervaded them.  I can vividly recall having the impression as a youngster within my Baptist circle that being Roman Catholic was much worse than being an outright heathen.  This is understandable for two reasons.  First, Protestants and Catholics fought like cats and dogs for centuries creating generations of animosity and suspicion.  Secondly, the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church constitute a different gospel that is false.  Their errors include a message of salvation that is based on the performance of sacramental works.  Although there are seven sacraments for the faithful, the Lord's Supper (called the Eucharist among Catholics) is the most important. It is observed every week and by some every day.  It is the means by which Christ gives His grace to sinners.  It is also considered to be literal.  The Catholic Church teaches that the bread and wine are literally transformed in their substance into the body and blood of Christ once it has been consecrated by the priest.  It's easy to understand why my tradition would go out of its way to avoid looking, feeling, or acting in any way Catholic.

Although, I do reject Roman Catholic teaching about the Lord's Supper, I do not want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.  In classic historical overreaction, I think we Baptists have diminished the significance of the Lord's Table.  Jesus clearly told his disciples to repeat the memorial he created together regularly until He returned.  He wanted them to remember together.   

I've had to work as a pastor to make the Lord's Supper more significant in my own life.  I've had to personally strive to connect with Jesus' intent in instituting it for His church and to discern what spiritual benefit God intends for His people through it.  Sadly, I've had to prod myself to care more about the Lord's Supper as a leader in the church.

At FBC Hazard we observe the Lord's Supper once each quarter.  We may observe it a couple more times on special occasions - in all, around 5-6 times each year.  That's not very often.  I remember being told that the reason we Baptists didn't observe the supper each Sunday is because we didn't want to lose its special quality with too much familiarity (like those Catholics!).  By, the way I live next door to a Catholic church and the priest and I are friends...just in case you were wondering.  No hating here.  I digress again.   However, I couldn't discern much special about the supper even in our less frequent observances. 

As a pastor I'm trying to put more emphasis on the supper on the Sunday's that we do observe it.  I'm committed now to make sure we always do it in prime time on Sunday morning.  I'm also committed to making everything about the service move toward the climax of observing the supper and partaking of the elements.  I will still give a message, but that message will connect to the significance of the Lord's Supper for the corporate life of the church.  It's one of the few times I depart from my expository march through the book I'm preaching through.  My hope is that by the time the elements are in the hands of believer's that their hearts and minds are saturated with an awareness of what they are doing and why.  In the end, I want all of our affections to be warmed again for Christ.  I believe when I do the best I can to help believer's truly pause and remember, the result is that they filled even more deeply with love and gratitude for the One who gave Himself for them.

I hope that you will join me as a Protestant who cherishes the Lord's Supper.  There is nothing magical or even supernatural in the memorial, but it is spiritually significant when we approach it as such.     

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