Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Romans 5:1-2 (NIV)
A while back, I read a book entitled, A Brief History of Christian Worship, by James F. White (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1993). The author brilliantly and succinctly lays out twenty-plus centuries of Church history, showing how the practice of Christian worship has developed over the years. It is quite interesting to see the ways that people - in most cases, well-meaning people - can construct complicated systems for worship. Quite often, after our traditions become overly complex, God will raise up people who bring reform and who call Christians back to the One who is to be our first love, the object and subject of our praise.
While reading this book, I came to a criticism that the author directed toward the Protestant Church. He was speaking on the subject of communion and said, “The effects of the Enlightenment were much more powerful in most of Protestantism where the eucharist came to be seen largely as a memorial which we keep because Christ demanded we do so…In essences, the eucharist was moralized: ‘If Jesus could die for you, why cannot you live righteously?’ The essence of thousands of communion sermons continues to be: ‘Jesus died; Be good.’ This is certainly the predominant view in much of American Protestantism…” (P. 155). My first reaction to this statement was to be critical of the author for making such a broad generalization concerning the protestant church. Then, after realizing that White himself is a protestant minister, I thought I should consider that statement again and perhaps examine my own understanding of communion. Do I teach through my words and actions that communion is simply a call to live a moral life? Do we at WPC approach the Lord’s Table with the thought that we are only worthy to receive the bread and cup if we have lived up to God’s expectations? Do we view communion as only a memorial meal that has no real impact upon our lives? Am I communicating what White suggests: “Jesus died; Be good.”
This statement reminded me of a hymn that is found in our hymnal that seems to be teaching this erred doctrine. The hymn is entitled, “I Gave My Life for Thee” and says, “I (Jesus) gave, I gave My life for thee, what hast thou given for Me.” Every verse of the hymn seems to suggest that Jesus died for us and now He is calling in His chips – we need to perform for Him and give a worthy sacrifice to pay back all that He has done. WRONG! If I ever suggest this to be the message of the cross or of the Lord’s Table, then please disregard my words and rebuke me. A better hymn to recite that rightly defines Christ’s work on the cross says, “Jesus paid it ALL, all to HIM I owe; Sin has left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.” Communion is not a call to be good. Rather, indicates an acknowledgement of such depravity on our part – depravity so damning - that only God Himself could save us. When we eat and drink at the Table, we recognize our complete and utter dependence on His grace. As John Calvin recognized, there is a spiritual feeding that takes place at the table – it is not merely a memorial meal without effect. This is why the communion meal is often referred to as the Eucharist (a term used by the early Church): Eucharist means “giving thanks.” That is what people do when they can give nothing else in return – they offer thanks.
Years ago, there was a Smith-Barney (Investors) commercial that featured the late actor John Houseman. The commercial would end with Houseman saying, "Smith Barney Investors make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it!" A Christian cartoonist took that idea and created a cartoon which depicted Jesus with the Pharisees. The Pharisees are saying to the Savior, "We get our salvation the old-fashioned way. We earn it!" It is never about our works – it is forever and always about God’s grace. Among many things, when we gather for communion, we must come with the knowledge and attitude that says, “I can earn nothing; I will depend only upon the mercy and grace of God.” And be thankful.
In God’s Grace, Pastor Kevin