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16

Recently I wrote about communion in marriage (i.e. sex).

Modern, western approaches to sex are essentially memorialist (if you don't know what that means, hang in there, explanation is on the way).

Our culture doesn't believe that real union is effected by sex.  A union of bodies is not considered to be a union of persons - not necessarily.  And a vast amount of the sex that does happen is a remembrance of the real thing (i.e. porn).

In this post I want to examine the negative effects of memorialism in preaching.  But let's just remind ourselves of what memorialism is.  Let's consider the clash between Luther and Zwingli in the 16th century.

As these two men discussed the Lord's Supper, Luther advocated the real presence of Christ "in, with and under" the elements of bread and wine.  "This is my body" Luther would quote.  In fact he scratched it onto his desk as the last word on the subject.  Zwingli considered Luther's position to be "a perverse and impious superstition."

Mike Reeves writes:

Luther believed that Christ's body and blood are really present in the bread and wine, making the Lord's Supper a gift of grace from God. Those who receive Christ in faith are blessed, those who take the Supper without faith face special judgement for despising Christ when offered to them.  Zwingli maintained that Christ's body cannot literally be present in the bread, but is instead symbolized by the bread.  The Lord's Supper for him was a mere symbol to help us commemorate Christ's sacrifice and to signify our membership of his body.  Luther was horrified.  It looked to him as though Zwingli was turning the Supper into an opportunity for us to do something (i.e. commemorate and signify something about us). This, surely, meant that the Lord's Supper would no longer be about grace but works.  Believing that Zwingli had fatally compromised the gospel, Luther refused to partner with him. (The Unquenchable Flame, p70)

Later in the same book, Mike makes the point that in the 16th and 17th centuries "there were no Lutherans among all the refugee theologians who came to England (something still felt today in the almost total lack of Lutheran flavour to English evangelicalism, which has always been much more Zwinglian and Calvinist)." (p129)

Now Calvin did believe in the real presence of Christ in the Supper, but I have to say, when it comes to the sacraments, modern evangelicalism, as I've encountered it, is decidedly memorialist.  I've met many who proudly maintain the real absence of Christ.

This kind of view tends to go hand in hand with a view of ministry that is not "word and sacrament" but almost self-consciously, word and not sacrament.  There is a deeply ingrained anti-ritualistic and, yes, even anti-physical streak to our evangelicalism.  I'm not sure I'll be able to displace such thinking in this post - it's not in my tiny stable of hobby-horses so I won't be riding it very far.  Instead, let me direct attention away from the Lord's table and onto ground that should be firmer for us: the pulpit.  Yet it's my contention that Zwingli rules here also.  Our churches are beset by memorialist preaching.

If you ask me, this is the malady afflicting conservative evangelical churches today.  I know, I know, I'm a 34 year old nobody pontificating about the state of evangelicalism.  Well... allow a younger guy to let off some younger-guy steam.  If it makes you feel better, favourite the page and read it in 30 years when my opinion is worth slightly more than zero.  But if you want to take my rants for what they're worth, here comes said rant...

Preachers simply do not believe that Christ is really present in the word that they speak.  How can I possibly judge that?  I listen.  I listen to their tone, their content, their manner, their prayers and to the preaching concerns they speak of out of the pulpit.  In all this, there seems to be very little confidence or expectation that they're in the business of speaking God's own word with His authority and power.  Modern preachers don't even consider themselves to be heralds - let alone attempt the feat.  They are bible experts, textual critics, near eastern historians, cultural and ecclesiastical commentators and discipleship coaches.  They are anything and everything but bearers of God's living word.  In short - they are memorialists.  They don't think they're doing anything to their hearers in the moment.  They seek merely to bring spiritual truths to the minds of the flock.

What is offered from the pulpit is like what's offered at the table - mere tokens of a far-off reality.  The dispenser of such lifeless things hopes that spiritual sentiments will, somehow, be awakened in their hearers.  But it's the hearers who will have to work at it because there's no real presence in the word.  The action doesn't happen in the gift of the words (either audible or visible).  For the Zwinglian, all the action happens between the ears of the recipient.

So memorialist preaching is aimed at educating, equipping and enthusing but not actually giving the hearer anything.  Christ is not handed over.  Not from the table and not from the pulpit.  Instead prompts, like post-it notes, are offered.  Little reminders.  Little to-do lists.  Little platitudes.  Little pep-talks.  "Now it's down to you.  Just remember what I taught you."

And perhaps the surest sign of memorialist preaching is a preacher who considers their job to be "explaining the Bible passage."  Like a mere dispenser of bread, the preacher moves through the verses, picking off interesting tit-bits along the way.  And somehow, by the end, we've been given a commentary and not Christ.  This is pure Zwingli.

As Mike notes in The Unquenchable Flame,

Where Luther opened the Bible to find Christ, Zwingli sought more simply to open the Bible. (p69)

What a tragedy.  The preacher's job is not to "preach Philippians".  The preacher's job is to preach Christ from Philippians.  So often the preacher just moves the bookmark forward, noting points of interest along the way. In so doing, they leave the listener to piece together whatever resolve or relief they can muster from the raw materials proffered.  This is not preaching.

Offer them Christ.  Hand Him over.  Placard Him from Scripture and say to the hearers "You want Him? He's yours, here He is."

You want to know what that sounds like?  I can't do any better than point you to Mike himself - preaching on Philippians as it happens.

Download Mike Reeves on Philippians.

And may his gospel preaching sweeten the after-taste of this here rant.

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Isaiah warned us and Jesus repeated it - it's hypocritical to honour the Lord with your lips while your heart is far from Him (Isaiah 29:13; Mark 15:8).  It's something I pray about every Sunday, "As I preach or pray or sing, may my lips and my heart be set on the Lord Jesus."

But there's another danger.  We can react the other way and disdain anything 'external'.  We say to the world: "I reject 'works', I'm all about the inward life."  And so we're constantly taking our spiritual temperatures.  We neglect ritual (as though it always leads to ritualism).  And we start to think of faith as a thing - the one really meritorious work!

The faith-works polarity becomes, in our thinking, an internal-external polarity.  Internal - good.  External - bad.  We start to imagine that mental acts are good old grace while physical acts are nasty old law.

But that's not how it is.  There can be a crippling legalism of the heart (ever felt it?) and there can be a wonderful liberation in gospel rituals (ever experienced that?).

Take communion.

Please.

No but seriously, take it.   Because here is a gospel ritual which, because it is external, brings home the grace of Jesus all the stronger.

We are not (or at least we should not be!) memorialists. Jesus has not left us a mental duty with the bread and wine as mere thought prompters.  We have been left a meal.  To chew.  And to gulp down.  There are motions to go through.  And they are the same motions we performed last week.  And the week before that.

But here's the thing - these motions are means of God's grace and not in spite of their externalism but because they are external.  Here is a gift that comes to you from outside yourself.  And it comes apart from your internal state.  But nonetheless it is for you - sinner that you are.

So take it regardless of whether your heart is white-hot with religious zeal.  Take it regardless of whether you are really, really mindful of the gravity of it all.  And as the minister prays the prayer of consecration and your mind wanders... oh well.  Don't ask him to start again.  Go through the motions I say.  Your heart is meant to catch up with the motions.  That's why the motions were given.  Because our hearts are weak and not to be trusted.

So allow the Word to come to you from beyond.  Allow Him to love you first. Don't disdain 'going through the motions.'  For many on a Sunday -  those grieving or sick or gripped by depression - they need to be carried along by these motions.  And for all of us - if we're going to be people of grace, we need these externals.

1

Sermon: Luke 7:36-50

When we think of Jesus, we expect a Teacher, and we get a Saviour.  We expect a loan-shark and He forgives us freely.  We expect that He’ll burden us, instead He says “This is my body which is given for you... This is my blood which is shed for you.”  We expect that He’ll take from us, instead He gives Himself to us – even to the point of death.  We expect a throne of judgement, instead He takes the judgement on the cross and, to us, He opens up a banqueting hall.  He says, "Welcome!  Come in, come one, come all, come sinners and feast with me.

Sermon text

Sermon audio

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8

"I preach grace" says the earnest Pastor.  And deep down you suspect he means "I preach law with a smile."

Such pastors often confess to problems in communicating their 'grace gospel'.  You see, strangely enough, enquirers have difficulty with the concept of 'appropriating grace'.  The preacher says 'salvation is a free gift.'  They, naturally, wonder what on earth that looks like. So the preacher replies with greater vigour 'Just receive the free forgiveness and trust that you have been forgiven.'  When that draws a blank the pastor reverts to a series of cliches, each more abstract than the last - "The door has been opened, walk through the door... You've got the cheque marked 'forgiveness' - cash the cheque."

"Cash the forgiveness cheque?  What cheque?  And where? And who's the banker?  And where's my receipt?"

The Bible presents things a little differently.  Take John 3:16 for instance.  The gift we are to receive is Jesus.  Grace is not basically a concept or property.  He is a Person.  Doesn't this (literally) put flesh and bones on the concept of 'receiving grace as a free gift.'  We're really asking the non-Christian to receive Jesus - the gift of His Father.

Rev 3:20 - There's not a 'free gift' standing at the door, waiting to be unwrapped.  There's not a gift certificate to be opened saying "IOU 1 eternal life". There is Jesus standing at the door.  And when you let Him in He doesn't just hover in your lobby assuring you of your forgiven status, He eats with you in intimate fellowship. That is what saving faith looks like.  That is how a person becomes a Christian - not by assenting to a concept of forgiveness or vicarious atonement but by receiving the Person in Whom forgiveness, atonement and life is offered.

The same point is made in Colossians 1:13, 14. It is the Son in Whom redemption is offered - which is the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness is redemption - the transference of a person (who is still a sinner!) from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of Christ. This deliverance is offered in Jesus. We must be introducing people to the person of Jesus not the concept of change (or even of redemption or deliverance). We don't believe in redemption per se - we believe in the Redeemer.

Three implications:

First, in the Lord's Supper we ought to take 'This is my body' seriously.  Transubstantiation is not the answer but neither is memorialism - we don't simply receive tokens of good stuff.  We receive Christ in the supper.  He Himself is the Bread of life who nourishes, not remembrances of grace.

Second, in personal chats let's talk about Jesus.  Not just what we're learning, not just our blessings or struggles but Jesus.  How it strengthens the heart to hear His name on another's lips!  He is received by us again and again as we hold out His word to one another.

Third, in preaching, we can be bold to offer a free salvation to sinners because we're not offering a blank cheque but marriage to a Bridegroom. We hold out the word of life to people who are hardened sinners, people who still love darkness and who don't actually have a resolve to 'Go God's way'.  Because, of course, without Christ how could they?  Often the objection then comes: 'You are promoting licence.  You can't offer forgiveness to people who don't show signs of repentance.'  Here's the thing though - we're not offering a 'Get out of Jail Free' card.  We're holding out Christ Himself to sinners.  If we simply preached an abstract 'forgiveness' then licence is almost guaranteed (whatever the state of the hearer).  If we preach Christ it's out of the question.

This is a reworking of an older post

In spite of what this preacher says, the bible is not God.  But then, what is the relationship between God and the written word?

Let me explore an analogy with the sacraments.  We tend to veer between two mistakes: a Catholic and a Zwinglian view of the bible.

The Catholic view is to see my bible reading working ex opere operato (by doing it, it's done).  I advance the book mark and it is has worked.  The words go in (sort of), my reading plan gets ticked off - job done.

My response?  Disengaged duty.

The Zwinglian view is to see my bible reading as memorialist.  Christ is essentially absent from these words, but they're a jolly good reminder of Him.  And if I employ my imagination and proper meditative techniques, if I think these words into moral, pastoral and theological categories then my thoughts will carry me to Christ.

My response?  Pietistic duty.

On the first understanding, I don't need to do anything but go through the motions.  The second understanding is a reaction to the first in which I take the spiritual task into my own hands.

But what if Christ is really and already present through the words of Scripture.  The words aren't Christ Himself.  But neither are they separate such that I must bridge the gap.  Instead, the words are carrying me to Christ who they constantly proclaim (John 5:39).

It's not just reading comprehension.  But neither is it my job to make an otherwise dead letter living and active.  Instead the bible is already a living and lively word ever proceeding from the mouth of God and ever offering to me the Bread of life.

The bible works on me.  Not apart from faith.  But not by my works either. It is His work - His spiritual work - that is ever offered to me.

Here's what I say to people from the Book of Common  Prayer as I give them communion:

The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for you preserve your body and soul to everlasting life.  Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on Him in your heart by faith, with thanksgiving.

And you say - typical Anglicans, straddling all the positions!  Well - Jesus does say 'This is my body.'  And He does say 'Do this in remembrance of me.'  It's just that this is not the centre of communion.  Feeding on Him in our hearts by faith as we feed on the bread between our teeth - this is.

So as we read our bibles we acknowledge, this IS the word of God.  And we acknowledge that this reading will cause us many subsequent thoughts that bring us to Jesus in manifold ways.  But essentially as we read the Scriptures we are being fed spiritually there and then with the Bread of life.

My response?  Believing expectancy.

Audio

This passage is the story of two cups.  Easter is the story of two cups.

One cup was offered in the upper room.  The other cup was offered in the Garden of Gethsemane.

One cup Jesus gives to us.  One cup Jesus drinks for Himself

One cup is a cup for the forgiveness of sins.  One cup is a cup of wrath and judgement.

One cup brings life.  One cup brings death.

One cup the bible describes as a cup of blessing.  The other cup is a cup of curse.

But this is the story of Easter – Jesus drank the cup of curses so that we can drink the cup of blessings.  In other words, Easter is all about a wonderful exchange.  That’s how Christians for thousands of years have described it: a wonderful exchange:  Jesus takes the curses that we deserve in order to give us the blessings that only He deserves.  He doesn’t deserve the Garden of Gethsemane.  He doesn’t deserve to drink the cup of curses, but He does.  And we don’t deserve to sit at the Feast with the LORD Almighty.  We don’t deserve to drink the cup of blessings, but we do.  It’s a wonderful exchange.  He takes what we deserve to give us what we don’t deserve.

...continue reading "Two Cups: Matthew 26:17-46 – Maundy Thursday Sermon"

Today was my last official 1662 Book of Common Prayer communion service as curate.  Aside from the prayer of humble access, this is the prayer I really love from the service.  It's said after receiving communion and saying the Lord's prayer:

ALMIGHTY and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us, who have duly received these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of the most precious death and passion of thy dear Son. And we most humbly beseech thee , O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen

What is communion according to this prayer?

1) The Father feeding us with Christ,

2) Assuring us of His favour and goodness towards us, namely...

3) That we are members of Christ, and...

4) We are heirs of the kingdom

5)  All through the death of Christ

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Now what?

1) Please Father, helps us to continue in communion with Christ

3) And that we walk in the good works you've prepared for us.

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Glory!

The means of grace (things like preaching and sacraments) are meant to be just that.  Means by which the grace of God reaches down to us.  I've been reflecting recently that often we try to absolutize the means of grace so that they become not means but ends in themselves, and not grace (i.e. His initiative) but works (i.e. ours!).

And then we divide over whatever our chosen 'means of grace' might be.

So the danger for the catholic is to see the eucharist not as a means of God's encounter with man but rather the moment in which they make God manifest (ex opere operato - by doing it, it is done). When the ritual is performed well/reverently/at all, Christ's presence is enjoyed. Christ is not present through the sacrament but rather the performance of the mass is Christ's presence. The mass becomes the point.

The danger for the charismatic is to view the singing of spiritual songs in the midst of the congregation not as a means of grace but as the time when ‘God's in the house'. When the band are playing well, God shows up - ex opere operato. In that case God is not present in and through ‘worship' but ‘worship' is equated with the divine presence.  Worship becomes the point.

The danger for the evangelical is to see preaching not as a means of grace but as the action we perform whereby we guarantee a divine speech act.  The Proclamation Trust states ‘When the bible is taught, God himself speaks.'  Now I totally believe that the preaching of the word of God is the word of God (see Theology Network paper here) but let's get the order right.  He graciously speaks through our preaching, we cannot bring Him down through our correct exposition.   The danger is that simple exposition of a biblical passage or theme is itself the encounter with God - ex opere operato.  Preaching becomes the point.

Yet surely, Christ is the point. And the Lord's supper and worship and preaching are ways that Jesus can and does make Himself known to us, among us and in us.  Yet He will not be brought down by our performance of these acts. They are His means (note means) of grace (note: grace!). He always remains free in His self-giving - in the bread and wine, in our corporate life, in His word.

That's why it's often great to hear a catholic preaching well, or an evangelical leading ‘worship' or a charismatic presiding at the Lord's table.  For then, they are less tempted to see the simple operation of this act as the point but as a means of making Christ known - He is the point.

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I long for church communities that are Christ-centred, grace-filled, all-of-life and intentionally missional.  I love the vision that Tim Chester casts for this and have benefited massively from the resources he's offered the wider church in this direction (see these superb talks for instance).

Let me raise one issue though - it's an issue that generated some good discussion on Tim's blog and I hope it will generate some more here - perhaps from Tim but from any others too.

Tim was writing about the imbalance of resources that many churches pour into "the Sunday morning event".   Very true.  I've heard people speak in hushed tones about some gold standard of sermon preparation - an hour in the study for every minute in the pulpit.  Yowsers!  If that's the cost of gathering around word and sacrament then I can well understand the desire to re-balance the expenditure of resources.

But there's something deeper to discuss than the re-allocation of resources or the degree of formality to our meetings.  What I want to establish is the absolute necessity of the event for the life of church.  Church is not just family, it is also an event and irreducibly so.  I'll say it that starkly because I know how popular it is to speak of church as ongoing-missional-community in opposition to chuch as event.

In our discussions, Tim said this:

Church is not an event, but a Christ-centred community of people with a shared life.

I disagree.  I’d say say church is also an event and irreducibly so.

Church has its being in becoming.  It ever becomes what it is as it hears God's word.  In this way church is the community called out (ekklesia) to listen to its risen Lord in the proclamation of word and sacrament.  This is the centre of the life of the community.

Let me just take one Scriptural example from Paul.  We are one body because we all share in the one bread (1 Cor 10:17). That is pretty stunning language – and it’s very ‘eventist’.  Here is a consummation of one-body-ness in which we become what we are. The event and the on-going life of the body are inter-dependent.

Think of marriage.  The covenant reality is that husband and wife are one flesh.  But there is an event in which they become one flesh (if you were Presbyterian you might even call it covenant renewal!).

It’s commanded in Scripture (cf 1 Cor 7) and it takes time and effort and a measure of ritual and it’s irreducibly an event.  Of course the degree of ritual and cost and time-expenditure will vary according to many factors.  But to imagine I can think of an ongoing covenant life without also thinking about the one-flesh event is a big danger in marriage.

And, by parallel, church life needs to be maintained by consciously enjoyed and anticipated and ritualised “events” in our church life together.  We can't do without them.  And however much it's necessary to speak of day-in, day-out community life we dare not lose language of event either.  The old reformed ecclesiologies speak of gathering around word and sacrament.  They didn't forget that we were family, but they did highlight that there were foundational "events" at the centre of church life.

So we say Yes to shared life, Yes to Christ-centred community.  But the way in which our community is “centred” around Christ takes a certain form.  The centre is an actual, concrete centre around which we orient ourselves.  As Christ's community therefore we order ourselves around the place where Christ is given to us. And He is given to us supremely in word and sacrament.

Tim speaks of the community life of church in these terms:

There is nowhere else when grace is experienced. There is nowhere else where God is present by his Spirit.

I'd say that in word and sacrament there are certain promises attached of God’s special presence by His Spirit.  I think therefore the language of ‘event’ needs to be held onto.

And primarily I think it needs to be maintained for the sake of up-holding two other concerns:

1) We are communities of grace.  Tim is huge on this and I've been very blessed by his insights on this (e.g.).  But if we want to be communities of grace we need to orient ourselves around where Christ is given to us, not primarily around what Christ would have us do.

2) We are communities of proclamation.  Where we honour the “event” of Church, we honour “proclamation”.  While our community life preaches to the world (John 13:35; 17:21) I'd want to co-ordinate this to a centre of verbal proclamation that constitutes and re-constitutes the community.

I'm very well aware that Tim and his churches manage to preserve what I'm seeking to preserve a thousand times better than I ever will.  But I just wanted to raise a flag for the absolute importance of "event" in church life.  I hope you can see why.

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Isaiah warned us and Jesus repeated it - it's hypocritical to honour the Lord with your lips while your heart is far from Him (Isaiah 29:13; Mark 15:8).  It's something I pray about every Sunday, "As I preach or pray or sing, may my lips and my heart be set on the Lord Jesus."

But there's another danger.  We can react the other way and disdain anything 'external'.  We say to the world: "I reject 'works', I'm all about the inward life."  And so we're constantly taking our spiritual temperatures.  We neglect ritual (as though it always leads to ritualism).  And we start to think of faith as a thing - the one really meritorious work!

The faith-works polarity becomes, in our thinking, an internal-external polarity.  Internal - good.  External - bad.  We start to imagine that mental acts are good old grace while physical acts are nasty old law.

But that's not how it is.  There can be a crippling legalism of the heart (ever felt it?) and there can be a wonderful liberation in gospel rituals (ever experienced that?).

Take communion.

Please.

No but seriously, take it.   Because here is a gospel ritual which, because it is external, brings home the grace of Jesus all the stronger.

We are not (or at least we should not be!) memorialists. Jesus has not left us a mental duty with the bread and wine as mere thought prompters.  We have been left a meal.  To chew.  And to gulp down.  There are motions to go through.  And they are the same motions we performed last week.  And the week before that.

But here's the thing - these motions are means of God's grace and not in spite of their externalism but because they are external.  Here is a gift that comes to you from outside yourself.  And it comes apart from your internal state.  But nonetheless it is for you - sinner that you are.

So take it regardless of whether your heart is white-hot with religious zeal.  Take it regardless of whether you are really, really mindful of the gravity of it all.  And as the minister prays the prayer of consecration and your mind wanders... oh well.  Don't ask him to start again.  Go through the motions I say.  Your heart is meant to catch up with the motions.  That's why the motions were given.  Because our hearts are weak and not to be trusted.

So allow the Word to come to you from beyond.  Allow Him to love you first. Don't disdain 'going through the motions.'  For many on a Sunday -  those grieving or sick or gripped by depression - they need to be carried along by these motions.  And for all of us - if we're going to be people of grace, we need these externals.

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