The Lord’s Supper used to frighten me something fierce.
I don’t believe anyone set out to make it so. But I always tended to hear the pre-meal warnings (or what we in the business call “the fencing of the table”) in ways that left me fairly nervous, unsure, and unsettled.
“UNWORTHY MANNER” was how I heard it, shouted in ALL CAPS. Even though I know it wasn’t shouted.
“ANY UNCONFESSED SINS or UNRECONCILED RELATIONSHIPS...?” The comprehensive nature of the demands for admittance blared much more loudly than anything good that may have been said about what we were about to do.
“ARE YOU WILLINGLY CONTINUING IN ANY SIN?” or some such diagnostic would undo me.
Taken together, I came to conclude that the Lord’s Supper was an awful, somber, and unflinching religious rite, and I had sure better be more than careful there. And, I surmised, it was a time for looking carefully at my troubled self to make sure I was living my faith with integrity, correctness, and undiluted loyalty.
Unfortunately, I could never satisfactorily scrutinize myself without there still being sizable space for a possible misunderstanding or self-deception. My inner-dialogue might skitter confusingly like this:
“I don’t want to continue in any sin. But I keep continuing in some sins. If I say I am making a break with sin, maybe I am fooling myself. I might be determined to break with it now, but what about later? And I think I have confessed my sins, but maybe I left some out, maybe my heart is too cold, too distant, too disorganized, too disloyal....maybe I haven’t repented enough, believed enough, examined enough, worked hard enough for reconciliation....”
Ping-Ponged Neurotic Banter
All sorts of neurotic patterns of theological banter pinged and ponged on my insides.
Now, it is always dangerous to absolutize one’s own experience as if it neatly aligns with that of everyone else. So I am not presuming that everyone feels or has felt the same way as I. Nor do I mean to attribute blame to ministers who, I am certain, were seeking with all their might to be faithful to Scripture and to the Savior presented there.
But those experiences, for good or ill, (and I think good!) have shaped my approach to the Lord’s table as a participant and, as what Episcopalians would call a Celebrant, the one who administers the Lord’s Supper on Jesus’ behalf. My understanding of Scripture and our own theological tradition have also done some heavy-lifting in unburdening my diseased view of these matters.
I came to realize that I had been hoodwinked and sabotaged by at least two mistaken notions. One had to do with my relationship to Christ (or rather, his to me!). And the other, with the nature of the Lord’s Supper itself.
I was erroneously, but earnestly, staying stuck in the murky precincts of my own fitness of heart, belief, and understanding. As a result, I rarely had any rest or could receive any rich welcome from Jesus. Always looking within, as I had understood myself required to do, left me trapped and damned no matter which way I zigged or zagged. No amount of mental gymnastics could give me the internal quiet I presumed I must have to gain a rightful admission to our Lord’s dinner table.
Even the ordinarily good advice that “unless you see the depths of your sin, you will never see the heights of Jesus’ love for you” always backfired on me. Because, I generally stayed trapped in a labyrinth of my own toxicity of heart, and it created a filmy slime over my eyes that kept me from fully gazing on Christ. It’s hard to see what’s above you when your eyes are zoomed downward in introspection.
Oh Happy Discovery!
Happily, I discovered, for instance, that Paul had insisted, “my conscience is clear but that does not make me innocent, it is the Lord who judges me.” Of course, Paul’s words insist that what you feel about yourself can be altogether wrong. Oh happy discovery!
You can think you are innocent, but be guilty. You can pronounce yourself guilty, but be innocent. Or your own self-assessments can snugly concur with reality...but at the end of all that sorting out, it isn’t your heart, thoughts, or even your ability to address them, but Christ, who, greater than your heart, thoughts, or ability to address them, actually acquits or condemns, welcomes or rejects.
And this Jesus insisted “whoever comes to me, I will never drive away.” This Jesus is the one who has “called us into fellowship with himself” and who has “become sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And in him, “there is no condemnation left for sin.”
John Calvin gave me some self-stewarding advice:
“..If you contemplate yourself, that is sure damnation.”
And elsewhere in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he offers a joyful crowbar for those who are riveted in self-watchfulness:
“For in Christ he offers all happiness in place of our misery, all wealth in place of our neediness; in him he opens to us the heavenly treasures that our whole faith may contemplate his beloved Son, our whole expectation depends upon him, and our whole hope cleave to and rest in him.”
I had mistakenly gotten locked up in a tiny room, looking at myself where “my damnation was certain” rather than at Christ who offered a misery-erasing happiness as I looked out towards Him, rather than so unproductively within.
He Ain’t No Butcher
And of course, through prayer, loitering in Scripture, being around God’s people, and learning more and more about the good news of Christ’s reconciling and renovating work in the world (aka “The Gospel”), I also came to fervently believe that our charismatic friend and church member, Virginia Beard was absolutely correct when she insisted “There are only two types of people who deal with sheep in the world, butchers and shepherds, and our Lord ain’t no butcher.”
All this has altered my approach to communion considerably. Now it is the place where the Shepherd who “restores our souls” welcomes us to his table to dine with him--as dinner guests who’ve been emancipated from self-consumption and all demoralizing condemnation.
He isn’t saying, “stay away, stay away, unless you are extra-super-duper positive that you have tidied up every aspect of your life and are 100% certain you’ll never flub up again--- no, on second thought, just don’t bother, better not risk it, you aren’t worthy of this so don’t participate---I’d hate to have to kill you even though you want to be near to me.”
His tone seemed to change. And his posture was less huddled in defense than I originally imagined, and more open with welcome.
Sure, I still “examine myself” and lead our congregation to join in, as we corporately and individually hand over our sins to God (a practice he’s encouraged for our benefit, not his!) prior to our approach to the table, but I don’t coddle, inspect, and dissect every micro-organism of sin I find there. I discover what’s brought to mind, then offer it to Him who “became a curse for me” in his vocation of unlimitedly patient Savior. Then I trust it’s taken away, and I bear it no more. It’s an important aspect of the remembering to which we are called. And prepares us for realizing his presence and the unifying solidarity he constitutes among us as we eat.
With this vantage point, confidence and expectation become the appropriate manner of approach. AW Tozer’s reflection on the prodigal son returning to his awaiting, and compassionate Father helps us along:
"The returning prodigal honors his father more by rejoicing than by repining. Had the young man in the story had less faith in his father he might have mourned in a corner instead of rejoicing in the festivities. His confidence in the loving kindness of his father gave him the courage to forget his checkered past."
Provisions for the Long Journey
The meal, I’ve now come to see, is a place where Jesus means to furnish weary and returning travelers, sons and daughters, in fact, who are in so many ways a great burden to themselves, with replenishing, reassuring grace for our continued pilgrimage.
It’s where he means to “spread the Christ-life to us” rather than where we go once we determine we are Christ-like enough. It’s where we get to participate in His self-donation to eradicate every act of rebellion and unworthiness and the penalty for such from us, and to bear them himself. It’s where we come to realize, over and over again, that the One we approach, is somehow, inexplicably fond of us, and ardently committed to our repair.
Poet Mary Karr must have gotten the hang of this. In her poem, Disgraceland, she ponders a wayward life of lurching “out to kiss the wrong mouths, get stewed and sulk around.” Even so, “Christ always stood to one side with a glass of water.” But she always “swatted the sap away.” Eventually, her thirst became so pronounced that it lead her back to this refreshment offering Savior.
Lured by a consuming thirst like that which commonly afflicts us, she eventually found faith flowering within her, and ventured to her first communion. While there, she could have sworn at that welcoming table, she hungry, heard, “You are loved, take that and eat it.”
I hope you hear and taste the same.
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at firstname.lastname@example.org