All posts in Theology

Grave Matters – A Meditation for All Saints Day

all-saints-day-2Last night was Halloween, which is a “holiday” that just about everyone celebrates in one form or another. Our subdivision was filled last night with little (and, disturbingly, not-so-little) ghouls and goblins trooping from door to door in search of this year’s cache of sugary loot. But while you may be waking up this morning still a little loopy from sampling the kids’ candy stash, I want to introduce you to another really “holy day”—All Saints Day.

Traditionally, All Saints Day has had a couple of meanings. In the old days there was All Saints Day, which celebrated those Christians who had been singled out as exceptionally “saints” of the church—your Mother Theresa types, that sort of thing—followed the next day by “All Souls Day” when the rest of the departed hoi polloi of the church was honored—your regular Christians.

But, biblically speaking, “saint” is a word that is most often used to connote a regular, faithful Christian. There was no celebrity saint distinction in the early church, so a lot of traditions have dropped All Souls while still others have dropped the whole concept of honoring the righteous dead altogether. That’s a grave mistake, in my opinion (pun absolutely intended).

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The Harrowing of Hell: The Case for Holy Saturday

We need to face death before we can celebrate resurrection.

harrowing of hellHoly Saturday is one of the most ambivalent days on the Christian calendar, sitting between the pain and sorrow of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. Biblically speaking,the Gospels infer nothing happens on that original Holy Saturday–Jesus is in the tomb and the disciples and women were no doubt grieving through a very quiet Sabbath, hidden away from the authorities whom they no doubt thought would be at the door first thing Sunday morning (Sunday being the first century Jewish equivalent of Monday for us).

Some traditions begin the Easter vigil on Holy Saturday, looking toward Sunday, while others simply wait quietly for the Easter dawn. The Eastern Orthodox tradition, however, takes a more active theological viewpoint–that Jesus not only is in the grave but that he also descends into Hades or hell to liberate those who have died before his pivotal “victory” at the cross–a belief taken from references like 1 Peter 3:18-20. Some versions of the Apostle’s Creed reference this belief when we say, “he descended into hell” (which is not quite the same as “he descended to the dead”).

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On Being Religious But Not Particularly Spiritual

Opened up the morning paper to find an article based on a Pew Research study that reveals that the number of people in the U.S. who are unaffiliated to any religious group has jumped to 19.6%, up from 8% in 1990. The study also reveals that Protestants are no longer the majority faith group, down to 48% of all people who claim a religious preference. Here’s the Washington Post article on the study, which gives a good overview of its scope, which includes how people in different faith groups tend to vote.

I read this article right before I opened the daily devotional book I’m working through–A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader, edited by Rueben Job. The topic today was Wesley’s belief that Methodists should be “as difficult to hide as visitors in a foreign land,” mostly because their faith and practice would make them seem, well, not a little strange to the rest of the world. Today’s Scripture reading was 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, where Paul talks about all he and his companions endured as strange people who brought the good news to the world.

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The Case for Weekly Communion

Communion1Beginning September 9, Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church will offer Holy Communion every
Sunday at all three of our worship services. As part of our movement toward
becoming a church focused on “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the work of
his kingdom,” regular weekly communion provides us with an opportunity to hear
the Word of God read, preached, and sung, and then respond by coming to the
Table to open ourselves and receive the gift of God’s grace, love, and
forgiveness through the Sacrament.

Here
are some Frequently Asked Questions about instituting weekly communion at
TLUMC:

Why are we beginning
weekly communion?

            The
early church partook of the Lord’s Supper when they gathered together, as in
Acts 2:46 where the community “broke bread” in the fledgling churches meeting
in homes. Luke gives us this image earlier in his writing when he says that
Jesus was made known to two of his disciples after his resurrection “in the
breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:28-35). The early church believed that the
sacrament was a means of communing again with the risen Christ, proclaiming his
saving death and anticipating the coming of his kingdom (1 Corinthians
11:23-26). The sharing of the Lord’s Supper (which was actually part of a
larger meal) was the centerpiece of the worship life of the early church along
with the teaching of the apostles and prayer.

            In
our own Methodist tradition, John Wesley understood this pattern of the early
church and urged the early Methodists to hold fast to communing weekly.
Wesley’s primary reason for doing so was because Jesus himself commanded it
(“Do this in remembrance of me.”), but there were other reasons as well. Wesley
believed that the practice of weekly communion reminded people what Christ had
done for them in a tangible way and also gave them a tangible way to receive
the grace of Christ himself for the forgiveness of their sins. As Wesley put it
in his sermon The Duty of Constant
Communion
:

 As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our
souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our
souls: This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection.
If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire
the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey
God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord's Supper; then
we must never turn our backs on the feast which our Lord has prepared for us.
We must neglect no occasion which the good providence of God affords us for
this purpose. This is the true rule: So often are we to receive as God gives us
opportunity. 

            To
put this another way, Holy Communion acts, in effect, as our weekly “altar
call”—an opportunity to respond to the Word, to deal with our sins, to rejoice
in the free grace of God offered to us in Christ, and to remember that we are
part of a community gathered around the table of Christ. We come to the altar
broken and hungry and we leave filled with the grace and assurance of Christ’s
love for us. We rise from the table strengthened for the task of following
Christ as his disciples. 

           In
2004, the United Methodist General Conference approved a study called This Holy Mystery which urged, but not required, United Methodist
Churches to consider reinstituting the practice of weekly communion as part of
the Service of Word and Table. Many churches are rediscovering that this
regular practice adds a depth of meaning and response in worship that preaching
and music alone cannot give.

            I
truly believe that weekly communion is an essential part of growing disciples
who seek not only to have knowledge about Christ but who also seek a regular
opportunity to receive again the grace of Christ.

How will we physically be able to share
communion each week with such a tight time window between our services?

            We will be adding two stations to our
regular communion service for a total of four stations. We will also adjust the
timing of the rest of the worship service to accommodate for weekly communion
(including a more concise sermon!). We also see this as an opportunity to get
more people involved in leading worship with the addition of more communion
servers, including some of our senior high youth. We will train our servers and
ushers to facilitate the process while allowing ample time for people to pray
at the altar after they commune if they feel led to do so. We will also add a gluten free option at one of the stations for those who need it. 

If we serve communion every week, won’t
that make it feel less “special?”

            Most
people eat supper every day. Sometimes that meal is a special occasion,
sometimes it feels pretty ordinary. Whether it feels special or ordinary,
however, we recognize that the primary purpose of supper is nourishment! We eat
meals because we need them and because we also see them as an opportunity to
gather with others around the table whenever we can.

            Holy
Communion nourishes us weekly with a diet of God’s grace, which all of us
desperately need. Sometimes the meal will feel quiet and solemn, sometimes it
will be eaten in the mood of celebration. Sometimes we’ll be communing beside
old friends and sometimes we’ll share the meal with people we are meeting for
the first time. As we commune weekly, I believe that you will begin to see it
as something to anticipate all week as you spend time with God on your own. As
we come to the table on Sunday, we come anticipating the promise of God will be
made known to us in the breaking of the bread once again: Christ has died,
Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

Who is allowed to partake of
communion in the United Methodist Church?

            Our
communion liturgy tells us up front: “Christ invites to his table all who love
him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one
another.” To put it another way, anyone—regardless of their age, their status,
their church background—is welcome at the table so long as they come out of love
for Christ and with a repentant heart that seeks God’s grace and forgiveness
through Christ. John Wesley believed that the sacrament was an opportunity for
those who may be seeking Christ, even for the first time, to come and
experience his saving grace in the breaking of the bread, thus we do not
exclude anyone who seeks Christ. In this sense, again, communion is a weekly
“altar call” that extends an invitation to all to receive Christ and all his
benefits. It is an “outward sign of an inward grace” that reminds us of what
Christ has done for us, what Christ
can do in us, and what Christ will do
for the world.

As we
begin weekly communion, I want to urge you to come to the table each week
expectantly, seeking Christ and his grace. This small article is by no means
the entire witness about weekly communion, but I hope it will provide you with
an opportunity to consider how you will approach the table each week. I will
share more about the theology and practice of the table each week as we gather
together.

            May
we know Christ through the breaking of the bread!

Sources:

You can
find a copy of Wesley’s full sermon The
Duty of Constant Communion
here.

You can
read the full text of This Holy Mystery,
the United Methodist study on Holy Communion, at this link

Bonhoeffer on Cheap Grace

As I traveled to the Western Jurisdiction Conference of the UMC yesterday, I was re-reading once again Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work, The Cost of Discipleship. One of the most powerful quotes from the book leaps to mind today as the conference begins:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.