Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Most Pressing Question: Who Gets to Narrate the World?

The Most Pressing Question:

Who Gets to Narrate the World?

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…”

William Shakespeare, As You Like It.

Life…human existence is a story. Stories trace the actions and interactions of people with each other and the world as we know it or wish to know it.

Stories have been called “equipment for living.”

There are a multitude of stories (or what we might also call narratives) in the world which determine our values and actions. There are family stories. And who knows that better than the young couple who has been married for only six months. Remember that season of life? Remember the tension as you and your spouse were trying to sort out the values – sometimes competing values – that came from two different family stories? Tough times. It’s a good thing we had stars in our eyes! Then there’s America’s story with all of its romantic rugged individualism and heroic sacrifice. But it also includes nearly two hundred years of slavery and the doctrine of eminent domain which brought unspeakable tragedy to this region of the country. There’s the story of capitalism and democracy. Socialism, Communism, and the progression of society are other interrelated stories. The Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century brought us the modern scientific narrative which has given us wonderful inventions like the light bulb, cars, and computers. But it has also multiplied the atrocities of war and normalized the murder of unborn children.

Eastern spiritualist stories like Buddhism or Hinduism seek to reveal the meaning of life. Finally, there are the great monotheistic narratives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Our world is a world of competing stories. Some stories are – shall we say – “short stories” and only address a limited number of people. Other stories, such as our own Christian faith, assert the meaning of life for all of humanity. While these stories are part of the human fabric around the world, postmodern thought rejects any notion that there is a metanarrative for all. Furthermore, those who try to apply their story to others are simply trying to impose their power over others. That may be true for you, but it’s not for me. Truth is relative. Sound familiar? It should. It’s the cultural air we breathe. Ironically, dismissal of grand stories – metanarratives – is a metanarrative itself grounded in the modern story of complete individual autonomy without accountability.

The “grand stories” of the world stand in competition with each other. Each seeks to narrate the world. Across the landscape our era, three of these stories are dominant:

1. The secular humanistic modern narrative worships reason and the scientific method. With science and reason, we will ultimately figure out all our problems. Nothing is impossible and no one is ultimately accountable. God is not a part of the equation. But this secular humanistic modern narrative has set us on a trajectory of cultural demise – a self-indulgent downward spiral that has brought us to a place of moral and (if things don’t change soon) fiscal bankruptcy.

2. Radical Islamists are deeply committed to the narrative of their faith. They have observed the festering moral decline of the so-called “Christian” Western world and are rising up in holy war against us. They are offended by our modern ways and seek, with often the most violent means, to bring the entire world under Allah’s rule.

3. The Christian narrative is under great attack by both modern secularists and radical Islam. Much of our story has been compromised by accommodation to the competing modern narrative without us even knowing it. Make no mistake. We are under assault and we must recapture the historic Christian narrative in all its fullness.

These are the three dominant stories of the world today. They each have a history, a present narrative, and a future plan. They are in direct conflict with each other. The most pressing question of our day, then, is, “who gets to narrate the world?” The question is not original with me. The insight and rationale behind the question were literally the dying words of my friend, mentor, and professor, Robert Webber. Bob wrote a book by the same title in the last three months of his life before he succumbed to pancreatic cancer in April of 2007. For most of us, we recognize that the words of a dying man are uniquely profound.

SCRIPTURE TEXT: Ephesians 1:3-14
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.

God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure. And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth. Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan.

God’s purpose was that we Jews who were the first to trust in Christ would bring praise and glory to God. And now you Gentiles have also heard the truth, the Good News that God saves you. And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago. The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him.

That is the Christian narrative. That is our story.

We can frame the Christian story simply and powerfully in three words:

Creation. God created all that there is for His own pleasure and glory. Humanity is the crown-jewel of God’s creation in that we are made in His image with the capacity to engage with him in deep relationship. But the image of God was marred and its full potential lost when we rebelled against our Creator. Moreover, not only have we been alienated from God, but the entire creation has been marred and is broken. That’s why bad things happen… The story of the Hebrews in the Old Testament is God’s initiative to form a people for Himself to eventually redeem His creation. The drama of Jewish failure and God’s covenant love throughout the Old Testament reveals God’s character and His plan for redemption.

• In the Incarnation, God does not merely “step into history” as some sort of interruption, but He becomes humanity, time, space, and history to (as NT Wright puts it) “set the world to rights.” In His obedience even to death on the Cross, Christ does what Adam and all of Israel could not do. In His resurrection and ascension he overcomes the evil powers of this world, sin, and death and inaugurates the New Creation. As the early Church called it, Sunday, the day of our Lord’s resurrection is the “eighth day” – the first day of the New Creation.

Re-creation, then is God’s Kingdom – which is now but not yet fully realized. It is “the world set to rights.” It is our mission as God’s people who pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” Read the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-12…happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven….happy are those who are gentle and lowly, for the whole earth will belong to them. Counterintuitive! That’s because we view the world through a broken lens rather than through God’s eyes. Our up is really down. Our down is really up in the Kingdom of God. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Notice, then, these things about the historic Christian narrative:

• It is cosmic. While Christ died to save individual sinners like you and me; that is only part of the story. He became one of us to redeem all of His Creation. He has undone what Adam did and we long for the consummation of time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.

• The Christian story is corporate. Notice the text that we read. Only one part of it referred to the individual’s part (when you believed in Christ) and even in that phrase, Paul is referring to the corporate church in Ephesus. Throughout the Gospels and Acts, we see Jesus calling individuals. We must each individually respond to the Gospel. But God has always been in the business of seeking and forming a corporate people. He didn’t call Abraham out into the desert just to have a personal relationship with him. He was seeking a people. Abraham is called the “father of nations.” Look at the New Testament. Christ’s purpose was to redeem a people for himself. Those who believe have had their citizenship papers from the Kingdom of darkness revoked and they have been transferred, Paul tells us in Colossians 1:13, into the Kingdom of His Beloved Son. Christ in you – plural; Christ in us, is the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)

• Finally, the Christian narrative is unique. Islam cannot answer the power of evil, except by a God who demands complete submission to His law or suffer physical death. What other story has the Creator Himself entering into our suffering and death to overcome it and to redeem his creation. It is a story worth dying for – and many did. It is a story worth living for.

So how do you get to play a part in this grand cosmic story? Does God only cast “good people?” Do you somehow audition by doing good works?

How many of you have accepted Christ as your personal Savior? (Show of hands) Interesting. You won’t find the phrase, “accepted Christ as your personal Savior” in the New Testament. It’s not wrong – per se – it’s just not complete. The phrase “accepting Christ as my personal Savior” resonates in our culture where the individual and choice is preeminent. But it wasn’t like that in the New Testament. A study of New Testament conversion would be very helpful for us, but of course, this is not that message.

Conversion, in the end, is not my choice but rather a work of God. Because of that, there is a sense of mystery regarding the point of conversion. For some, it is like turning on a light in a dark room. For others, it is like the dawn of a new day as light slowly permeates your life until you finally see the sun in all its warmth and penetrating power. The New Testament has a number of metaphors for conversion: “born again” reflects the supernatural essence and newness of life; “adoption” reveals God’s initiation and love; “redeemed” reflects the enormous cost and the exchange nature of conversion.

In his book, Beginning Well, Gordon T. Smith tells us that the New Testament reveals seven elements of a Christian conversion:
Belief is knowing that the Gospel is true and embracing its truth and implications for my life.

Repentance is changing my behavior – moral transformation – living my way and then doing a “one-eighty” in my behavior to obey God.

Assurance is that deep down feeling in our heart that we know – we just know – that we are God’s child. Romans 8:16 tells us that God’s Spirit tells us within that we are His child.

Commitment to Christ is essential to being in His Story. Jesus said to take up your cross and follow Him. When we say “Jesus is Lord,” we give Him complete control in our lives.

• Each Christian is empowered by the Holy Spirit to live a life that manifests Christ’s character.

Water baptism signifies our identification with Christ in His death and resurrection.

Assimilation into the Church family where you share your gifts and your life with your fellow “actors” in the Story.

All of these elements are the New Testament norm for being a Christian. Conversion is both event and process. At what point one is “born again” into God’s family is His determination rather than a result of some words we may have said or action we have taken.

The early church understood this well. In fact, as early as the second century, the process of becoming a Christian might have taken as long as three years before a person would be baptized and allowed to take Communion. There are many reasons why the conversion process took so long. Most significant, I think, is that ancient Christians considered following Christ as a radical departure from their culture’s lifestyle. For them, to say “Jesus is Lord” was to set oneself against Caesar, who claimed to be “lord of all.” For many, it cost them their lives. Somehow, we need to recapture the sense that following Jesus is counter-cultural.

In our day, personal salvation has become just another therapeutic path for the betterment of our lives. And we Evangelicals haven’t helped by focusing our worship services on “relevant messages that speak to the felt needs of seekers” rather than on the grand Story of God. Call it the “Oprahization” of our faith. We invite folks to come to Christ to help them with their problems, make them more successful and in general, give them a better life. It’s not that being in Christ won’t bring meaning and purpose to our lives. It’s just not the full Story. It’s impoverished. The focus is on us. It should be on God who invites us into the Creation – Incarnation – Re-creation narrative of the cosmos.

I’m inviting you to a different way of thinking. Stop letting the culture press you into the mold of individualistic self-obsession. Let’s be transformed, as the Apostle Paul tells us, by the renewing of our minds. Instead of focusing on my story, let’s begin to act and think as players in the grand narrative of God’s Story. Let me illustrate it this way…

Back in the early nineties, we sang a very popular worship song that expressed thanks to God by singing “I’m so glad you’re in my life.” (1)  Not really New Testament theology. Better stated, “I’m so glad I’m in Your life.” Now that’s what it means to be in God’s Story – to think of the Christian faith in a new way. And it’s consistent with Scripture. Consider:

“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Colossians 3:3

“You are a kingdom of priests, God’s holy nation, his very own possession.” I Peter 2:9

“And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires.” II Peter 1:4

And what might happen if we were able to shift our thinking from God as an addendum to my life to being full participants in God’s grand story of Creation – Incarnation – Re-Creation? We would recapture the sense of what it means to be God’s family? Personal preferences and agendas would be seen in a different light as we honor one another as truly brother and sister. Since we are participants in the Story that spans all of history, we would not jettison the Church’s past with its rich creeds and hymns, but rather honor them and seek to be taught by actors in the Story who came before us. It is modernism’s code to reject all except the present and the future. As participants in God’s full story would be enriched and truly counter-cultural as we embrace our history – from the Hebrew’s story of the Old Testament, through the rich and varied history of the Church. It’s what Pastor Steve talked about two weeks ago. Living God’s Story is being on the Way – literally, “in the Way” – not as an obstruction, but fully immersed in Christ. Being immersed in God’s Story is participating in His completeness – experiencing God’s Shalom – His peace as Pastor Shawn talked about last week. God’s peace isn’t just another therapeutic option for handling the stress in our lives. It is participation in the third act of the Story -RE-CREATION - accomplished by Christ’s victory over the forces of evil, sin and death.

Understanding our part in God’s Story will bring fresh understanding to the songs we sing. “This is my story, this is my song” is no mere personal statement of faith, but rather a joyous realization that we are united those who sing the chorus with us. Or in a contemporary setting, if we sing this invitation:

All who are thirsty, all who are weak,
Come to the fountain, dip your heart in the stream of life.
Let the pain and the sorrow be washed away
In the waves of His mercy, as deep cries out to deep.
We sing, “Come Lord Jesus, come.” (2)

A modern person who is merely seeking personal help will see the song as a possible therapeutic path for their betterment. But, on the other hand, if the worshipper considers himself or herself as a participant in the Grand Story, he or she will recognize God’s universal call to join in His story. The worshipper will be eager and humble to “immerse” their heart in the stream of Life once again to find wholeness and healing in Jesus Christ. He or she may also recognize that the cry, “Come Lord Jesus” has been the cry of ancient Church since New Testament times. “Come Lord Jesus” is a core theme in God’s Story.


We live in a day of competing stories. The Christian Story of Creation – Incarnation – Re-Creation stands in opposition to the competing narratives of modern secular humanism and radical Islam. Hear the words of a dying man:

“Whose God rules over our lives? Whose God rules history? Whose God will rule over all creation forever? We Christians had better be ready to give the reason for the hope that lies within.

It is not evidence, or logic, or philosophy.

It is the narrative.

God’s narrative.

All of it – in its fullness.” (3)

1. “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” by Rick Founds © 1989 Maranatha Praise

2. “All Who Are Thirsty” by Brenton Brown and Glenn Robertson ©1998 Vineyard Songs

3. Robert E. Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World? Contending for the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals, Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 2008, p. 37.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Filtering the Waters of Willow Creek

I was fortunate to grow up in California during the late 1960’s and 70’s. During the early years of that period I learned to backpack in the Coast Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. During those days, you could drink pure unfiltered water from the lakes and streams without fear of catching giardia. By the mid-seventies with the explosion in popularity of backpacking, it was no longer safe to drink water without first treating it with a special tablet or filtering it. What a pain! You could no longer dip your Sierra cup into the waters of a rushing stream and satisfy your thirst with great tasting cold water. Sure, the water still tasted great, but you would put your health at risk of picking up some nasty parasite without filtering the water.

I have spent the last two days drinking deep at Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit. The water tasted intoxicatingly good! I wish I could have imbibed without filtering, but I believe the health of the Church and its ministry is at stake. Frankly, I don’t trust the source. I’m afraid there is a certain amount of contaminants naturally in the waters of Willow that have negatively affected the American Church in the last thirty years.

There are many things about Willow Creek that I admire. Bill Hybels’ mantra is that the Church is the hope of the world. Since the Church is the only conduit that God has established for the Gospel, I absolutely agree with him. And Hybels has made that point consistently throughout his ministry. It is a message that needs to be sounded over and over again in the current milieu of rampant individualism even among Christians. I am also inspired by Bill Hybels’ commitment and energy to the Kingdom enterprise. I confess: I cannot hold a candle to his passion, intention, and actions. I also applaud the way that Willow is always assessing its ministry and refining their practices to best accomplish what they believe is the mandate of the Church. Indeed, in many ways, Hybels and the ministry that he has built through Willow Creek are a gift to the Church.

It is difficult, then, to stand in criticism of Willow. But I believe what we drink from that source must be filtered in order to ultimately fulfill Christ’s mandate for His Church in sustaining health and growth through the long haul.

It seems to me that Willow Creek is youth ministry on super steroids. I observed some of the adolescent attitudes that form the perspective of most youth ministries at the Summit. They’re subtle. But they’re there. I heard it first when Hybels introduced the event. Though it was held at a church and most of the audience were Christians, he assured us that “we wouldn’t be hearing any bad choirs” or experiencing any of the other trappings associated with the traditional church. That was my first alert and I’ll return to the matter of “bad choirs” later in this post.

I have never seen any “ugly” people on the platform at Willow, except of course if they were world-class guest speakers or musicians. All are youthful and vigorous. Even Bill, who is sixty-ish, has maintained his youthful good looks, a discipline that I applaud. It seems clear to me though, that Willow will only intentionally use the same kind of people that we see on television, marketing all our consumer goods and services. There’s an embedded message in all those cool and beautiful people.

Relevance is a core value for Willow Creek. I heard that term at least a dozen times in the last two days. I believe relevance in ministry is important, but I have yet to hear a good theological rationale (though I think there is one to a point) for it from anyone who subscribes to Willow’s values. I think rather than from a theological imperative, that Willow simply mirrors exactly the values of our culture. Our modern western culture values relevance so highly that it intentionally ridicules the past and worships the culture of innovation. Has that not been the case with Willow Creek? Willow reflects this aspect of our culture so well that it has been very successful in capturing a very large share of Baby Boomer religious consumers in the marketplace.

All of this is consistent with Willow Creek’s history and values. It started as a youth ministry that was discontent – perhaps even contemptuous – with the traditional church. Willow, it seems to me, has always had a youth ministry approach to “doing church.” In so doing, it has exemplified what a former colleague as termed “the juvenilization of ministry.”(1) This “juvenilization of ministry” is simply a mirror of accommodation to our culture’s infatuation with youth. The result is a Church that is lacking in maturity – just the same as our Western Culture. And we are just beginning to recognize the danger that we are in, both as a Church and as a culture.

I have a second confession to make. I have baggage. Throughout my career of over thirty years I have dealt with the tension of “being relevant” but also understanding and embracing the values of the traditional church. I’ve had to work with colleagues on church staffs who whole-heartedly embraced Willow’s approach. In the mid-eighties I worked under an executive pastor who wanted me to stop using a certain singer on my praise team simply because she was overweight. This same pastor wanted to fire me because he thought I would hold the church back. I liked hymns, organs, and choirs. Fortunately, he didn’t get his way.

As for the “bad sounding choirs,” I have a few thoughts. We have lost a great deal in our churches that have abandoned choirs. The choir used to be a place where the average musician could share their love of music and the little bit of talent that they had in service to God. Churches without choirs have given that opportunity away. What remains is an elite (and typically, cool) small group of musicians who can lead in worship. That is a significant loss that I mourn. I’m certainly not in favor of “bad choirs.” But even bad choirs offered an opportunity for authentic involvement and service in the church. An elite praise team is a step towards, and in many cases, into the professionalism of ministry. Better check your biblical ecclesiology, those who continually rag on church choirs.

During the same period of time in the late-eighties, I sat through a number of seminars led by church growth gurus who told their audiences that if they wanted their churches to grow that they needed to get rid of organs, choirs, and hymns. Uninformed and arrogant “consultants” who had no clue about biblical and historic worship. To them, you used music and “worship” (and it had to be done with a really good band) to form a crowd with lots of positive energy so that the pastor could come in and deliver his “relevant” message to a receptive audience. That’s not biblical worship. That’s a prostitution of worship forms in order to build numbers. For most of my career I’ve had to deal with colleagues (fortunately, not my senior pastors) who drank the impoverished Kool-Aid of the church growth advocates who were, in turn, very influenced by Willow Creek’s practices.

So when I come to a Willow event or read Willow material, I’ve got my filter in place. It’s not fun and it takes more time. I wish I could drink freely. But I know better. I’m a signer and subscriber to the Ancient Evangelical Future Call that states, “Today, we call Evangelicals to turn away from…contemporary pastoral ministries so compatible with culture that they camouflage God's story or empty it of its cosmic and redemptive meaning.”(2)  I know the Leadership Summit was not supposed to be a theological conference. I also suspect that one of its objectives was to attract non-Christian leaders to the event to be exposed to the Gospel. In some ways, that was well-done. The few Gospel-themed sessions we experienced balanced out the excellent secular leaders that we heard. But the event was not really Christ-centered as its leaders asserted. I never really heard the full Gospel – the story of God, the Christ Event, the Church and where we fit into the narrative. The Gospel calls were, in effect, an invitation to welcome God into your story – your life - to give it meaning. The Gospel is just (sorry to be so crass), just another commodity that will help you live your life better. Wouldn’t it be better to invite people into the grand story of God – the metanarrative that includes the historic Church? Hard to do that when your core message has often had overtones of contempt for our religious forbearers.

So what did I get? A few fresh ideas and lots of affirmation for my plans to give away ministry and include as many as I can in defining and leading the worship ministry at my church. I’ll also give a blessing to Bill Hybels for what he is trying to do. A Christian leader can find lots of intellectual and inspirational nourishment from the waters of Willow Creek.
Still, for the sake of the Kingdom, use your filter.

1.Tom Bergeler, Associate Professor of Ministry at Huntington University has written an unpublished (as of yet) manuscript for a book describing and analyzing this process that began after WWII and was probably first manifest best in groups like Youth For Christ. I hope he can get the work published. It is a badly needed insight for the American Church.

2. http://www.aefcenter.org/read.html

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Remember What? (First sermon at FirstB, Sioux Falls, SD)

NOTE: I am very passionate about understanding the Lord's Table. Since I began my studies at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, I have come to a much richer understanding of what we do at the Table. I was pleased with the response that I received from this message. I was especially blessed by the affirmation of a young Catholic who attended one of the services. While Baptists and Catholics will probably never agree regarding what is called the "real presence of Christ" at the Table, I believe that we can find common and powerful ground in an understanding of biblical remembrance, which I believe is the the essential point rather than wrangling over substance.

Trouble at the Table
Communion, or in many traditions, the Eucharist (which simply means “Thanksgiving”) has a long and unfortunate history of controversy in the Church since the Reformation. The seed of this misunderstanding and trouble was planted at the Fourth Lateran [Church] Council of 1215. In the confession of faith, the Church leaders affirmed that “[Christ’s] body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been changed in substance, by God's power, into his body and blood…Nobody can effect this sacrament except a priest who has been properly ordained according to the church's keys, which Jesus Christ himself gave to the apostles and their successors.”

Since as early as the Second Century, Church Fathers affirmed that the bread and the wine were indeed Christ’s body and blood. The problem, it seems to me, is that the Council of 1215 reduced the mystery of Christ’s presence at the Table to a mechanical action when the priest says the words of institution, “This is my body; this is my blood.” Notice that the Council used the phrase, to “effect this sacrament.” The “effect” on the people of the Church, however, was to instill such fear in handling the elements that many only partook at the Table once a year. Others, in a more cynical mind, coined the magical phrase “hocus pocus” after the Latin liturgical words a priest would use, hoc est corpus or, in English, “this is the body.”

This was not what Christ had intended when He instituted the meal.

The Protestant Reformation that began in the early sixteenth Century sought to address this distortion. In some ways, the Reformers were successful. In other ways, they added to the problem. Luther did not want to start a new church – he merely wanted to reform the Roman Church. The Lutheran conception of Christ’s presence at the Table is similar to Catholic understanding in that the bread and wine do become Christ’s body and blood indeed when the minister says the words of institution, but they also retain their qualities of bread and wine. Luther was successful in reinstituting weekly Eucharist in the churches for all. The primacy of God’s Word was the central theme in Reformed churches led by Huldrich Zwingli and John Calvin. But the two leaders had entirely different ideas about what happens at the Table. Zwingli reduced the understanding what happens to a memorial – a reminder – of Christ’s sacrifice. Christ is not present at all in the elements. He also reduced the regularity of the Eucharist to quarterly observance. Calvin, on the other hand, believed that Christ was mystically present in the elements through the power of the Holy Spirit. He did not otherwise try to explain it through any special “effecting” or change of substance. He was deeply disappointed that he could not convince church leaders to observe the rite each week in corporate worship.

Because understanding of what happens at the Table is very critical to the spirituality of many Christians, it has become a deep point of contention between the traditions. You could say that my attempt to speak on this issue is “going where angels fear to tread.” Probably true. But if we don’t carefully consider what our Lord gave us at the Table, I believe we miss one of the deepest riches of our faith. And I think we all know that the Lord’s Table is no ordinary happening in our services. Even those who don’t believe that Christ is literally present at the Table approach the rite with special reverence.

What then, really happens at the Table? Prayer for illumination.

Biblical Remembering at the Table – The Past Becomes Present

Please direct your attention to the screen. (B/W slide show of 9/11)

What did you experience as you watched those images? Were you taken back, as I was, to that day on September 11, 2001? Can you recall where you were when you heard the news and what you did that day? I think most people who were of sufficient maturity on that day can recall with a good deal of clarity what happened. When we watched the images, it is as if we experienced those fateful events of nine years ago in this very moment.

Powerful events in our lives shape who we are, both as individuals and as a people.

God, who is our Creator, understands how we function in our minds, our emotions and our memories. When He was forming a people for Himself through the Exodus event recorded in Hebrew Scriptures, God instituted a way in which that experience would be recalled by all the generations of His people who would come after the event itself.

Turn over to Exodus 12 and let’s read the story together. (14-17, 24-27, 40-42)


Jesus instituted the Lord’s Table in the context of Passover. His redeeming work – His life, death, resurrection, and ascension is our “Exodus” from the slavery of sin and death. He is the new Passover. The early Church understood this implicitly. Paul employs this universal understanding of the faith when he urges the Corinthians to purge ungodliness from their community. Using a Passover metaphor, he tells them to “clean out the old leaven; for Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed.” I Cor 5:7.

If the Church has always understood that Christ is our Passover, then what are the implications for us when we partake of the Lord’s Table which Christ clearly meant to take the place of the older Jewish celebration?

(Demonstration of anamnesis - moving from one event in time to another time)

The past becomes present so that we will recognize that we have been rescued and redeemed through the work of Christ – our Exodus from the slavery of sin and death – our Passover.

The Bible has a specific term for this mystery – anamnesis. It means that the past becomes present in our lives. Evangelical theologian, Ralph Martin explains the concept:

“To recall, in biblical thought, means to transport an action which is buried in the past in such a way that its original potency and vitality are not lost, but are carried over into the present. “In remembrance of me,” then, is no bare historical reflection upon the Cross, but a recalling of the crucified and living Christ in such a way that He is personally present in all the fullness and reality of His saving power, and is appropriated by the believer’s faith.”

Ralph P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church (126)

The early Church knew that Christ was present at the Table. The Church Council in 1215, unfortunately, affirmed a mechanism for the physical transformation of the elements. The council overshot and missed the point. My purpose in this message is not to denigrate the Catholic Church or faith. I have a deep and abiding respect for the Roman Church. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we Protestants are deeply indebted to our Catholic kin. But hear this point, (and it was articulated by James White, one of Notre Dame’s own liturgical professors) – the mystery at the Table is a mystery of time, rather than substance. It is not the transformation of the elements that is in play here, but rather the movement of one critical event in history to the present. We can and should affirm the power of Christ present at the Table through anamnesis – the biblical understanding of the past becoming present - rather than fighting over whether or not the substance of bread and wine is literally the body and blood of Christ. We can rightly affirm that Christ is present at the Table - with all the fullness of His power and authority – rather than stumbling over the question of whether or not He is on the Table.

So what does that mean for you this morning? Just as importantly, what does that mean for us together as a Church? Simply put, this is a feast of celebration of our deliverance from sin and death through our union with Christ. It need not, and should not be, a somber reflection on the awfulness of our sin and the price that Christ paid through His death. Christ has died. (Dying, You destroyed our death; rising You restored our life.)  Your sins are gone. We have been delivered. At this Table, we celebrate our exodus from bondage through our union in faith with Christ.

So let’s celebrate together as Christ’s redeemed people.
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name at Your table; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

"Beloved of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Supper that we are about to celebrate is a feast of remembrance, of communion, and of hope. We come in remembrance that our Lord Jesus Christ was sent of the Father into the world to assume our flesh and blood and to fulfill for us all obedience to the divine law, even to the bitter and shameful death of the cross.
By his death, resurrection, and ascension He established a new and eternal covenant of grace and reconciliation, that we might be accepted of God and never be forsaken by Him. We have come to communion with this same Christ, who has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world.
In the breaking of the bread He makes Himself known to us as the true heavenly bread that strengthens us unto life eternal. In the cup of blessing He comes to us as the vine, in whom we must abide if we are to bear fruit. We come in hope, believing that this bread and this cup are a pledge and foretaste of the feast of love of which we shall partake when His kingdom has fully come, when with unveiled face we shall behold Him, made like unto His glory.

Since by his death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ has obtained for us the life-giving Spirit, who unites us all in one body, so are we to receive this supper in true love, mindful of the communion of saints."
The Worship Sourcebook (313-314)