Communion as Wedding Planning

Towards the end of the Book of Revelation John uses the imagery of a wedding feast to describe our salvation in its final form, which is appropriate considering how the marriage process is used throughout the New Testament to depict the Church’s relationship to Jesus. To better understand this imagery inspiring the New Testament writers, I read up a bit on first century Jewish wedding customs.

To keep it simple, the first century Jewish wedding was made up of three stages. The first stage of the marriage process was the Contract, where the bride and groom agree to marry by signing a contract along with the bride’s father; while they are now technically married, first the groom has up to seven years to raise the dowry money to pay the bride’s father and prepare a place for them to live. Once he finally pays that money, they can begin the second stage of Consummation when the groom arrives at the bride’s father’s house where the bride and her bridesmaids are waiting; they enter the house and consummate the marriage while everyone’s outside waiting. When they’re finished, they’re considered one. Thus begins the third stage of Celebration when the groom takes his bride and guests to the place he has prepared to celebrate the wedding feast.

If we apply these three marriage stages to the Church’s relationship to Jesus, the Contract stage could be seen in our baptisms, when we commit our lives to being the Body/Bride with whom Christ will unite himself. The second stage of Consummation is something of an already but not yet situation. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has essentially satisfied the required dowry allowing us to enter into union with Christ; yet, like Jesus’ Matthew 25 parable, we still wait for Christ’s arrival to escort us to his prepared place for the third stage of Celebration, culminating in the wedding feast of the Lamb. So how are we, the Church, to wait?

Anticipating that great wedding feast, Jesus told his disciples at the last supper “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.”

According to Paul, Jesus also said “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

If we look carefully, Communion touches on all three of these stages. Our access to Communion is borne out of our Contract commitment to Christ; our contemplation of Communion creates gratitude for the Consummating blood of Christ; the church’s togetherness in Communion anticipates the Great Wedding Celebration of Christ. Communion is the Church’s Matthew 25 oil that keeps our lamps lit as we await Christ’s arrival.

Next time you take Communion, remember the wedding celebration you and your spouse shared together, or a wedding celebration you attended. Take those joyful memories and apply them to the Communion moment, so that it may display the joy of union with Christ which Communion is designed to celebrate.

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Navigating the tension of new beginnings

New year, new possibilities. The potential of clean slates and fresh starts stirs our hopes. Resolved to do things better, we embark upon new beginnings. But of course, before long our resolve is tested with tension that pushes back. It is in the throes of such tension we feel our old nature clawing into our new beginnings. Devotion becomes a chore, hope becomes a burden, and once again, stuck becomes our status quo, and frustration becomes our feeling. And with it, an old familiar sense of failure. But it doesn’t have to.

A week ago, on Christmas Eve, I read in the birth narratives of Luke 1-2 how the angel Gabriel presented new beginnings to two key people, Zechariah and Mary.

Mary’s dutiful submission is the response we always hope to imitate. All in, one hundred percent. But if we’re honest, Zechariah is who we usually are. And that’s okay.

Zechariah was an aged priest; one day while serving at the temple, he entered the sanctuary to offer incense. The angel Gabriel appeared and told him he and his barren wife would have a son who would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord”. When Zechariah responds with a bit of skepticism, Gabriel tells him he would be mute until the day his son is born.

Was Zechariah’s response due to a lack of faith? Not necessarily; 1:6 describes both him and his wife as righteous and blameless. I think Zechariah’s response was due to an abundance of disappointment.

The loss of Israel’s autonomy to Rome had filled those days with a heaviness that made hope feel in short supply. Even if Israel would live on, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s childlessness made it seem their family would not. Considering such circumstances, Zechariah’s response was reasonable.

Like Zechariah, our hope for new beginnings can cave to the tensions heightened by old memories. What began as joyful anticipations can gradually turn to anxiety, frustration, failure, disappointment, anger, grief, and disorientation. How are we ever to find the way forward through this tension?

I think Gabriel gives us the answer in what he gave Zechariah. Perhaps the muted silence was not so much a punishment from God as a gift of time and spirit-spaciousness for quiet contemplation. This period of prayerful pondering could help disenthrall his weary mind from the world’s chaos and disappointment and instead infuse it with greater joy at the great salvation work God was ushering into Israel’s history and Zechariah’s family.

When Elizabeth gave birth months later, amidst confusion over the boy’s name, Zechariah wrote down a response that showed his mind was finally in complete alignment with what Gabriel had declared. His tongue finally loosened, nine months of accumulated hopefulness poured out in exclamations of worship reflecting upon how Israel’s salvation-past was being brought into the present through the arrival of the Messiah whom his own son would precede in proclaiming God’s good news.

Zechariah’s experience illustrates that our response to new beginnings is more than our initial reaction; a completed response often needs to be brought to full term. A term that must navigate tension, concern, and frustration; but with prayerful contemplation introduced, it becomes a term that can also experience illumination, wonder, worship, and resolve. What tension tries to seal shut, prayerful contemplation ventilates and circulates.

As you cast your thoughts to the horizon of new beginnings, may prayerful contemplation constantly keep your thoughts centered; may the tension between old memories and new possibilities become fuel in the fires of a faith that moves forward into the future God authors.

Fanning faith’s flame at Advent

Throughout the Christmas season there is a word I try to keep at the forefront of my mind to help keep my faith focused.

That word is Advent. It means coming, and historically the word has been used by some Christians to instill in the minds of the faithful a sense of anticipation of the coming of Christ.

Not just a celebratory commemoration of his birth in Bethlehem, but a hopeful expectancy of His second coming to gather unto Himself those who are His.

To help nurture in myself a sense of this Advent-anticipation, I’ve recently been spending a little time in the apostle John’s Revelation.

The Book of Revelation contains a lot of complex imagery, but one of the earliest and more clearer images is that of the sovereign Lord Jesus Christ who, while full of glory and splendor, is concerned about a group of churches in Asia Minor. Three things stand out about these churches.

One, each of these churches have been faithful at one time, and each have things they need to work on.

Second, with each word of encouragement and warning, Jesus repeatedly concludes each message to these churches with “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.

And third, each church is characterized as a lampstand whose existence burns in a dark world as a testimony to the Light of the world.

Each of these three items can apply to any church, ours included. We have had seasons of faithfulness. There are good adjustments that can be made if our spirits have the humility to listen to what God is saying in His Word. And that new lamppost the city just installed on our corner outside is both a figurative and physical reminder that as long as we existence, our witness exists.

So, as we take Communion this morning, may we receive into ourselves the Life of Jesus so that the light our congregation emits this Advent season may be a witness to the Light that has come and is coming so that Life and Light can be had by all.

Stop imposing your politics upon Jesus

Between the last election and these midterms, I’ve noticed an increase in certain memes being posted on social media asserting God is on a specific side.

For example, one meme has asked, “If Jesus were on Earth today, would he be at a Trump rally or in a migrant caravan?”

I understand and can appreciate that the purpose of such questions and posts and hypotheticals are meant to elicit or provoke a contemplated response, however leveraged it might be. The underlying framework of such assertions, however, concerns me.

Such assertions are presumptuous. Regardless of agenda, they put demands upon Jesus. They insist that Jesus think like we do or that we know what is best for Jesus to do.

Politics were tense in Jesus’ day, also. Responses in the region varied. Some groups decided to retreat to the wilderness to avoid what the world had become and wait for God’s Messiah to appear and set things right. Other groups believed it was important to remain amongst the world, but only while following the Law and a labyrinth of added clauses in order to maintain purity against the world’s influence. There were other groups who believed violent revolution against the Roman occupation was the best course of action, while others believed reaching political agreements with the Romans was the best option for peace, and power.

When rumors began to swirl that Jesus was God’s long-awaited Messiah, each of these groups believed they knew what Jesus should be doing. They would test Jesus with questions he would always turn around and use as teaching moments. They would invite him into their homes which he would again use to demonstrate God’s will. When messengers would be sent to ask Jesus if he was really the Messiah, he instructed them to compare his work to Isaiah’s imagery of the Messiah’s work and decide for themselves. On one occasion, when he realized a crowd wanted to make him king, Jesus walked away.

Jesus was not willing to let himself be manipulated or made a puppet dancing on someone’s strings. Jesus would not allow himself to be used for someone’s agenda because Jesus had his own agenda.

If you look at some of the disciples Jesus chose, there was a revolutionary and a tax collector. There were some who were with John the baptizer in the wilderness and there was a man who believed money made him powerful. And there were common men who tended to their trades, families, and local synagogues. Each brought with them their own sense of what was right. Rather than catering to any of their sides, however, Jesus’ instruction was “Follow me”. Jesus knew this divisiveness they were accustomed to was characteristic of the Fall’s disharmony, and that following him would cut through the chaos’ tangled web and move into a Way that is Truth and Life.

We cannot follow Jesus while insisting he follow us. We cannot conform to the image of Christ while insisting he conform to ours. We cannot worship a King we demand should be worshipping us.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about the things that we do. It’s that Jesus has already established the way God is going about dealing with all things.

The question for us is whether we will continue upon the way of fragmentation or follow Jesus upon the way which, through his cross, is already making all things new.

The Lamppost of a New World

For some time, the street in front of our church building has been under construction, but it has finally been completed. While stopping by there one recent evening to drop some papers off, I looked up the sidewalk, and standing tall on the corner was a new streetlamp. Not an average wood pole and light, but a decorative, vintage-looking lamp.

I strolled up the sidewalk to get a better look; with our church building illuminated behind it, I laughed quietly to myself.

Yes, I thought of Jesus’ statements that his followers are the “light of the world” who are to let their “light shine before others”. But there was something also that stirred my imagination.

One of the most popular series in modern Christian literature is C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s first and most famous novel tells the story of a young girl, Lucy, who playfully steps into a wardrobe and discovers within a strange and magical land. Her first few steps bring her to a London-style lamppost located amid a wintery forest. As she gazes in wonder at this sight, a woodland creature named Mr. Tumnus, a Faun with his own complicated story, happens upon her. It is at this lamppost their friendship begins, and ultimately incites an adventure leading to the salvation and liberation of Narnia. Later we learn the lamppost was planted there at Narnia’s beginning, grew from out of Narnia’s newness, and has since emitted an eternal flame to remind all of the Life and Song with which it was imbued.

While I may just be making something out of nothing, that’s what landmarks do. They serve as reminders that something happened here, and we can be better for it. The lamppost in the Narnia story can serve to kindle our church’s imagination for her purpose every time we see the newly installed lamppost on our street corner.

Like Narnia’s lamppost, the Church can mark the bridging of the world as it is, and the better world God is making through Christ. Like Narnia’s lamppost, the Church can also bear witness to the Life and Song as it was in the beginning, and as it will stir and ring out again. Just as with Lucy and Mr. Tumnus, the Church is where relationships can begin, and reconciliation is made possible. Finally, as seen at the novel’s end when Lucy again encounters the lamppost and returns to the wardrobe and to her world, the Church marks the end of old stories that are also the beginning of new chapters.

Beholding the lamppost then as if for the first time, Lucy declared “It will not go out of my mind that if we pass this post and lantern, either we shall find strange adventures or else some great changes of our fortunes.”

I hope those who encounter our church may also echo Lucy’s daring in their own thoughts. I hope that our church may be such a “light of the world” letting our “light shine before others” that those who enter our midst may experience in our community the deep magic of a world being made new.

 

 

 

 

A bulwark through the bleakness (Psalm 8)

Psalm 8 is a hymn I regularly turn to stabilize my internal disruption.

In prayerful adoration the psalmist both begins and concludes the hymn “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

These words are the bookends for the psalmist’s contemplation of how God’s majesty encompasses the whole of this world. Between those bookends are natural expressions by which we perceive and experience God’s otherwise immeasurable majesty.

Firstly, he says “You have set your glory above the heavens”. It is a statement we readily relate to considering how frequently we, like the psalmist, “look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established”, and praise God for his cosmic creation. Our imagination has always been captivated by the faraway glories of stars and sunsets, our eyes and minds dancing to the beauty and elegance of their movements.

Our thoughts cannot long linger here because the psalmist immediately turns our attention away from the skyward splendor to a more average scene down on earth where another majesty resides. Across the luscious landscape, human beings dot the terrain. Though they be frail, they are formidable. The psalmist is astounded that of all God’s creation, he is most mindful of humankind (vv3-4). The psalmist also acknowledges and appreciates that, having been made a little lower than the angels, God has given humankind dominion over his creation (vv5-6). They are a marvelous majesty.

But the psalmist is also aware there is ugliness. That this sacred dominion has been beaten into weapons we frequently wield against one another. It is into this ugly array the psalmist names a much more intimate expression of this majesty: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.”

A bulwark was a piece of a wall or tower that extended outward to provide a greater measure of security to the city’s defenses. Standing tall, it raised the city’s occupants and defenders above the noise and threats of the enemy. But how can the voices of the young offer such forbearance?

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is in jail awaiting trial when a mob of men arrive one night to lynch him. Tom’s lawyer, Atticus, is also there to dissuade them. They’re facing off when Atticus’ children suddenly run up to the jail porch. Despite Atticus demanding they leave, they stay. The situation is at an impasse when Atticus’ young daughter Scout sees Mr. Cunningham, the father of a school boy she once bullied, then befriended. She begins talking to him about his own young son as if nothing is going on around them. Mr. Cunningham’s head is bowed, and the other men feel awkward as well. Suspecting she’s crossed some line, Scout stops and apologizes, at which point Mr. Cunningham comes to his senses, speaks to her courteously like a gentleman, then goes home, telling the other men to do the same. Life was right in front of them, but their single-minded rage could only envision death. It took a young girl’s innocence to restore them to a sense of dignity and decency.

While our violence, smugness, and exploitation cloud our view to the majesties God has instilled all around us in the form of creation and each other, suddenly, from out of the prattling, atheistic noise, the psalmist points the eyes and ears of our hearts to the innocence of the young breaking through the bleakness like a bulwark emerging in the morning fog. We who are made a “little lower” than the angels, but often elevate ourselves as gods, need these lowest versions of ourselves to remind us of the simple majesty our existence already satisfactorily expresses.

As you hear these innocent infants or babbling babes bellow out what Jesus himself would later refer to as praise God has prepared for himself, receive it as sacred majesty meant to “silence the enemy”, as well as our own nitpickings, and restore us to worshipful awareness of GOD at work in this world.

And if any words must be spoken, let them echo the psalmist by praying “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”