thoughts on communion

This bloggage began its life as a ‘Thought for the week’ shared with the Ministers I serve in the Eastern Baptist Association. As you will see I have extended my thinking a little since the original ‘Thought’.

As you probably know by now I am about to undergo some surgery on 13th February, which will be followed by a period of convalescence. I was told about it about 3 months ago and have been on the waiting list ever since. (This is not a complaint about waiting lists – there were people with greater clinical need than me further up the list.) Because I could have been called at short notice at any time I have not been able to commit to meetings and events in my diary. That means that preaching engagements have been postponed because churches need a little more certainty about who will take the service than ‘I should be able to make it’. It has been frustrating. But it has also been liberating as I have found more space in my diary than I am used to and have taken the opportunity to catch up with people I haven’t had a chance to, I have done more reading than usual, and I have exercised the gift of administration and got on top of my emails and paperwork – almost emptying both the virtual and real inboxes. Now, however, I have some certainty.

One thing that has happened several times since the operation date was confirmed has made me chuckle. People have spoken to me about “the last time I will see you” or “your last meeting”. Now I know (or hope) that they have meant “the last time I will see you until after you return to work” and “your last meeting before you go on sick leave” but the apparent finality made me chuckle and I couldn’t help commenting on it along the lines of, “Do you know something I don’t?” and “That’s a bit final!” This morning as I recalled those conversations I had a glimpse of what Jesus may have felt as he was sharing the Last Supper with his closest friends. I had not really paid much attention to the element of provisional finality in what Jesus said before sharing bread and wine with the Twelve. And I had not given enough attention to how eager Jesus was to share the meal with them. “Eagerly desired” doesn’t really do justice to the passionate desire he had to share the Passover that ‘one last time’ (until…) – the Greek word ‘epithoumeo’ has the sense of ‘desperately longing for’, ‘setting one’s heart on’ and even ‘lusting after’! With that in mind, read Luke’s record of the Last Supper – (Luke 22:14-20).

14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.’

17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’

19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’

20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

At one time I was booked to have the operation just before Christmas and to be in hospital for the festive season. I was keen just to get it over with but my wife, Sally, was eager that we should have the whole family around the table for that meal. It was only in conversation with her after the operation was postponed that I realised just how important it was to her: she had set her heart on me being there because it meant something. That has helped me realise how eager Jesus would have been to share the meal with those he loved. Passover was a big deal: it meant something.

Jesus knew what lay ahead of him, and that made him even more desperate to share that special meal with these people who had become special to him. It meant something.pexels-photo-632043.jpeg

So how eager am I to share bread and wine with those I love? Sometimes, perhaps because of frequency or regularity, we may take sharing communion for granted. We add it onto the end of a service or perhaps even forget that it’s that Sunday in the month until we see that the elements have been prepared (have you had that experience too?). I am reminded of my Father’s ‘Priesting’ (Ordination in the C of E) which concluded with him leading the celebration of Communion. I was sat at the front and had received bread and wine from my Dad (what a moment!) so was watching the rest of the congregation line up. And I could see a man struggling forward from the back of the church with two walking sticks. He was really unstable and I wasn’t sure he would make it to the front. Each step looked precarious and painful but he was determined that he was going to receive bread and wine from my father on that special occasion so he persevered. It meant something!

When we share bread and wine in church do we eagerly desire to eat the meal with those we love and serve? We ought to because it means something.

pexels-photo-669730.jpegThis is the point at which my thinking has extended since I wrote the ‘Thought’. You see Jesus “eagerly desired” to share the Passover with the Twelve – his closest friends and his constant companions for the past 3 years. The very next verse in the passage reads:

21 But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table.

Jesus shared the meal with Judas – the one he knew had already agreed to betray him. Not only that, he eagerly desired to share the meal with Judas as one of the Twelve, even though he knew that Judas had become disillusioned with him and was going to betray him.

In many churches (and I have done this sometimes) Christians seem to feel the need to either to protect people from sharing in the Lord’s Supper if they are not believers or to protect the Lord’s Supper from people who are not believers (or both). But Jesus was desperate to share this meal with a man whom he knew had decided to become his enemy! Who, or what, are we protecting when we say something like, “If you love Jesus you are welcome to take bread and wine”? And some traditions even exclude you from taking communion unless you can prove you are a Christian! One of the most heartbreaking moments in my ministry was when we had a leader from another sharing in a service in our church and when it came to communion they felt constrained by obedience to their church tradition not to share with us. They had tears running down their face at that moment because they eagerly desired to eat and drink with us.

And with the greatest of respect to those traditions, and even mine, I think we have got it so wrong. This is a meal of welcome, a meal in which an olive-branch of reconciliation is offered, a meal in which even those who feel like enemies are included. It’s also an encounter with the core of the Christian faith – a tangible, tasteable and inspirational connection with Jesus as we are reminded of the extent of his love for us and the extraordinary lengths God went to in order to offer us forgiveness and a fresh start with him. If that is the case, surely we’d want everyone to have that, wouldn’t we?

“Stop right there, you heretic!” I hear you think. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, tells them that they should be very careful before they eat bread and wine together – there are dire consequences for doing so wrongly (1 Corinthians 11):

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.

Yup! I completely agree with you. But let’s remember that Paul was writing to a church of Christians about their behaviour, not about the behaviour of people who weren’t Christians. And the “unworthy manner” surely relates to the particular practice he was angry at where rich people ate separately from the poorer people in the church and gorged themselves while the others had meagre rations. Look at the whole of 1 Corinthians 11 (I have added italics to show the aspects of his teaching that all relate to this) and I think you’ll see what I mean.

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

Examining ourselves is not about whether or not we are followers of Jesus, it’s about whether our behaviour has excluded some people and is creating or emphasising divisions in the church. Paul suggests that if it is, then even if the elements are right we aren’t actually sharing in the Lord’s Supper!

If you disagree with me, that’s your prerogative. And if I am asked to come to lead a service in your church and that includes leading communion I will try to respect your traditions but I will also want to be as inclusive as possible in the manner of Jesus, whom I follow and serve.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

going around in (magic) circles

Last night I went to the prestigious Magic Circle in London. I am in the process of applying to join and last night was the first phase of this: an interview. I am pleased to say that I have passed that phase (it was not a ‘thumbscrews interrogation’) and will be having my examination (audition) at the end of July.

cardsThis was my first visit to the Magic Circle premises and I was impressed by the hospitality and welcome I received. People were friendly and inclusive and the interviewer was encouraging and helpful. But it did help that I met a friend there so I did not feel such an ‘outsider’ on my first visit.

And that made me reflect on how it must be for people who don’t normally attend church. No matter how friendly, inclusive and welcoming we are, no matter how encouraging and helpful we are, what will make a real difference is having someone we know who can show us around, help us understand what’s happening and sit with us. And that places the onus on the people who attend church actually getting around to bringing someone with them.

Read these two statistics alongside each other if you are a churchgoer.

  • “Only two percent of church members invite an unchurched person to church. Ninety-eighty percent of church-goers never extend an invitation in a given year.” –Dr Thom Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door
  • “Eighty-two percent of the unchurched are at least somewhat likely to attend church if invited.” –Dr. Thom Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door

Hmmm.

In addition to the welcome, the excellent lecture, and the positive interview my friend showed me around and took me to the museum. There we met the curator who was so knowledgeable and showed us around. He showed us the actual ‘Marauder’s Map’ from the Harry Potter films and I learnt that the automatic opening and closing was not a computer animation but happened in real time thanks to some clever stuff. He showed us props and costumes from historical magicians (including Sooty). I have read some books about the history of magic but there are some things that really come to life when you actually see them and are told about them by someone who knows what they are talking about.

Another lesson for churches?

Be blessed, be a blessing

accidental blessings

BumblebeeIn my role as a Regional Minister I am quite itinerant. I am never in the same place for long. I feel a bit like a bee, buzzing around from church to church seeking to be a blessing, being blessed by being with them and at the same time sharing thoughts, ideas and contacts with other churches to cross-fertilize and bless others.

But I have also discovered that I am the bringer of ‘accidental blessings’ – I am blessing without even meaning to do so. On Sundays at the moment this is particularly obvious to me as I don’t have a home church to attend when I am ‘off’. I have left the church where I ministered for 6 1/2 years and it’s not fair on them if I keep popping back: much as I love the people there they need to be looking to what God has for them in the future rather than having me around. So I am taking the opportunity to visit churches in my sector and be a part of their worshipping congregation. That is a blessing to me and I have discovered can also be an accidental blessing to them.

When I have visited churches ‘unofficially’ I have tried to keep a low profile because I don’t want to make a fuss and because I see myself simply as another worshipping Christian, but I have discovered that this is not often possible. With my height and shiny bald head I tend to stick out a bit and as people start talking with me I soon have to explain that I am a visitor and then that I am their Regional Minister. And I am finding that simply by turning up at church I am blessing people…

I hold the ‘title’ of Regional Minister very loosely indeed and because I know that behind that ‘badge’ (I don’t wear a badge) there is the same me that has always been there I don’t think of myself as at all important. I am just Nick. But when I have visited churches in the manner I have described I find that they feel blessed because the Regional Minister has chosen to worship Jesus with them. It’s a very strange experience for me.

Some churches think that because I am there I am on some sort of inspection visit, or worse. There was one occasion when I visited a church and tried (unsuccessfully) to remain incognito. Eventually I had to admit that I was their Regional Minister and a little bit later on someone sidled up to me and asked me what was wrong – were they in trouble? I was rather taken aback as I had not thought my visit would have had that impact and assured them that I really had no ulterior motive, it was not Godsted (or whatever the Christian equivalent of Oftsed is) I had just come to worship Jesus with them. The wonderful thing was that the expression of concern and anxiety on that person’s face melted away in front of me and turned into a big beaming smile.

I had blessed them simply by turning up at their church.

Now I know that most of you who bother to read this bloggerel are not Regional Ministers. But let me assure you (especially if you are not a regular church attender) that if you turned up at a church next Sunday you would bless people simply by turning up too. I hope and pray that more and more churches will make everyone welcome but sadly (if I am honest) there are some churches where you are not made to feel welcome. However I dare to suggest that even in those cases you will have blessed people by being there, by worshipping Jesus with them. And if you have that experience please don’t judge Jesus by the imperfect nature of his followers, please try again (at another church or the same one).

A long time ago I did visit a church with my wife and we sat in what turned out to be the ‘usual’ seats for two ladies. They came in, saw us in their seats and sat down either side of us. That’s nice isn’t it? Except that they then proceeded to talk across us as if we weren’t there (making a point I think). During the sermon one of them got out some sweets and passed them across us to their friend, not offering one to us at all. Needless to say we did not go back to that church, but in the evening we went to another church where the welcome we received was in stark contrast to the morning’s experience – we were welcomed by everyone and we stayed at that church.

And now a message for churches: please recognise the blessing you receive from who who gather to worship Jesus together with you. It’s not just (or even) Regional Ministers whose presence should encourage you, but every single person who is there is a blessing because they are there. Appreciate everyone. Welcome everyone. Love everyone. Don’t let anyone leave feeling unloved, unappreciated or unwelcome. Think about how Jesus welcomes you, and he has asked you to emulate him.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

it’s just another magic monday

I hope the good folks of South Woodham Ferrers don't mind appearing on the bloggage
I hope the good folks of South Woodham Ferrers don’t mind appearing on the bloggage alongside the bald magician (standing)

Well, the prestidigitation seems to have gone well (see the previous bloggage). I had a wonderful time, but more importantly those for whom I was performing seem to have enjoyed themselves and I think I left them wanting more. I had some very kind and encouraging comments afterwards.

A couple of things occurred to me from what happened, and I will share my reflections here. The first relates to the Magic and Curry night in South Woodham Evangelical Church. It was clear from the moment that I arrived that a considerable amount of effort had gone into preparing for the evening. The interior of the church had been transformed with drapes, stars, candles and oscillating laser lights. Tables had been laid out beautifully and there was a wonderful smell of curry wafting in from the kitchen. The work was worth it, the venue was brilliant and everyone who came felt relaxed and comfortable. And the curry tasted wonderful and there was plenty of it so everyone was satisfied.

So how much effort do we go to in order to make people comfortable and relaxed when the come to church (on a Sunday or at any other time of the week)? How do we represent Jesus’ welcome by the notices we have on the boards (all covered up by drapes on Friday), the atmosphere we create (physical and emotional), and even the fragrance of the place (curry beats musty every time!)?

At the fundraiser event for International Justice Mission I was doing walk-around magic and the plan was for me to do this at different times in the evening. Towards the end of the evening the DJ (for there was one) cranked up the volume to enable people to dance. It became very obvious very quickly that I was not going to be able to continue to do magic for people because they could not hear me unless I shouted and that was not very engaging (plus I needed to preserve my voice to preach the next day). So I finished at that point in the evening rather than persevere.

People had seen magic: now they had an opportunity to dance. I could have asked for the DJ to turn down the volume, but that seemed unnecessary and unfair. I didn’t need to impose myself on the evening – it wasn’t about me. And that way I could leave them wanting more.

Do we impose our preferences on others without considering how others think or feel? Do we sometimes persevere with something when its time is up? Are we sometimes trying to shout above the noise around us to make ourselves heard when it’s actually time to make a graceful exit?

As was once said, “Blessed are the meek…”

Be blessed, be a blessing.

welcome cards

We have some new welcome cards that have been designed for our church by a wonderfully creative and talented young lady (thank you Sara). When you look at them at first they look like this:

welcome card 2

When you open up the ‘lcome’ flap it looks like this:

welcome card 3

I think they are really clever, look bright and inviting and I hope they will encourage visitors and newcomers to record their visit so we can keep in touch.

But they will be useless unless we have visitors and newcomers. We have been blessed by a regular trickle of people who have come to our church to try us out: some of whom who have found a new spiritual home with us. We have been thrilled by those who have come to faith in Jesus at our church and have become a part of our fellowship. It was a joy last week to meet a lady who had come because she had found us through our website, and another man who had come because he had walked past the premises during the week.

That’s wonderful, exciting, brilliant.

But we also have a responsibility to our friends, colleagues and families to invite them too. If what we have experienced of Jesus is good news for us it is surely good news for them as well. If we don’t invite people we can’t be surprised when they don’t come!

Let me insert a couple of important caveats here:

I do not believe that having more people in church services is the purpose of church. Our purpose is to be followers of Jesus and to make him known to others. Making him known doesn’t have to be on Sundays (and in fact is most effective as we are free samples of Jesus wherever he places us in the rest of the week). But one of the ways in which we are fed and equipped to do that is through worship services so it is good for us to gather together.

I also do not believe that a church should grow at the expense of other churches. I would hate to think that we were growing in attendance because people were leaving other churches to come to us. Of course it is right that God moves people to attend other churches from time to time – that’s natural and healthy as we grow in our relationship with Jesus. But that’s not what I am talking about. I am against the approach that I have seen elsewhere (not in Colchester) where Christians are actively encouraging people to leave their own church to attend their church.

Last Sunday evening we had a wonderful service where people from our church shared about their favourite song or hymn – why it was important to them – and then we sang those hymns ‘Songs of Praise’ style. It was wonderful not only because of the singing but because of the honesty and depth with which people spoke of their faith. That’s attractive. When people can see that Jesus makes a positive difference in people’s lives they will want to come and find out for themselves.

I really hope we run out of these cards soon – not because people take them away because they are so attractive – but because they will have been used for their purpose and that may be a sign that we are being decent (if not good) free samples of Jesus as individual Christians and as a church.

Be blessed, be a blessing

service

A nice man has just come to read our electricity and gas meters. He made a joke about not outstaying his welcome as he left.

Jesus face-planted as the church made another public statement
Jesus face-planted as the church made another public statement

Yesterday I had a courtesy phone call from the company with whom we have some of the family mobile phone contracts. And the lady with whom I was speaking was courteous.

On Wednesday I took my car to a local garage because the rubber mounts that hold my car’s exhaust pipe on had broken. The kind man replaced them all immediately and without charge.

Those people have put a positive, friendly face (or voice) to their companies. Companies today can appear to be faceless, inhuman money-making entities whose sole purpose is to try to get their hands on as much of our money as possible. That view is reinforced to me by junk mail and those irritating automated phone calls. So when I get to speak with someone human; someone who is polite; someone who is seeking to be helpful; it makes an enormous difference to the way that I view those particular companies. I feel much more favourably inclined towards them. I might not even begrudge spending some of my money with them.

I reckon churches have a considerable amount to learn about good ‘customer service’ and the impact that has on those who receive it. We know that we are supposed to be people who are examples of God’s welcome, love, acceptance, and inclusion. But that is not the message we project all the time.

I visited a church in South London once and sat in the back row with Sally. We seem to have sat in the seat that some older ladies normally sat in because when they arrived they sat either side of us. They may have said ‘hello’ but that has been lost in what happened afterwards. They started talking to each other across us, as if we weren’t there. During the sermon they passed each other sweets across us, not offering us any. We beat a very hasty retreat from there and never went back.

Not exactly a warm welcome.

I fear that the image of the Church as portrayed in the media is giving the same message to our society. Notwithstanding strongly held theological beliefs on both sides of the discussion / debate within churches (this is not a statement about their rightness or wrongness) the general public must surely be getting the (unintended) message from recent debates in churches and responses to recent legislative proposals that if you are gay or a woman you won’t be welcome in church. At best you will be considered a second class citizen.

Can we honestly say that Jesus would be saying that? How many times in the Gospels do we read of him telling someone that they were not welcome or that they were less important than others?

By way of contrast, the positive face of churches goes unreported on the whole. When those who are on the margins of society receive an unconditional, un-judgmental welcome by Christians it is not reported. When the lonely find comfort and love and support in church it doesn’t make headline-grabbing news. Even when someone finds that their life has been transformed by an encounter with Jesus it rarely gets any publicity. But those people will have received good ‘customer service’ and I hope will be as ready to share that with those whom they meet as I am about my recent experiences.

In a recent sermon I said that the only way for churches to be defeated is for us to press the self-destruct button ourselves. We have that capacity, and have demonstrated at least the ability to shoot ourselves in the foot on regular occasions. But we also have the best stories in the world – not ones that will make the headlines, but ones that each one of us can tell as good free samples of Jesus.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Corduroy pillows – they are making headlines!

 

setting boundaries

Isn’t it amazing how God draws things to our attention when he’s trying to tell us something? Well, perhaps it’s not amazing because he often does it. It’s more that I’m amazed that he persists with me.

Last week I was sent an e-mail about something I had shared with the church a long time back which had stuck with somebody. This morning I was in the ministers’ office at the church and picked up a piece of scrap paper. When I turned it over I realised that it was the same thing that I shared which had stuck with that person. So I thought it might be helpful to share it with you and also remind myself about it because it may well be something God is reminding me about as a minister and us as a church.

It’s all to do with bounded and unbounded sets. Hopefully you will be able to see what I mean from the diagrams below. You can apply in different ways. Perhaps it speaks to us about formal church membership. Perhaps it speaks to us about welcome and inclusion. Perhaps it speaks to us about both issues and much more.

For the most part churches operate as bounded sets. We operate on the basis of who is in and who is out, often defined by membership or regular attendance. We work on the basis that we want to invite people to join us, to become one of us.

But Jesus operated an unbounded set. He invited people to follow him not to join his club. He was attractive in the way he acted and treated people and in the words he used. He was inclusive, reserving his words of condemnation for the religious elite who were operating a bounded set mentality.

Hmmmmm.

bounded set onebounded set twounbounded bounded set oneunbounded set two

I’m not going say much about this now, I might well come back to it once I have a clearer idea of what exactly it is that God is saying to me and our church. But what is God saying to you about this?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

(Apologies if the order of clerical accession is incorrect, I’m a non-conformist after all!)

A Catholic Priest and a Rabbi were chatting one day when the conversation turned to a discussion of job descriptions and promotion. “What do you have to look forward to in way of a promotion in your job?” asked the Rabbi.

“Well, I’m next in line for the Monsignor’s job.” replied the Priest.

“Yes, and then what?” asked the Rabbi.

“Well, next I can become Bishop.” said the Priest.

“Yes, and then?” asked the Rabbi.

“If I work really hard and do a good job as a Bishop, it’s possible for me to become an Archbishop.” said the Priest.

“O.K., then what?” asked the Rabbi.

The Priest, beginning to get a bit exasperated replied, “With some luck and real hard work, maybe I can become a Cardinal.”

“And then?” asked the Rabbi.

The Priest is really starting to get mad now and replies, “With lots and lots of luck and some real difficult work and if I’m in the right places at the right times and play my political games just right, maybe, just maybe, I can get elected Pope.”

“Yes, and then what?” asked the Rabbi.

“Good grief!” shouted the Priest. “What do you expect me to become, GOD?”

“Well,” said the Rabbi, “One of our boys made it!”