Sunday, March 11, 2007


This morning during the communion service, a thought occurred.

Let's back up a bit. If you have any sort of Christian identity, you know about this business called "The Gospel." You may also know that Christianity denies "salvation by works," and this Gospel is the way God vindicates his justice while offering mercy to all and granting mercy to some. Some. I don't believe I'll see Hitler in heaven. So, if you have any interest in getting to heaven, you've got to concern yourself with this Gospel business.

The ancients worked all this out and there are Latin phrases that say all that I'll paraphrase here. The gospel requires 3 things of a person:

1) You have to know the story that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay for our sins and that he rose again on the third day.

OK. I also know the story of the three bears and the Goldilocks girl who ate their porridge, etc. But there's a difference between knowing the Jesus story and knowing the Goldilocks story: Christians think the events of the Jesus story actually happened in space-and-time. This leads us to the 2nd thing.

2) You have to believe the Jesus story referred to above is actually true.

One distinction between orthodox Bible-believing Christians and many who claim a Christian identity is our view of history. A hundred years ago folks claimed that it doesn't matter what happened millenia ago, but it is important to follow the ethical standard of Jesus, and dispense with all that mythological stuff of snakes talking, etc. Today you may hear of those who'd "demythologize" Jesus by denying the space-and-time historicity of things like Christ's death on the Cross and his Resurrection. Christianity has a millenia-old insistence that if you are to be a Christian, you must also believe that the story of Jesus' death on the Cross and Resurrection is more than a useful metaphor containing no more than mythic significance.

The above serve as necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for being a Christian. However, Christian teaching has always insisted upon a third element.

3) You have to believe Jesus died on the cross for you, personally and individually. You have to add something more to knowing the Jesus story's details and to believing them to be true. A Christian needs to make a personal claim that those things count for himself or herself.

This always bothered me growing up. I knew the first two parts quite well, but had difficulty understanding that third part. Baptists like to refer to this third step as "accepting" or "receiving" something. I could never understand this. When I got older, I heard an analogy of trusting a chair: that uncertain moment when your knees are bent, you lower yourself and you find out whether the chair will collapse beneath you or not, and this isn't far from Kierkegaard's notion of the leap of faith.

My own spiritual journey took a good turn one time when I was struggling with these things I didn't understand. And I became quite angry with God and told him that I didn't care if he tossed me into Hell, but I told him what I believed his Word promised and that I was going to hold him to keep the promises of his Word and I was here-and-now claiming them for myself.

Now, looking back at that moment, I can see that I came to the end of myself and that I took a sort of Kierkegaardian leap of faith. It wasn't a blind leap: I had been reading Romans 1-5 and had those facts clearly in view.

All this sounds like I did something to unlock grace, but I believe that grace was driving these events, and led me through this process. It only looked like I was taking charge and actively working out my salvation. Instead, grace was working in me and bringing me along that third bit of transforming a "head knowledge" into a "heart knowledge."

So, this business of becoming a Christian is more than just knowing or believing something. There's this added bit that defies concise explanation and formula. I'm sure you can get a better explanation than the one I gave from any of several Christian resources. And depending upon who you read, it'll differ in the details: "letting go," "accepting," "asking Jesus into your heart," and so on. But there's some kind of extra, supernatural bit that isn't magic or ghostly, that gets added to the facts and belief of them.

And that brings us to this morning as I'm looking at the bread and wine. (Because I'm in a Baptist church, I was looking at a cracker and grape juice.) The communion elements remind me of Christ's body and blood.

I really like the Aristotelian idea of substances, and how a substance's essens and its accidens must be distinguished. Aquinas and the Schoolmen were geniuses to apply Aristotle's essens/accidens distinction to the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ. It makes a sort of sense that the "hoc est corpus" should transmute the former into the latter. And since the elements still taste like bread and wine, the Arisotelian essens/accidens business makes it work. Turn this paragraph into a single word and you have "transubstantiation."

But I do not believe in that hocus pocus stuff. (Baptists have an inconsistency, insisting on maximum literalness in interpreting the Bible, but then spiritualizing wine into grape juice. I've never gotten a decent answer, even when I asked in a Deacon's meeting.)

A second way of regarding the elements of communion is called "consubstantiation." I once asked a Lutheran pastor what this means and I didn't get a satisfactory answer. He claimed "consubstantiation" was a strawman made by Calvinists. So, what follows should be ignored if you find a better Lutheran source. As I understand it now, consubstantiation teaches a mingling of the substances: the substance of the bread and wine becomes invested or haunted or charged or infused with the divine substance of Christ's body and blood. My Lutheran friend is now an Orthodox priest, so what I just said may be biased by the Orthodox notion of Incarnation. I am quite enamored with Orthodox thinking about Incarnation, so my perception is further biased at this point.

Officially, what I believe is stated here, but what occurred to me this morning is that something more than mere symbolism is in play during the Lord's Supper.

The ancients' notion of substances have limited applicability given contemporary atomic theory. The bread and wine are made of atoms made of quarks and gluons, etc. instead of "bread" and "wine" substances or mixtures of earth, wind, fire, and water essences.

This morning, I drew an analogy between the Jesus story and the elements of Communion. Could it be that this something more added to the symbolism and symbols? What I have in mind is not quite consubstantiation, but it is close. There's something extra added to the symbols, something that goes past mere matter to Christ's body and blood.

This isn't something changing the substance of the elements through the priest's hocus pocus, but by the individual celebrant of the Lord's supper recognizing Christ's body and blood in them. My Lutheran friend would hold up a photo and ask, "What is this?" and the answer would be a photo. Then he'd ask, "Who is this?" and the answer would be the person I recognized. Partaking in the body and blood so recognized, I promise to myself and to God that Christ's goodness shall be incorporated and lived out in my life.

This last bit is hard to say and as I reflect upon it, I know I've got some bits wrong. The London Confession of 1689 is much more reliable than my ramblings, and even then you should double-check what it says against the Bible verses shown.

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