Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Lord's Supper - the culmination of worship

This collection looks to be a handsome and worthwhile volume to have. I'm tempted to order it just on the basis of the intriguing chapter titles. Among the contributions is an essay by Kim Riddlebarger on the Lord's Supper which is available as a free pdf. In it he brings together the Biblical and historical support for frequent, even weekly, celebration of the sacrament. This will be a valuable resource for those of us who agree with the author, and hopefully will sway some folks on the other side, or who haven't given the issue much thought. My church recently moved from quarterly to monthly communion. I wish it was weekly, but it's a start!

One of the problems with infrequent (or non-existent) celebration of the Lord's Supper is that it leaves a hole in the worship service that begs to be filled. If coming to the Lord's table is the natural response to the reading and preaching of God's word, then severing that connection and filling the hole with other innovations comes at a cost. Along with Pastor Riddlebarger I believe it is the natural response and the most fitting culmination of corporate worship. The conclusion of the essay is worth quoting at length.

As we see in the apostolic pattern set forth in Acts 2:42, the apostle’s teaching and the fellowship seems to culminate in the “breaking of bread” and “the prayers.” Because the observance of the Lord’s Supper is the logical (and liturgical) culmination of the preaching of the word, the frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper provides the fitting, natural and, dare I say, “biblical” culmination of the worship service. The gospel promises are proclaimed from the word, and then ratified in the Supper. We are reminded not only of Christ’s presence with us (“this is my body”) but of his favor towards us because through his sacrificial death our sins are forgiven (Matt 26:28). Since believers partake together (as seen in the apostolic emphasis upon the fellowship meal), those who have heard the gospel promise see the fruits of that promise manifest in their midst. As Paul reminded the Corinthians “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). The Supper not only strengthens our faith, but it reminds us that all believers are members of Christ’s one body. Not only this, in the Supper we are continually pointed ahead to the great messianic feast when Christ’s kingdom is finally and gloriously consummated (cf. Rev 19:7–9). In light of this, it is proper to conclude that the preached word naturally leads to (and culminates in) the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, as seen in the apostolic pattern.

In the absence of frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper, the gap created in the apostolic order of worship becomes rather noticeable. There is a reason why those fundamentalists who stand in the revivalist tradition place the “altar call” or an appeal to make some sort of re-dedication or re-commitment to Christ at the end of the service, after the sermon. When God’s word is proclaimed, we are called to act upon what we have just heard. But the absence of the Supper creates what seems to be a rather abrupt ending to worship, and the sense that something is missing gives impetus to those who want to see the preached word culminate in some sort of a call to action, which then takes on a more formal role in closing out the worship service. Since this same tension exists in many Pentecostal and charismatic churches, there is likewise a tendency to see the worship service culminate in the exercise of the charismatic manifestation of the Spirit, which not only brings the service to a more dramatic ending but serves to connect the worshiper to the church in the Book of Acts.

This sense that Christians should see themselves as part of that church founded by the apostles and that concluding worship immediately after the sermon is too abrupt (as though something were missing) is not necessarily a bad thing. But this tension can lead to bad things if we seek to fill the gap with humanly-devised ceremonies (such as the “altar call”) or distorted views of the work of the Holy Spirit.

The frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper not only fulfills the apostolic prescription and brings the service to a well-defined end, it ties contemporary believers to the apostolic church. After all, we hear the same gospel Jesus proclaimed to his disciples and which they, in turn, proclaim to us. We then take in our hands the very same elements (the bread and wine) which Jesus gave to his disciples on that fateful night in which he was betrayed, and which the members of the churches in Jerusalem, Troas, and Corinth took in their hands. And through the work of the same Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised to send to his disciples, our faith is both strengthened and confirmed. As Calvin reminds us, Christ “nourishes faith spiritually through the sacraments, whose one function is to set his promises before our eyes to be looked upon, indeed, to be guarantees of them to us.”

And since this is the case, why should we not take advantage of such a good and gracious gift passed down to us by the apostles, so that when we come together as a church on the Lord’s day, we too devote ourselves to “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”?

Quote from Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey, edited by R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim (pp. 206-7)

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