Lord’s Supper in Lockdown – an over-reliance on ritual?
This week, once again, I’ll be putting on my clerical collar in preparation to administer the Lord’s Supper. But its going to feel very weird – as it has for the last few times during this Covid-19 pandemic – because I’ll be doing it in front of a camera… by myself.
The obvious question is: why do it at all then? Can’t communion just wait until we’re back together? Why is it so important that we keep doing it even in lockdown?
I think that one of the things that lockdown has done is to force us to consider how important we think Communion really is. If it’s one of the things that can easily drop away during a time of lockdown, then the uncomfortable question arises; did we ever really consider it that necessary to do in the first place, even before lockdown? I’ve written this short post to help you to think through these things, but for a much deeper consideration of the Lord’s Supper, and why it’s so important, please listen to our sermon on the topic.
I’ve come across a growing trend in modern evangelical Christianity to downplay the importance of the Lord’s Supper. This is seen either in making it less formal (bread and wine available on a table at the side to grab on your way out) or to have it only on very special occasions like Easter. I’ve also discovered that one of the reasons for this trend is the evangelical fear of slipping back into the Roman Catholic tendency to rely on ‘rituals’ rather than God’s grace alone. Many Christians associate ceremony with works-based salvation and are thus quite uncomfortable if something in their church service seems to appear too ‘ceremonial’. For years as a Christian myself, I didn’t understand the need for the Christian ‘rituals’ of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, considering them a leftover from pre-reformation times which function today, at best, merely as glorified sermon illustrations.
That is, until I came to understand two very important points:
God commands us to participate in rituals
One of the reasons that the Reformers of the 16th Century, who opposed the Roman Catholic heresies, continued to emphasize the need for the sacraments is because it was clear in the bible that God wants us to do them. The night before Jesus died he commanded his disciples to establish a regular ritual meal to remember his death, just like Peter insisted that the crowd at Pentecost undergo the ritual of baptism if they were to enter into God’s saving covenant. Throughout the Old Testament, God commanded the nation of Israel to perform various rituals, even down to specifying the clothes they should wear as they do them! So it seems that God is not against the use of rituals. Also, given that God wouldn’t command these rituals for no reason, we can conclude that they actually have a purpose in God’s work of salvation. As the Reformers put it, the sacraments of the New Covenant (along with preaching and prayer) form part of God’s ‘means of salvation’ – i.e. the instruments that God has chosen as ‘delivery mechanisms’ for his saving grace. (If you’re interested in why God uses these particular instruments, have a listen to the sermon)
Therefore, to say that a person isn’t relying on God alone because they consider these rituals too important, is like saying that a drowning person isn’t relying on the lifeguard because they’re clinging too tightly to the life-buoy the lifeguard gave them. They know the lifeguard is still doing the saving, but they also know that he’s using certain means to do that work. In the same way, to recognize that God uses means to save and preserve his people (and keep us ‘afloat’ spiritually) and to believe those things are essential, doesn’t mean that we’re any less reliant on God alone to save us.
This understanding – namely, that God makes use of sacraments to do his work of salvation – is actually a foundational belief of Reformed Christianity, enshrined in the primary Reformed statements of faith. One of those, our own Anglican 39 Articles, puts it like this:
“Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.” – Article 25
In other words, when we partake rightly in the Lord’s Supper, God actually does invisible work in us – which wouldn’t happen if we didn’t. If this is true, then it stands to reason that we shouldn’t lightly put them aside because they’re more difficult or more awkward to do right now.
But more than the sacraments not undermining a reliance on God to do the saving work, I’d go a step further to say:
Partaking in the sacraments is, in fact, the ultimate expression of our reliance on God
We live in an age when we’re skeptical of anything we don’t understand. But that wasn’t the case for most of human history. Ancient seafarers relied on the wind to power their ships way before they understood the laws of airflow and thrust. In the same way, ancient Christians believed that God worked in the sacraments to ‘deliver’ the benefits of Christ’s death to them, even when they didn’t understand how. It’s therefore no surprise that with the rise of Rationalism in the West from the 19th Century onwards – the elevation of the human mind and reason as the primary sources of truth – we’ve also seen the parallel decline of the place of the sacraments in (at least Western) Christian practice. They’re too ‘mystical’ for the modern mind to tolerate. If we don’t understand how they work, we’d rather not use them – or at least downgrade them to merely being things that we can understand.
And yet God calls us to believe in many things that we can’t understand: the fact that Jesus dying on a cross 2000 years ago actually pays for human sins today – how does that even work?? – as well as the fact that the preaching of the Word, prayer, and the sacraments have real spiritual effects beyond what we can understand. God has told us that they do, and He wants us to believe that, even if we don’t know their inner spiritual workings.
Which also means that partaking in the ‘rituals’ that God has told us to partake in is actually expressing more reliance in God, not less. As a child receives medicine from their parent even without knowing what’s in it or how it works, only because they trust their parent – so us receiving God’s covenant signs regularly and seriously, even if we don’t quite know what they do for us, affirms that we trust in Him and what He’s said is good for us, more than we trust in our own ability to understand everything.
That is why we at St Mark’s will continue to administer the Lord’s Supper, even when we’re in lockdown. Yes, it’s not ideal. Yes, it’s much better when we do it together in the same physical place. But the fact that we can’t do it ideally doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it at all, especially if we believe that doing so has real spiritual effects beyond what we can understand.