Weighty Words vs. Gravitational Mass: Balancing Sermon and Sacrament

‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ — Christ
‘Preach the word.’ — Paul

Meeting in the Middle
I write this blog as an evangelical with (to my knowledge) an overwhelmingly evangelical readership. I do, however, write as an evangelical who is very sympathetic to other Christian traditions, who prays regularly for church unity, and is generally optimistic about the future of the Church from that perspective. I mention that because there was a time, a time I think is coming towards an end, when the balance between sermon and sacrament in a church’s liturgy was as much a statement about what the church didn’t believe as what it did. Catholic churches were once resistant to preaching and Bible studies, as these things were too Protestant, while evangelicals wanted to resist any sacramentalism that would make them appear overly Catholic. These days are coming to an end, and I believe that to be a move of the Spirit in both tribes. Sacramentally-minded evangelicals like Hans Boersma, Peter Leithart, and Andrew Wilson have been working to rehabilitate the sacraments in the evangelical tradition. Across the Tiber, preaching and Bible study has become more of a focus since the pontificate of Benedict XVI, and the Roman Church has produced some stimulating preachers in recent years, such as Bishop Barron and Fr. Mark Goring, and scholars like Scott Hahn have done a huge amount to get the Bible in the hands of lay Catholics. Evangelicals should be thrilled that the Bible in a Year podcast with Fr. Mike Schmitz was top of the US Podcast charts for months. Catholics are reading the Bible, and not in Latin. Isn’t that what we wanted all along?

The point is this: the Reformation was a long time ago, and a huge amount has changed since then. The Reformers didn’t operate in a historical vacuum, they were reacting to the Church as they found it in their day. Five hundred years later, it is right for evangelicals to share some of the Reformers’ priorities, but we risk looking foolish when we continue to criticise a Church that hasn’t really existed for a couple hundred years, and was well and truly buried by the Second Vatican Council. It’s also worth mentioning that the sacramental minimalism of many contemporary evangelicals is would have been foreign to the Reformers: Martin Luther once said that preaching ought to be an exposition of the Mass.

This preamble is a way of saying that if you want to meet someone in the middle, you have to know where they’ve come from. I’m coming from the evangelical wing. As such, I’ll be arguing the eucharist should be celebrated more regularly, and should be the natural climax on Sunday. Were I coming from a Catholic or Orthodox or a higher church Anglican background, I might be writing that homilies should be longer, and demonstrate deeper engagement with the Scriptures. So yes, I know preaching is good, and no, I don’t think much needs to change in the evangelical view of preaching. This is both/and, not either/or.

What do the Scriptures say?
One thing that is indisputable is that the New Testament contains more commands and exhortations relating to paying attention to the word of God than celebrating the eucharist. After all, Jesus preached a lot, and even spoke a lot about his words and who would follow or reject them. Throughout Acts, we see the early Church devoted to the apostles’ teaching, and praying for boldness to preach the word. Paul encourages churches to remember the word preached, and to let the word of Christ dwell richly in us. Of course, this word is not to the exclusion of the sacrament, but even in the theology and ethics of the New Testament epistles, there isn’t much about them.

Does that mean the Lord’s Supper was not such a priority for the apostles? Did it only gain its disproportionate place after the apostolic era? I don’t think so. Rather, we have to remember the context of the New Testament epistles: many were written in order to correct errors rather than to systematically explain how Church life ought to look. Looking at passages like Acts 2:42 and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, we can reasonably surmise that the general practice was a weekly eucharist that was, along with apostolic teaching, the expected norm in any meeting. The reason it doesn’t appear much in the epistles is likely because it wasn’t controversial, and so the apostles didn’t have to get involved by writing.

We might therefore also conclude that the greater temptation for the church and its leaders has always been to drift from preaching the word. We certainly see this today, we saw it in the time of the Reformation, and so we should not be surprised when we see a similar pattern in the New Testament. In a Greco-Roman society where religious rituals were a dime a dozen, a Christian eucharist, love-feast, or what-have-you doesn’t look very out of place. It is when the preaching happens that explains how and why Christians are distinctive that the trouble comes. So it shouldn’t seem strange that Paul didn’t tell Timothy ‘celebrate the eucharist’, but did tell him ‘preach the word’ (2 Tim. 4:2). A quirky religious ritual with no explanation given wouldn’t get Timothy in any trouble. A religious ritual that intentionally excluded the unbaptised and unrepentant, and that came with a sermon denouncing the gods of Ephesus might have stirred the pot a little more. If, as we have reason to believe, Timothy was on the shy side, we can see why Paul might have put so much into telling him not to neglect preaching.

But has the pendulum now swung the other way? In our day in the West, people who understand TED Talks and community choirs can understand singing some songs and listening to a talk on a Sunday morning. The weirdest thing we do, the thing we might be more inclined to jettison for the sake of social capital, is the cultic meal of eating flesh and drinking blood. Perhaps if Paul were to write to us today, he might urge us: ‘Eat and drink in season and out of season, and proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’

The Invitation and the Banquet
How do preaching and the eucharist relate to each other? Or another question: to what shall we compare the Kingdom of Heaven? Christ says it is like a man who gave a great banquet, and invited people to it. The two parts may be seen as analogous to the sermon and the supper. Invitations are all lovely, but what are you inviting me to? Banquets are all delightful, but what if I haven’t been invited, or don’t know what it is we’re celebrating? Neither stands properly on their own, both need each other in a complementary way.

In the same way, the eucharist need not, must not, be seen as a distraction from the sermon, but its consummation. If the end of preaching is to bring us into fellowship with God and each other—and I suggest that would be a noble aspiration—then the Lord’s Supper is not a weird thing to get out of the way once a month. It is the past and the future brought into the present, it is our means of participating in Christ’s past death, and his future victory, when the last enemy to be destroyed has been placed under his feet, and the wedding supper of the lamb enjoyed by the Church Triumphant.

In this way, the word retains a kind of priority over the supper, but it is a logical priority, rather than one of ultimate importance. That is to say, the word, the invitation, must come first, since the word sanctifies the supper, the supper does not sanctify the word. Luther was right in insisting that the mass should not take place outside of the context of the reading and expounding of Scripture. It is the context of Christ’s word to his church — his invitation — that mere bread and wine take on any additional meaning. But if there is a priority of the word, there is also an ordering. It is ordered towards the fellowship meal that is the bread and wine, preaching is ordered towards our sacrifice of thanks and praise to God.

The Gifts that Matter Most
Another compelling reason to give the eucharist more weight in the liturgies (formal and informal) of evangelicalism has been powerfully articulated in recent years by Francis Chan. Over time, he observed that the services of his megachurch tradition was built around one person exercising his spiritual gift (i.e. preaching) while a couple thousand people watched. When the eucharist carries more weight, we take some of the burden off of the preacher, and put it back on the broader shoulders of our Lord. There is something so refreshingly, beautifully, bizarrely ordinary (and ordinarily bizarre?) about the Lord’s Supper. And while some do read the liturgy distractingly badly, in general it is very easy for the president to disappear from focus. That can be a weight off the preacher’s shoulders, as if he’s had a rough week and preached a dud sermon, that’s OK. It gives the preacher a point at which he switches from transmit to receive as well, and reminds us that ultimately we have all come to receive from Christ, not him. The worth of the whole meeting is not dependent on how well he exercises his gift on any given week.

To look at it another way, the eucharist is the gift of Christ to the whole church, that pays no regard to our individual gifts. It pushes us beyond both the competence of the preacher to expound, and beyond the competence of the hearer to understand, and pulls us into the mystery of participation with Christ. Whatever particular gifts I have been given for building up the church are irrelevant, this one builds us all up without difference or discrimination.

We may push it further, a weekly eucharist puts Christian discipleship in the reach of all. Many evangelical churches are comfortable for highly-educated professionals who don’t mind getting together on a Sunday morning to think and deal in abstractions for thirty to forty minutes. But if the vision of Christian living that we proclaim and imply on Sundays are inaccessible for people with Down Syndrome, we might be getting something wrong.

The Symbolic and the Real, the Private and the Public
Perhaps another that the eucharist has drifted from centrality in evangelical worship is that a wide gap has opened up between the symbolic and the real in the evangelical imagination. Here, I don’t have in mind different views of Christ’s presence in the eucharist, but rather the way in which symbols function in general. The symbolic and the real are usually played off against each other in the way we commonly think, especially about the sacraments: if something is symbolic, that means it is in some significant way not real, or not true. Yet when we step out of church and back into the real world, we remember that symbols are closely connected to reality. When protestors threw a statue of Edward Colston into the harbour, it was a symbolic gesture, and yet that doesn’t mean it didn’t do anything. Wedding rings are another familiar example of the way in which symbols connect with the real. A wedding ring is ‘only’ a symbol, but it matters when a husband or wife consciously removes or discards it. So also with meals, as I explored more fully here, when we eat with people, we are not symbolising that we have fellowship in some spiritual, disembodied way, the shared meal is itself the fellowship. Some symbols, such as meals and wedding rings, bring about the very things they symbolise.

So it is with the Lord’s Supper. The meal is not a symbol of the fellowship we have with God and each other in the sense that it is a mere picture of the real action, which is happening in some Platonic way elsewhere. It is a symbol in that same way that all meals between reconciled enemies carry a symbolic weight. And that is what it is, that is what we are: once enemies, now seated at Christ’s table. Many liturgies may need some adaptation here: in many traditions, the eucharist doesn’t feel much like a feast: a tiny bit of bread, a somber mood, and no talking to anyone else. It wouldn’t score high on Come Dine With Me. We don’t want to lose a reverent mood, but bringing in more of the horizontal dimension that is clearly present in the early churches can help guard against the just-me-and-Jesus spirituality common in the West. After all, John would tell us that if we can’t share a meal happily with irritating old Mrs Jenkins, we can’t pretend we really love Jesus. Loving our brothers and sisters is the best way we have of loving God.

I don’t lead a church. It’s easy for me to run my mouth off about what I think church services should look like since I don’t have to implement anything, or envisage a congregation, or deal with criticism. So I really don’t want this to be seen as critical: I am aware of those real pressures that pastors are under, and I know that a lot would probably like to make more of communion, but, for various reasons, are not able. And yet the resources are there within the reformed tradition, particularly the reformed Anglican tradition, to make more of the Table, which ought to be an instrument that unites us, rather than divides us. I think the above are good reasons to move the Table a little closer to the centre, and we may work for peace and hope and trust Christ, who feeds us each week both in Word and Sacrament will bring us to maturity together.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: