Tag Archives: communion

The subversive act of breaking bread

Last night (Wednesday), a group of about 25 people gathered in a large room in a house in the London borough of Lewisham. We engaged in speech and acts that represent a challenge to the way the world works. It was symbolic, it was simple and yet it carried in it a breath of quiet power that brought some to tears.

What sort of underground meeting was this? This was church in the raw. We are an ecclesiastically liberal church, so there is no need for ceremony, for robes, for procession, for chanting or any number of things that distract and get in the way. We were merely a small community of people, drifting in at the end of the day to gather together.

There was some general friendliness, catching up on the events of the week, before the person who had called us together on this crisp evening at the start of autumn spoke to us from the book of Acts about a time of refreshing. There was some sung worship and a time of open prayer, where anyone may speak. One person sung in tongues and an interpretation was asked for. After a minute or so, an interpretation was sung back.

We then moved to what our church (and many others) refer to as breaking bread. Some call it mass, others Eucharist, still others communion and some call it the Lord’s Table. Each has their merits and connotations. In a small, private gathering such as this, some things are easier than in a bigger, public meeting. There was an encouragement that if people so wished, they could pray prayers of confession. Why this is a good thing, I don’t want to go into here. Maybe another time. Sometimes people will do so, sometimes they won’t.

Whatever prayers were said and what people asked forgiveness for shall, of course, remain private. But one by one people went to the table in the middle of the room and prayed their prayers of confession and asked for forgiveness. Then they took the bread and the grape juice, the symbols of Jesus’ body and blood, and partook of them.

Breaking bread is an act of obedience and could well be said to be one of christianity’s oldest practices. Every act of obedience is also an act of rebellion; it just depends on which you focus. For to obey God in breaking bread is to rebel against the world. Some may see the rejection of religion as a rebellion against (a non-existent) God, but while that is shouted, it echoes a quiet whisper of obedience to the world of the way things are, to the zeitgeist of passive indifference to the cross.

On the mountain where Moses encountered the burning bush, God asked Moses to remove his footwear for God’s presence there, at that time, made it a holy place. In that room last night, the spirit of God moved amongst the gathered saints and that place, at that time, became a holy place.

To speak of holy things is an act of rebellion against an unholy world.

To break bread in communion, in remembrance of a crucified Messiah subverts the hero narrative that our culture longs for and preaches to us every day.

We closed with a song of declaration, “I believe in Jesus“. This statement of belief is not only a positive affirmation, but it flies in the face of received wisdom, of “common” sense, of the assumed way of being that pervades every strand of our society.

As we left that place, some 2 hours later, we breathed in and out, our act of rebellion done behind closed doors. But as we continue to breath the spirit of God, we can go about spreading not only the message of defiance, but the positive message of joy and hope that Jesus brings.

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What do we mean by “prophetic”?

This is sort of a follow up to this piece on the recent christian new media conference, prompted by a couple of the comments. It concerns the nature of prophecy and what we mean when we speak of something as prophetic.

The subject also came up recently when I was reading Roger Forster’s Prayer: Living in the Breath of God which I will be reviewing fairly soon. So I wanted to lay the foundations for that review first.

A very short summary may be found in my guest post the Big Bible blog, where we were looking at the book of Isaiah. The key point that I tried to make was put well by Jaroslav Pelikan when he said that prophecy was less about foretelling, but telling forth. In other words, the prophetic is rooted in the present but is forward looking. To imagine it simply as a form of fortune-telling is a lazy, simplistic and misleading way of talking of prophecy.

The biblical prophets were writing first and foremost to the world they lived in. As we have just been through Advent and Christmas, many will have heard snippets read from Isaiah (probably chapter 53) and Micah (chapter 5). While these passages certainly are forward looking, it is a disservice to them to remove them from their context and only read them with the benefit of hindsight. Both passages are to be found within a wider picture, and even those form a wider landscape of OT prophecy. This is a rugged and varied landscape. While Micah 5 is largely an expression of hope, this comes after pronouncements of judgment and warnings. Such warnings may be found throughout the OT prophets. As an example, the book of Jonah (which all too often is watered down through familiarity via Sunday school) tells of judgment which is to be pronounced against Nineveh, yet this judgment is not final. That judgment comes with the opportunity for redemption through repentance.

Likewise, John the Baptiser (I hesitate to call him “the Baptist” as it makes him sound like a Spurgeon-esque figure, replete with anachronistic overtones) was a fairly harsh figure, yet he called people to repentance. So we see that judgment should not be equated with damnation. It’s a conflation that happens far too often, particularly when christianity is viewed from the outside and our collective communication skills have failed, allowing the confusion to take place. Adopting Wright’s take on Paul’s view of justification, judgment is an eschatological verdict, but justification is the present verdict in anticipation of the final judgment. But that judgment, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, is in our favour. It is only when the offer of grace is rejected that the judgment becomes one of damnation, a verdict of the second death, or annihilation. But it is not our place to judge, either in favour or against, another.

It seems right that secular prophecy should not be excluded from such a discussion. What do I mean by secular prophecy? It is simply any prophecy where a spiritual element is lacking. It is observation grounded in the present, combined with insight as to the causes of a situation and the probable outcomes, which usually come with some kind of warning. As an example, I would state that one of our most prominent secular prophets is George Monbiot, whose frequent warnings over climate change meet the criteria above. In America, one of the most rigorous of the secular prophets is Nate Silver, whose work with polls, combined with an acute understanding of statistics led him to famously predict the correct result of 49 out of 50 of the US states in the 2008 general election. As a side note, I intend to read his book, The Signal and the Noise, later this year.

The final aspect I wanted to look at is the question of the “prophetic act”. This is slightly different, as it is generally less direct than the others. I want to illustrate by comparing two prophets: Elisha and Jesus.

Even among non-christians, the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (men) is fairly well known. But it is often portrayed simply as a miracle as though this were some kind of proof of Jesus’ divinity. I would contend that such a view rather misses the points (for there is more than one). On top of it being an act of kindness, it was a prophetic action that harked back to the lesser known story of Elisha feeding 100 (men) as told in 2 Kings 4:42-44. If one puts on a post-hoc set of glasses, one might think that Elisha is here foretelling what Jesus would later do. That’s one way of looking at it. The other way is to put yourself in the shoes of those who were in the crowd at the later event. They would be reasonably familiar with the law and the prophets and rather than Elisha’s act foretelling the act of Jesus, it was Jesus’ act that harked back to Elisha’s. In this highly symbolic action, which would not have needed to be explained out loud, Jesus was identifying himself with the ministry of the one of Israel’s great prophets. Seen this way, we remove some of the puzzlement over the disciples’ response when Jesus asked “Who do people say that I am?” and they come back with “John the Baptiser; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” If you will permit me a small liberty, if it walks like a prophet and quacks like a prophet then it might well be a prophet.

Sticking with Jesus’ miracles, many of the acts of healing that we find are not only compassionate acts that alleviate suffering, but that they were on those whose afflictions would have rendered them ritually unclean or cause them to be cast out from society. The act of healing then was a prophetic act that says “[you are clean]” which is brought out more explicit with the vision Peter had of the sheet being brought down containing foods that had been considered ritually unclean and commanded to eat.

Hopefully it should be clear that this way of looking at prophetic acts entails communion and baptism. They are highly symbolic acts which hark back to the most important week in world history.

A modern example of a secular prophetic act was the salt march that Gandhi undertook in 1930. As this is quite long, I’ll let you read up more about it rather than recount the history here.

So can we summarise what we mean when we speak of prophecy or to say that some word, image or action is prophetic? My usage would be thus:

An act of prophecy is the act of telling forth of an insight into the present which has repercussions for the future. Something which is described as prophetic is foremost an act or a statement that is loaded with symbolism which, when understood, is meant a statement of prophecy. Secondarily, a prophetic act or word can be something which harks back to earlier such words or actions, but which is marked out by being highly symbolic, yet not to such an obscure level that it needed to be explained by detailed semiotics. They typically reference things which are commonly known and understood. The primary and secondary meanings here need not be separate acts, but can be entwined in a single act.

What hasn’t been addressed here is determining true prophecy from false, or how to respond to it. I’ll leave that for you.

Book Review: Being Christian by Rowan Williams

Disclaimer: This was gifted to me by the publishers, SPCK, as a reward for making a pun on Twitter. I think it was something about their authors to food, and I mentioned Rowan-berry Williams. I was not asked to review the book and do so, as ever, wholly of my own initiative.

This little book, subtitled Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, is based on a series of sermons he gave in the final week running up to Easter, though the year wasn’t specified. Williams has identified what he sees as 4 characteristics of the christian life (a point for discussion may be whether these 4 are the best choice, though I wouldn’t say they are bad at all). This isn’t a deep theological treatise, but it has hints of depths for us all to explore. As an example, I might cite a single sentence where he sums up the entirety of liberation theology: “For many people in the 1970s and 1980s it was surprising to realize [sic] what the story of the exodus, for example, meant to people in deprived communities in Latin America.” The book is suffused with such sentences that hint that there is more to things than are shown here, even if it’s like walking down a corridor, being shown doors that are slightly ajar. We are given a fair impression of what may lay behind these doors, but we are left to explore them by ourselves.

This is aided by a number of questions at the end of each chapter which may be used either by oneself or as part of a group study.

It is worth noting the title carefully, or rather, what the title isn’t. One other review I read of it made a criticism that Williams said nothing about how to become a christian, particularly noting that there was nothing about repentance. This is not a fair representation. For starters, Williams does talk about repentance, even though it’s not a section in its own right. More than that, though, the book is not called Becoming Christian. This is not a piece of apologetics nor does it describe the ways by which one might come to faith. There is an assumption here already that the reader has some idea of what the 4 headers are about and of who Jesus is.

Baptism

Readers here should be aware that I grew up in a baptist church which had a very deep, developed theology of baptism. It is usually one area where I differ from my anglican brethren, though it was rather lovely to see that Williams didn’t advocate any of those aspects that I normally cringe at: specifically, the advocacy of infant baptism or a functional (as opposed to symbolic) view of baptism. Some of the latter is hinted at, but Williams doesn’t quite go so far as to say that baptism makes one a christian.

Rather, he gently looks at the idea of being buried and raised with Christ and what that means for the individual. Interestingly, he cannot resist jumping ahead of himself and writing about prayer at this point. What I found most interesting was a comment that prayer is not something that ought to be striven for, but is a natural reaction in the life of the christian, much the inevitability of sneezing.

Bible

This was a chapter I must say I found quite intriguing, not least because I found Williams’ take again quite unexpected. He makes a very sharp distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament in terms of their historicity. Williams seems to view the whole of the OT as being an identity-creating narrative but whose historicity is unimportant.

For my part, I am unsure as to whether the historicity of the Old Testament can be downplayed quite so much. While I would agree with Williams that the primary purpose is that of a forming a cultural identity, I am less easily convinced that the historical basis is unimportant. The fact that there is a relative paucity of corroborating evidence, either in literature or archaeology should be something that troubles us. If it were somehow proved the Abraham never entered into a covenant with God then I believe that that would have a profound impact on New Testament theology.

Talking of which, Williams has no such qualms about the historicity of the NT. He emphasises the centrality of Jesus as being the primary means of revelation. For the christian life is one of listening and God’s own voice is not more clear than when speaking through Jesus. There isn’t space here for a huge discourse on source or form criticism, so please don’t come to Williams’ writing with that expectation.

Eucharist

Going back a bit to my baptist upbringing, one of the other areas I would tend to disagree with the anglican mindset regards what Williams calls here Eucharist (which I recall Roger Forster describes as being a fancy way of showing that you know a bit of Greek), but which in the low church is more often referred to as communion or breaking bread.

Williams does stick to the Anglican party line in this chapter, more than he did in baptism, by advocating a highly functional view of the eucharist, even going so far as to mention transubstantiation at one point. So you will not be surprised to read that I profoundly disagree with him on this point. That is not to reject the chapter entirely. Even for the nonconformist, there is a gentle richness here so that one can see the world through the eyes of one particular tradition. He reminds us that communion can be approached in different ways, as a remembrance of the sacrifice that Jesus made and as a celebration of the resurrection. All this, though, is enabled through the Holy Spirit. I wonder whether it occurred to him quite how charismatic this sounded.

Prayer

In this final chapter, Williams takes a slightly different approach, with the bulk of it taken from 3 figures from fairly early on in christian history: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian. I must admit, though reasonably familiar with Origen and having heard of, but been unfamiliar with, Gregory of Nyssa, I had never previously heard of John Cassian. As one might expect, the Lord’s Prayer plays a fairly prominent role here as a model by which we pray.

Williams has more surprises up his sleeves here. In emphasising the personal nature of prayer, Williams advocates the notion of a priesthood of all believers, again something not one might expect from a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet he also emphasises another aspect of prayer, whereby we do it as part of a community; a community who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Overall, I got the impression that the book tried to be a spiritual classic. There wasn’t an awful lot to tie it to the time and place in which it was composed. It didn’t speak to a particular demographic, but had a feeling of timelessness to it. However, that’s not universally true and a few hints here and there could become dated in years to come, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

I’m posting this review comparatively late to when I finished it, so can look back and see what stuck. The overriding sense I get now is that it is a book that I should have read much more slowly than I did. At less than a hundred pages, I thought I was going slowly to eek it out at one chapter per day. It isn’t a work of theology, but it should hold a mirror up to our theology and praxis and remind us of some of the basics of christian living that distinguish us from the rest of the world at large. Such reminders are no new thing in christian literature, yet I have a feeling that this will be read more times and recommended in years to come than many a more plain effort.

There is far more in this small volume than I could cover here, for to do it justice might require a page of writing to unpack each paragraph. So while it may not take you long to read, it will be hard to resist turning back to it and noting the quotes that the publishers highlight for the reader to ponder. If what I’ve touched on sounds interesting, then this is definitely a book for you.

Sacraments as Signposts

I was having a little think the other day about what those of a high church persuasion refer to as “sacraments.” I wrote a little about these fairly recently. What got me thinking was a few instances where I had various people push the idea of the sacraments as being the main part of any church service. That is, they were more important than the worship or the sermon, even to the extent that anything else was marginal.

Also, I was recently described as being anti-anglican, though I think this is not really an accurate label. What I am opposed to is tradition for tradition’s sake and instances where a church has become an institution. There are strong aspects of these in both Catholicism and Anglicanism, though it would be unfair to apply such a specific charge universally against such large and diverse bodies.

Coming from an independent church background, looking as an impartial outside observer upon the public face of these two organisations, I cannot escape the idea that today’s anglican and catholic churches are the equivalents of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Key to this is the sermon on the mount as recorded by Matthew. Throughout this section, Jesus emphasises that there is a reason for the law. The law does not exist for it’s own sake, it is an application of more fundamental ideas. He gives something of a backhanded compliment in chapter 5:17-20 (Green):

“Do not think that I came to annul the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to annul, but to fulfil. Truly I say to you, until the heavens and the earth pass away, in no way shall one iota or one tittle pass away from the law until all comes to pass. Whoever then shall break one of these commandments, the least, and shall teach men so, he shall be called least in kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches them, this one shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. For I say to you, if your righteousness shall not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, in no way shall you go into the kingdom of heaven.”

His point, which is also made elsewhere in the gospels is that the law was being observed for its own sake. The scribes and the Pharisees come across as being more concerned about the letter of the law than the underlying reasons for it. So while law and tradition are important, they are not the end goal.

So when I look at the institutional churches, what I see are institutions that are more concerned about their self-preservation and keeping their own rules and traditions than they are about actually being a church; where I’m using the term church to mean a collection of people.

So coming back to the sacraments, they are important for christianity, but they are not the be all and end all. They are signposts and symbols for God and the gospel. To become “evangelical for the sacraments” is like a person who spends their time admiring and arguing for the preservation of a motorway sign. We may be used to seeing the signs in a particular form, and if this form is changed, then I don’t doubt a conservative element would protest at such a change. But if a new format of the sign is used, which still serves the function, then it is in no way false, misleading or heretical. It’s just a different way of doing things.

Of course, one can to the other extreme and try to rid christianity of any and all traditions, embracing everything new just because it is new. Here, I am thinking particularly of the use of technology within churches. If you have song books that work well, is it really justified to spend a lot of money of a projection system? Of course, some investment may be necessary, but upgrading one’s PA system just for the sake it shows, in my opinion, questionable discernment; and I have seen instances of this is quite a lot of churches of varying stripes.

Returning to the signpost analogy, by concentrating on the sign, you never embark on the journey. This is probably my biggest concern for those whose energies are devoted to the preservation of tradition. Trying to stick to the precise methodologies by those who lived in vastly different time period and culture seems to against the instruction for each “to work out their own salvation.” By concentrating on treading in the footsteps of others, we may never look up and notice our surroundings or where we are headed. To this end, I love the maxim from Hebrews “Looking unto Jesus” which was, by the way, my old school motto.

How do you define a christian? Part 3: Sacraments as boundaries

Part 1: Self-definition
Part 2: Creeds & Confessions

In most forms of christianity, there are various “ceremonies” which are often referred to as ‘sacraments’ by those of a high church persuasion. Sociologically, these can be good demarcation boundaries for who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ In particular, the two I am thinking of are baptism and communion (the latter also known variously as eucharist, holy communion, mass or The Lord’s Supper). Personally, I’m not a fan of the term sacraments, as it is quite pretentious and off-putting for those who are not well versed in high church terminology. My own view is that church should be open and welcoming, including in the terminology used. The ordinary person on the street should not be given any reason to stay away from church on the basis that they don’t know what the “right way” is to behave and talk in church.

There’s an early christian handbook for new believers, which seems partly based on the gospel of Matthew, called the Didache [you can read the full text of the book here]. If you read down, chapter 7 has specific instructions on baptism and chapter 9 has instructions on communion. Both are very formal and ritualised but will be familiar to those who have grown up in many western churches today.

I recently read both the book itself, along with an analysis of it by a catholic professor, Thomas O’ Loughlin (you can read the review here). Although I think O’Loughlin missed the point somewhat, he does make an interesting observation when he says:

“any group which has a developed sense of belonging…; a firm sense its own history….; and a clear unifying set of ‘facts’….will have a very clear sense of its boundaries, and of who is within the group. Furthermore, it will ritualize [sic] the gateways in those boundaries so that the whole group have a badge of identity and newcomers know they have crossed a threshold.”

This is also echoed slightly by the christian theologian, Tom Wright, in Surprised by Hope, when he says:

“I have come to believe that the sacraments are best understood within the theology of creation and new creation….God’s future has burst into the present and…somehow the sacraments are not just signs of the reality of the new creation but actually part of it. Thus the event of baptism – the action, the water, the going down and coming up again, the new clothes – is not just a signpost of the reality of the new birth, the membership (as all birth gives membership) in the new family. It really is the gateway to that membership.” (emphasis added)

I do not think that the purpose of baptism and communion is to act as ritualised gateways, though I do think such the sacraments may be used thus. To draw an analogy, the raison d’etre of a book is to be read, although that doesn’t stop me from using it as a doorstop or as a spider-squashing device. The purpose of baptism is to publically declare one’s faith, but this is no way determines whether or not someone is a christian. If you accept the idea of baptism as a “gateway” then, when taken in a soteriological sense, this would mean that those who are not baptised cannot be part of God’s kingdom. I would argue instead that it is an indication(but not a definitive marker) that one already has become part of God’s kingdom.

One very interesting thing to note is that while we have a record of Jesus being baptised, and of John the Baptist doing the same to others, there is no record of any members of The Twelve themselves being baptised. They are instructed in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The book of Acts describes some of the early church leaders performing baptisms, yet I don’t recall seeing a specific incident where they themselves were baptised. The closest I could find was in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he uses the inclusive term “us” to describe those are baptised, implying he was shortly after his experience on the road to Damascus (watch this space for a further post on that topic, later this week or early next week).

This, of course, does not mean baptism is a once-and-for-all thing, which I suppose sets me apart (pardon the pun) from Calvinism where the idea of a secure election is sacrosanct. I have many friends who have publically declared their faith and been baptised only later to have left church life, renounced their faith or just plain old given up. One of the better writers on the web who has done this is Daniel Florien, author of the Unreasonable Faith blog.

In any sociological group, there is an important concept of “the other” – i.e. to define oneself not only by what you are, but also by what you are not. So I acknowledge it can be helpful to think in terms of those who are baptised as different from those who are not, or to consider those who take part in communion as having a different belief from those who do not take part. Yet I think it isn’t helpful to regard these as absolute boundaries.

There is a very obvious thought experiment one could do: suppose someone, having examined the evidence and reasons for belief, makes the free and conscious decision to “become a christian” (however they want to phrase this). They are on their way to publically acknowledge this by being baptised and on the way there they are killed. If we take Wright’s view at face value, then this person would not have met the membership requirement of the new birth. O’Loughlin’s view is not quite as harsh, but there would certainly be considerable doubt over whether they might be considered to be an ‘insider.’

It is also interesting to note that between them, the different stances churches adopt on baptism and communion are probably two of the main reasons for divisions and splits, which in my opinion is a sad state of affairs. I won’t go into any detail here, as the next section in this mini-series will be on denominations where I will be exposing some of my own prejudices on the matter.