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.

polar exploration

confusedWhat is it about humans that makes us want to polarise? Is it because we secretly like conflict – perhaps something left over from our cave-dwelling kill-or-be-eaten past? Maybe it’s because we want to know who’s on our side, and by definition who isn’t?

If you listen to interviews on the radio phone-ins they always seem to try to find two people who have opposing views on the topic to argue against one another. I remember a while ago listening to a debate about whether or not (and there’s a clue in that part of the ‘discussion’) it is right to teach young people about sex or teach them about abstinence from sex before marriage. I was really unhappy with the way it was set up, especially as it seemed to be an opportunity for church-bashing, so I phoned in. I wanted to point out that it’s perfectly possible to teach young people about all aspects of sex, including the emotional ones, even if you hold a view that abstaining from sex before marriage is most beneficial. Sadly I didn’t get on to make that point and the show continued with the polarised debate.

You can take almost any significant issue (and many trivial ones) and polarise opinions on them. For example, do you like Marmite? The answers you would be offered would be ‘yes’ or ‘no’. However it’s possible that some people like Marmite in some circumstances (on their toast in the morning) but not in others (in sandwiches with bananas and anchovies)*.

It grieves me to say that Christians are some of the best at polarising. We seem to relish an ‘yes or no’ approach to almost any issue, usually coupled with an inference or implication that if you disagree with me (and I can back it up by some reference to the Bible) then you are a heretic and should be subjected to some of the worst aspects of the Spanish Inquisition (you didn’t expect that). I may be overstating things for comedic effect, but I hope you get my point.

I could put a post on social media about any of 20 different subjects on which Christians disagree and I am fairly confident that quickly a discussion thread would follow that quickly degenerated into a polarised argument. Today is 31 October. That is a date which polarises Christians, doesn’t it.

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther, a disaffected priest, nailed a piece of paper containing 95 radical opinions about church practice onto the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That simple act is seen as the spark that lit the touchpaper of the Protestant Reformation.

What? You didn’t think I meant Luther’s 95 theses? You thought I was referring to Halloween? Ah, well, if I was writing about Halloween some of you might start picking up virtual stones to lob in my direction while others of you might start a virtual fan club. So I am not going to.

Instead I am going to suggest that there is another way. It is the way of dialogue instead of debate. It is the way of seeking common ground rather than focussing on what we disagree about. It is the way of affirmation and blessing, not devaluing and condemnation. I believe it is the way of Jesus. He had a lot of controversial things to say. He disagreed with a lot of people. In the end some of them were so incensed that they contrived to arrange his crucifixion.

But to most people he offered welcome and inclusion rather than division and exclusion. He seems to have gone out of his way to mix with the ‘wrong sort of people’. The only times (and Christians should be aware and beware) that he had harsh words to say to people was to the religious people who excluded people from society and from an encounter with God by their words and actions.

“Ah, yes,” some of you may be saying, “But didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 10:‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”’?”**

Yup. That’s what it says. But he was not talking about doctrinal differences or ethical conundrums or what to celebrate on 31 October. He was talking about the cost of following him and for some people that would mean that their family turned against them.

So, whatever issues you have with someone else if you disagree with them disagree well.

Perhaps we should pay more attention to the One who said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ and less to those who want to have a heated debate.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I don’t like Marmite (under any circumstances) and would not recommend trying Marmite, banana and anchovy sandwiches unless they prove to be a gourmet delight, in which case you heard it hear first! However, despite my lack of desire to consume the brewing by-product I don’t have a beef with those who do (see what I did there?)

**I think I got the punctuation right

camera angles

Camera Sign.While visiting Canterbury Cathedral earlier in the week I was interested to see that the crypt is an area in which taking photos is prohibited. I think this is so it is set aside for people to pray and reflect without being disturbed by flash photography. It interested me because it reminded me of a phrase that is used in courts in the UK when the public is not allowed access to a hearing. The court is said to be sitting ‘in camera’. It means ‘in private’ and comes from Latin which literally means ‘in chambers’.

That has always intrigued me because if something is ‘on camera’ it is very obviously in the public view whereas ‘in camera’ means exactly the opposite! It got me pondering (as these things do) about when we say one thing and mean another. I remembered a sad moment when I was studying for my law degree. The lecturer was speaking about the meaning of words and how intonation makes a big difference. He asked for examples and with real emotion and feeling one of the girls on the course said, “Yes, of course I love you.”

Ouch.

Is that how some people see Christians? For example, do they hear us saying that everyone is welcome and then read about how some are excluded from being leaders by virtue of their gender? There are lots of other examples we could cite.

It seems to me that we have a choice.

When you look at Jesus he was inclusive, welcoming, and went out of his way to be with those on the margins. He drew people to him without demanding that they sort themselves out first or labelling them: justifying his approach by saying that “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”. I find that reassuring for my own life, because I am still very much a ‘work in progress’. Jesus saved his harshest words for the religious people (often summarised in the gospels as ‘Pharisees and Teachers of the Law’) who had a legalistic approach to life and were happy to categorise people as ‘unclean’ and exclude them from their religious life and experience. Read Matthew chapter 23 if you aren’t sure about this!

So the choice is whether we follow Jesus’ inclusive example or the legalistic example of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. If we choose the latter I suggest that we carry out all our activities in camera and hope that Jesus doesn’t ask to come in.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Joke repeated from a couple of years ago:

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day. “In English,” he said, “A double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.”

A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

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!”

Post the first from the conference (see yesterday)

So, the conference has begun. I am not sure what the collective noun for Baptist Ministers would be:

A splash?
A hubbub?
An ostentatious humility?
A dissent?

Whatever it is, we have got one.

The collective noun for ‘Christians’ is ‘church’. We are church when we are together. At this conference we are a temporary expression of church and represent  a microcosm of the gathering of churches together into the collective noun for churches: Church.

We are a diverse group. Wonderfully we’re far less male than in the past and we may be getting younger (well, on average). And that’s a strength of any church: inclusive diversity.

At the vicar factory that turned me into a minister we learnt about the Homogeneous Unit Principle – that churches that are full of similar people grow faster because people are more comfortable with those who share their outlook on life. Well that may be so, but it is a pale imitation of a church that is diverse and inclusive of all. HUP is bland and insular by comparison to what church should be.

We’re not perfect, but please God make us as inclusive and accepting as you are.

Be blessed, be blessing.

cliché time once again

money - coinsI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: change is inevitable… except from a vending machine.

I know that’s not very original, but it still makes me chuckle.

None of us like change, but it is a fact of life: we are all getting older and that brings about change (male pattern baldness for example – see my picture in about me); society and organisations evolve and adapt which necessitates change; seasons come and go bringing different weather patterns.

I think one of the things that we fear most about change is when the change is sudden and unexpected (take the reaction to Pope Benedict’s unexpected resignation, for example). sudden and unexpected change is much more difficult to adapt to than gradual change because the latter enables us to acclimatise whereas we have to react instantly to the former. The often used analogy is that if you were to drop a frog into a pan of boiling water it would jump out immediately but if you put it into cold water and gradually raise the temperature it will not notice the change until it is too late. That analogy does seem rather unfair on hypothetical frogs and also suggests that the outcome of change is negative. That is not always the case.

Regular bloggists here will know that back in November I had an operation to renew an occipital nerve stimulator that I have installed within my body in order to moderate a chronic migraine. The effect of the stimulator is very gradual and I have been impatient to be able to say that it is definitely working whilst not being able to say for sure if that is the case given that the change is so gradual. I’m pleased to be able to say that it is definitely making a difference and that the likelihood is that (as with the previous ONS) the migraine should soon be a thing of the past and at the moment is running at a much diminished level. Thank you for your prayers and support.

The change that God brings about within each one of us, because his Spirit is within us, is often (and perhaps usually) gradual too. Occasionally God makes dramatic and sudden changes within us that my experience is that for the most part change is almost imperceptible. It is only as we look back that we realise how much God has changed this. We find that his Spirit is bearing fruit in our lives and changing us to become more like the people he has created us to be. Even the image of fruit bearing should remind us that it will be a gradual process: fruit does not grow overnight!

I think we should all have badges that say, “Please be patient with me, I am a work in progress.” God is at work in each one of us in different ways doing different things changing different aspects of our life and personality as is best for each one of us. We need to be very careful that we do not tell other people what changes God should be bringing about in their life – that’s his job. We need to be very careful to that we do not impose what God is doing with us as the standard for everybody else.

God’s new community, a.k.a. church, should be a place of grace not of rules. It should be a place where we recognise that we are all works in progress and nobody has the right to judge anybody else about the rate of progress or the aspects of their life that God is currently working on. Jesus reserved his harshest words for religious people who were confident of their own righteousness and pointed fingers, excluded and condemned others. Please God don’t let us be like that. Let us be free samples of Jesus the gracious, welcoming, blessing, joyful, incarnate one who is God’s “yes”.

Be blessed, be a blessing.