Monday, 27 September 2010
One explanation about how Jesus’ death brings salvation dates from the middle ages. It’s called Satisfaction Theory and is based upon old mediaeval ideas of honour.
It goes like this: We have offended God’s honour and this demands that recompense (satisfaction) be made. Sadly, we can't meet the demands of God’s infinite honour, so we can never pay the debt of honour. Fortunately, Jesus voluntarily offers his perfect, sinless life to God as restitution. This makes the offer of his life an infinite recompense, and so God’s honour is duly satisfied.
The biggest problem with satisfaction theory is that it makes sin out to be God’s problem, not ours. God is all grumpy because we have upset him and only the death of his son will make him feel better. It God's attitude to us that changes, not the other way around. Looked at this way, it’s actually a compensation theory, and makes you wonder whether God would have been better off going to Injury Lawers 4U instead.
So should we abandon it altogether? Personally, I don’t think so. I think we have been guilty of taking far too literally Jesus’ words, “The Son of Man came... to give his life as a ransom for many” Mk 10:45. We get all knotted up with questions about who paid what to whom and why, and forget that there is another point to be made.
Whatever else happened on the cross, however it ‘worked’ for us, the result from our point of view is that we now owe God an impossibly huge (infinite) debt. It’s a debt for which God expects absolutely nothing in return, because it is a debt to love from which we have received all the wealth of God’s grace.
It’s a very contemporary message. There are thousands of students and others with massive loans and maxed out credit cards who know what indebtedness feels like – especially if they have been bailed out by a benefactor.
Let me put it another way, in the form of a devotional poem:
My soul’s mortgaged,
Banked by the vaults of divine love.
And yet I’ve found a greater freedom
Than could ever be bought by all the stores of human wealth.
This bond holds me captive in the treasury of God,
Obliged to enjoy all the stores of heaven.
There is no exemption,
No clause through which I may escape the purse of Grace.
I must lay aside all:
My broken things,
My poor things,
My feeble things,
My useless things,
And be abandoned to the generosity of God.
In debt, without debt.
Owing all and owning nothing.
I am the richest person on earth.
Wednesday, 1 September 2010
So, what’s the connection between the Church and Communion? Actually, the word ‘connection’ is a clue. The fungus is a perfect illustration of the Church. When we wander through a forest, we see a mushroom here and a mushroom there. We forget that they may all share a hidden connection, and may possibly be a part of a greater whole.
It’s the same with the Christian Church. Take a tour through any town and you’ll see any number of individual churches from an equally diverse number of denominations. However, the members of the churches will (hopefully) tell you that, in spite of their differences, they all belong to the one Body of Christ.
One the most fundamental and important principles about understanding the nature of the Church of Christ is that there is a deeper connectivity in the Church than geographical co-incidence. There is a greater unity shared by all Christian believers than is to be found by merely belonging to the same local congregation or fellowship.
It is a concept that the apostle Paul comes back to again and again in his writings, but in 1 Corinthians he links the unity of the Church to sharing communion, indicating that the one is somehow representative of the other.
“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” 1 Cor 10:16,17
Paul’s illustration of the Church as a human a body made up of many parts is usually used in sermons encouraging individual church members to take a more active role in their local church, but when he says, “In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” Rom12:5, Paul is actually talking about our place in the whole Body of Christ. As he says later in the same chapter, “you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it”
The principle, applied in these verses to individuals, also applies to whole local churches. Every individual and every church needs to see themselves as sharing that deeper connectivity I mentioned earlier. Why? Because this is the proper context for defining our place in the Kingdom of God.
Principally, our fellowship with one another is in Christ through the Holy Spirit, not just because we know each other’s names. Whether we are talking about a local congregation which may be hundreds of miles from its neighbour, or a solitary hermit living on a remote, we do not exist in isolation, in Christ we are all one, connected by the threads of love and grace.
Many communion services quote St Paul and talk about being one body and sharing in one loaf. Liturgical scholars stress the importance of four actions represented when we share communion; taking (the elements), thanking, breaking (the bread) and sharing. Sometimes this last one is misquoted as “giving”, implying the bread must be physically handed out by the presiding clergy, when, in point of fact, the concept involved is sharing.
As I hope you are beginning to see, the difference is more than just semantic. They are two entirely different concepts.
Giving involves two parties with different roles. There is a giver and a receiver, and as a receiver, the communicant takesa passive role in communion. If Paul’s teaching about the Church show us anything, it is that there can be no passive members of the body of Christ.
Sharing, on the other hand is a very active concept. Those taking part, president and communicant alike, show they share an equally active role in what is taking place and acknowledge that they both share in gifts of grace.
The word Paul uses in Corinthians is more like “participation”. Through Christ’s body and blood the way has been opened for us to participate in all the gifts of God’s grace. When we share communion together, we don’t take communion; we participate in it, just as we all participate in the greater unity of the Body of Christ which it signifies.
One of the criticisms levelled at my attempt to perform communion on Twitter was that celebrating communion with isolated Christians stuck in front of their computers seemed rather disembodied. After all communion is about celebrating the community of believers, the argument goes, so it can only be performed where there is a gathered, local body of believers, all of whom share a pastoral connection and are known to each other.
Hopefully, you are beginning to see that this simply isn't the case. No-one can be amputated from the body of Christ just because they are on their own. Neither does communion belong to the local church; it belongs to the whole Body of Christ. Yes, we do have significantly views about what’s taking place during communion, but when a body of believers takes bread and wine, they recognise that they do not do it in isolation. They see themselves as belonging to the whole Church of Christ, which is greater than their local, gathered community. Communion points to the fact that there is no such thing as an isolated believer.
If we say it can only be performed in a local, gathered community, not only do we risk isolating those who cannot get to a local church, we risk taking a very parochial view of communion and missing a key point, which is that there is a bigger picture of the Church than our local view.
Communion both celebrates the deep unity all Christian believers share through Christ’s death and resurrection, and at the same time looks forward to the time when all our visible differences will be dissolved in the love of God. By taking a participatory view of communion we adopt an attitude of loving humility which accepts that though we hold our own convictions, for the time being, we are not perfect and there is more to this greatest expression of God’s love than can be encapsulated by one set of beliefs.