REFLECTIONS & ENCOURAGEMENTS: understanding and growing through the covid-19 challenge.
Bishop Peter Brain Reflection 18: Communion with Christ without communion!
We are not the first, nor do I expect the last, group of believers, unable to gather around the Lord’s Table to share together in Holy Communion/ The Supper/ The Eucharist. Many who are imprisoned for their faith, isolated from other believers cannot share in the sacrament, just as we have not been able to do so during the past 10 weeks. But we are still able to commune with our Lord and Saviour. There is a very helpful rubric in the 1662 BCP (repeated in the AAPB / APBA books of 1978 / 1995) which helps us to value the opportunities we have to gather, to cherish the rich and deep communion we have with our Lord when we cannot gather for the sacrament but as we read and study the Scriptures privately and in small groups.
If for good reason it is not possible for the sick person to receive the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, the minister shall counsel him that if he truly repents of his sins, and steadfastly believes that Jesus Christ has died on the cross for him and shed his blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he has by this, and giving heartfelt thanks to the Lord Jesus for it, he eats and drinks the body and blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, even though he does not receive the sacrament with his mouth. (AAPB page 579 The Communion of the Sick).
The covid-19 restrictions have given us a great opportunity to experience communion with Christ apart from receiving the bread and the wine. This has proved to be a blessing, which far from neglecting or down-playing the importance of the sacrament, leads us to a greater appreciation of the means which God uses to nourish us and a healthy anticipation of sharing together in the Supper when the opportunity arises.
The means of nourishment when we come to the Table are clearly repentance and faith. Indeed the rubric makes it clear that the real object of our faith is our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. This of course is exactly what the Scriptures teach about how we attain salvation. The lips of Jesus (Mt 3:17, 11:28, 20:28) and His apostles (Peter in Acts 4:8-12 & 1 Peter 1:3-5, 18-21, 3:18}; Paul in Romans 3:21-25, 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:20-25; 15:1-8 & Gal 3:13-14; 6:14-16, John in 1 John 2:1-2, 4:9-10 and Hebrews 9:26-28) are in unison as they sing and proclaim this glorious gospel.
The sacrament is an effectual sign. A sign that points us to the Lord Jesus and effectual in the Supper as we remember our Lord’s blood shed for us, as we receive the signs of broken bread and poured out wine, and are nourished in our hearts and minds, just as bread and wine nourish our bodies. We do this by faith as we recall our conversion when we first reached out our hands to receive Christ, and took Him to ourselves, as our own Saviour and Lord. So as we take the bread and wine, we are thankful for what He did for us at Calvary and what the Holy Spirit did in convicting us of our sin and convinced us and enabled us to receive Jesus as our Saviour the Saviour. This is reflected in the words of distribution in the Prayer Book services. After the reminder: that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ (which) was given for you, and the prayer: preserve your body and soul to everlasting life we are reminded how this takes place: take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you, and be thankful. The Lord who brought us new life at our conversion continues to sustain us in our new life in the same way and by the same means: hearing God’s word and receiving it as if we were receiving Christ afresh, through repentance and faith.
This, of course is what we are to do every time we read the Bible and pray. The same response to the written word will be ours in regard to the visual word in the sacrament. Let me illustrate the blessings that are ours every time we read or listen to the Bible with some lines of thought from Scripture:
- Revelation 3:20. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in, and eat with them, and they with me. Our Risen Lord, after rebuking the lukewarm church of Laodicea, counsels them to earnestly repent (19) and promises them this wonderful nourishing relationship if they do. This is to be the normal experience of each repentant believer and church. It is not dependant on the sacrament, but essential to daily communion with God and blessing when we come to the Supper.
- John 6:35. I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and she who believes in me will never be thirsty. Here is our Lord’s promise that He will save and then sustain all who trust Him throughout their discipleship. Later in the narrative, Jesus accepts Peter’s testimony: You have the words of eternal life (6:68-69). Words that we are wise to build our lives on and be nourished by (Matt 4:4, 7:24-29 and John 10:1-5, 27; 17:17). This we do day by day as we go to the Bible. Having taken Jesus to ourselves, He becomes our all in all, the one who will sustain us through thick and thin. The graphic imagery our Lord uses in 6:52-64, should not be seen as referring to the Supper, not only because He uses the term flesh instead of body but primarily because the tense of the verbs in 53-54, imply a once and for all act of eating on our behalf. If this were so it would make entry into God’s kingdom dependant on going to Holy Communion (just once), thereby abrogating our Lord’s insistence that we become His by repentance and faith in Him as John 3:16,36, 5:24, 6:35 affirm. Whilst not referring to the Supper, it is what happens when we come to the Table with repentant and faithful hearts, just as when we pray, read and listen to the Scriptures. To eat the flesh of Christ and to drink His blood means we trust in the One who came in the flesh (John 1:14) and willingly shed His blood in our place on the Cross (1 Peter 1:18-19; Gal 2:20). Augustine put it well: ‘we see a figure (of speech), enjoining that we should have a share in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us’.
- Barclay suggests that our Lord’s graphic words in John 6:53-54 are metaphors which can be illustrated by a person having many biographies in their library but receives no benefit, no understanding, no delight until they take one down and read it. As they do they are edified, delighted and nourished by the character and life of its main subject. More so of course as we take the Lord Jesus, made known to us only through the Bible, and read ourselves rich from this treasury and delight ourselves in Him, of course allowing ourselves to be corrected and strengthened by Him, through the ministry of His Spirit, who not only wrote the Scriptures but dwells within us to enlighten our minds, quicken our consciences and hasten our obedience.
- If this does not happen in our personal Bible reading (indeed if we don’t read our Bibles) and when we attend church (for Holy Communion or otherwise if there is no Bible reading or biblically faithful preaching), then we are unlikely to find nourishment from our Lord. This would be akin to my gazing at a picture of my wife rather than conversing with her. The picture sacrament of her is vital, especially if we are parted, but will only truly nourish me if I had taken every opportunity in life to relate well to her. The blessing of the sacrament likewise, will be greatly enhanced as we take every opportunity to relate to our living Lord through personal prayer and Bible reading.
- Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly (Col 3:15-17) and its counterpoint be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:15-21) remind us that the communion of the Spirit in us (Jn 15:18) comes to us and flows through us to enrich others, nourish us, abide in Christ, bear fruit, persevere and be encouraged (Rom 15:4-6 Jn 15:5-8).
- Both Jeremiah (15:16) and Ezekiel (3:3) were told by God to eat this scroll/book. When they did Jeremiah described it as my joy and my hearts delight and Ezekiel exclaimed, it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth. This vivid metaphor is real and evocative. We become what we eat physically and we become what we read/ think/live spiritually. This is why we are to feed on Christ in our hearts by faith as a matter of daily practice. Returning to our two Old Testament prophets we recall that this was the command given to the aged and isolated apostle John (Revelation 10:10) to eat this book. At this time John experienced it as both sweet and sour (10:9-11). Why so? Because what brings life to we who believe, brings death to those who refuse its message. Put another way Scripture is a double edged sword (Heb 4:12-13) alerting us to God’s grace in salvation and our difficult and joyful role, of bringing this message to the unsaved.
- We commune with our Lord in two ways as we grasp this calling. Firstly as we go to the springs of living water promised as our place of nourishment (John 4:13-14, 7:37-39), ordained for our good by our Father. As we drink we hide that word in our hearts (Psalm 19 & 119). As we do we cannot but share this life giving word, like Jeremiah (4:19), with friends and family, sadly content to drink from the leaking and poisonous cisterns of the world (Jer 2:13 & 1 Jn 2:15-17). But, secondly, we are driven to prayer and we take our anguish and pain to our Father in heaven, and like those before us: Abraham (Gen 18:22-33), Moses (Exodus 32:31-34), Jesus (Lk 23:34) and Paul (Rom 9:1-3) we intercede for our own who reject our gracious Saviour. Praying that the pandemic and its uncertainties might awaken them to eternal realities. Communing with God can bring tears and anguish but these are noticed and give us an intimacy with our Saviour that pleasures rarely achieve. (Matt 23:37-39, John 11:33-35, Acts 17:16, Rom 9:2, 8:26-27, Rev 2:13, 3:8).
- The pandemic brings us into touch with real realities. There is little doubt that it is a merciful judgement from God. An invitation/wake-up call from our Creator that we are not masters of our destinies and that whatever gifts of medical research and human enterprise we enjoy, are gifts which should be acknowledged, drawing us to Him in repentance and faith. Our own gratitude to God for the gift of His Son and the Spirit’s gifts of repentance and faith, ensure that in both the bitter aspects of His Word, and the sweet gospel (with the grace melody line and trumpet call to repentance) we find the deepest possible communion. Fellowship with our Father as His adopted children in His sufferings over a recalcitrant creation (Rom 8:17) which nothing can take from us (8:31-39). Communion with God is surely life’s greatest, and surest eternal reality.
Peter Brain 30th May, 2020