Monday, August 8, 2011

A thought about a friend

My friend, Lutheran Pastor Bradley Ketchum in Audubon, Iowa, announced recently that he has finally moved his congregation to having weekly Communion on Sundays. For the past six years (egads, I can remember when he started) he has had it available every Wednesday. His plan has been to take his time, in order to help his congregation get used to something that was very foreign to them.

Of course, in the Orthodox Church, the thought of coming together on Sunday for Liturgy without communion is the exception - usually necessitated by the absence of a priest. Lutherans in western Iowa, though, are of a 20th century Protestant persuasion. I remember as a pastor in SW Iowa that there were members present who remembered when communion was celebrated four times a year, the Lutheran minimum (if there is such a thing). Of course, four times a year was supposed to be the minimum for reception, not celebration. Anyway, Communion in that part of the country was seen by these farming families as a very precious and serious thing. It was something special, and so as not to treat it improperly it was taken not so often. When it was received the whole community would anticipate it together, and come with the most devout temperament.

Now, I said above that it was unthinkable in the Orthodox Church for the people to assemble at a Liturgy where there is not the Eucharist. However, that does not mean that everyone receives the Eucharist. A similar feeling has been at work among Orthodox people for a long time (if you think you know how long, leave a comment). However, preparation is more structured than in the Lutheran congregations. Not only must one be baptized and chrismated (i.e. confirmed), but one must be recently confessed of his sins. That means one must have made use of the Sacrament of Repentance. Also, it is the custom to have fasted from midnight the previous night (cases of necessity aside). It is only recently in Orthodox history that more frequent reception of the Eucharist by the majority of the people has begun to return.

I say return, because in the early Church - and I mean early - it was expected that all members of the community would be present for the Eucharist. It was exceptional not to receive the Eucharist with the rest of the members of Christ's Body on Sunday. Those who could not be in attendance due to sickness were found by the Deacons, who brought them the Eucharist.

There is a common movement at work among Christians to return to the best practices possible, to more serious devotion. I think that the condition of the world around us, as acrimonious as it is toward conservative Christians - and especially Orthodox and Roman Catholics - is helping Christians to push back and to reach for Christ more earnestly. The divide is happening: liberalism is taking over where it can in the congregations. Some are making their stand where they are, and the refugees of the whole ordeal are fleeing to the historic churches of the East and Rome, not out of resignation but conviction and determination.

I think the best thing any church like my friend Pastor Ketchum's can do is run to the Eucharist. We will set aside here any question of sacramental validity and leave it to Christ for now, because each community can only reach so far at once, can only handle so much at one time. The Eucharist is the source of our unity, because it is Christ in our midst, and it is the wellspring of our unity with God. Baptism, Chrismation, and Eucharist all belong together, with the Eucharist repeated but never depleted, for it is the Sacrifice of Golgotha present apart from time, in which we are all gathered, presented, redeemed, and united in the Trinity. (Not that the Father was sacrificed, but only the Son who unites us with the Father through the Holy Spirit.) The Eucharist is present apart from time, but also is the summation of time, and binds us in the Eschaton that we all wait to see. (Eschaton: the Last Day when Christ returns and His reign.)

I think the best thing is to gather around the Eucharist. We must be present in Christ's Sacrifice as participants, and we must therefore become living sacrifices, little christs, and the salt of the earth. If we just begin with the Eucharist in our preaching, then we can set the stage of human hearts. How is the stage dressed? With the expectation of the kingdom that is coming, and is now already in our hearts, and is simultaneously lived in heaven with the worship described in the Scriptures and practiced in the Church's Eucharistic Liturgy publicly on earth. This is important, that the coming kingdom is what we live now within, though outwardly we are in the world (not of the world).

This is why we are sojourners, like Abraham was, waiting for a better home. This is why we fast from food and pleasures at set times, to remind us that our life is not in these things, but in the age to come - the age that comes to us in the Eucharist and will come upon all when Christ returns. This is why we love and endeavor to love as Christ teaches (not as the world teaches), because we are free to love. Christ frees us to love. Even if (according to the world) we loose everything trying to love, we have lost nothing, for we have the everlasting Christ and the everlasting kingdom for our everlasting possession. I think this is the hardest thing every day, to believe this and find ways to do it.

I'm so glad my friend's congregation will be gathering around the Eucharist every week. That's the best thing for them. The object of their faith will be set before them every Sunday. Of course I wish they were Orthodox, but I still am so glad that in six years they made it this far into the good things their own confession has to offer. I hope that this Eucharist will open their eyes even more to the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ in their midst, the eschatological kingdom that has no end.

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